Everyone likes to receive praise, to have their talent recognized. And yet sometimes that recognition arrives with a caveat, a distinction that tempers the impact of the acknowledgment. For Laura Chavez, one of those moments occurred last year with the publication of a Guitar Player magazine cover feature on “50 Sensational Female Guitarists”.
“Years ago, Candye Kane set up a Facebook fan page for me. The editor of Guitar Player had written to me on the page, but I never look at it or deal with it. Candye used to run it. People would write to me and it could be months before I would see it and respond. People probably thought I was ignoring them, but that isn’t the case. So I contacted the Editor, who said they were doing this feature article. Whenever I hear that, I start hoping that I can finally make a list that doesn’t revolve around me being a female player.”.
“When I saw the actual magazine, with Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the cover and players from all genres of music on the list, I was really happy that they did a feature like that, because there are so many women who are overlooked. It was music from classical to blues, jazz, rock, and everything in-between. It was a huge honor to be selected. There were a number of artists who I thought would make the list that were not on it. I was really excited to be included as it was not something to be taken lightly. Still, as Candye used to say regularly on stage, do you notice that Laura doesn’t play guitar with her girly parts? She uses her hands like every other guitar player”.
“I don’t want to take anything for granted. But at least once a night, I am told by someone that I am the best female guitar player they have ever seen. When I hear that, part of me wonders just how many female guitarists they have seen. For that comment to have any real meaning, that information is key. But more importantly, you wonder why do they even need to say that. I would rather that they not say anything. If you liked what I played, if I moved you during the performance, and you want me to tell me, that’s awesome! I hope your reaction would be the same whether I was female or male. There have even been more than a few people who would tell me how good I am on the bass!”
A California native, Chavez started taking classical guitar lessons at the age of eight, but soon became disinterested due to an inattentive instructor. Receiving an electric guitar for Christmas five years later opened up an exciting world, as she was now able to learn how to play the rock tunes her older brother listened to. Eventually she acquired enough skills to be hired as the guitarist for the Lara Price Band. That successful relationship lasted eight years, including a memorable trip to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge. Opportunity came knocking when singer Candye Kane was looking for a guitar player. Fellow musician Sue Foley gave Chavez a rousing endorsement, leading Kane to hire her without ever hearing Chavez play a note. They became an inseparable duo until Kane passed away two years ago. It took about six months before Chavez started getting out and playing again.
Chavez had conversations with Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter about joining their their new endeavor after their celebrated appearance at the 2016 Chicago Blues Fest. She was prominently featured on their Delta Groove Records release – Right Place, Right Time – which received this year’s Blues Music Award for Traditional Blues Album. “It was very generous of them to feature me on that project. We talked about me joining up with them. But I had a lot of work lined up for the year that was conflicting with some of the dates they had lined up. They have a unique chemistry that you only come across a couple of times in your life. I am very excited and happy for their success. We are still looking at doing some things together”.
One of the projects Chavez had committed to was a Ruf Records Caravan tour in Europe with Vanessa Collier, with dates spread out over a year’s span. Just two shows into the first month-long leg, Chavez was contacted by vocalist Nikki Hill about joining her band on a permanent basis. “I have known Nikki and her husband Matt for more than ten years. She was offering me everything I was looking for – a high energy band that was working all the time, a professional approach to the business, plus they are fun & exciting, and I really like the music. It was about six months after Candye had passed. I jumped at the opportunity”.
Her experiences working for three female band leaders certainly gives Chavez some unique perspectives. “I’m not sure why it always comes about that way. Maybe it is because women are better at supporting other woman. It is a very good question that I get asked all the time, and still don’t have an answer for. Each tenure represents a different phase of my career. With Lara, that was the first band I was in, the first time playing in front of people, recording, and songwriting. There was a lot of learning. Lara’s band was already established in the Bay area, but we both learned about what it takes to break out and move beyond the local scene”.
“Neither Candye or I ever anticipated that working together would have such a profound impact on both of us. She was so encouraging, always pushing me into the spotlight to make sure that people knew who I was. Early on, she would force me to be the center of attention. That really helped me with my self-confidence, which I needed at the time. Later on, it became a team effort. Candye knew exactly who she was, what she wanted, and she wasn’t afraid to ask it, or in some cases, demand it. She worked so hand, for so long, for everything she got. Her generosity helped me develop my songwriting skills and, as co-producer of her records, learn a different viewpoint of the recording process. She told people that she wasn’t sure how long she would be around, so she wanted to make sure that there were plenty of opportunities for the world to hear me. I owe so much to her and will always keep her legacy and memory alive”.
