Amy LaVere Among the Wander(ing) Women Here to Stay

Even though she's lived and worked in Memphis since 1999, singer-songwriter-actress Amy LaVere isn't tied down to one place or, for that matter, one career.

No wonder she came up with the name for the fascinating fivesome called the Wandering.

The ambitious side project invented by another overachiever, Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, includes LaVere and three other accomplished female artists who bring something different to the table besides their willingness to have a good time.

Near the end of April, while wrapping up her part in the feature-length film Only Child with esteemed costar Grace Zabriskie (Big Love, Twin Peaks), LaVere was obviously ready for a change of pace. Even if the experience of "an intimate film with a decent budget and a brilliant script" was her proudest moment as an actor.

"At this point, after being on the same film set for a month, I'm ready to get in a van and go somewhere," she said over the phone as the Wandering neared a three-day rehearsal period before beginning a tour May 10 that will last through most of the month.

The diverse but select group that also includes Shannon McNally, Valerie June and Sharde Thomas was first brought together for Dickinson's mad-about-you experiment over two days in April 2011. While their musical backgrounds and influences may differ, they all share open minds and Deep South common ground. Or, as LaVere put it, "We're part of the incestuous music scene of Memphis."

The fact that they could create such an impressive first recording in a matter of days made it even more worthwhile. Go On Now, You Can't Say Here is a nifty collection of traditional classics, obscure tunes and faithful interpretations of Southern songwriting masters with near-mythical credentials (Robert Johnson, Kris Kristofferson et al.).

An authentic blend of blues, gospel and old-school folk, it will be released May 8 on the North Mississippi Allstars label Songs of the South, along with Hambone's Meditation, Dickinson's acoustic instrumental guitar record. That same day another Dickinson project, Old Times There..., the second record from South Memphis String Band that also features Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus, completes the trifecta.

"If Luther (at left) calls you with a wild idea, you show up, you know?" said LaVere, a former Sun Studio employee who plays standup bass and began her solo career under the guidance of acclaimed producer/musician Jim Dickinson, the late legend whose sons Luther and Cody co-founded the North Mississippi Allstars.

As if touring and making three solo albums weren't enough, LaVere acted in Craig Brewer-directed projects such as Black Snake Moan and the unappreciated $5 Cover, a fact-meets-fiction, thought-provoking series about Memphis musicians that appeared briefly on MTV in 2009 before the idiocracy of the Jersey Shore struck.

When LaVere, McNally (guitar), June (banjo) and Thomas (fife and drums) were initially invited to the Dickinson family's Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, they had to arrive with more than their instruments.

"We were all kind of on assignment to bring a batch of tunes to the table," LaVere said, likening the idea to throwing "a bunch of stuff at the wall, really."

That two-day recording session yielded about 16 songs and everyone except Thomas, who is in college, came back for one more session about six months ago to produce another batch. The musicians chose their favorites and the lead vocal duties were split up pretty evenly among the four women. Although he doesn't sing, Dickinson's trademark guitars and other string instruments were his sounding board.

"We were all pretty surprised that this was gonna become a record and be released and actually be something that we would tour," LaVere said. "Maybe Luther had the foresight, the idea and thought maybe it could go somewhere. But I'm not sure it was actually that planned out. ... I think Luther was trying to pull us girls together, because he knows us all."

Members of the Wandering, from left, Luther Dickinson,
Sharde Thomas, Amy LaVere, Shannon McNally, Valerie June.

All four have their shining moments among the 12 songs that made the album's final cut. McNally, who transitioned from Long Island to New Orleans, then Holly Springs, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit, displays a smooth-as-molasses voice on "Love, Life and Money" and "Lovin' Him Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again," then does a nice yodeling turn on Sid Selvidge's "The Outlaw."

June, an eastern Tennessee native now living in New York, has worked with hip-hop artist John Forte, the Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, but relishes making "organic moonshine roots music."

Her fiery renditions of "Old Joe Clark" and "You Are My Sunshine" should be show-stoppers on the Wandering's set list.

