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Crashing the Glass Ceiling

She lites up the blues: Guitarist Deborah Coleman is leading the modern-blues charge with a woman's touch.

At a time when the hurdles of gender and race are supposedly fading in music circles, Deborah Coleman finds herself in an odd position: She's the only black female guitarist/bandleader on a major blues label today.

"I'm looking around, and I don't see any others," Coleman says of her nonexistent peer group. It's especially odd, Coleman notes, considering that, in its early days, the blues featured plenty of female black guitarists alongside the males. "A lot of black women just went to other genres of music. But when I chose to become a blues guitar player, it never occurred to me that I'd be the only one doing it. It's amazing to me. I'm in a very unique position that plays in my favor. At least the marketing folks think so."

Those marketing types have much more to work with than Coleman's ethnicity and gender. In a slight Southern drawl, Coleman admits that "things are going pretty well" -- an understatement considering the trajectory her career has followed in the past four years. Since releasing her first disc on Blind Pig in 1997, Coleman has landed on the cover of virtually every major blues publication and played the nation's best blues festivals. She's also been nominated for four W.C. Handy blues awards and was named as 2001's "female blues guitarist of the year" by the media types who vote in Gibson's annual guitarist poll.

Yet blazing a trail in a male-dominated world is nothing new for Coleman. A native of Portsmouth, Virginia, she raised a daughter by herself with money she earned working as an electrician. She counted only one other female among her wire-pulling allies at the time. Along the way, she played bass in a few rock bands around the Portsmouth/Norfolk area before getting bit by the blues bug, a transition she attributes to seeing Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker live. She learned her guitar craft copping licks from the recordings of those two men, as well as those of Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Albert Collins and a few others.

After gaining some ground on the local music scene, however, Coleman took a break to spend time with her daughter. "I put it on hold for a few years to stay home with her," she says. "Then, about seven or eight years ago, I figured out I wasn't happy and was scratching my head about it. I realized it was time to go back and play some music."

Coleman's musical career took a leap forward when she entered the Charleston Blues Festival's National Amateur Talent Search in 1993, where she wowed the crowd and won. Her prizes included a few hours of studio time, which she used to cut a few tunes for a demo. That recording, coupled with increasing trips outside the Tidewater area, eventually landed her a deal with Blind Pig in 1996. She released her debut, I Can't Lose, in 1997 and followed it up with three more releases, including her new platter, Livin' on Love.

Produced by Jim Gaines (Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan), the disc finds Coleman stretching across eleven tunes that are firmly planted in the blues-rock mold. The songs (some of which Coleman wrote) eschew blazing solos for softer, understated playing. They also feature adult-contemporary radio touches, treading in light funk, Delbert McClinton-esque rootsy rock and updated blues progressions. The title track (a cover of a McClinton tune) is a funky little number with punchy breaks filled by Coleman's spare guitar snarls. "You're With Me" is another groover with a clean feel that calls to mind the smooth blues of Robert Cray. "Light of Day" features lite-rock touches and a nice Stratocaster-toned solo, while Coleman's "Memory Lane" sports a hooky pop melody. "Bending Like a Willow Tree" is a slightly edgier blues-based romp that finds Coleman striking out a bit in the song's instrumental break.

Overall, the disc delivers the sort of light-blue attributes that fans of Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray crave; that is, its blues are filtered through more accessible rock structures. Fans of harder blues may find Coleman's restrained guitar playing and smoky singing less than satisfying: Unlike most of her peers, Coleman trades raw guitar tones and from-the-gut singing for polished licks and smooth crooning.

"When I'm recording, I'm doing it for the song," she says of her approach. "It's not about every lick Deborah Coleman can play, and I can certainly do a lot more than what's on the record. But I'm a songwriter, and I like to give the song what it needs. I could put some six- or seven-minute song on there with some hot solo, but I'd rather save that for live. I'm putting my ideas into it; this is Deborah Coleman at work. I've never seen myself as being in competition. I've run up in situations where somebody wants to cut heads, and I'll go up with 'em. But that's not what I'm interested in."

Coleman's live shows have indeed earned her a reputation as a gunslinger of sorts. But in the studio, she's working with a couple of realities in mind, including the belief that a shrinking blues market isn't thirsting for straight blues discs these days. "I really like the blues, and someday I'd really like to make a cool blues record," Coleman says. "But right now, we've got to sell some records. It's a specialized genre, and there's only so many people that buy blues now."

On the other hand, many players who cut their teeth playing traditional blues find that there comes a time when the twelve-bar forms become a bit boring to play in. That and a desire to develop as a player often lead a blues artist into rockier turf. "You want to grow with it, and musicians are looking for their own style," Coleman acknowledges. "This is a lifelong project for me; hopefully, I'll always be growing." But she's also fully aware that such growth is frequently misunderstood by critics. For the artist who stays knee-deep in the past, she notes, "The first things you hear the critics say is, 'There's nothing new there, blah blah blah.'" On the other hand, the blues acts that veer from tradition get slagged for cashing in. "Sometimes we can't win for losing," Coleman says.

"When John Lee Hooker started playing blues," she adds, "he was doing a different thing, and some of the hardcore blues aficionados said, 'That ain't blues.' To me, it's all got to change but still be blues. I'm looking to add something to it. And I don't want to change the definition of the blues, but I certainly want to attract more listeners and give them what Deborah Coleman's idea of the blues is. When I hear the blues aficionados say, 'That's not down-home blues,' I don't pay it any attention. I can do down-home blues, and I do in my shows. But on the records, I prefer to do what I want to do."

But while Coleman's willing to stretch her sound beyond the old stuff, she's also careful to keep her lyrics rooted in the past. Like those of her predecessors and current peers, Coleman's tunes feature some of the recurring lyrical motifs familiar to all blues fans. If it sounds like cliche to some, so be it. "I have no problem with a cliche, as long as it's a good one," Coleman says with a laugh. Besides, one listener's tired line is another's time-tested friend. And for younger audiences, these chestnuts are fresh material. "For younger people, if a cliche is ten or twenty years old, they've never heard it before."

Building that younger blues audience is important to Coleman. These days, she's finding that her unique position in her field is inspiring others to join the ranks. At blues festivals, she says, "I see a lot of younger women and girls actually looking up to me and what I'm doing. It's cool. I've heard that there's a little black girl down in the Delta in Mississippi who's playing electric guitar, and she's supposed to be pretty good. I was at the Handy Awards, and someone told me about her. He said they asked her who her influences were, and she said, 'I want to play like Deborah Coleman.' I thought that was very cool."


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