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The Majestic and Graceful Music of Amy LaVere

The Majestic and Graceful Music of Amy LaVere
The Amy LaVere Interview
By James Calemine

       "You hold the key to my melody"
                           --Amy LaVere

Amy LaVere ranks as one of the most talented musicians on the rise. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, LaVere was raised in a musical family where she began honing her musical talents. The humble Amy LaVere’s voice evokes true emotion. She portrayed Wanda Jackson in Walk The Line as well as appearing in Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, which will surely lead her to larger roles in film.

LaVere’s two albums This World Is Not My Home and Anchors & Anvils encapsulates her depth, aptitude and power regarding her musical ethos. As a Memphis resident, LaVere soon fell in with the nucleus of Memphis musical company when she began working with Jim Dickinson, The North Mississippi All-Stars and the wide network of musicians located in those environs. LaVere is now out on the road opening for the North Mississippi Allstars. She intends to tour until it’s time for her to record this fall.

In this Mystery And Manners interview, LaVere discusses her musical upbringing, musical influences, the Memphis music scene, literary preferences, Jim Dickinson, Anchors & Anvils, Bob Dylan and various other avenues of interest. Her inspirational voice and talent behooves one to seek out her soulful work. We’re proud to have her in our rotation…

Congratulations, Anchors & Anvils sounds great…

AL: Ah, thank you…

You recorded it last year…

AL: Yeah, it’s been a little longer than a year at this point. We released it last May a year ago.

You were born in Louisiana…

AL: Yeah, Shreveport.

And your parents were pretty musical, right?

AL: Right. My dad was a drummer. My Mom was a songwriter and guitar player. They really didn’t play in a band together. My dad played in a band and my mom was a folksinger. I saw my Mom playing a lot more music than my dad. She would play at home all the time.

Did you get an instrument at Christmas one year and that’s how it started?

AL: No, nothing like that. Just one old Alvarez guitar that was beaten around the house…I never got great at it, but enough to play country chords.

From what I’ve read you family moved like 13 times before you settled in Detroit. Did you decide early music was going to be your ticket out of town?

AL: Yeah, it was always music. My parents were real social. There were always parties at the house with people coming and going. Mom would entertain everybody. I guess I just wanted to be her. I wanted to light up the room like she did.

When you were in Detroit, was that when you played in your first band?

AL: My very first band was called Blatant Death Mongers, which was a group of 13 year old kids who started a band in a garage. I played drums. The kid lost his drum sticks and I played with wooden spoons. We had two shows at school. That was my first band. After that I was invited to sing for a band that had already been around for a about a year—they were called Last Minute. It was two brothers—a drummer and a bass player…we had a few different guitar players over the years. They asked me if I wanted to sing for them. We were together in an on and off again way for about six years. Then we’d go through spells where we’d go into Detroit and Flint and play shows. Then we would hole up in the basement. We rehearsed every single week—it was more of a party than anything else. It was a blast. I want to clarify—initially, I think I wrongfully said it was a punk band, where I was probably selling short my interviewers short because it was so much more aggressive than what I do now…it was an alternative-teen angst thing.

What instruments can you play?

AL: I won’t pretend I can play anything with any real virtuosity. The upright bass—not to sell short any other upright bass players, but the way I play it—it’s more percussive—holding down the big notes. It’s something to hide behind. I enjoy playing and singing at the same time—having to do something besides just sing onstage. Like any other hack, I can play a little piano, drums, guitar, bass—the only lessons I really ever took formally was mountain dulcimer from David Schnaffner who I wrote one of the songs on the record with who passed away before he could play on it.

What song?

AL: He wrote “Tennessee Valentine”…it’s pretty far removed from something that I would write, but it always struck such a sweet chord with me. I always loved it. When we got ready to do this record I asked him if I could record it and he said I could. Of course, I insisted he play on the song, but he passed away just a few weeks before we got to do it…

I’m sorry…

AL: …I know…it was awful. I loved him so much. He was my neighbor. That was the only thing I took lessons for…

Eventually you moved to Nashville…

AL: Yeah, Nashville was the second place I ever moved to on my own…outside of my family moving around all the time. I tried to move back to Louisiana because I felt like I didn’t know my extended family. We’d go back for Christmas, but I never really had that big family feeling. It was always the four of us against the world. So, I wanted to get to know my cousins, aunts and uncles so at the last minute I went down there and it only took me three months to realize I didn’t like it at all. The only reason I moved to Nashville was because I had an offer for a job to work in a management office. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a job waiting on me there if I want it and I’m not quite 21’, so I decided to go try it out. I lasted almost two years in Nashville.

