The big-boned gal with strawberry-blonde hair arrived by bike at my moving-from-Seattle-to-the-sunny-South sale. Dressed like a trailer-trash gypsy--part exotic, part quixotic and just a touch tacky--she perused the plants, books, CDs and discarded clothing (most of which would have fit her style perfectly), finally settling on a piece of my mother's old furniture. But how was the disheveled diva to get the overstuffed, gold brocade chair home? Well, that's what publicists are for, so her public relations guru, Cyndi Payne, loaded the piece into her car, and Del Rey pedaled away.
Yes, I have this history with the California-bred but cosmic-minded, self-described "guitar goddess" Del Rey, and it's a good thing because her reputation has spread like gossip in an old folks' home over five albums and 10 or so years. Because she's middle-aged and doesn't dress for anyone's success but her own, Rey is usually placed in the blues bag along with Rory Block, the old Bonnie Raitt and the new Susan Tedeschi, but it's a case of mislabeling. There is very little rock 'n' roll in Rey. She is classically trained, has a deep affinity for old-time music, knows how to swing and took a lot of inspiration from Mississippi blues man Sam Chatmon, whom she befriended when she was a teen. Rey is also an awesome guitarist, has a pleasant singing voice and is an all-around entertainer who shares stories of life, love and music between her tunes.
The reason for Rey's tour of the Southeast, other than escaping the depressing Seattle winter weather, is a new CD, X-Rey Guitar. It's a delightful set, with tunes ranging from originals to covers of blues and jazz pianist Lovie Austin's dance tune, "Charleston Mad," jump-blues band leader Louis Jordan's "Chartreuse" and blues-pianist Roosevelt Sykes' "This is a New World." What makes it distinguishable from any other neo-folk outing is Rey's strong connection with roots music. She is a self-made scholar who has researched artists like Memphis Minnie for articles she contributes to Acoustic Guitar magazine. Rey has also devised a multimedia show, Women with Guitar: Forgotten American Guitarists 1900-1950, which she has taken around the globe. It is often accompanied by Rey lecturing on the performers and demonstrating their styles on her own guitar.
Rey plays a metal-resonator guitar, but unlike Taj Mahal's aggressive gut-bucket style on a National steel, her picking is pristine and feminine, which works with her singing for a seamless whole. On the country blues of "This is a New World," her playing stays with the rhythm while her vocals waft around it, making for sort of a ladies-music-appreciation-society sound. On the rowdier Memphis Minnie instrumental "Let's Go to Town," Rey bends notes with the flair usually taken on by her vocals without ever losing her sassy sense of ragtime swing. And the jump-blues "Chartreuse," an incredibly modern tune about a woman expressing herself by dyeing her hair green, Rey's playing has a jazz Charlie-Christian feel while she uses her voice to politely shout.
Though Rey usually tours alone because of the prohibitive cost of touring with a band, and her label, the indie Hobemian Records, is not able to add much financial support, X-Rey Guitar features some of Seattle's finest players, whose reputations have spread far beyond the Northwest. Jazz saxophonist Hans Teuber's mellow tone spiffs up the original instrumental "Space Needle" (named for Seattle's best-known landmark) and a melodious rendition of Georgia Tom's (later known as gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey) "Only the Blues." Rey's rhumbaesque "Let Me Sleep" is punctuated by the washboard of Orville Johnson, a noted guitarist in his own right. And Bay Area violinist Suzy Thompson helps Rey get the string-band thing going on "This is a New World."
While Rey's new release is polished and complete, her career has not always been so sublime. Just a decade ago, around the time she landed in the Northwest, she sounded fresh off the festival jam-in-the-parking-lot circuit. Her singing had little control and her playing, while accomplished, said more about her influences than herself. But there isn't much to do on those damp, dark fall, winter and spring nights in Seattle, and Rey used the downtime to look inside herself. She emerged as Del Rey, a songwriter who can give a history lesson, as she does on "Memphis Minnie," and have the audience loving it so much that they are tapping their feet to her proselytizing. She can take a tour of Australia and come up with the nouveau '20s-style hokum that is "A Bungalow in Bangalow" as well as the melodious instrumental "Balmain to Newtown." Rey can also out-camp Bette Midler with Dr. Seuss' drag-show anthem "Dress Me," from the '50s musical The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. It all fits together like one of Rey's outfits, pulled together from vintage, hippie and flashy pieces of clothing to make a whole woman. And with X-Rey Guitar she reflects the distinctive traditions of the women she praises in song and lectures, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe's secular spirituality to Mary Kay's Vegas pop and Mother Maybelle Carter's mountain music.