Loud and Proud
Patty Reese’s Full-Throated Voice Delivers Talent, Reveals Turmoil
When Patty Reese laughs, her entire body gets in on the act. It is a powerful, rusty laugh as loud and brassy as her hair, and just as much fun. She laughs like a woman who knows what it’s like to have nothing and everything to laugh about. She laughs with all the joy in her.
It’s the same way she sings.
Her life would be the stuff of a 1950s anti-rock morality B movie, were it not true. Reese has always lived life at a full-throated roar; where rock ’n’ roll comes first, and passing through the crucible of addiction and to sobriety has leant an air of gravity and raucous levity all at the same time. “You know… your life doesn’t change fast, so you get used to the insanity of that lifestyle and it’s a slow thing to change,” she says.
After more than two decades sober, Reese downplays the importance of “the clean and sober thing,” but it’s clear that, like many of the best musicians, her life has informed her music. She laughs her big, big laugh even when sharing the difficult. “It was a really hard, really painful time. I was singing rock ’n’ roll, and it just got to be too much with the lifestyle. So I quit my own band! I quit The Patty Reese Band. We were all struggling, and I was the only one in the band being sober and I was getting well, you know? I mean, there I was, three years sober, I’m 34 years old and wondering what I was going to do with my life. … I tried jazz, but I really decided … I was rock ’n’ roll, man!”
This last is said with a vague air of embarrassment, but she’s right. Reese’s rugged voice lends itself to the kind of open and honest rock music that she belts out for over 250 gigs per year, every year. With 16 Washington Area Music Association awards (Wammies) on her resume, she’s proven to her contemporaries in this rather storied scene that she can hold her own. She has a Springsteen-like honesty and a voice like gravel fed through a wood-chipper running on velvet and honey. Her “saxophonal” pipes are the perfect delivery system for the rock ’n’ roll she loves to adore.
“I started out when I was in 6th grade, always wanting to play something. But, I was part of a Brady Bunch nightmare family, with a whole bunch of kids around. I’m the youngest and I found an old guitar in a cardboard box on a shelf in the basement, and I started playing that. I had guitar lessons from someone at church for a few years. Then, in high school I had that one teacher that we all have, who believed in me and she taught me how to sing. I was like a sponge, man. I ate it up and I loved it and I really did learn to sing.”
Reese studied voice at the University of Maryland, singing “opera in five languages, but I was a rock ’n’ roller doing all the rocker stuff—staying up all night, singing loud rock music and putting all the stuff into my body that you should never put in your body.”
The conflict caught up with her. “I was doing all that stuff and still singing onstage in front of loud guitars and drums and I blew out my voice.”
Losing the voice is a nightmare in the profession, but in Reese’s case she was intensely aware of what she’d done and how long it would take her to recover. After months in speech therapy, she finally learned to speak again and joined a Top 40 band, dropping out of college to see “if I had the strength to be a real singer. We worked 50 weeks a year, six nights a week, five sets a night. It was lonely and it was hard, but eventually I got really strong and I never looked back.”
And the years have been kind to Patty Reese, rewarding her honest, open-hearted life with ever-expanding talents, not to mention all those Wammies, including one this year for Best Roots Rock Female Voice. “It’s like (singer) Tommy Lepson said, that it’s a total fallacy that rock ’n’ roll is for the young. As I got older, I got stronger! I have experienced this, that people who stay with their craft get better, and I have to ask, ‘Why is that shocking?’”
Stints with Jr. Cline and The Recliners, Plumb Crazy (“like the Dixie Chicks loooooong before the Dixie Chicks ever played”), Ruthie Logsdon, and more revealed her love for music of all genres. But it was always rock ’n’ roll and the blues that drew her inexorably out to those crossroads to new horizons.
When asked about her influences, the pause that ensues before her answer tells the truth of the tale. “Bonnie Raitt and her contemporaries all cared so deeply about the song, which is where I am. I want to write great songs and sing them in front of people.”
What does the future hold?
“I want to focus more in the blues community and the blues festivals and expand our horizons in that regard. I used to think it was just too late for me, but I want to work more, and this new [yet untitled] record is tight! The writing is good and I worked hard on this record. The blues community is inclusive and I figured if I tilted my stuff in that direction, that they’d accept me, since the blues has been at the root of everything I’ve ever done.”
Reese is looking forward to playing [email protected] at the Carroll Creek Linear Park Amphitheater on July 7 with her full band, and can be heard at Ayse Meze Lounge every two weeks. As for now, she just wants to play more shows, continue writing songs and get out there and laugh that big, care-free laugh. It’s a lovely thing that she can; she deserves that and so much more for her honesty, her talent and her absolute love for all things rock ’n’ roll.