Let’s talk about your appearances in a couple of films…

AL: Well, I didn’t do any acting until last year when I did a little indie film project. I’m not sure what happened to it.

Well, you played Wanda Jackson in Walk The Line

AL: Yes, I did. That was totally surreal. I’m a total fan of Wanda’s work. I really admire her. It was very strange how it came about. I was playing at this little club called Murphy’s In Memphis. I had a regular gig there and the assistant casting director happened to be in the room unbeknownst to me. Every now and then I’d cover a Wanda Jackson song, and that night I happened to do one. He told me I should audition. So I did and somehow I got the part. I even went in there with a guitar. They had a handful of girls in there that had some semblance of likeness to Wanda Jackson with their acoustic guitars and I just thought I was awful, but somehow I got the gig. It was a real honor. It led to getting to meet her. I opened some shows for her. I think she’s really amazing.

The next movie was Craig Brewer’s film Black Snake Moan

AL: Yeah, Craig Brewer is the first person who gave me a true acting opportunity. The Wanda Jackson role was nothing more than just having the appearance of Wanda Jackson in one particular scene. Then there was a duet with the other actor—Waylon Payne—who was playing Jay Lee—who finished the duet, but it didn’t make it into the scene. You could just hear us in the background, but they cut to Johnny Cash trashing his dressing room—so that scene got cut out, but it wasn’t an acting role, it was just…I was an extra that got to portray a famous singer.

Craig Brewer really gave me my first role. He—I guess you could say he was a fan of mine. Craig would come see us play. He liked my band and he just basically said there was a role that looked like me, and he thought I could do the role.

You were Christine Ricci’s friend, right?

AL: Yeah, but it’s a real brief role. It’s hardly a role. I’m just in a scene, but that was—aside from being both Dorothy and Cinderella in the school plays (Laughs) I’d never done any acting. Do you remember those Fischer-Price little black and white video cameras?

I think so…yes…

AL: …That look like a toy? My sister and I made a ton of film when she had that, but…nothing…


AL: …Yeah…so that was really my first role. Since then, I’ve had a few other indie film projects with much more meatier roles where I got to explore the craft of acting…

Where you actually had to remember some lines?

AL: (laughs) Yeah, I really enjoyed it. But at this point in my life I haven’t spent my life honing the craft of acting. At this point I feel like I do have an actual ability to do it, but it would be very assumptive to say I could step into some great acting career. I hope I get another opportunity to work on a major set at some point because it was really fun.

Well, nonetheless, those two films look really good on paper…

AL: I guess so because I see it a lot (laughs). I’m so thankful for the opportunity—it is making mountains out of mole hills. I hope one day I get to make a mountain out of it.

Well, a great voice like yours leads to other opportunities. So, you moved to Memphis in 1999. How did you meet the great Jim Dickinson?

AL: Well, I actually had become aware of Jim—living in Memphis I rented a room from this girl named Misty White. Her and her sister and some other girls have a pretty popular rock and roll band called the Hell cats. Misty was really wrapped up in the music community. She’s a great storyteller. I just got a lot of the history of Memphis music living in that house because she was all about it. I was already in love with Big Star, the Replacements—and to find out he had something to do with that I just couldn’t wait to meet him. I had brushes with him—we were aware of each other but it wasn’t until I started to play with Paul Taylor—my drummer now—who grew up with the Allstars. He was in a band for years with Luther and Cody called D-D-T, which was Dickinson-Dickinson and Taylor. Paul even lived out at their house some when he was a teenager. They’re family to him. It was Paul who truly made the connection. I actually got to back up Jim Dickinson on a couple shows before I ever got the nerve up to ask him to produce my first record (This World Is Not My Home). Without Paul playing in the band I don’t know if I would’ve had the nerve. He’s a huge presence…intimidating in his own right, but getting to know him…he’s so…


AL: …Yes, imposing…that’s a good word for him. He’s imposing, and he deserves every bit of credit he gets. I’d been playing around Memphis a while—doing my own thing by playing corporate and private parties. I’ve got that natural flap ability of the upright bass, and I could stand in on any country, blues or rockabilly outfit to make a living on. I had my own band too—so I’d get hired for all kinds of random events. It was a helluva lot more profitable than what I’m doing now, but this is more rewarding. It was Ward Archer—Archer Records--is a huge music lover who made things happen. I think the first band he signed was the Gamble Brothers. It was kinda like he loved music and he saw the need. They were really taking off in some ways but they just didn’t have any support or label help. Ward had a little bit of money to put a label together and he decided to do it. So, he signed them and he signed Sid Selvidge—who is actually my guitar player’s dad, and then he signed Lily Ashar—an Iranian classical guitarist—just a totally eclectic mix of bands and he also had a girl named Kelly Heard—this beautiful black jazz singer. So, he had this really weird mix of people that he was helping. There was no discrimination—if he loved it and thought it was quality…he helped.

