Q&A with DC-based Moonshine Society - fresh music school grads to deliver soulful blues and old-school R&B

"I miss hearing music on the radio that was performed 100% by humans.  I personally get excited by new music that makes you question if it was recorded in the 60’s or 70’s.  There is a warmth, an ease, a human approach to that sound."

Moonshine Society: Sweet Thing

Locally in Washington, DC, the band of Moonshine Society gives a big nod to Aesop’s theory that we’re known by the company we keep. So, while staking claim to lofty Music Land real estate of their own with a searing, cutting-edge blend of blues, soul, rock and R&B, they continue to rack up powerhouse stripes rubbing elbows with the best. Johnny Winter, Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Tower of Power, John Mayall, Roomful of Blues, John Mayer and Ron Holloway count among the legends the band and its members have accompanied and opened for, not to mention other greats as Tab Benoit, George Clinton & the Funkadelic, Danny Gatton and Samantha Fish. Moonshine Society is the offspring of three promising young music scholars who came together at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Of like minds and musical passions, they united in 2009 to create their own brand of soulful blues, roots rock and old-school R&B, should a fundamental definition be required. In truth, they teamed to craft their own formula of music that speaks to the soul and defies the labels of traditional musical confines.

(Black Betty of Moonshine Society / Photo by RedRum Collaboration)

The trio sealed their pact one moonlit night in the Anacostia Delta, where then and there, their name became written in the stars. They were to be Moonshine Society. Leading the troupe is impassioned, soulful singer and songwriter Black Betty, who has shared the stage with such musical greats. Part vamp and part glamour girl, she is all-commanding in her on-stage deliveries and becomes pure sorceress spellbinding audiences with her searing hot vocals. To quote from her sizzling seductive rendition of ‘Fever’ -what a lovely way to burn. Black Betty (lead vocalist/songwriter) and Joe Poppen (guitarist) were both inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame after their work with Charlies Sayles (harmonica) and Memphis Gold respectively. Moonshine Society from D.C. delivers a delicious course of summertime blues on their second album “Sweet Thing” (2019). A set of ten house rocking tunes, perfect for a night when the June bugs are jumping, the fireflies are sparking, and the moon is shining bright.

Interview by Michael Limnios      Photos: RedRum Collaboration & Rich Forsen

How has the Blues and Roots Rock music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Blues openly celebrates the rawness of life. There is no sugar-coating this music. You either feel it or you don’t, and an audience can tell when someone is faking it. Life is messy, complicated, precious, painful, amazing, mysterious, and not guaranteed. The blues pulls all of this to the forefront.

As a woman, there are things I’ve experienced that don’t often get heard about on mainstream radio. Divorce, cancer, physical abuse, gender discrimination, racial discrimination while in a multi-racial relationship. Listening to the music of blues artists from today and the past has carried me and shown me that no one has a perfect life, men and women have felt what I’ve felt for decades, and that through our human experiences and hardest moments we are not alone.

How do you describe 'Moonshine Society' songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

We draw from Memphis Blues (BB King, Howlin’ Wolf), Texas Blues (Albert Collins, Johnny Winter), Southern Soul (Stax catalog) and New Orleans R&B (The Meters, Dr. John). I’m personally inspired by big voiced singers such as Koko Taylor, Dinah Washington, Mavis Staples, and Aretha Franklin. I also love brassy women who aren’t afraid to own their sex appeal in their music, such as Betty Davis and Etta James.

My creative drive is something I can’t turn off. I’ve been on stages since I was a toddler. As a baby, my mother would take me with her sometimes when she had bellydancing gigs. I would imagine sitting in a baby seat, surrounded by live music (with cotton in my little ears) and sparkly, spangly costumes helped mold me early on into the creative type I am now.

"I’d love to be at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953.  Everyone dressed so elegantly then and I adore the styles of the 1950’s. Cannes is really where everyone goes all out. (Also where Brigitte Bardot had one of her most famous bombshell moments while helping to make bikinis popular. I love a fabulous 50’s bombshell!)." (Moonshine Society & Red Holloway on stage / Photo by Rich Forsen)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Working with Ron Holloway has changed my career. We met through our bass player, Christopher Brown, in DC.  Ron and I have a unique relationship where I sing in his band (The Ron Holloway Band) and he often guests with my band (Moonshine Society). He is one of the world’s most incredible saxophonists and has played with legendary names (Dizzy Gillespie, Gov’t Mule, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Little Feat…), but he is also incredibly humble. 

Ron is never one to brag, and he stays very open about the types of shows and music he’ll play. From local bars to the biggest music festivals, he always delivers with the same dedication to his craft. I’ve been fortunate to sing on stage with Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and others because of Ron, and I’ll always be grateful to him.

