Here’s a clip of seasoned soul belter Bettye Lavette singing the song “Joy” as taken from her 2005 record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. The record, as it is explained, consists of songs written solely by women, including Dolly Parton, Sinéad O’Connor, Rosanne Cash, and Aimee Mann. This one is a barnburner penned by Lucinda Williams, and ridiculously funked-up here by Bettye with sympathetic group under the eye of producer Joe Henry.
Bettye Lavette made a name for herself starting in the 60s, with minor hits on independent labels like “Let Me Down Easy” and many others. In the 70s, she continued to troll the borders of success, while never becoming a household name. But, in 2005, her album ‘I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise’ raised her profile among fans of classic soul, produced as it was by a sympathetic and visonary Joe Henry, who also produced Solomon Burke’s well-loved comeback album “Don’t Give Up On Me”. Her most recent album “The Scene of the Crime” is garnering equal praise, as is the retrospective “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” which compiles recordings from 1969-70.
I’ve been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the business of musical genres, and how we tend to group performers. I am beginning to see more than ever that the boundaries between styles are really just illusory, that there are good tunes, and bad, but that the towering and impenetrable walls between rock, soul, funk, and country are only as real as the marketing departments at retail chains and record conglomerates say they are.
Bettye Lavette proves this nicely with her album, hailed as a critical triumph and a return to the world stage for Bettye who had been sidelined, perhaps ironically, by the very forces that undermine this idea that genre isn’t really an issue when you’ve got great material.
And then of course, there’s the issue of gender. Maybe the idea to start this record off was to show female empowerment in some way. I personally find myself suspicious of estrogen-fests on record and on tour, and the ghettoisation of ‘female artists’ in general. I ultimately find the approach narrow-minded and patronizing. I’d read in the music papers that Bettye Lavette felt the same way, and was reluctant to cut a record of songs by female songwriters for these same kinds of reasons. She is her own woman, after all.
And since she’s Bettye Lavette, and the songs are good, no one in their right mind would consider this record a ‘women only’ album. It isn’t contained by gender, or expectations attached to it. It’s got, if you will, brass balls, baby. This makes the fact that all the songs are written by women to be immaterial, at least to me.
Listen to the absolutely filthy groove Bettye’s band lays down behind her, and her own feral delivery. And what kind of music is it? Blues-rock, soul, funk? Well, yes. And even if it incorporates some tried and true characteristics – American city names (thanks, Chuck Berry), and the idea of a road quest (thanks to Jack Kerouac, and the scads of rock and folk songs he helped to inspire), it is otherwise beyond description stylistically.
This could have something to do with the fact that Lavette is a soul/R&B vetran singing a tune by an alt-country titan of a songwriter in Lucinda Williams. This is aural fusion cuisine, with lots of pepper, salt, and mysterious herbs and spices that make for something of an aphrodesiac that grabs you in all kinds of places.
For more information and music about and by Bettye Lavette, check out bettyelavette.com.