When I met Jim…I was actually playing one of those private parties. I had been hired by the Arts Commission for some sort of fundraiser and it was the first amalgamation of my original band called Amy & the Tramps. It was Scott Bomar on guitar who is the guy who did the music for Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. Paul Buchignani, who played with the Afghan Wigs was there. Scott Bomar was really helpful when I started out because I had my smattering of original material, but he was bringing things to the table. It was so long ago, but he was the one that bought me the Carla Thomas tune “That Beat” that I recorded on Anchors & Anvils. I guess that was four or five years ago that he brought that song to me. So, ward of Archer records approached me and it was probably a few months before that he called and invited me to lunch. I had actually…Young Avenue Studio was trying to start a new label, but I actually had a contract in my hand from Young Avenue, but I just got a feeling from Ward that really seemed much more homespun. It was a strange deal and I felt more comfortable with Ward. I’m so thankful that I did because he’s so much more of a friend than a label. I wouldn’t call him a benefactor—he was totally artist friendly and it felt more like a collaboration—as far as creating the way we’re going to do…it’s so loose and open-minded. It’s great working with Ward. He’s continually helped me me not to fail as far as being able to go on the road.

It’s just not as easy as people think…

AL: Oh, man. Especially now that I’m at this very strange level where it’s not like go to the club and make what you can. It’s getting to the point where I’m getting invited to open shows for people like the Allstars. We had wonderful fun with this guy Langhorne Slim. I hadn’t heard of him before being invited on that tour, but they’re amazing.

You still live in Memphis?

AL: Oh yeah.

But you’re in California today…

AL: Yeah, I’m in Santa Cruz in the middle of these fires. It’s really unbelievable.

What’s your approach to songwriting? Is that your main focus? I know you’re an Emmylou Harris fan—I also love her because Gram Parsons discovered her—she’s not necessarily a great songwriter, but she sure does convey an emotion with any material…

AL: Oh, I love Gram Parsons. I’m a huge fan of his. I labor over songwriting. I beat myself up over it. Songwriting is something that I feel like I have to do. There is a reward when you finally do something that is clever, meaningful or worthwhile—they’re just too few and far between for me. I’m totally critical. I know a good song when I hear one, but they’re not necessarily mine. I really don’t have any shame in that. I write constantly, but I make no apologies for playing someone else’s song. Paul is a wonderful songwriter. He’s more prolific than I am. I have a really close friend named Kristy Whitt—she’s not a performer—she’s got a whole other creative outlet, but songwriting is something she loves to do. It’s something she relaxes with and she’s always bringing me songs. I love that. Her songs deserve to be heard. I like being able to be a vehicle for other songwriters’ material.

It’s always indicative of an artist’s depth by what material—other than their own—they choose to cover. I’m very impressed with your rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You”…

AL: Yeah? Well thanks…

Through Luther and Paul you met Jimbo Mathus…

AL: Yeah, that was another Paul connection because Paul had been on the road with Jimbo. Actually it was Paul. I admired Jimbo, but it was Paul who said Jimbo would be good, and Jimbo just out of the blue brought me a song called “Nightingale” he wrote and he thought I’d be great on it. I just loved it, that’s one of my favorites on the road. I love Jimbo—we’ve become really good friends.

So, once again, we’re back recording Anchors & Anvils with Jim Dickinson.

AL: Oh yeah. I really hope I make the next one with Jim. We’re going into the studio during the fall. I’m so excited. It feels like forever since I’ve recorded. They’re releasing Anvils and anchors in the UK like it’s new. They didn’t want me to release anything else until the first of the year so I had to wait, which is probably for the best because every day you discover something new about yourself or a different song you want to record. It’s always a process. I guess it’s only right to do it when you do it. But I’m excited to do record again…

There’s a cohesive mood on Anchors & Anvils—it’s sequenced great. The opener, “Killing Him” is a spooky kind of song. By the way, how long did it take to record Anchors and Anvils?

