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In Austin's exalted music scene, Shelley King ranks among the royals; in 2008, she even received a title: Official State Musician of Texas from the Texas Legislature. But she wouldn't think of resting on her laurels - not when there are so many songs to sing and stages to conquer. Her new album, Building A Fire, is already gaining momentum debuting at No. 4 in its inaugural week of availability on the AirPlay Direct's Globlal Radio Indicator Chart - Americana/AAA. Building A Fire is set to hit streets on Aug. 26 (releasing on her own Lemonade Records label), and Shelley's poised to reign over legions of roots music fans.
King co-produced Building A Fire with Subdudes John Magnie and Steve Amedee, with whom she also recorded her lauded 2009 release, Welcome Home. Together, they capture her warm, earthy Americana style via 10 originals, one traditional and one cover: a Larry Campbell-penned spiritual previously sung by Levon Helm. It's a soulful sound, rooted in southern gospel-blues mixed with the Gulf-borne humidity of Louisiana, the river loam of Muscle Shoals and the hot springs of her native Arkansas, with a little Texas country bubbling underneath.
Tracked mainly at Magnie's studio in Fort Collins, Colo., with additional recording in Austin and Muscle Shoals, Building A Fire features guest appearances by fellow Austin royals Carolyn Wonderland, Cindy Cashdollar and Warren Hood, along with sometime Subdude Tim Cook. The core band is King on vocals and guitar; Amedee on drums, percussion, mandolin and support vocals; Magnie on vocals, accordion and keyboards; Austin's heavy hitters Marvin Dykhuis on vocals, guitars, dobro and mandolin; and Sarah Brown on bass.
They perfectly capture the essence of King's personality: a self-made woman who carries herself with strength and assurance, even a little swagger at times, but who also has a sensitive, vulnerable side, and a well of compassion - along with the ability to still find wonder in the world. All of which make for powerful songwriting, the kind that gets noticed by artists such as Lee Hazlewood, who recorded King's "Texas Blue Moon" with Nancy Sinatra after he heard King's version on the radio while driving through the state.
King also has appeared with Wonderland on the world-renowned PBS series "Austin City Limits," as well as on stages throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. Since quitting a sales job to pursue music full time in 1998, she's had many magical career moments, including befriending the Subdudes, one of her favorite bands, by arranging to open for them around the country.
One of her favorite experiences was meeting fellow Arkansas native Levon Helm and joining one of his famed Midnight Ramble shows in Woodstock, N.Y. She was on her way to another when she learned of his passing. When she arrived, she sat on the tin-roofed porch of a B&B and watched a storm gather. As the rains came, she taught herself a song she loved that he had done during a previous visit: the spiritual, "When I Go Away," written by Campbell, Helm's band director.
"That song has meant a lot to me," she says. "I started doing it then and haven't stopped." It gets an almost jubilant treatment on Building A Fire.
Another track, "Things You Do," was co-written years ago with Floramay Holliday. The fan favorite appears on in her live Rockin' the Dancehall album, but had never been recorded in a studio.
The other non-original is the traditional, "I Know I've Been Changed." King's version drips with sinewy soul, evoking futilely swishing funeral-home fans and handkerchiefs dabbing at perspiring brows. But you'd swear the heat source is the devil himself, hovering behind every note in hopes of snatching wayward sinners from the brink of salvation.
In fact, the tension between spirituality and sexuality - both major aspects of the human condition, she observes - is almost a theme permeating the album, played out amid her gospel influences and rootsier renderings.
The stage for that duality was set when she began singing as a toddler. Following her parents' split and her mom's remarriage, King wound up in Houston, then Amarillo, where she landed in the children's choir at her grandmother's church. After another stint in Houston, her mother divorced again, and King wound up with her other grandmother back in Arkansas. She found salvation - literally - in a one-room country church, where she built a social life, gained solace from familial turmoil and soloed weekly. Sometimes her uncles accompanied her on guitar. That's when she started writing songs, inspired by her beloved Caddo River and a teenager's hopes and dreams.
King returned to Texas for college, self-financed via her own business. She planned on law school, but after working for a lawyer and starting her own band, she realized music, not law, was her passion. She gigged around Houston for a couple of years, then moved to Austin. By day, she worked as a sales rep; the rest of the time, she lived for music. One day she realized she would forever regret it if she didn't at least try to follow her heart.
She quit her job, went home and booked 11 gigs that day. She also formed her label, Lemonade Records. "I always liked that saying, 'If life hands you lemons, make lemonade,'" King says. "And I felt like my corporate gig was a lemon and I split and I made lemonade."
She certainly has. In addition to being the first woman to hold the State Musician title (she preceded Willie Nelson), her accolades include several Austin Music Awards. But she values opportunities to collaborate with musical heroes - and friends - as much as any award. Her co-producers, of course, offer special inspiration. "They really care about doing what's right for the song," she says. "When I work with them, I feel like I've really found myself."