“It was on purpose,” says Casey Hensley.
I had asked her if she stopped to think that it took significant macho fortitude to begin and end her debut album with two Big Mama Thornton songs, particularly “Ball and Chain” which was Big Mama’s signature song and was co-opted by Janis Joplin.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve been told that a couple of times. It was on purpose. It was on purpose that I put it at the beginning and end.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, and as far as “Ball & Chain,” I’m just gonna go for it because if you don’t go for that big song, you’re never gonna do it. So, I just kinda go all in and just see what happens.”
What happened was Casey Hensley Live Featuring Laura Chavez went number 1 on the Global Radio Indicator Charts and number 4 on the Roots Music Report Soul/Blues Chart. It debuted at number 17 on ITunes Blues charts and 19 on the Living Blues Radio Charts. And on her website she proudly quotes Rita Coolidge saying, “Janis Joplin would be proud.”
Being that closely tied to two legendary performers in style can be the kiss of death long term for a young blues artist working to establish her lifetime career. But what if that artist’s performance bests that of the act she’s emulating? At 25, Casey Hensley is a better singer than Janis Joplin. Her guitarist Laura Chavez is way better than Sam Andrews, Janis’ ax man in Big Brother and The Holding Company. And Casey comes damn close to equaling Big Mama on vocals. Through no fault of her own, Big Mama never attained record sales big enough for her to afford a good band, and Chavez evokes the memory of Buddy Guy’s playing with Big Mama on the recordings of her British Lippmann and Rau tour in the 1960s.
Big Mama Thornton had erotic heat, whereas Janis turned that erotic heat into a screaming tantrum. Many young white women use songs like “Ball and Chain” as an excuse to spaz. Casey doesn’t spaz. She’s out there throwing flames, but she never loses control. There’s always a feel that it’s coming from way inside and not from some kind of exterior, outward reaction to something terrible that’s happened to her.
“Every time I sing, my biggest focus is to be real, and put as much feeling as I can into every note. Hitting the right note is totally important, but even more important than that to me is just the feeling behind it. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to roots music, soul to blues, to all of it. That’s the art, you know.”
Call it naïve, even cocky, or just plain confident, but Casey is totally unafraid of the Joplin comparison. “I think it’s a great compliment. She had a great career, and she’s definitely an influence of mine. As far as me compared to anybody, I have a lot of amazing influences, and I’m just me. If anybody wants to compare me to somebody that they like or love, I take those compliments and comparisons. I welcome them absolutely, and I take every compliment with a grain of salt of course, but I’m just me. I don’t try to be anybody else. As a woman, I’m just trying to figure out who I am, and what I want to do, and I don’t even know yet exactly who I am, but I’m figuring it out.”
Her VizzTone debut Casey Hensley Live Featuring Laura Chavez is a smart selection from a variety of sources whose common thread is aggression. The recording was done live in one continuous take in the studio in front of a rabid audience. She covers an eclectic group of artists from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ signature screamer “I Put A Spell on You” to New Orleans’ veteran Irma Thomas’ “You Can Have My Husband.” From Blues Queen Koko Taylor’s “Voodoo Woman” to Elvis Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman, plus three originals that aren’t as memorable as her aggressive covers.
“It’s not that I don’t know who I am. I haven’t fully come into my own yet ’cause I’m just in my 20s, but as far as the music goes, I just love any music with a feeling whether it’s Delta blues or Chicago blues. It’s all relevant, and I love it all, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about, too. I’ve been thinking about these last couple of years who am I? What box am I in? It’s a hard. I don’t know who I am totally, but I do. I know what I like and so on the record I thought, ‘I’m just going to do what I like and do me and hopefully everybody understands it.’”
The album was recorded live at Thunderbird Analog Recording Studio all in one take and translated from analog to digital. “It’s a pretty large space. It’s Thomas Yearsley’s studio. There’s a huge room. All the instruments are in one room, and then there’s like this while area around the room that’s also open so people can sit. There definitely was enough room for people to sit in front of us and everything, and then you could see everything that was happening through the glass, and so it was all recorded in one take at Thunderbird and we had a live audience, and we basically kind of partied and recorded it. It was a controlled party but still a party.