“As for Nikki, for someone who hasn’t been a band leader as long as someone like Candye, she has everything together, very on point and professional. In some ways, Nikki & Candye are a lot alike. Neither of them are afraid to speak their minds, to be themselves no matter what. It is amazing to watch her calmly deal with responsibilities, put out fires, deal with tour logistics, and get her own recordings out there, plus give 100% every time we hit the stage. I am so happy to be a part of this band. Nikki’s tenacity, self-confidence, and relentless drive to stay true to what she believes in, and what she feels her band deserves, reminds me so much of Candye. And that is about the highest compliment I can give to anyone”.
While she has yet to be a band leader herself, Chavez has been thinking about putting together a side project just to have some fun. “ I have been thinking about putting together a organ trio just to play music. Don’t look for me to be overly ambitious about pushing it if it comes together. That is the kind of stuff I listen to at home. When it comes to organ, I am partial to Jimmy Smith. In the trio format, Grant Green is my favorite guitar player, not that I can play like him! I also like Jack McDuff and the guitar player that worked with him quite a bit, Bill Jennings, who is another favorite. He influenced a lot of the West coast swing and jazz/blues guitarists like Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, and Rusty Zinn. I have Dick Shurman to thank for putting together a disc for me of some of Bill Jennings best stuff, which was awesome because I had a great deal of trouble finding any of his recordings”.
When it comes to gear, Laura has a couple of favorites. With Nikki Hill, she uses her Fender Stratocaster, which she has taken all over the world. “ As of the last few months, I have been using a Gibson ’56 Les Paul Goldtop reissue that I run through a Fender Bassman reissue. Matt Hill (Nikki’s husband & guitar player) is also using a Bassman, which is cool. For effects, I have a Boss Fender ’63 Reverb pedal and an RC boost. At home, I use a Vero amplifier, made by the Fazio brothers out of Joliet, IL. I have been playing those for years, particularly with Candye. It is a small combo, real low wattage that sounds great when it is cranked up. It has a dark tone with really outstanding tremolo. Little Charlie Baty, Rick Holmstrom, and Doug Deming all play them. One of the Fazio brothers is into old locomotive train engines, so that was the inspiration for the look of the amplifiers. When they are on and all lite up, it looks like the front of a locomotive coming at you”.
Another testament to Laura’s guitar skills is borne out in the increasing number of guest appearances she has made on various recordings including a featured role on Casey Hensley’s first recording, nominated for two 2018 Blues Blast Music Awards, in the Live Blues Album and New Artist Debut Album categories. Other appearances include Patrick Recob’s Perpetual Luau, also a New Artist Debut Album nominee, Vanessa Collier’s Meeting My Shadow release on Ruf Records, two releases by the Lucky Losers on Dirty Cat Records, and the previously mentioned Welch-Ledbetter award-winning release on Delta Groove Records.
“I am working on a project with Big Daddy Wilson, a singer originally from North Carolina but he has been living Germany for several decades. He has a cool, soulful style that in some ways reminds me of Robert Cray or Taj Mahal. We may get a hand from noted producer Jim Gaines on the project, and hope to have the album finished by the end of the year. I did some touring with Vanessa and just cut some parts for her new disc, that may be out this summer. There have also been some cool shows that I have done with a singer from Finland, Ina Forsman, who is also on Ruf Records. She is really great as a singer and songwriter. I hope she gets to tour the States more often because people really need to hear her”.
“Casey’s album was cut live at live at the end of 2016. I had been living down in San Diego that year dealing with the aftermath of Candye’s passing. I had been playing quite a bit with Casey. We recorded in a studio in Oceanside, CA owned by Thomas Yearsley of the Paladins. It was a one-shot deal. We had an audience in the studio and we recorded on analog tape, capturing us playing a set like we always did. It is exciting to see Casey gain success. She has a really amazing voice to work with”.
“I got to know Patrick Recob over the years. He would always come out to see Candye and also did a couple West coast tours with James Harman and Hank Mowery, a harp player from Michigan. He asked me if I would play on some tracks. It turned out that he was recording at guitarist Nathan James’ studio, which very close to where I was living. Most people know Patrick as a bass player, but he also has a fine singing voice. For me, it’s a voice you wouldn’t expect. He goes for the high tenor. I was surprised at what came out of him”.
When it is all said and down, Laura Chavez is a woman with a clear goal in mind. “My whole life, all I have ever wanted to be was a guitar player, and to be taken as seriously as any other guitarist. I want to be respected by other musicians and people in the industry as a guitar player. I continue to work on being the best player I can be, and to make whoever I am playing sound the best. It gets very frustrating at times because none of those goals have anything to do with the fact that I am a woman. Candye always used to tell me not to get upset, that there is no physical difference between men and woman that would make one a better player than the other. It’s almost like people have some strange compulsion to make a comment. But when the praise comes from other musicians, especially players that you personally admire, there is no greater compliment for me”.
Visit Laura on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/THELauraChavez
Laura Chavez videos – Click on the image to see video.
Casey Hensley Band with Laura Chavez
Laura Chavez sitting in at Murphy’s Law.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!