Back in the days before air travel and mass communication, when the blues were new, and itinerant artists traveled highways and byways or road the rails, they had a secret way of communicating with each other when they approached an artist in another town they hadn’t met.
They’d knock on the established musician’s door, often in the dead of night. “Who’s there?” the resident would ask. “The River,” came the reply. This simple mention of the mighty Mississippi was enough for the man behind the partition to know the person on the other side was kindred spirit, and the door would spring open wide.
The Mississippi and the music created along its path had reached the brink of death before researchers rediscovered “lost” artists in the early ‘60s and introduced them to a new, white audience, beginning first with the historic folk festivals in Newport, R.I. The heartbeat of the River started flowing stronger shortly thereafter when British fans fell in love with the “new” sound.
American keyboard and saxophone players planted the seeds further by immigrating to France and Germany, where small music clubs flourished and avid fans awaited, and acoustic guitarists followed. The torrent eventually reached all corners of the world, and foreign nationals began perfecting their own blues skills with some, like John Mayall, bringing the music back home to the U.S.
Today – with no disrespect intended to American counterparts — an ever-increasing number of guitarists, harmonica players and vocalists from overseas have proven themselves equal to musicians born on U.S. soil. The change has been dramatic, especially in the past 20 years or so.
But males dominated everything.
Here in the U.S., few women – Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – the inventor of the duck walk and mother of rock-‘n’-roll, Bonnie Raitt, Debbie Davies and a few others – emerged as bandleaders with skills on the six-string. Not surprisingly, foreign-born female stars didn’t exist in the borderless world of the blues.
But that was before Ana Popovc arrived on the scene.
Born in Belgrade in what was formerly Yugoslavia and now Serbia, the tall, slender, attractive blonde with the long legs and short skirts is no grinder and definitely no novelty act. She’s the real deal, a powerhouse performer who can cut you like a knife with a stinging guitar solo one moment and then have you on the verge of tears with a tender ballad the next.
A five-time Blues Music Awards nominee, The River flows through Ana naturally. It’s been there from birth. She grew up in a home where her father, Milton, a gifted guitarist and bass player, owned a large record collection and possessed a deep love for both blues and soul. Living under the oppression of Communist rule during the dictatorship of Marshal Josip Tito and his successor, Slobidan Milosevic, he hosted nightly jams throughout Ana’s childhood, and, for a few hours at least, the events happening outside faded away.
“They played the three Kings – B.B., Albert and Freddy – Muddy Waters, Albert Collins,” Ana told Blues Blast from her new home in California shortly before embarking on a brief tour to France and Italy. She didn’t pick up the guitar herself until age 15, but took to it immediately. Realizing that his daughter had a natural gift that was beyond his own skill level, her dad quickly found her a more advanced tutor.
About the time Ana was set to go to college, the social unrest in her homeland erupted into civil war, the end of Communist rule, the breakup of Yugoslavia into seven separate nations and, for the first time, freedom of movement for its citizens. In a land where overseas travel had been previously forbidden, Popovic now had the choice to continue her education elsewhere.
She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps as a graphic artist and attended the University of Belgrade before being accepted to an art school in Utrecht, Netherlands. On a whim, however, a few weeks before her enrollment, she also applied for admission to a jazz conservatory in the same Dutch city. She submitted a tape of her playing that was so well received, she was accepted immediately.
Her career in graphic arts ended that day and a new one as a professional guitarist was born.
She formed the band Hush partly to pay her tuition as she studied music theory. It wasn’t long before the group was booking up to 100 gigs a year in Holland, Germany and Yugoslavia, where they made frequent TV appearances. They released one album with limited distribution in 1998.
Popovic decided to pursue music full-time one year later as the band’s popularity grew and as troubles continued to escalate back home. It’s not surprising that America beckoned.
