Act of "Courage"

Blackley band makes raw, roots rock

"I've got nothing against major labels, I just never fit their peg holes," says Atlanta's swamp-rock queen, Michelle Malone, on why she started her own label, SBS (Strange Bird Songs) Records. What makes Malone's music so different is that it's real. It's Southern, rootsy and organic. It's not organic in an acoustic type of way, it's in the way that an organic orange may not look as big, pretty, or juicy as its chemically altered counterpart, but when you bite into it, it's the sweetest thing you ever put between your lips.

Malone wanted to release other bands on her label, but had not been able to find any that fit what she was looking for. Then she met the Laura Blackley Band, which opened for her in its hometown of Ashville, N.C. "I was taken by Laura's songwriting and her organic, retro-country/ blues roots. I thought she told great stories," remembers Malone.

Laura Blackley's music is bluesy, gritty, swampy and downright sexy. And if that don't work for you, she'll pull up her boots and get country on your ass. In short, she is a soul sister for Malone.

It turned into a mutual admiration society, and when the Blackley Band was looking for a producer for its second CD, the answer was obvious. "My bass player [Tony Harp] said, 'I heard Michelle's new record on her website and whoever produced it, you've gotta get a hold of them,'" says Blackley. "I wanted to do an old-school, skanky, swampy, sexy, rock-and-roll record 'cause that's what's in my blood. I asked Michelle who did her record and she said, 'Well, hell, I produced it.' So I said, 'Why don't you produce ours?'"

Malone, feeling good after having just produced her own Stompin' Ground, jumped at the chance to produce Blackley. "I had a clear vision of where I wanted to take them musically," says Malone. "We got in the studio and everything came together beautifully. They worked their asses off, listened to suggestions, and stayed open-minded, which I think is really the key. You gotta let the music lead the way and tell you where it wants to go."

The music led to Liquid Courage, a homegrown, ragged gem of a CD that should be up there with Deliverance as required studying for anyone who wants to learn about the real South. There are ghost stories ("Helen's Bridge"), plights for small farmers ("Deep River"), strong women you don't want to mess with ("Never Been Wrong," "When the Money") and sweaty lust songs ("Sweeten Your Stew"). She sympathizes with the female half of the outlaw duo Bonnie and Clyde on "Bonnie Parker's Lament." And it all culminates with "Lay Your Hands on Me," a larger than life bluesy love song that comes complete with a beefy guitar solo by Mars Fariss and a big gospel ending. Blackley says she was going for that "old country church" sound. She succeeds enough that if her music career never takes off, she could make a killing leading revivals.

For her part, Malone is as proud and nervous about the CD as a parent watching her child go off to college. "I grew quite attached to their songs and the record. I also had a bit of emotional involvement, it being the first CD for another band that I produced. I really wasn't ready to let it go."

Blackley is thrilled to get her CD out there and have the tireless support of Malone. She isn't worried about the group being pigeonholed because its producer is a lesbian. "We're kind of the pioneers for Michelle's label," says Blackley. "She's got an old-school, roots-rock upbringing. That's what comes through to me in her music, and I think that would be the kind of artist she would sign. She don't care who you sleep with. She just wants you to rock."