"Happiness for me is just producing something every day, you know, the more things I can produce whether it’s music, nowadays my gardening has taken up a lot of my soul. It makes me feel better, it makes me feel calm."
Christine Ohlman: The Lady of Our Soul
Christine Ohlman (aka "The Beehive Queen" for her mile-high platinum-blonde hairdo) is the current, long-time vocalist with NBC's Saturday Night Live Band whose sixth critically-acclaimed CD with Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez, "The Deep End”. Ohlman has been named a “Living Legend” by both the New Haven and Hartford Advocates. In 2017 she was inducted into the National Blues Hall of Fame of American Heritage, International. She landed the Top Female Americana Vocalist honors on The Alternate Root's International Readers' Poll and is fresh from appearances onstage in NYC with Trombone Shorty, Jon Batiste, Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo; in Boston for a filmed documentary on the late great bluesman James Cotton; at the Paris Conservatory and the Royal Conservatory in Ghent with The Sessions Panel; on the SNL 40th Anniversary broadcast and Post-Broadcast concert at the Plaza Hotel; "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon”; multiple appearances on the soundtrack for the HBO series “Vinyl,” including a duet with Elvis Costello; the Carnegie Hall Tribute To The Rolling Stones; the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Concert in Cleveland (HBO) and The WC Handy Festival in Muscle Shoals, where she’s been the special guest of the Blind Boys Of Alabama and led an All-Star Shoals tributes that included Bonnie Bramlett, Candi Staton, and Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Christne Ohlman / Photo by Ric Kallaher
Her numerous studio and live collaborations encompass Grammy-nominated recordings and include duets with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Dion, Ian Hunter, Marshall Crenshaw, and Charlie Musselwhite, plus appearances with Al Green, Steve Miller, Smokey Robinson, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and the late George Harrison. With JoJo Hermann of Widespread Panic, she leads the “Down On The Bayou” New Orleans Jazz and Heritage benefits for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. She guests on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and legendary Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham's "The ALO Orchestra Sings The Rolling Stones Songbook Vol. 2,” named “Coolest Record Of The Year” by SIRIUS/XM’s "Little Steven’s Underground Garage." Ohlman is a noted musicologist and record collector who was one of the original contributing editors to the All Music Guide. Mixing a fiery brand of rootsy Americana with an old-school soul music flavor, she serves up a style that's been dubbed by SIRIUS/XM's Dave Marsh "Contemporary Rock R&B."
Interview by Michael Limnios Katerina Lefkidou (Transcription)
What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?
Christine: I think the thing is that it’s so fast, everything changed. For me in about ten days the majority of my shows went away or cancelled. Back in early March. So, it was very shocking that something I’ve done my whole life, was at least for many months going to be on hold. Live performance is my thing, I’m not very much for going on Facebook and doing Facebook live, you know what I mean? I’ve done some charity, some YouTube for charity, public service announcements as we call them in the United States, that’s been very nice. But I don’t foresee myself getting a Facebook live (laughing) so, we’re trying to figure out now in America, various ways, one of them is this idea about the drive-in movie theaters. Various ways that we still might connect with people live in the next four or five months, cause that’s what I think it’s gonna be. I don’t know what you’re seeing over there, it’s hard to say.
Too many experiences in life too many experiences in music, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?
Christine: Well I think that it’s taught me that connecting with people is a very important part for life and that art is something that can elevate the human experience. I’ve been an artist my whole life, I’ve connected with people that way, I write, I’m a music journalist as well as a musician myself, I’m a song writer and so it’s taught me to be watchful of the human experience and then to translate that human experience into songs and into performances.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of American roots music from gospel to blues to Americana to folk, to soul and beyond?
Christine: Well do you know that I’m a musicologist? So, I’m very lucky to be embedded as they say in the music scenes of New Orleans and Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I had groups of musicians, very high- level groups of musicians in all those places plus of course New York, because I work on Saturday Night Live with NBC television network. I am connected in all of these places which are so important for the growth of roots music in America. And I have friends in Memphis, although I’m really not that connected in Memphis. So, there are lines all over the place that connect these major hubs if I could call them that and I am so glad to sort of be right in the middle of it. I was just in New Orleans in January and I’m scheduled to go to Muscle Shoals in July, I hope I’ll be able to and its very important for me to work with musicians in these areas, because everyone each area has its own flavor, so I’m just so lucky to be able to go down there and have these great musicians in each town.
"Well I think that it’s taught me that connecting with people is a very important part for life and that art is something that can elevate the human experience. I’ve been an artist my whole life, I’ve connected with people that way, I write, I’m a music journalist as well as a musician myself, I’m a song writer and so it’s taught me to be watchful of the human experience and then to translate that human experience into songs and into performances." (Christine Ohlman / Photo by Super 9 Studios)
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and you’ve kept it like a motto since?