“We didn’t take anything out, but everything that’s on the record, that’s what it was. There are 11 songs on that record, and that’s how many we recorded, so we got really lucky. We didn’t have to rerecord anything – it was just all in one take. So, that was really awesome. There’s a couple squeals and stuff ’cause it’s live, but it’s all really authentic. To get Laura in that mode, her thing, it was just awesome. So, it’s fun with me and her.
“I had the (songs) all recorded and then I decided what order I wanted them in. That’s how I decided to put the Big Mama Hronton song at the beginning and at the end, and I wanted all the songs to flow really well, but when we recorded it, I would save the hardest songs for last. I did. “Ball & Chain” last because I didn’t want to tire my voice and then do 10 other songs.
“We charged at the door. Not charge but we asked for a contribution for the record because the hard thing for me I’m in my 20s, and I do music full time. So, paying for the record took me a while to record it because I needed the funds. So, it was a perfect way to do it. So, people contributed and there was food, and it was a really good time. They didn’t have to give us anything, but everybody did. Everybody was really supportive, and the whole thing was the blues community. James Harmen came and Nathan James, that whole group of guys. It was really cool, and we had a lot of writers and lot of other musicians and a lot of just fans and family and friends, and it was a really, really great day. There’s a couple of people I can hear on the record going, ‘Yeah!’ There’s one guy and I’m like, ‘I know that’s my dad.’
“All of these songs on this album were songs I was already playing live. So, I already was really comfortable doing them live as far as the performance goes. Candy (Kane) actually showed me that song “You Can Have My Husband,” and I hadn’t heard it before. She said, ‘The lyrics are, ‘You can have my husband but don’t mess with my man,’ and I said, ‘I want to listen to that. That sounds like my kind of song.’ So, I heard it and it’s a great song. It’s just a fun song to do because you can hear it on my record. The crowd participates (she sings),’You can have my husband.’ You can see the women. The men next to them. We like this song a lot.
“I knew I wanted to make my own – have my own style of singing it. So, I don’t know. That whole record is what we all worked out from playing the song, so much, and it’s so authentic of my show. So, those two songs are really – it was really awesome to get to record ’em, to have ’em on my record, to have everybody enjoy ’em.”
While many African American blues singers have a head start on their white counterparts from having grown up in a church background singing gospel, it is unusual for their white counterparts to have that extensive early background performing in front of a live audience. Casey, on the other hand, first hit the stage at age five.
“My parents knew that I was s gifted singer when I was really young. We’d be driving in the car, and my dad would be telling my mom, ‘Can you turn down the radio?’ And she’d be like, ‘I did turn it down. That’s your daughter in the back seat.’ I’d be singing Melissa Etheridge at the top of my lungs, or we’d be in the grocery store, and I’d be singing in the aisles, and somebody would come from the next aisle and say, ‘Oh, my goodness. Is that your daughter singing? She’s gifted,’ And I had a real passion for it also.
“They weren’t like stage parents or anything. They just supported me ’cause it was something I wanted to do. So, I would set out my stuffed animals and stand on my head and do little shows for them, and stuff. So, the first time I was on stage I think I was like five, and I loved it immediately. I loved it, and the first time I was in the studio I was like eight, and I was recording an original. So, it’s been a lifelong thing for me. I didn’t do sports really much or anything. It was just always music. I never wanted to do anything else, and nothing else was ever an option for me. Like teachers would ask me, ‘Do you have a backup plan?’ And I would say, ‘No, this is what I’m doing.’
“My grandfather is a bass player, but I didn’t grow up with him. He lives on the east coast. My parents were these real music lovers. Etta James was always playing around the house, and a lot of like Allman Brothers. My mom had a really great record collection growing up, and my parents were always listening to music, and it was always a lot of blues also. The first person I ever saw live was Tommy Castro. I was on my dad’s back I think and that’s the story. I vaguely remember that I was that young. I was in awe. He just cooked, and I actually opened for him last year, and that was really cool.”
