Sandy Carroll

You have to nurture the blues. Play it for years - even decades - and spend a lot of time soaking up the sounds and wisdom of the master craftsmen.

Sandy Carroll has been putting in her time since the early '80s, playing clubs in the south and getting intimate with the Beale street scene. Years in the works, her album Just As I Am was released in October, 2011. Featuring some of the best musicians Memphis has to offer - Evan Leake on guitar, Steve Potts on drums, Dave Smith on bass, and Rick Steff on keyboards. The album was produced by Sandy's husband Jim Gaines, whose credits include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana and Luther Allison. Sandy wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album, covering a variety of styles with a unifying theme: empowerment.

Sandy took the time to tell us about making the album, being a Blueswoman, and getting along with her husband in the studio.
Maggie Grimason (Songfacts): What does it mean to be a blues songstress these days, when the blues is less prevalent in mainstream music?

Sandy: Being a "blueswoman" is hard - always has been. I am not on the scene gigging every single day, sometimes 2-3 shows a day, at this point in my life; but I have surely done it and I did it for many, many years. The more well-known ladies are doing some nice festivals and hopefully getting the great recognition they deserve. I don't know why the blues is less prevalent - I think sometimes people have a misconception of the blues and don't realize that there is a jubilance and freedom found in this genre of music. So much of the mainstream is blues based, although it is getting harder to recognize the further you get from rock and roll.

Songfacts: Your album Just As I Am came out quite recently. What did you do to celebrate?

Sandy Carroll: We did a special songwriters show with just the guitar and bass at a place near where we live... and toasted the event with some nice red wine while breathing a sigh of relief that our "baby" has now stepped out into the world. We played all the songs in the order they appear on the CD and talked about writing and recording them!

Songfacts: What was it like to be featured in the (forthcoming) documentary Ladies of Beale? Did you feel any pressure as a representative of women in the blues scene?

Sandy: This is going to be a cool documentary and should be out next year. I am very humbled to be included but I don't feel any pressure because we all (past, present and future) do our own kind of blues.

Songfacts: On that topic, how does the blues - both historically and personally - seem to resonate uniquely with women?

Sandy: Great question! First of all, just being a female musician is a whole unique path that will lead you down the highway with options that are sometimes hard to make: do you have children, a house, roots, money, or do you marry your music? Most of the women I know in music that have had a long career make these choices. Historically, women of blues have sung about no-good men and bad times and that theme is still prevalent on the scene; but women have a voice today that they didn't have in the era of Billie Holiday or Memphis Minnie - or even Janis Joplin. For instance, in "Help Mother Nature," the theme is anxiety over the bombardment of new stuff to make us all young forever! Women in blues are sassy and tell it like it is - sometimes with a false bravado, but always with the yearning to share a mutual journey.

Songfacts: "Just as I Am" is such a joy to listen to. It's fun and engaging, yet it took several years to record. How did you change as a musician during the creation of this album?

Sandy: I change all the time! We ended up with 14 songs by the time we finished writing and re-writing. Some of them came fairly quickly but others went through several "lives." I hope that I get better and wiser with each recording, each song that I finish. This started out as a CD that was a little closer to the last CD, Delta Techno, where we used traditional blues instrumentation and song structure with loops and drum patterns. We transitioned to the more organic sound as the ideas turned into demos and the demos into tracks.

Songfacts: You worked with your husband (and producer) Jim Gaines on this album. Do you collaborate often? What are some of the trials and joys of working with someone so very close to you?

Sandy: Jim and I actually don't work together that often. I am one of many, many artists that he produces. I write everyday and I perform so we really have separate jobs most of the time. We collaborate when we record together and sometimes when we write. Jim refuses to call himself a writer, but he has lots of great ideas and contributes creatively on every level when we record. The trials are very few but we do butt heads occasionally. Our rule is this: when in the studio, he is the producer and his word goes; however, as a writer I am pretty stubborn and insistent and he will listen to me. My work is done 75% - 80% outside the studio. The joy of making something work, of making a finished track and completing a project together is just a great gift!