Most important advice? Johnny Winter told me that he was optimistic about the future of blues when hearing the new generation of bands like Moonshine Society.  He spoke briefly of how important carrying the torch will be, especially as the years go on. To have one of your heroes tell you that it’s important to carry on a legacy- that’s life changing. When I start to doubt myself, my lifestyle, my choices, I think about what he said, and it reminds me that I’m in the right place.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss hearing music on the radio that was performed 100% by humans. I personally get excited by new music that makes you question if it was recorded in the 60’s or 70’s. There is a warmth, an ease, a human approach to that sound.   

I hope that the blues and jam band communities continue supporting the bands who are creating these sounds and keep the genres relevant. I hope that music encouraging listeners to love themselves and each other continues to trend upwards. 

I fear that recorded music will continue to be devalued even further by consumers. I fear that listeners now expect free content for constant consumption. I fear that younger generations are becoming more engrossed in becoming Youtube celebrities or Instagram influencers than having real life experiences. Who is going to write great songs if they’re not living real lives? 

"As a woman, my strengths lie in being adaptive while owning my feminine power.  I don’t want to be known as a female blues Artist. I just want to be known as a great blues artist. But if bringing some sugar to the stage before setting it on fire is what I need to do to catch your attention, then that’s what I’ll do." (Black Betty of Moonshine Society / Photo by RedRum Collaboration)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Oh God, just one?  Hmm. I would like to see more transparency for musicians and the industry. Our scene keeps information about contacts, payments, opportunities, etc. secretive and it’s just accepted as being normal. If the musical world worked more openly, I honestly think we’d see fewer artists struggling. Folks tend to think of success for musicians as a pie with limited pieces. Believe me, there’s enough pie for everyone.

What touched (emotionally) you from D.C blues scene? What characterizes it in comparison to other local US scenes?

D.C., which we also call the Anacostia Delta, is the crossroads of several styles of blues and schools of thought. We’re as far North as you can go and still be considered to be in the South.  Musically, Piedmont Blues (which is a specific finger pickin’ style), swing blues, blues rock, folk blues, Memphis style blues, and Mississippi Delta blues can all be found here. Moonshine Society brings a tinge of New Orleans R&B influenced blues to the mix as well. Go-go music came from DC and you’ll hear bands pulling that into their shows, too. There’s something for everyone, and that’s pretty amazing.

As a city, you’ll see a wide range of folks in the audiences of DC blues venues, including college kids, nightlife influencers, urban entrepreneurs, and the affluent.  Yes, this city is known for politics, for better or worse. Everyone has an opinion. The music scene, however, has a way of forcing folks to leave all that at the door. The room is suddenly filled with groove-loving humans, not Democrats and Republicans or the Haves and Have Nots.

Incredible blues artists have come from DC. Artists such as The Nighthawks, Bobby Parker, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton- all headliner acts that many famous musicians cite as major influences, but never totally saw the dues they deserved.  Local musicians joke that there’s a curse on the city in that regard. I hope to be someone who helps shine a spotlight on the insane talent that resides in the nation’s capital, and to help folks understand that DC is a music city.

"I fear that recorded music will continue to be devalued even further by consumers. I fear that listeners now expect free content for constant consumption. I fear that younger generations are becoming more engrossed in becoming Youtube celebrities or Instagram influencers than having real life experiences. Who is going to write great songs if they’re not living real lives?" (Moonshine Society with Black Betty on stage / Photo by Rich Forsen)

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

As a woman, my strengths lie in being adaptive while owning my feminine power.  I don’t want to be known as a female blues Artist. I just want to be known as a great blues artist. But if bringing some sugar to the stage before setting it on fire is what I need to do to catch your attention, then that’s what I’ll do.

There are many women out there owning this industry right now and gaining international attention for their contributions. I think women are better represented now than they ever have been, but that does not mean we have equal representation in the music industry. Take a look at most music festival lineups and you’ll notice the ratio of men to women is very skewed.

Music scenes are often looked at as Boys Clubs and the women involved are thought of as rebels. You will always have to work a little harder. You have to prove yourself before folks will accept that you’re up to snuff and belong.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Such a tough question! I’d love to be at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953.  Everyone dressed so elegantly then and I adore the styles of the 1950’s. Cannes is really where everyone goes all out. (Also where Brigitte Bardot had one of her most famous bombshell moments while helping to make bikinis popular. I love a fabulous 50’s bombshell!). Between the people watching during the day, the jazz scene that was simmering in France at that time, and the over the top parties at night, that would be worth the time trip!

Moonshine Society - Home

(Moonshine Society: Joe Poppen with Black Betty on stage / Photo by Rich Forsen)

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