Christine: Well, my mother used to always say “Your main purpose is to create, to create something every day, if you can.” So, I try every single day, even now in this very challenging environment, to get up and create something, whether it’s just a beautiful flower, or a piece of music, or singing by myself alone, or posting, just things that I think that are inspiring to people and I think that’s kind of my mother’s advice to create something new every day.
You talk a lot about Muscle Shoals, of course I know you've always loved New Orleans. Why were the southern states always the Mecca, the capital of the music?
Christine: Well I think that there’s no question that everything in American popular music comes directly, I don’t care about wat anybody says, it comes directly from the African-American population. So, either when you talk about the music in Appalachia, the white gospel, it still connects somehow to the African-American community and whatever that little town was. I strongly believe this and that’s why the South was such a Mecca and it was only after the blues musicians began travelling north to Chicago, and Saint Louis in the Unites States that you see it spreading, but you always see it spreading from the South, don’t you agree? And also in New Orleans they think that, a lot of people would say, that the Jamaican influence, what they got off the radio in Jamaica, coming from Jamaica, was a big part of the groove, most people have decided that that came from people listening to a scratchy radio signal from Jamaica, isn’t that fascinating? And then they kind of turned it around and had this strange second-line groove.
What is happiness for Christine?
Christine: Happiness for me is just producing something every day, you know, the more things I can produce whether it’s music, nowadays my gardening has taken up a lot of my soul. It makes me feel better, it makes me feel calm, I am lucky to live at a land, in a New England part of the States, north east part of the United States and I’m able to be out, safely out and working in my garden and that takes up a lot of my time. Also, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about music history, I’ve been catching up on some things and I’ve been watching some great music documentaries. Again, I would say that if anybody has not seen Amazing Grace, the Aretha Franklin, gospel documentary, from 1972, you just have to watch it, find it, rent it, whatever you will be amazed. That’s so crucial and it was not available for so many years, until 2019, so yes, I’ve been trying to say, feed my head, in music and art online and in books.
"My biggest fear is for venues. I don’t really see an artist, because I think they’ll just keep trying to create, however they can. Some people are much more into this life expecting much more than I am. I think they’ll still just keep trying to create." (Christine Ohlman / Photos by Super 9 Studios)
I also know that you are also a collector of vinyl. What touches you from the sound of vinyl?
Christine: The thing about vinyl is that it’s not a compressed sound. Mp3s are very compressed. So, when you go to vinyl and you listen to something on vinyl through speakers the sound is much wider and richer and deeper, ‘cause it’s not compressed. That I think is the biggest pro. Also, I love the labels, I love the labels, on 45s and LPs and the regional labels, you know from little labels, especially down south, I collect a lot of what they call deep southern soul and I love the B-sides, turn it over you know? With an mp3 you wouldn’t even know what a B-side was. And also, if I could say back in the day the thrill of the hunt. You could find anything online now on YouTube, but back in the day you used to have to send written lists to these dealers around the United States, or if you went to a shop, you would go with your written list, they called it a want list. For instance, there was a great store in New Orleans, I would go to, but I mean you go in with your list Michael. (laughing)
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go with a time machine?
Christine: Couple places. The Dockery Plantation in Mississippi in the ‘40s, Muddy Waters was there, Pop Staples lived there. These were the guys that were ready to move up the river to Chicago and that whole scene, I would have loved to have been in the Delta in the ‘40s. Earlier not so much, the ‘30s were also an interesting time, but the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, before they left and started going up the river, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters all of them. And man, I would have loved to have been in Muscle Shoals in the ‘60s, to see the beginning of that sound evolving and all the studios where I work now, all those studios are still there and they’re active. Fame, Jackson Highway, they’re all still there, they’re open and I’ve been so privileged now to rehearse in them, to work in them, but I would have loved to have been there, maybe between Muscle Shoals and Memphis, it’s only about two and a half hour drive to go between those studios and the Stax Studio in Memphis and to have been a fly on the wall in all those beautiful sessions. (laughing)
A special chapter in your career and in your life is of course Saturday Night Live band. Why do you think that the Saturday Night Live Band continues to create such a following?
Christine: Well, they’re very topical. A political year is the best year for them and since Trump got elected president of the United States they’ve been very much involved, commenting on his administration and hopefully we get back at the end of September, we’re hoping. They also were very instrumental back in the day when Sarah Palin was the vice-presidential nominee. They did a lot to expose her lack of experience and lack of intelligence. So that’s one thing they’re very topical. But also, I just think that they keep evolving, the cast keeps changing, so you’re getting new cast members and they come up with new characters. Those become important as time goes on, I’ve been here 28 years, every cast has had its own great characters and they go down into television history. And I really think that’s why because they’re very talented very of the moment and so it really can’t get stale. (Christine Ohlman & Dr. John / Photo by Michael Weintrob)
"When I had to become a band leader myself, it was scary, it was not something I was used to. There was a steep learning curve. I believe that knowledge is power. And I upped my store knowledge considerably right then, and I’ve tried to add to it every day in the years hence."
