Q&A with musician and writer, Katy Hobgood Ray - host and producer of Confetti Park, a kid-friendly radio show

"Blues music reflects the feelings of the people who create it, and the feelings and conditions and situations shared by other people of the same culture. Making blues music and listening to it is a way for people to process the challenges they face."

Katy Hobgood Ray: The Dream Of Music

The duo of Katy Hobgood Ray and Dave Ray reminds us there is a softer side to the music that comes up from the Delta. The pair spend equal time between New Orleans and Memphis, so their new release, “I Dream Of Water” (2019), is a collection of ten songs reflecting that mixture of elements and influences. Dave and Katy met in 2001 at a songwriter’s night in Shreveport, Louisiana—their hometown. Both write songs in the Americana/folk rock/country vein. In 2003, the couple moved to New Orleans, and over the years they’ve continued to perform at coffeeshops and small venues, collaborating in various bands. Dave and Katy are members of Friends of Leadbelly, a group of musicians dedicated to promoting the legacy of North Louisiana songwriter Huddie Ledbetter. And over the last few years, Katy has become known for her work in children’s music with Confetti Park and has performed at numerous festivals New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, French Quarter Fest, the Folk Art Fest, Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, and others.                     (Katy Hobgood Ray / Photo by Sally Asher)

Katy also sings with Steve Howell & The Mighty Men out of the Ark-La-Tex area, who perform country blues and early jazz standards. This musical friendship was first established in 2002. (Both Dave and Katy sing on their album “Good As I Been to You.”) These are the musicians behind the new release, “I Dream of Water.” In 2018, Dave and Katy took jobs based in Memphis, and are currently living between Memphis and New Orleans. They wrote this album with perspective and reflection on their experiences in their beloved Louisiana. For her work in children’s music, Katy won a Parents’ Choice Award in 2016. She was recognized by the New Orleans Gambit among the 40 Under 40 class in 2016; in 2018, New Orleans Magazine included her in the People to Watch issue.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Growing up, you never realize that your own personal culture is unique and special, until you go away for a while and start missing it. I took for granted how music was so much a part of my everyday life in Louisiana. My mom, the church pianist, was always practicing hymns and standards in the living room. Dad was a sax player in the town band, and he’d warm up on jazz licks. And family reunions always featured several generations of relatives gathered around a campfire, singing old folk and country songs under the stars. It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized how special that musical camaraderie within my family was. I fiercely appreciate it now. All those songs are imprinted on me—and I carry that music with me wherever I go. Because of music, I will always know who I am and where I come from.

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

I think my sound is country/folk, because I tend to try to write melodies to accommodate my lyrics, rather than the other way around. I tend to use fairly basic chords structures with minimal changes. My creative drive comes from a compulsion to express my emotions. I use music to express joy, and to process trauma, and to heal myself. I would write music even if no one ever heard it, because it is in the process of writing a song that I can release my grief, anger, and confusion. And through singing a song I can lift up my heart to shout out my passion, joy, and relief. I also rather enjoy making up little ditties about mundane life. Like while brushing my kid’s unruly mop of hair, I sing: “Don’t brush the ears. Don’t brush the ears. Don’t brush the ears, and there will be no tears.” Music makes it better. 

"Growing up, you never realize that your own personal culture is unique and special, until you go away for a while and start missing it. I took for granted how music was so much a part of my everyday life in Louisiana. My mom, the church pianist, was always practicing hymns and standards in the living room. Dad was a sax player in the town band, and he’d warm up on jazz licks" (Katy Hobgood Ray on stage with kids / Photo by Sally Asher, 2018)

What do you learn about yourself from making children's music? What is the hardest part and how do you want it to affect?

Making songs for children has been a joy, and it got me out of my own head as a songwriter. As a young girl I wrote songs about unrequited love and breakups—mostly relationship stuff. Writing for children, I started observing life around me—colorful street scenes and New Orleans characters such as the Roman Candy man and Mr. Okra—and I’ve realized how much I like writing songs about these external things. I have discovered that I much prefer performing these kinds of songs before an audience, more than I do all the deeply personal songs. I can’t help but be sincere, so if I am singing a song about a broken heart, you can bet I went through it with some cruel fellow. But I can sincerely sing about how much I like snoballs and sunny days, too! I hope that other people find joy in my children’s music. I hope it lifts people’s spirits.

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

I miss the wonderful intricate melodies and clever lyrics of the Great American Songbook, the era when Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so forth were writing. What a terrific era of popular music, songwriting and craft! I wonder if people are writing that way today, but we just don’t hear it on the radio?

What touched (emotionally) you from the NOLA blues scene? What characterize the sound of Louisiana's blues scene?

