It still doesn’t make a lot of sense to Deborah Coleman. Yes, she’s a rarity: a woman who can play guitar from the gut and wail in front of a mic. Few have ever been able to pull that off. But the fact that Coleman has made her stand in the male-marked territory of the blues makes it even more impressive. Except for Bonnie Raitt, only recently have women like Joanna Connor and Sue Foley been let into the blues’ six-string boys’ club. So when female fans come up to Coleman and say she’s a role model, she has a hard time buying it.
“People come up and say that to me and I’m always like, ‘Am I?’” Coleman says. “A lot of women come up to me and say, ‘You go girl. You’re representing. You’re showing that we can do it too.’ But that was never why I wanted to do this. I just wanted to get up in front of people and play.”
It took Coleman years just to make that happen. Not that she didn’t have the skills. Raised an Army brat, Coleman and her siblings all sat and practiced guitar rather than battled it out to make new friends. She joined her first band at 15, initially handling the bass and then, after hearing a Jimi Hendrix record, as a lead guitarist. But just as Coleman was getting ready to throw herself into music, hoping to make a rep for herself and a run at blues infamy, she got married and had a baby. Music just didn’t seem that important when there was a mouth to feed. “It wasn’t a tough decision to make, be with my daughter or be on stage,” Coleman says. She got a job as an electrician. She focused on her family. Her guitar went in the closet.
A decade later, something started to twitch inside Coleman. Her time-clock life was starting to grate on her. The home front was getting tense. Something was definitely wrong. “I was becoming increasingly unhappy with my life,” Coleman admits. “I realized that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do but what everyone around me wanted me to do. It was driving my crazy. And I had always told myself that I would get back into the music business. I didn’t want to be one of those old people who sit around and regret what they didn’t do, so I made the decision to change things and I jumped right in.”
It also helped that Coleman had stumbled across an ad in Living Blues magazine about the Charleston Blues Festival’s National Amateur Talent Search. She decided that would be the perfect place for her to break out of her domestic doldrums. She put together a band—well, she called her brother and his friend, both veterans of only heavy metal acts. There was a week of practice, then it was in a van to South Carolina. After one performance and a slew of encores, she was crowned the 1993 champ.
Eight years later, Coleman has released five albums, been nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for four years running and scored the prestigious Orville Gibson Award. She’s also generally seen as one of a growing batch of young musicians helping to not only keep the blues alive, but redefine it. Need proof? Coleman’s latest disc, Livin’ on Love (Blind Pig). While the roots are still there, the disc is a few shades away from straight blues. There’s some rocking butt-boogies like “Light of Day” and “Crazy;” a few soulful R&B-dipped tracks like “You’re With Me.” Coleman even tries her hand at the kind of slow-burn blues that makes you want to drink away the tears on “Happy When You’re Unhappy.” Sure, for some purists, Coleman’s lack of respect for the blues’ long-standing regional styles—Chicago gospel, Delta mud, Appalachian stomp—makes them more than a bit queasy. But Coleman says the blues can’t be locked in the past, it has to be pushed forward by new stories and new people.
“The blues has quite a bit of history behind it and there’s a lot of traditionalists who would love to keep it that way,” she says. “But my feeling is that it should move forward with each generation. For me, I can’t sing about what it felt back then. I can only sing about what’s happened to me, what’s gone on in my life and in the world I’ve seen. And that’s what the blues should be about: the world we live in. Otherwise, it will just stop growing.”