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September 13, 2012

Mark Bennett: You can’t sing the blues without emotion

TERRE HAUTE — Steve Martin once said you can’t play a sad song on a banjo.

He’s got a point. Imagine some bouncy lead banjo on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” or “Motherless Child.”

Likewise, you can’t sing the blues without emotion. Without at least a hint of despair or loneliness in a singer’s voice, the two aforementioned blues classics would come off as flat as a fizzless Coke.

The 12th annual Blues at the Crossroads festival should bubble with emotion, especially when Jennie DeVoe takes the stage Friday night in downtown Terre Haute at Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue. Memories and stories behind DeVoe’s songs continue to move her, even after more than a decade as one of Indiana’s premier singer-songwriters.

“I can still get teary-eyed while I’m singing,” DeVoe said.

Sometimes, it happens even when she’s not the singer.

“I’ve heard other people do my songs before, and I get very emotional,” she explained.

Blues and soul music simply can’t happen without emotion. Think Ray Charles or Joe Cocker. Now, imagine serving as an opening act for those guys, just before they start swaying and contorting in song. Their warm-up performers better show some spirit. DeVoe has done just that, playing bills topped by Charles and Cocker as well as Jack Johnson, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams and one of DeVoe’s greatest influences, Bonnie Raitt. This year, DeVoe enjoyed a couple of career highlights, thanks to Raitt, whom she first met five years ago. In July, DeVoe played the Top of the Park Festival at Ann Arbor, Mich., where Raitt was a headliner, earning a coveted spot alongside the famed guitarist-singer on souvenir festival T-shirts. In May, when Raitt played a concert at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis, she mentioned DeVoe, who was in the audience that night.

“I got a round of applause by just sitting on my ass,” DeVoe joked, appreciatively.

She gets ovations and recognition for her own talents, too, of course. Her resume includes an appearance at the popular women’s music festival, Lillith Fair, in 1999. Her songs — a mix of soul, folk and blues — have earned a best independent pop song honor in Billboard World Song Contest in 2004, and slots on television shows “Dawson’s Creek” and “Joan of Arcadia.” DeVoe also recorded voice-overs and jingles for commercials in Los Angeles. Her song, “Butterfly,” graced TV ads for a jewelry store chain, stretching from Rochester, N.Y., to Dallas and New Orleans. A major record label, Sony Red, handled distribution of her latest album, “Strange Sunshine,” which she recorded in England with Tracy Chapman’s producer, John Parish.

Yet, she’s chosen to remain a Hoosier. Still lives in Indianapolis, a short drive from her hometown of New Castle and her college alma mater, Ball State. Still loves to see her husband’s car in the driveway when she comes home. Still is anxious to be greeted by their four dogs and two cats.

As her song, “Redeeming,” says, “I just want someone to wag their tail when I walk through the door.”

DeVoe occasionally, and selectively, covers other artists’ material, such as a playful version of the 1971 Melanie Safka hit “Brand New Key” and a soulful reading of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” from ’67. Her originals, though, she holds dear, particularly “Blind Faith,” “All This Love,” “How I Feel” and “Redeeming.” The latter illuminates the full range of DeVoe’s voice, revving from a smoky and vulnerable idle to a muscular top gear. With a dose of humor, the song probes the difficulty of extending forgiveness, especially to those who won’t seek it.

“The only thing that keeps you going — and we’re all so imperfect and rotten — is forgiving,” DeVoe said in a phone interview from Indy.

Raised in a “strict Lutheran” family in New Castle, DeVoe said people often rebel at some point and eventually rediscover the value of their faith. Now, she said, “I don’t get out of bed in the morning without saying my morning prayers.” The path isn’t always smooth. “When you do stick strongly to your faith, you get a lot more challenges because you’re sticking to it,” DeVoe explained.

Challenges and the blues go together. Banjos? Not so much.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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