Springfield native Mary Jo Curry and her band are receiving much critical acclaim and airplay for their sophomore blues album "Front Porch." It’s an unlikely path for the Illinois State University theater program alum with training in classical voice and piano.
The opening track on "Front Porch" is the foot-stomping “Nothin’ is Easy.” It shows off Curry’s powerful voice and the chops of guitarist Michael Rapier, bassist Chris Rogers, and drummer Rick Snow.
It’s a long way from the original cabaret-style theater show the budding actor was ready to perform on a cruise ship after leaving ISU.
"They weren’t even going to make me wait tables, and I was going to have a venue on a ship singing jazz and doing theater on the boat. And then 9/11 came along,” said Curry.
That put a stop to a lot of entertainment at the time. She returned to Illinois and spent a couple of years working in regional professional theater, including Summer Stock in Sullivan, Ill., and a stop in Rock Island. But to her dismay, she realized theater wasn’t her passion.
So back to Springfield working a 9-5 job while dabbling in local theater.
At the time, she also fronted local cover bands and would drop in on live music in Springfield, which is where serendipity eventually worked its magic.
“It’s going on 10 years now when I met my husband,” said Curry.
She and a friend had wandered into Fat Willies in Chatham, Ill., where a band including future husband Michael Rapier (yes, that’s her current guitarist) was playing blues music. She was mesmerized.
“I don’t know,” she said to buy time to describe the memory. “It was the first time I ever got to listen to live blues done well. I had goosebumps on my arms and legs. It just captured me,” said Curry.
They later asked her to join the band, and in another bout of serendipity, James Armstrong became mesmerized. The nationally known Los Angeles-based bluesman had recently moved to Springfield for a woman he had fallen in love with.
“And I didn’t know him, but he just came up to me and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘We got to get you recorded.'"
Curry said Armstrong was the one who convinced her that a recording would bring in a wider audience for both her and the band.
“He was the one who kind of planted this seed of, ‘You need to be heard more, and your band needs to be heard.’ He volunteered all of his time to produce our first CD. Between James Armstrong and my husband, they got together to make it happen,” said Curry.
So what did Armstrong hear in her?
“You need to talk with James about that,” laughed Curry. "I don’t think I sound like anyone else; I surely have singers I listen to that I love, but I’m not trying to copy their sound, and I think a lot of that is going on, especially in the pop world. I’m just me. I just sing.”
Indeed, she says she can “rip someone up and down and sideways” as she does on "Nothin’ is Easy," not unlike one of her heroes Koko Taylor. Or she can bring it down many notches, as she and the band show on the jazz-inflected ballad “House is Lonely.”
“The song ‘House is Lonely’ is a song my husband wrote. That came from his soul. It was written when his older sister had passed away of cancer. It’s dedicated to her and our grandson we lost,” said Curry.
Married couples aren’t unusual in music, but the pairing can be perilous if not handled carefully. Curry laughed when she told me her husband was the brains behind the music. But she quickly added they have what she calls ‘a great relationship,’ as they were friends before romance blossomed. But it was blues that brought them together.
I told him ‘I really don’t know this genre.’ So, when I said, ‘I really like this song by Koko Taylor,’ he educated me because he would say ‘if you like that song, you need to listen to so and so.’ And you need to listen to this album. He guided me. Our relationship comes out of true friendship and a true admiration and passion for blues,” said Curry.
She said that camaraderie extends to the entire band.
“Their egos are all left at the door, they don’t even have one," said Curry before turning the spotlight back onto her husband. “Michael is definitely a visionary He churns out new songs every day. I think we are blessed."
“Front Porch” reached the Top 10 of several national blues radio airplay charts. And though Curry’s voice and the band's presentation can be powerful, there is an understated ethic to both her voice and the way the band plays.
“I’m not there to show what I can do, I’m there to play to the song,” said Curry. “Everybody in the band is a trained musician, but I think less is more sometimes. You want to give them a little bit, but you don’t want to be up in people's faces all the time. You know, kind of leave them wanting for more.”
One more thing: Curry told me she doesn’t really like the spotlight.
"People would never know, but I’m borderline stage fright,” revealed Curry.
It was a curious thing to hear from someone who majored in theater performance at Illinois State University and currently fronts a nationally well-regarded blues band.
So what compels her to perform despite the fear?
“The stories and the music and the power in the music. When I hear a really great song, I get goosebumps. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s a passion that’s there that is stronger than my fear. Once I’m up there I’m really good and you’d never know. It’s a terrifying love affair” laughed Curry.
It’s a fear blues fans across central Illinois and now across the country are happy she conquers on a nightly basis.
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