Casey began writing songs at eight, the same year she first entered a recording studio. “I grew up in northern California and my family, we sold our house. My dad got a job opportunity. So, we moved to southern California to Huntington Beach which is in Orange County, and I did a little bit of acting, the Hollywood thing when I was between the age of eight and 13. I was in just independent films. Dustin Hoffman’s son is in a movie and I was in that. That was an independent movie I was in, and I did Disney shows. I did a lot of background work. That made me money I could put in my (student account), and I wanted to be around that world. I did love acting, but I decided I wanted to play music. I knew even back then I liked acting and it was fun, but music was like my real passion.”
Performing her own music trumped acting because she wanted to feel her own inner emotions, not someone else’s. Acting never seemed to have the cache of a blues performance because she realized she was putting someone else’s emotions forward rather than her own.
“I definitely appreciate the art of acting, but as far as doing music as opposed to doing musicals and things like that, I’d rather represent myself and do my own thing and (speak) my voice and portray the real me.
“Music is more you. You’re not acting out anything. It’s you coming out. It’s your songs. It’s your voice. It’s your passion which is real to me, and I could see myself, and the Hollywood scene – I enjoyed it, but maybe someday I’ll do I again. At the time I think I made the right choices.
“So, I went to Performing Arts High School in Huntington Beach, and I think Walter Trout’s kids go to that school if I’m not mistaken. It’s really, really great commercial recording arts department they have at that performing arts school. On their (her parents) singing the blues, that’s where I first really started to really learn about the history of the blues, and stretch my legs as far as performing with a band, and things like that. I was always like a studio musician, but I hadn’t worked with bands up until age 14. So, that was my first experience with that.”
The late Candye Kane had a strong influence on Casey. A strong woman maneuvering in a man’s world, she was the one who introduced Casey to Irma Thomas’s “You Can Have My Husband” song. Laura Chavez, guitarist on this album was Candye’s guitarist. Candye’s son, Caleb, is Casey’s boyfriend and drummer. The album was recorded at Candye’ ex-husband’s studio.
“I first met Candye when she was making her last album Come Out Swingin’ in 2009 when I was in my teens. I knew her ex-husband Thomas Yearsley who’s the bass player in the Paladins. He owns the recording studio at Ocean Side, and he needed a background singer one day for one of his songs, and he said, ‘Oh, you gotta get – there’s this girl. You should give her a call and see if she can come down.’ So, I came down and I did the background singing with her, and she was so awesome. She offered to take me to lunch and talked to me about the industry and everything, and I met Laura as well, and they were so sweet and it was a really, really, great experience, and I knew her son also from the studio. He was the drummer and a few years later I was looking for a blues band.
“I wanted to do blues, and he was doing a jam and I went to the jam and I kept going to the jam and (ran into) Tom and everything. Me and her son (Caleb Yearsley) ended up falling in love and we’re together now. We’ve been together for three years and so it was really awesome because I was around Candye so much. She taught me so much about being a woman, being a tough woman in a male dominated industry in the male dominated world.”
What does Casey think Candye who died in 2016 would have thought about Me Too?
“Oh, everything that’s been happening in the industry she would have been all over it. I actually just played a woman’s march here in San Diego. I sang on it, me and Laura Chavez and my band, and Laura Chavez was with me there also, and we had these big pictures of Candye also. And people were coming up. ‘Oh, Candye Kane. We know if she were here, she’d be all over this.’ And she was. She would be all over this, totally!
Laura Chavez, too, got an early start in the music industry playing out as early as 14. Casey.
“Yeah, we both talked about it for sure. I think she started out doing a lot of jamming also, and stuff, and Laura is just so incredible. Even playing with her as much as I have it’s been such a blessing, and on my records and everything. Even now when she’s on stage with me, you can’t get used to that kind of talent. My eyes start to tear up when she plays, and we do this Little Willie John song sometimes called “You Hurt Me.” (She sings) My eyes start to blow up and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta start to sing,’ ’cause she’s so great. It’s so amazing.
Laura Chavez is Casey’s secret weapon. “Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, I think she’s one of the best guitar players in the world, male or female. That’s what I love about blues, too, and what I tell people. And people ask me, ‘You’re so young, and what is it about blues?’ And I’m just like, ‘It’s the feeling.’ Any music with that feeling behind it is what I’ve always been drawn to. That’s what people connect to. That’s why we listen to music, but she’s got that down, that feeling.”
Check out Casey’s Facebook page at: https://caseyhensleymusic.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.