What if the proverbial girl next girl traded in her loose ponytail and cut-off jeans for an upright bass and a trick bag of sultry vocals? She’d probably seem a lot like Memphian Amy LaVere, who, at 32, looks like a seventeen-year old Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, yet sings like the prodigal offspring of Bob Wills and Lotte Lenya.
Take the opening track on LaVere’s sophomore CD, Anchors & Anvils. “He didn’t come home ‘til the light of the day/She’d have to kill him to get him to stay,” she muses in a self-penned campfire rave-up of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, sadly concluding, “Killing him didn’t make the love go away.”
Oh well – on Anchors & Anvils’ next track, “Tennessee Valentine,” LaVere has a new suitor to conquest, as she bends the melody like a mythological siren, luring her target to an easy death.
Offstage, her seductive side takes a back seat, leaving LaVere more humble and down-to-earth than her bass-toting, bad girl persona might reveal. A mere minute of conversation, and it’s clear that the flurry of attentive males who join her on the album – including Memphis musicians like iconic producer Jim Dickinson, drummer Paul Taylor, and violinist Tommy Burroughs, and Nashville-based steel guitar wunderkind Chris Scruggs, who dubbed her “an Annie Oakley of the bass” – are fully tuned into her down-to-earth nature and bona fide musical sensibilities.
“It’s been a little dream of mine since I moved to Memphis to meet Jim, let alone have him produce my record,” says LaVere, also an accomplished actress who portrayed Wanda Jackson in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, and more recently, played Christina Ricci’s partying gal pal in Black Snake Moan.
“When I got the budget, Jim was the obvious way to go,” LaVere explains. “I handpicked the material, and I knew the cast of characters I wanted to be involved with. Jim was more supportive, as opposed to providing so much input on the front end.”
Now that Anchors & Anvils is garnering rave reviews, the Louisiana-born LaVere, who settled in Memphis eight years ago, is hammering the highways to promote the new record. “We’re shooting for 35 dates in six-and-a-half weeks,” she says of the tour, which includes stops in New York, California, and Calgary, Canada.
“I got to open up for Amos Lee at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta recently,” she says. “It was a 1500-seat theater, a sold-out concert, and I never had a better show.”
“A few days ago, we played the Two-Stick in Oxford, Mississippi,” she continues. “At first, I was concerned that all the [Ole Miss] students had gone home, but the 25 or 30 people who were there were really appreciative, and I sold thirteen CDs. You know, any club that’s got great sushi and cold Pabst Blue Ribbon is close to my heart!”
A perennial optimist, LaVere notes that, “making a good living playing music is a lifelong commitment.” Invoking country road hog Willie Nelson, she declares, a little starry-eyed, “I really admire the way he’s set up his lifestyle.”
Letting out a heady sigh, followed by a captivatingly earthy giggle, LaVere pauses, then proclaims wholeheartedly, “This is really the dream for me.”