New Orleans is a city that is full of music. Of all kinds. Music pours out of the doorways, drifts out of balcony windows, floats along the river banks, tumbles down the stoop steps. It could be a lone guitar player in an alcove, a gospel choir at the neighborhood church, a marching band from the high school down the block, a piano teacher next door, an electric blues band at the corner bar, a calliope on the riverboat, the bells of the Catholic cathedral, the praline man calling as he sells his candy from his bicycle cart. No matter. The music calls to me and fills me with such emotion, that I feel constantly alive and my senses are excited by being a part of the city.

"I miss the wonderful intricate melodies and clever lyrics of the Great American Songbook, the era when Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so forth were writing. What a terrific era of popular music, songwriting and craft! I wonder if people are writing that way today, but we just don’t hear it on the radio?"

(Photo: Katy Hobgood Ray)

What touched (emotionally) you from Leadbelly? Why Leadbelly's music legacy matter important today?

When I was growing up, we would sing Lead Belly’s songs in school or around the campfire, or I would hear them on the radio… “Midnight Special,” “Irene Goodnight,” “In the Pines,” “Black Betty,” “Cotton Fields,” and so on. I NEVER knew they were written by Lead Belly, or that these songs were even written by someone from north Louisiana. He wasn’t celebrated or known by most people. Imagine my surprise when years later, in Minnesota of all places, while in college, I learned about Lead Belly and learned that all these songs were by someone from my area of the country. His contribution to the canon of American music is huge! I feel proud to be from the same place. When I returned back home from college, I connected with a group of Shreveport musicians who were working to bring some attention to Lead Belly from the city. They had gotten a statue of him erected along Texas Street, right by the public library, in 1994.  Now, we do what we can best do to honor him: we sing his songs. Every year in October, we meet at his grave and honor his legacy with music. Sometimes a lot of people come out to join us, and sometimes it’s just a few of us. We are now doing this over 25 years! How special! It is like a family reunion… we all bond through the music of Lead Belly. Huddie Ledbetter through his music is still bringing people together.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

This is a big question. Blues music reflects the feelings of the people who create it, and the feelings and conditions and situations shared by other people of the same culture. Making blues music and listening to it is a way for people to process the challenges they face. Whether it’s a tragedy inflicted by man or nature, whether it’s an injustice political or romantic, whether it’s world weariness or isolation or boredom or rage or grief or lust, blues music can wrap it up and express it. Within the words and the strains of music, there are all the emotions a human being feels, complex and layered and complicated, yet put forth in a framework of 12 bars and three chords. Blues music is real. People who appreciate blues music — people who really connect with it—are dealing with it. You hear a lot these days about passive music consumption, but if you’re really moved by the blues, you’re being an active listener. You’re feeling it. You’re dealing with these very real feelings caused by real life. Blues music is important.

"I think my sound is country/folk, because I tend to try to write melodies to accommodate my lyrics, rather than the other way around. I tend to use fairly basic chords structures with minimal changes. My creative drive comes from a compulsion to express my emotions. I use music to express joy, and to process trauma, and to heal myself." (Photo: Katy Hobgood Ray & Dave Ray)

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

Well, just sticking to the facts. In 2019 Northwestern University released a study showing how underrepresented women are in the music industry. Out of nearly 5,000 record labels in the study’s data set, only one third have ever signed at least one female artist. Another study by the University of Southern California that compiled data from 2012-2018 showed that the gender ratio of male producers to female music producers is 47 to 1. It also showed that of the 899 individuals who have been nominated for the last six Grammy ceremonies, 90.7 percent were men and 9.3 percent were women. So, I guess it's pretty hard to be a woman trying to "make it" in music, commercially speaking.

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

It would be fantastic to go back in time to the Jazz Age, and hear the scandalous new sounds of “jass” music that was deemed a menace to society. I would specifically choose to go back to the 1920s, to meet my great-great uncle Snoozer Quinn, who was a pioneer of jazz guitar, in the earliest part of his career. He played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, jammed with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, recorded in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel with Mart Britt, recorded solo guitar in 1928 for Victor records, played country music with Jimmie Davis, and was sought after by Bing Crosby and Les Paul! I have so many questions I want to ask him. I have so many mysteries I want to solve.

What kind of banjo did you play? Four string or five string? How does one play violin with a bell attached to it? How did you learn to play guitar? Who were your childhood influences? Were you listening to the black jazz bands that traveled up to Bogalusa from New Orleans, like Buddy Petit’s Jazz Band? Were you listening to Delta blues guitar players? Did you ever hear Robert Johnson in person? How about Big Bill Broonzy? How did you tune? How did your unique sound all come together? What was it like traveling in tent shows? WHERE ARE YOUR MISSING VICTOR RECORDINGS?

I would LOVE to hear Snoozer play in person. Supposedly he was so good he could play three parts on guitar at once—bass, melody, and rhythm. And he could do it all while shaking your hand. And he played with Peck Kelley, too, another mysterious musician. So many greats I could check out if I went back in time! Here is my website about Snoozer.com.

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