“Even though I was from Belgrade, I always thought of myself as an American musician because I grew up on that certain sound,” she says. “I never tried to copy. It was something I was never about. For all Europeans, the goal was and is to come to America to play. If you don’t come to the States, you can’t make a name for yourself because (playing in Europe) it doesn’t count.
“But I always grew up on the certain sound – Memphis blues, Texas blues, Chicago. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to lose what is really me. It’s still very important for me to be different, to be unique.
“You play 10 seconds of a Ronnie Earl or Stevie Ray Vaughan song and people know immediately who it is. I want them to play 10 seconds of my song and know that’s Ana Popovic. That’s what I’m going for. And that is a big task for any guitar player.”
Today, however, the seasoned pro who’s barely out of her 30s still prefers to listen to music of her youth, although some current groups catch her ear. “I hear it differently now than when I was a teenager,” she says. “Albert Collins is one of my favorites. Back then, they sang with something to prove, almost a life-or-death battle. It’s very inspirational to me because it’s a style you don’t get nowadays.
“I realize now how hard they were fighting on stage because they didn’t have the good sound systems and whatever we have today, and they were just rippin’ it from the heart.”
Ana signed a recording contract with Germany’s Ruf Records later in 1999 and crossed the Atlantic to lay down her first solo album, entitled Hush! as a tribute to her Dutch bandmates, in Memphis the following year. Produced by Jim Gaines, who also worked with Stevie Ray and Carlos Santana, it featured a guest appearance by Bernard Allison and received rave reviews upon release.
By 2001, she’d already appeared on one cut of a Jimi Hendrix tribute album entitled Blue Haze, which featured others by Taj Mahal, Buddy Miles, Poppa Chubby, Walter Trout, Jimmy Thackery and Allison, with whom she appeared as guest artist on his tour.
Success came relatively quickly. Still based in the Netherlands a year later, Popovic garnered nominations in France’s blues awards and joined Trout in a showcase honoring Hendrix and his music across the Continent. And she launched an American tour for the first time, backed by her European band.
A second Ruf CD, entitled Comfort To The Soul, garnered Ana a 2003 W.C. Handy Award nomination, precursor to the BMAs, for Best New Artist. And an invite to join Solomon Burke on stage led to her joining his show for the remainder of his booking overseas.
In the years since, accolades have piled up as she’s released one hit after another on Ruf, Electo-Groove and her own ArtisteXclusive labels. Before relocating to Los Angeles a few months ago, Ana called Memphis home for four years, enjoying the proximity to musicians in Nashville and New Orleans as well as the wealth of talent the Bluff City has to offer, frequently bringing them into the studio to record.
And she’s already embarked on two more Hendrix tours with another planned for February.
Riding the bus during those trips is a pleasure because many of the artists – the most recent group included Buddy Guy, Zakk Wilde, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd among others – watch videos of Hendrix at play during the long bus rides and often analyze his attack. “He did such incredible stuff so many years ago,” Ana says. “In a way, we can’t even touch what he was doing. He was on another planet.”
Popovic followed up the 2013 release of Can You Stand The Heat by revisiting her youth and recording Blue Room last year with her father. It recreated their family jams and included covers of tunes by first-generation star Robert Petway, Victory Spivey and Jimmy Reed as well as material culled from Van Morrison, Ian Anderson, John Lennon and Tony Joe White.
She’s followed it up with something that no one has attempted before. Her new, three-disc, 23-tune release, Trilogy, was “an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head for years,” she says. “It took exactly one year to produce, and I’m really happy with the results. I made the least compromises on this one ever, and it turned out to be exactly what I had in mind in the first place.”
Featuring contributions from a diverse collection of musicians, including sacred steel master Robert Randolph, North Mississippi All-Star Cody Dickinson, guitar god Joe Bonamassa, legendary percussionist Bernard Perdie and rapper Al Kapone, each disc was created with a different audience in mind and supervised by a different, award-winning producer. Released on Popovic’s own ArtisteXclusive Records label, it exploded up the charts when it debuted a few months ago.
