Diane Durrett and producer Ike Stubblefield wed the old with the new on her best album yet

Bernard Purdie used to be known for bringing a sign to studio sessions and placing it by his drum kit: “IF YOU WANT HITS, CALL PURDIE.” And they all called on him, everyone from James Brown to Aretha Franklin to Steely Dan.

So imagine Diane Durrett’s shock when Purdie walked into the studio to play drums on her fourth album, Blame It On My DNA. “He’s an icon in the soul world,” she says. “I mean, he played with Aretha and she’s one of my heroes.”

Durrett made her first mark in Atlanta a decade ago when she joined Gregg Allman onstage and proceeded to burn down the house on a duet of “Stormy Monday.” Durrett released two self-produced CDs, then moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career. Her stay in Nashville, where Durrett worked as a limo driver, became fodder for a book she published in December, Driving Music City.

Durrett moved back to her hometown of Atlanta five years ago, released a third CD and re-established herself as a performer.

The new album represents a giant leap forward for Durrett. She worked with an outside producer for the first time. Ike Stubblefield, a staff producer at Tree Sound and a linchpin of the Atlanta music scene, knew her from when she’d sat in with his band. When she brought him a song that she thought could anchor a Christmas album, he decided he wanted to work with her on a new CD of original material. “She had a unique voice, great stage presence and I knew she needed to be on a bigger stage,” he says. “That’s why I brought in Bernard and a lot of other musical heavyweights. I wanted to keep her Southern-rock influence, but also get more into a little funk and soul. And make music that was more radio friendly.”

The heart of the album is Durrett’s smoldering voice, which has developed into one of the most distinctive instruments in the Southeast. She thinks she has the album she’s always wanted to record. “It turned out to be a blend of singer/songwriter and old-school R&B,” she says. “It’s a really nice combination.”

Purdie isn’t the only all-star drummer on the album. There’s also Yonrico Scott of the Derek Trucks Band and Jeff Sipe from the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Not to mention guitarist Markum Perry of Tyler Perry fame, Caroline “Godmother of the Decatur folk scene” Aiken and jazz guitarist Grant Green Jr. Many of them will join her at the Five Spot CD release show Friday night.

“It was so much fun to have all those musicians play on the album,” Durrett says. “And when Bernard came in to cut his tracks, I just kept grinning, shaking my head and grinning.”

Durrett self-produced her first three albums, and it was a major change of pace to turn over the reins to an outside producer. But Stubblefield has performed with a long A-list of singers and guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Derek Trucks. “It was an adjustment in the beginning because I’m used to being the decision-maker,” she says. “This is an age where you have Pro Tools and can manipulate everything in the studio. But Ike’s attitude is, don’t be afraid to take the raw feel and keep the freshness in it. The record is really a blend of technology and knowing when to stop.”

Her focus these days isn’t only on songwriting; she’s also now a published author with Driving Music City. The book came out of journals she kept of her experiences driving the stars around Nashville, from the night she went from Sting’s limo driver to singing a duet with him, to experiencing Courtney Love in full drama queen mode. But it’s also a personal memoir that talks about her life and the death of her mother.

“I majored in journalism at Georgia State and kept a journal, and knew that someday I’d write a book about all the interesting people I’d met as a limo driver,” Durrett says. “I started it back when my mother passed away from cancer. It was cathartic for me.”