AL: We paid for the studio for 20 days. It wasn’t a fill 20 days. It was a lot of fitting in musicians schedules—there’s a large cast of people on this record. Nobody came all at once. It was a scheduling nightmare. Some days it would be going down and just goofing off. Other days it might be someone just putting this or that on there. The bulk of it was all recorded live in two or three days. The meat and bulk of the record was just recorded with me, Jason Freeman—my longest running guitarist—who doesn’t play with me any more because he doesn’t like to tour, and Paul cut the record within the first three days. Then everything else was built upon from there.

Jim doesn’t fool around in the studio with un-necessary takes.

AL: You’re right. He doesn’t. Probably being the least experienced of anybody that was in the studio I definitely demanded more takes than necessary. I guess because I felt insecure and I wanted to do it better. But Jim was always right. Always…

“Pointless Drinking” is another favorite of mine.

AL: That’s a Paul Taylor song--my brilliant songwriting drummer. He just played it for me and apparently it was an old one from a couple of years ago. He didn’t want me to record it. He’s got a record out and then he’s got another one in the can that he hasn’t found the right home for. He’s really a genius. He’s got boxes around the house with all these projects around that he hasn’t done anything with but they’re just brilliant. But I heard that song and I felt it was very moving. It’s a funny song, but it’s so true. I just wanted it so bad—it took a couple of weeks before he agreed to let me record it because I think he was saving it for himself. I hope he still releases it. I don’t do it justice.

Well, tell me about recording the Bob Dylan song, “I’ll Remember You” from his Empire Burlesque album. Interesting choice…

AL: There was this concert of his and I can’t remember what it was, but it was an old Betamax concert that I loved of Dylan’s. I just loved it. I didn’t know it was on his Empire Burlesque record. It wasn’t until I went to record it on the first record when we tried to cut it. In my opinion that was the worst Bob Dylan record…

Yeah, but even at his worst, songs like “Seeing The Real You At Last”, “Something Is Burning”, “Dark Eyes” and “I’ll Remember You” are classic songs for anyone else.

AL: It’s a gem of a tune. Every time I sing it, it makes me think of somebody else. I’ll be singing it in my head to the person I met the night before or some old loves, or whatever—I can never go wrong performing that one. I can always think of someone to sing it to. It’s quite a pop song for Bob Dylan to sing isn’t it?

Certainly when you hear your version of it…

AL: The production that album is so bad…

The sonic production in the mid-80s was not a good time for the older rock and rollers…

AL: (Laughs) No, I guess not…

I intend to make your show here in Atlanta next Friday. I’ll bring you some 1940’s produced songs.

AL: Please do. Hey, before you go I’d really like to mention my band I’m touring with. We’ve talked a little about Paul on the drums. Steve Selvidge—he’s a longtime friend of Luther and Cody. Steve’s band was Big Ass Truck. This band that I have right now is definitely the closest thing to having a real band together on the road that I’ve ever had.
It’s a nice rock and roll trio.

AL: Yeah, at first it was economics—I couldn’t afford to bring along anyone else. We don’t even have a tour manager—I do all of that, but it’s grown into such a tight three piece that I prefer it more and more. I don’t think it’s lacking at all. We have a fantasy about doing a band record. The next one we want is true to what we’ve been doing. Sometimes with a couple new songs I say, ‘Oh, I can really hear a violin on this.’ Whatever my little whim is that day. But the next one I’m going to try and keep it close to a band record. I’m hoping when we get home we’ll be more collaborative instead just my ideas or the producers ideas. I want it to be more of a band experience.

What are you listening to in the van?

AL: We’ve been listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart. It’s funny, I have trouble reading in the van. It makes me sick. I get car sick. If I’m lying down it doesn’t bother me.

What are you reading?

AL: This trip I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

A girl who sings Bob Dylan and reads Cormac McCarthy…what a dream…

AL: (laughs) I read The Road in the first week.

Read some of the older stuff like Outer Dark, Suttree and Blood Meridian.

AL: I’m almost finished with The Crossing. When I bought it, I didn’t realize it was the second one of the trilogy.

It’s all great…but Suttree and Blood Meridian rank as his best.

AL: I’ve heard about Suttree, I think I’ll read that one next. It’s been a Cormac McCarthy tour for me.

Well, next week, I’ll try and bring you a copy of some old music or maybe a new copy of Cormac for the road…

AL: I would love that so much. Please don’t forget. That would really be awesome.

I look forward to keeping you in our rotation.

AL: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you bothering to write something about me.
I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

AL: I hope not.

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