“Y’all are sounding a little bit rowdy tonight,” says Roxie Watson banjo player Sonia Tetlow with a broad grin. “I love it! Have y’all been drinking?” The raucous roar she receives in response from the Variety Playhouse audience assures her that they have, and will continue to do so.
The crowd is here to celebrate the release of the Decatur-based band’s third album, Songs From Hell’s Hollow. The audience is a hodgepodge of ages, races and sexual orientations (the band’s five members are all openly gay), and they’ve come from as far away as Maine and Seattle. There are frequent shout-outs to moms, friends, lovers and collaborators in the audience, and enough whooping and hollering in response to give it the feel of a slightly inebriated tent revival.
More than anything, the evening seems like a good old-fashioned back porch jam with 500+ friends. And, as the band marries their unique mixture of bluegrass, classic country and rockabilly with good-natured, folksy storytelling, you begin to get a sense that this organically grown community of ardent fans will only continue to swell.
From Backyard to the Stage
Roxie Watson originally began as a collaboration between Lenny Lasater and Beth “Beewee” Wheeler. The duo had known each other ever since Lasater’s college days in Nashville, when she became friends with Wheeler’s older sister. But it wasn’t until the two musicians serendipitously ended up reuniting in Atlanta that the seeds of their musical partnership were planted.
“We started hanging out and playing music,” Lasater recalls during an interview before a Roxie Watson show in New Orleans, “and decided that we both really loved bluegrass. Dolly Parton had come out with The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow, and Del McCoury had just released It’s Just The Night. She put a bass in my hands and she picked up a mandolin, and we started playing a little bit of alt-country, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and that kind of stuff.”
The duo gradually began to put together a set list, and soon landed their first paying gig in Birmingham. They held a small backyard party for friends, hoping to get some feedback on their act. One of the people in attendance was Linda Bolley, who sat in on guitar and lent her soprano harmonies to complement Lasater’s low alto. And, just like that, the duo became a trio.
Eventually Wheeler, a master carpenter, built a stage on the back of her Ford F150, complete with a portable generator and lights. The band began playing in restaurant parking lots and friends’ yards, and it was through one of those yard parties that Tetlow (who was then bassist for New Orleans-based rock band Cowboy Mouth) later came into the fold. Her partner, Connie, kept leaving her voicemail messages from the party, holding up the phone so Tetlow could hear Roxie Watson’s sound.
“Our friend DeDe Vogt had an instrument shop up in Clarksville,” Tetlow recalls. “I called her from the road and asked if she had any banjos. She said yes, and I asked her to pick me up a good one that didn’t cost too much. I got the banjo and a little instructional book and learned a song. Then I called [the Roxie girls] and said, ‘Can I come play in the kitchen, too?’ I’ve stuck with the banjo ever since!”
With the addition of Becky Shaw—a longtime friend of the band who capably switches from acoustic guitar and lap steel to harmonica and accordion—the group eventually became a quintet. But to hear the ladies talk about it today, the fact that they gradually developed into an act with a burgeoning career almost seems like the result of fortuitous circumstance rather than any sort of planning on their part.
“The crazy thing about this band,” Tetlow continues, “is that it really didn’t start out trying to be a band. It really was just us sitting around somebody’s house, playing songs. We’re a bunch of old friends: Lenny and Bee go way back; Becky, Linda and I used to play in a Go-Go’s cover band when I first moved to Atlanta back in the ‘90s; Beewee and me were label mates. The crazy thing about playing the Variety Playhouse is that it didn’t feel any different than playing on the back of the truck—except that there were a lot more people there, and it sure was fun!”
Roxie Watson’s organic approach to developing their music career stands out as something of an anachronistic anomaly in an era where YouTube videos and reality shows turn relative newcomers into overnight sensations. But it’s hardly the only aspect of the band that stands out as unconventional.