"Sittin' on Top of the World" is a pleasant diversion in the hands of Thomas, who became leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band at age 13 in north Mississippi after her grandfather Otha Turner died in 2003. Her playful fife and soulful sound give the blues staple an uplifting twist. (Turner and Thomas were featured in "Feel Like Going Home," the first episode in Martin Scorsese's seven-part series The Blues.)

LaVere (right) is also in a lighthearted mood on the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman," even recruiting her semi-regular violinist, Krista Wroten, to perform a kazoo solo. And while her youthful voice in a delicate reworking of Ray Charles' "Sentimental Blues" will indeed melt hearts, it's her haunting take on "The Blues Jumped a Rabbit" that will transfix listeners, then transport them back to another time.

Hardcore folk fans certainly are aware of Karen Dalton, who turned Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Rabbit Foot Blues" into a mesmerizing standard, but LaVere and her interviewer weren't.
"Wow, huh. She was something else," LaVere said when asked about coming across the Greenwich Village enigma with the world-weary delivery.
Dalton is experiencing a career resurgence through Delmore Recordings and YouTube videos -- almost 20 years after her death at age 55. "Did it send you down the YouTube vortex as well?" LaVere asked, laughing.

Although LaVere admittedly isn't a diligent student of roots history, she enjoys covering other artists even if it requires some extra research. A rebellious punker in her teens who sang and played drums in a Detroit band called Last Minute, her eclectic, unorthodox approach extended her musical sense and sensibilities.

LaVere's set list might include everything from Captain Beefheart's "Candle Mambo" (on last year's Stranger Me to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" -- "That's seemingly sacrilegious," LaVere said, "but I definitely made it my own."

Along with some original material, the Simone cover is set to appear on an EP with "Moonage Daydream," though, feeling unsatisfied, LaVere has contemplated recutting the David Bowie tune. She hopes to deliver that record before hitting the road this June with two of her own bandmates, guitarist David Cousar and drummer Shawn Zorn.

Now, though, she's ready to spend time in the van with June, her $5 Cover costar whom she has known since 1999, and her new girlfriends.

"We're not taking ourselves too seriously," she said.

Asked if she encountered any other surprises during the Wandering's brief existence, the seemingly shy LaVere said, "Just the group of women that we are, none of us are necessarily girly girls. ... I guess, probably all of us had a little bit of apprehension about how women would ... how everybody would behave.

"But it was so warm and fun and we just laughed our asses off."

Still attending school, Thomas will miss the second half of this tour, with Wallace Lester, McNally's drummer/husband who filled in admirably for three songs on the album, taking over.

If all goes well this month, the original members have tentative plans to hit the road again in November. Just getting their busy bodies together in the same place at the same time again will be a major accomplishment, LaVere figures, citing their brief photo shoot as an example and using that as inspiration to name the group.

"It took us six months to find one date that we could all get together to take that picture," she said of their group shot. "So you think about it. In one year, really, all of us found four days in a year that our schedules would coincide in Memphis."

And though she's still crazy about the Tennessee town known for Beale Street and Graceland, LaVere's nomadic spirit always forces her to keep at least one wandering eye open. For someone who attended 13 different schools growing up and still argues with her mother about the number of places they lived, it's a natural progression.

"Well, I'm not done with this part of my life, really," LaVere said, adding that she's "dead serious" about a film career that doesn't require a move to Hollywood and allows her to keep making music.

Acting, she said, "challenges your vanity, but it's 'playing' at the same time, so it's fun and it's hard. I haven't been doing it my whole life, so I still am constantly working to find how to go into the character and let all the superficial things around you sort of fade away so you can really go into this play space, your little pretend, make-believe land. ... But at the same time, I'm not out there exposing my soul like I do with music so much."

Spoken like a truly magic wanderer.

• Luther Dickinson publicity photo by Brad Hodge.
• Amy LaVere publicity photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.

For a limited time, get a free download of the Wandering's "Lovin' Him Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again."