Grammy-winning Warren Riker, who’s worked with Santana and Lauryn Hill, directed Morning, the first CD, which was laid down in Memphis and New Orleans and delivers a heaping helping of old-school funk and soul as well as nine new songs. “It’s a dance record that includes plenty of blues,” she says. “I wanted folks to dance from the moment they put it on until the end.”
Midday, the second disc, which combines blues and rock, was supervised by another Grammy winner, Buddy Guy producer Tom Hambridge. The sound of its four originals and three covers is stripped down from the first CD, barren of the Crescent City horns that populate the opener. “It’s a heavy rocking thing with deep blues, not tricked out,” Ana says. “I really wanted everything to sound different from one CD to the next. I kept to my original idea not to let the producer hear anything that the other people did and let them all go ahead with their own feel.”
And the closer, Midnight, features seven originals under the supervision of Delfaeyo Marsalis, the trombone heavyweight who’s one of the most sought-after producer-composers in the jazz world today. The material includes covers of tunes by Tom Waits, Duke Ellington and Nat Adderley and comes across with the bluesiest form of jazz.
“People are pleasantly surprised by that one,” Ana says. “I couldn’t believe it went so smooth. It forced me to listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan again, and they’re very bluesy. I’ve always loved that side of the music, and this one gave me the opportunity to work with the real top-line jazz musicians.
“It was the same for them. It was a very unusual project for them. They played jazz in New Orleans, but never did anything with the blues. Nowadays the two don’t mix. Blues and rock or blues and funk, yes. Blues and jazz, never.”
Popovic has always wondered why instructors at music academies never began their training with the blues since jazz emerged from the older art form. “They could really attract a new, young audience by drawing a parallel from the blues standards,” she says. “That’s what I tried to do here.
“Some listeners might think after listening to it that jazz isn’t that difficult to do, but they’re in for a surprise once they try it. And I think listeners are going to hear a part of me they haven’t heard before.
“Every album is a change for me,” Ana insists. “That’s how I roll. I try not to repeat myself. I want to give my audience something different every time out. You have to inspire your audience that, after listening to you for 12 years, they’re still anticipating your new record. It’s crucial to do this at this time in the music business.”
Now a mother of two – she has a nine-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, Popovic doesn’t tour like she used to. She still travels to most of the locales she has in the past despite world events, and she’s going to Australia for the first time soon after trips that have included such far-flung places as Dubai, Indonesia and Japan in the past.
Popovic looks to add new countries to her itinerary each year. But she’s usually on the road now a week or ten days instead of several weeks at a time to keep life as normal as she can. If it’s any longer, the kids, Luuk and Lenna, come along for the ride.
At home, she puts down the guitar and she and husband Mark, who handles the business side of her operation, turn off the TV and computers at 5 p.m. There are no jam sessions. From then on, it’s all about family.
“It’s just Mommy Time all the time,” Ana insists. “We try to create a normal family life for them as regularly as we can. I think that’s really, really important.”
She’s happy to see ladies rising to prominence in the blues world. It’s still a man-dominated industry, but women like Susan Tedeschi and Samantha Fish, like Ana, are breaking down the barriers.
Is it easier for female guitarist bandleaders today? “I think so,” Popovic says. “It’s happening more often, so people are getting used to it. I think ladies are great bandleaders and businesswomen, and finally that’s happening, which is a fantastic thing. It’s inspirational, too, to have Hillary Clinton out there, running for President. You might like her or hate her, but she’s giving all ladies the push to say okay, we can do anything a man can.
“As women, we don’t have people to learn from. It’s important to take life in your own hands and cast your own future. And that’s what women are doing today.”
What’s next for Ana? After Trilogy, it’s going to be interesting. “I already have plans,” she says. “Like usual, I’m going to keep it as a surprise for the very last moment.”
Visit Ana’s website at: www.anapopovic.com.
Interviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. His first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.