Songfacts: There's a vast range of influences on this album, from gospel to country to good old rock and roll. where did these come from? Were there any musicians particularly influential in creating this eclectic sound?
Sandy: I grew up in a very small town and I was exposed to all kinds of music from church, Memphis radio, Grand Old Opry, and classical. My main influence, I suppose came from working on Beale St. for so many years and being lucky enough to have some of the Masters show me stuff on the piano while listening to stories and soaking in the spirit from those old cobblestones. However, as a writer, I like the freedom of letting the song take me where it goes. I always like to say that the nugget of the song comes from up above and the crafting from the skills we learn. I have a bluesy voice so a lot of melodies naturally bend toward that, my piano skills are stride left hand and boogie so my rhythms tend to bend toward a groove set in Mississippi mud. I am a real "groove" gal and to me that is the key to my sound. Grooves can rock, jelly-roll like New Orleans, stomp like the gospel, simmer with funk and sway like the country breeze where we now live.

Songfacts: "Waiting for the Storm" is bluesy in the truest sense, yet manages to be entirely original at the same time - what is the story behind the writing and recording of this tune? And, who's playing that mean guitar?

Sandy: First of all, that mean guitar is from Evan Leake. He is a tremendous player from Memphis who is also in my live band and contributed so much to this record. I have been playing with Evan for many years and actually wrote this lead to showcase his talent. We live in the south and every spring we have tornado season. When one is sighted, the TV people will say "the tornado will hit Main St. and Main Avenue at 3:15 pm." They have it down to the second! A couple of springs ago, my sister called and said that the tornado was going to hit us at a certain time. We sat and waited - I mean what else can you do? You wait for the thing, doggone it – it's coming! So, that is the "nugget" for the song. The verses translated to a situation I have been in and one that I saw two very close friends going through at the time - an uneasy and volatile relationship that could erupt at any time with fighting over the same old stuff and you never know when it is going to happen. There was an emotionally dangerous and a supercharged energy that was palatable. On a larger scale, I call it my general paranoia song!

Songfacts: You spent some time honing your skills on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. What is so powerful about this city to you in terms of your craft and personally? Is Beale Street still the epicenter of the blues?

Sandy: Memphis is powerful. These days it may be more mythical than realistic, but powerful. Elvis, Stax, Sun - all innovative, life changing, world boogie powerful.

Songfacts: When you first began playing piano and singing did you see yourself pursuing the blues?

Sandy: I started at 5. At that age the blues consisted of having to practice while my friends were out playing basketball and softball! I think the blues just came naturally, I'm not sure that I ever pursued playing the blues. I am a heavy left-handed piano player and the stride and boogie seem to be where my hands want to land! I actually went to college on a piano scholarship, but I never ever played exactly like the written score. I was always getting in trouble!! After I started playing on Beale I had lots of the Masters come by and show me new riffs. And I was always so drawn to the blues that I listened to pretty much nothing else for years.

Songfacts: With so many themes present on this album - femininity, spirituality, perseverance, love - it can be difficult to pull out one unifying idea. What is the overarching theme or feeling that you'd like listeners to walk away with?

Sandy: My biggest wish is that you feel empowered by this record. To know that one person on this journey can find love, hope, and faith. That one person can find the right path and laugh about all the wrong ones later. That one person can understand a young love, get over it and never give up until the right one comes along. That age is what it is – laugh about it, make your choices, vent, stomp, dance – do it all. Own It!! Be a goddess!!! That we can recognize that storms are coming and get out or be ready... all kinds of storms. Bring it on!! So, that's a long answer but the short one is empowerment.
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Comments: 1

  • Evan Leake from Memphis, Tn.Sandy Carroll has been an inspiration as a song writer and friend. I have learned so much from her and her husband Jim. I love both of them as we have been friends now for many years.
    Thanks for the kind words (mean guitar) and I look forward to promoting this CD with Sandy. Hope to meet new folks that appreciate the Memphis sound that dwells in Sandy's music.
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