Memphis has grown to know Amy LaVere well since the young singer and upright bass player moved here from Nashville nearly a decade ago. With her band Amy & the Tramps, LaVere's take on classic country, rockabilly, and other roots-music forms has lit up rock clubs and private functions for years now. And she took a big step last year with her solo debut recording, This World Is Not My Home , for the local label Archer Records.
For much of the rest of the world, LaVere may be recognizable for minor roles in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (where she played rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson) or Craig Brewer's recent Black Snake Moan . But look for LaVere's profile to increase this summer, when she hits the road for her first extended tour in support of her second solo album, Anchors & Anvils , set for release May 15th, on Archer.
"I've really ever only jumped out for a week at a time," says LaVere. But this summer she'll load up in a van with local drummer Paul Buchignani (a Tramps regular), Nashville guitarist Mark Miller, and California-based violinist Bob Furgo (who plays on Anchors & Anvils ) for a seven-and-a-half-week tour that will take LaVere to both the East and West Coasts.
And the record she'll be touring behind is a strong one, a clear step forward from This World Is Not My Home , which was a more demure, more traditional roots record. Anchors & Anvils , by contrast, sounds more confident, more contemporary.
"The first one was softer and sweeter," LaVere says. "This one is more diverse."
LaVere cut the record with producer Jim Dickinson at his own Zebra Ranch studio. LaVere played on Dickinson's most recent solo album, Jungle Jim and the Tennessee Tiger , and has backed him up in concert. The two seem to share a personal, idiosyncratic vision of what roots music can be.
"I talked to some other people, and it just didn't mesh," LaVere says. "Some people thought my next step was going to be to go a more mainstream country route, and that's just not what I'm about at all. Jim got me."
LaVere's style can be hard to pin down.
"I think it's some kind of classic country, jazz, pop thing I do," LaVere says. "I want to think it's pop and modern. I want to think it is."
According to LaVere, her distinctive style developed from her limitations.
"I'm a limited singer. I don't have a huge range, so I think I developed a unique style because the stories are so important to me and I want people to hear the lyrics," LaVere says. "I think I have an expressive way of delivering a story rather than being an American Idol belter. The vocals become more like jazz vocals because I use phrasing like a jazz singer would. The country part comes from my limitations on the bass. I can do the country stuff so well. That's where my hands fall naturally. I can do the country two-beat rhythms and the walking rhythms. But I like interesting, quirky music. I don't know that I'm accomplishing it yet or not."
It won't take much time with Anchors & Anvils for most listeners to grade LaVere "mission accomplished." The opening, self-penned gem "Killing Him" launches with a hypnotic rhythm track, then adds some splashes of Booker T-worthy organ atmosphere, before LaVere enters with what amounts to a very modern version of the classic murder ballad.
The song was inspired by a story that a friend told LaVere of a local TV news report about a woman who had killed her husband.
"They'd been married for may-be 30 years and she'd murdered him and she was in handcuffs, screaming, 'Killing him didn't make the love go away,'" LaVere recounts. "I thought that was a really powerful story. I heard the story years ago, and it's stuck with me."
Other highlights are "Pointless Drinking," a song written by LaVere's boyfriend and musical collaborator Paul Taylor ("That's my favorite song on the record," LaVere says. "I begged him to let me do it.") and "That Beat," an obscure title from Stax Records matriarch Carla Thomas that was brought to LaVere by former Tramps guitarist and Black Snake Moan music supervisor Scott Bomar.
"The first record seemed so important," LaVere says, "and it was so stressful for me. It was my first solo record, and I had something to prove. This time I knew a little better what I wanted to do, and it felt more carefree. I stretched a lot more. I only feel now that I'm starting to develop a clear picture of what it is that I do."
But, even as LaVere's music career is taking off, she has her sights on building an acting career as well. Much of LaVere's performance as Wanda Jackson in Walk the Line was left on the cutting-room floor, but she followed it up with a speaking part in Black Snake Moan as a friend to the protagonist played by Christina Ricci.
"I had some lines [in Walk the Line ], making idle conversation with Reese Witherspoon backstage. And then I sang the duet with the actor Waylon Payne, who was playing Jerry Lee [Lewis]. But it just ended up with me looking excited sidestage and running out to sing the duet, and then they cut it, which was heartbreaking," LaVere says.
But she was confronted with a different surprise in Black Snake Moan , participating — scantily clad — in a late-night drunken football game that didn't include LaVere's character in the original script.
"I didn't know about the football scene until five minutes before it was shot," LaVere remembers. "I went back to the dressing room and there was some underwear laid out on the table. That's how I found out about it. It was a split decision, because the scene was just supposed to be Christina Ricci. I guess they just decided it would make more sense that her girlfriends would be out there with her. And that really sent me for a loop. I mean, I hadn't shaved my legs! I was freaking out. But I did it for the film. I was a trooper, I have to say. But I definitely lost my mind there for a few minutes about it."