Sheila Carlisle, vocalist extraordinaire for The Cascade Street Blues Band, sings the blues from a level of experience that few people live to tell about — the kind of firsthand knowledge that isn’t based on rhythms or keys or slide-guitar licks. No, Carlisle knows the deep-down, dirty bottom of the blues — the kind that sometimes comes in a vial.
“I looked into the eyes of Satan himself,” she says, describing her longtime cocaine addiction. The description may sound corny, she admits, but Carlisle maintains that nothing less could accurately describe the depths of her despair. “I’ve seen so many musicians with talent and promise dragged down by powder, and I was one of them,” she adds.
Carlisle, whose big, powerhouse voice breaks and throbs in deep wails, was on her way to stardom decades ago when her former band, Arhooly R&B, was being heavily courted by the big labels. Performers like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray often requested Carlisle and company to open for them. “I had many opportunities to be somewhere else [musically],” she asserts, “but I was a business risk.” Touring proved fertile ground for Carlisle’s substance abuse, too; but in the late ’80s, she finally heeded the advice of mentor and friend B.B. King, who had once told her she reminded him of Janis Joplin. “He told me if I didn’t slow down, I was going to end up like [Joplin] too,” she relates.
The years of abuse had taken their toll on Carlisle, but — born stubborn — she gritted her teeth and determined she’d kick. After splitting from Arhooly, Carlisle headed for her hometown of Morganton, N.C., where she committed herself to quitting cold turkey. “I mainly just stayed [at] home alone, shaking and detoxing,” Carlisle remembers. She furthered her recovery by attending support groups, and put music on the back burner for a number of years.
Clean and sober for nearly 10 years now, Carlisle is once again deeply steeped in the blues — only this time, it’s strictly the musical kind.
“The magic on-stage is [created by] presenting someone who’s uninhibited to the audience,” she says. “I [once] thought I could only do that if I was on [drugs].” But Carlisle says she’s realized how liberating her music is, on its own. “It took me a long time to learn how to have fun again,” Carlisle notes. “I know now that I can harness that same source of power in my music naturally, and … I don’t get lost.”
Carlisle, who was celebrating her 50th birthday the day of our interview, says emphatically that she “feels awesome.”
Part of her current jubilation is due to the rapport she’s established with her new band. “I feel so fortunate to have hooked up with these guys,” enthuses Carlisle. The Cascade Street Blues Band — known for its traditional-blues-meets-guitar-driven-rock sound — is composed of veteran musicians: Jimmy Davis on saxophone, harmonica and flute (he’s played with Jerry Lee Lewis, Delbert McClinton and the Beach Boys, to name just a few); Phil Shirley on guitar, George Scott on keyboards; Jimmy Gillon on drums; and Mark Bumgarner, who did a stint with the Marshall Tucker Band, on bass.
Carlisle has headed back to the recording studio, too, most recently working with Bo Diddley. But she’s taking her comeback slow and easy. “For a long time, I didn’t want to even see people playing music,” Carlisle remembers, harking back to the missed chances during her drug years. “It’s the most sinking, lonely feeling to know you let something destroy [your dreams].”
Despite the bad times, though, Carlisle hasn’t totally left her past behind. She stays firmly connected with the good from those two tough decades, like her old pal B.B. King, who calls to check up on her every so often — making sure the blues don’t get her down.