You have met so many great musicians and personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
Christine: Well, the late Doctor John, you know Mac Rebennack we did house concerts together just the two of us to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, that was such a gift to me. Meeting and working with the Swampers in Muscle Shoals. We lost Jimmy Johnson last year, we lost Donnie Fritts, but David Hood, Spooner Oldham, Roger Hawkins very much alive, all friends of mine. That has just been a precious thing to me. I’ve just been so lucky to work with people, some of them stand out more than others for various reasons, you know working with Irma Thomas in New Orleans, just because I had adored her voice, becoming friends with Candy Staton, who is the soul queen of Muscle Shoals. Those women are incredibly gracious to me, lovely to me, so I’ve just been lucky in that regard. To have been in the right place at the right place, I guess. And now I get to work with all these historic musicians.
You have travelled all around the States. Do you find any difference between the local scenes, east-west, north-south?
Christine: Well, I can most comment on north-south. The scene in L.A. is a very strange scene, L.A. is a very spread out city, a lot of traffic and not a lot of live places to play. So, what I can comment on, is the down south especially Nashville and Muscle Shoals, enormous number of places to play. The pay isn’t so great, but boy did they value live music and they want to go out for live music. The musicians are very respected, very well thought of and it’s really a pleasure to be there. Same thing in New Orleans, lots of places to play, of course that’s gonna change after all of this I think, but I still think that live music will rise again, there’s no question. The north is, New York now, there’s very few places to play in New York, because the rent has gone crazy. A lot of it is transferred over to Brooklyn. So, Connecticut has a lot of small theaters, but not a lot of really great club venues. I would say that down south you just see that live music is something people are much more interested in supporting, I have to say it that way, because I see it, I see them both and I work in them both. New York, so many places have closed in New York in the last seven or eight years, because of the rent. So, we’ll see what happens when things open up again.
How do you want your music, your performance to affect people?
Christine: I’m very interested, I always talk about this deeper level of deep, I talk about it with my students in voice coaching, I talk about it with my musicians. I want to hit them at the deepest level of deep, that’s what I go for when I sing, it’s what I go for when I write, it’s what I go for when I choose the songs or any individual performance, I’m always thinking about the group that I’m playing for, to hear what would affect them the most, so I go for this very deep connection, I’m not interested in anything but a deep connection. I don’t see the point honestly.
"The thing about vinyl is that it’s not a compressed sound. Mp3s are very compressed. So, when you go to vinyl and you listen to something on vinyl through speakers the sound is much wider and richer and deeper, ‘cause it’s not compressed. That I think is the biggest pro. I love the labels, I love the labels, on 45s & LPs and the regional labels, you know from little labels, especially down south, I collect a lot of what they call deep southern soul and I love the B-sides." (Christine Ohlman / Photo by Thomas Horan)
As a musicologist, what are your hopes and what are your fears for the future of the music?
Christine: My biggest fear is for venues. I don’t really see an artist, because I think they’ll just keep trying to create, however they can. Some people are much more into this life expecting much more than I am. I think they’ll still just keep trying to create. And of course, you can conduct a recording session even now and be very distanced because you can put you know baffles up between you… And with recording online now, you can record in your living room. But I fear for the venues, I fear because so many in the Unites States did not serve food, so they just had to completely close. In the United States if you were a restaurant that had music you were allowed to stay open and have take-out food. So, they had to just close. So, I’m very fearful that a percentage of them will never re-open and that there’ll be less places.
What is the impact of Afro-American music on the socio-cultural implications?
Christine: Now with hip-hop the African American music has really taken a forefront I think in American popular music, because hip-hop has affected so many different artists from Justin Timberlake, right on down, they’re not all African American. I think the two most prevalent in the United States now is country music as it now exists, I think it’s just a form of rock’n’roll and hip hop. So, the African American experience has almost no bearing in country music. Country music has existed in its own bubble and some of it’s wonderful, but African American music in the beginning I think was entirely responsible for loosening up American culture. It was hugely responsible for the downing of segregation, for one thing, just because of the way crowds wanted to come to see music, there were always mixed crowds, black and white and after a while they just tried to stop to keep them apart down south and up north they never tried to keep them apart. And that I think has continued. But I will say that today, I think at a hip-hop concert you will see much less mixing of black and white, they will be almost entirely African-American. So, it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of coming a little bit in a circle, but still the last thing of steps in the United States, that there will be no more musical segregation anymore, the music was so responsible for that.
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as an artist and has this helped you to become a better person?
Christine: A lot of people ask me about being a woman in the business, but I never really had that much of a problem. I started a band with my brother when we were teenagers and that band became the band that G.E. Smith joined and then G.E. Smith asked me to join them, Saturday Night Live Band. So, I just kind of moved along, being a woman didn’t really get in my way of that. When I had to become a band leader myself, it was scary, it was not something I was used to. There was a steep learning curve. I believe that knowledge is power. And I upped my store knowledge considerably right then, and I’ve tried to add to it every day in the years hence.
Christine Ohlman / Photo by Abraham Rowe
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