The first thing you notice is the fact that they’re an all-female band playing bluegrass, a musical form historically dominated by the male of the species. There have been plenty of female solo artists, but men playing lead instruments usually accompany them. In terms of prominent all-female bluegrass bands, there’s Uncle Earl and … um….
Then there’s the fact that the women in Roxie Watson all share singing and songwriting duties. From the plucky rockabilly of Shaw’s “Pick Up My Boots” and the country-blues of Tetlow’s “Double Wide” to the high lonesome mournfulness of Bolley’s “Washed Away” and the classic balladry of Lasater’s “Shine A Light,” the Songs From Hell’s Hollow boast an eclectic, accessible sound. And when Wheeler takes lead on “Sunday Beer” live at the Variety, the audience goes nuts.
But the elephant in the room I can’t help but address during our interview is the fact that Roxie Watson is composed of out-and-proud lesbians operating in a sphere not historically known for being open to alternative lifestyles. If an all-female bluegrass band can be considered a rarity, an all-lesbian bluegrass band is unheard of. So I ask them if there are any challenges involved in essentially being the Jason Collins of the country/bluegrass scene.
“There are expectations of the band,” Shaw responds. “We run into this all the time—breaking stereotypes without even realizing we’re doing it. I think it’s because we are a group of friends first, and we’ve had that conversation many times together. We didn’t try to classify ourselves. All I know is that we break people’s expectations frequently.”
“It’s hard to answer that question,” Tetlow continues. “It’s a strange thing, because we haven’t ever had an official review of our CDs. I’ve been in bands that were a lot less successful that have had a lot more reviews. Sometimes you wonder why things are the way they are, but we make a conscious effort to focus on all of the positive things. Despite the lack of press, there’s this amazing grassroots word-of-mouth support. I don’t know how people know who we are sometimes, but people seem to find out about us.”
“The music is the thing that hooks people,” Lasater adds. “Whether you’re a lesbian, a woman, Southern, or whatever, we’re writing about stuff that everyone can identify with.”
‘An Emotionally Charged Situation’
Songs From Hell’s Hollow marks a considerable creative step forward, offering up the most accessible hooks and exquisite harmonies of their careers. The album was named in honor of the band’s friends, Sarah and Linda, who opened up their north Georgia home on Hell’s Hollow Lane to Roxie Watson on numerous occasions. Sadly, Linda passed away during preparations for the album yet despite the sense of loss, the band members were drawn back to the familiar locale.
“We wanted to go away and work on the arrangements in one place,” says Tetlow of the songwriting process. “[Sarah’s house has] a huge screened-in porch that overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is just beautiful. We took ourselves out of the distractions of life so we could make music together and be in the moment. I think it shows. There’s a relaxed feeling of cohesiveness and connection to this record.”
“It was an emotionally charged situation,” Shaw says. “The song arranging weekend was the first or second time we went up there since Linda died. She and Sarah were huge Roxie Watson supporters, and we had spent a lot of time on that porch. It was a bittersweet time that added another element to this record.”
“It was very healing,” Lasater adds, “both for us and for Sarah. It was very emotional, and I think that translated. The stuff we did on this record was really from the heart.”
The results are undeniably emotionally resonant. But it’s anyone’s guess whether Songs From Hell’s Hollow will give Roxie Watson the sort of promotional push that would allow the quintet to quit their day jobs. After opening for Del McCoury and touring with the Indigo Girls, the band certainly seems poised for bigger and better things. Yet, in keeping with their organic ethos, the ladies seem to be in no hurry to reach the next level, whatever that is.
“So many of the opportunities that we’ve had have fallen into our lap,” Lasater admits. “We’re just letting it happen, and focusing on things we can control. Just doing our job—making good music, staying connected to each other, and being as nice as we can be when we’re all crammed in one vehicle for many hours—has given us the opportunity to do so many things. It has translated into packing out the Variety Playhouse, opening for the Indigo Girls, and playing at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. I think we’re going in the right direction, and not pushing. What’s supposed to happen will happen as it is supposed to.”