Her low, arresting voice puts you in mind of those weirdly beautiful chestnut hues you used to puzzle over in the 64-count box of Crayolas. Yes, if Ann Rabson’s mellifluous singing style were a crayon, it would definitely be burnt sienna.
In a recent phone interview from her West Virginia hotel, though, the pianist’s vocal instrument sounded more like burnt sienna’s rougher cousin, raw umber. Battling a hellacious summer cold, Rabson nonetheless forged ahead with a deep (and deeply unusual) grace that affirmed her position as the queen of generation-spanning blues.
Ann Rabson has arrived. But even after three decades of playing the blues, she can recall, with frank immediacy, the one time in her life — a quarter-century ago — when she considered leaving her deepest love behind.
“It was 1971 when I decided I was never going to play music again,” she remembers. “I was [living] in Chicago, and they just wouldn’t pay attention to a woman blues performer there.” So she started a family and forgot about music for a bit.
But shelving the blues, it turned out, just wasn’t possible for Rabson.
“There’s a joke: ‘What’s the difference between a large pizza and a blues musician? A large pizza can feed a family of four.’ … I had to take a day job in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but I always knew that, when my daughter got out of school, I would play again.”
Since the mid-’80s, Rabson has gained notoriety for her fierce, yet self-possessed, honky-tonk-piano pounding in the all-women blues trio, Saffire. And though she dearly loves being one-third of the Uppity Blues Women, as they’re more popularly known, she’s just as glad to have a chance to span some solo octaves.
“There’s a lot more to me than Saffire, and there’s a lot more to Saffire than me,” she says simply. “When I play alone, I get to play my music without any modification, and I get to experiment the way I want to. I love playing with Saffire, but playing by myself is different.”
She’s forced to agree with somber purists who lament that the piano is being tuned out of traditional blues ensembles, though her perspective has a seen-it-all profundity that leaves courteous room for comebacks.
“I do think [piano-infused blues] is a dying art form, although I feel like it’s coming back,” she says hopefully. “The guitar has become so strong a force that people don’t take up the piano anymore. It’s not exactly easy to carry around. Most clubs don’t have them. But there’s nothing like the piano. People love it when they hear it. We’re losing some of our older players. I’m afraid to read the papers anymore, because we’re losing so many older musicians every day. But we have some wonderful young players now.”
Rabson’s 1997 solo debut, Music Makin’ Mama (Alligator Records), exhibits an energetic medley of styles, and finds the pianist pouring her soul into everything from Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” to Josh White’s spare, haunting “One Meatball.”
Quite a few Rabson originals (including the title track) are included on the disc, but unlike many other artists, she doesn’t place a premium on performing her own songs in concert.
“I’d like to say that I prefer playing my own songs live. It would probably be better for my career to say that,” she notes with a chuckle, “but that’s just not true. I like to take a song and make it mine, take a song from someone I’ve admired and change it.”
Rabson stopped preparing set lists for Saffire shows long ago, because any attempt at formal structure was routinely abandoned after the first song, anyway. Blues is a feeling, not a format, she contends.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. The blues,” says Rabson slowly, “is what we all have in common. It brings together all ages, races and sexual persuasions. I like to have a nice big spectrum of people at shows, because it shows me I’m singing about what I should be singing about. Singing from the point of view of a woman doesn’t mean that a man can’t relate to [the feeling] I’m singing about. I can sing a song about a man walking out, but the song really isn’t about a man betraying a woman. It’s about loneliness. Pain is like taste — there are only a few of them (sweet, sour, bitter) — and pleasure is the same way.”
Not that gender blues are nonexistent in the genre. “I think women [in music] have relied on humor more than men,” she continues carefully. “This life is not easy. All musicians have to have a sense of humor. You can either be offended, hurt, upset, or you can laugh. You have to laugh.”
From her position as elder stateswoman of the genre (and a grandmother), Rabson has a panoramic view of the changing times.
“When blues started out, in our grandmothers’ day, women were very prominent, and then that changed,” she points out. “But I can honestly say that women have come to the forefront more lately, and I’m delighted.”
Ironically, however, her own status as veteran blues diva has left her more unsettled than delighted.
“I’m not sure I like it: It’s not really what I signed on for,” she muses.
Though flattered by the adulation of aspiring roadhouse pianists, she seems happier that the endangered breed itself survives. But she’s thrilled to be another kind of maverick.
“I am a role model for large women,” she boasts. “I’m a fat woman, but I’m not wearing muumuus — I’m not hiding. I’m strutting my stuff, shaking it whenever I can.”