Artists live for those rare moments when everything lines up; when they gather the right songs and the right people in the right place at the right time, and find themselves and their music truly coming alive. Brigitte DeMeyer is experiencing just such a moment. Rose of Jericho is proof.
This is album number five for the acclaimed independent singer-songwriter, but it also marks a trio of significant firsts: her first time taking the reigns as co-producer; her first time recording in Nashville since she made it her home; and her first time telling her stories of balancing motherhood and music. She’d built a solid foundation with her first four albums, collaborating with giants of the Americana world—world-class drummer and producer Brady Blade especially—and showing herself to have a wonderfully natural feel for country-steeped, blues-infused roots-pop, right down to her supple, peppery singing.
On paper, DeMeyer’s musical and geographical journey down-home seems downright unlikely. The daughter of Belgian and German immigrants, she was raised first in the Midwest, then California and, entirely on her own, started latching onto rootsy sounds, from R&B 45s and cowboy songs she heard at a dude ranch her family frequented to her high school-age discovery of Bonnie Raitt and New Grass Revival and eventual gigs singing in a hippified Catholic folk mass—where she met singer-songwriter Steve Poltz—and backing cowpunks the Beat Farmers. “I was listening to the Allman Brothers and New Grass Revival when everybody else was listening to Foreigner,” she says by way of comparison. DeMeyer loved the New Grassers’ blend of rock, soul and bluegrass so much that she started making the trek to hear them and to jam with the other acoustic boundary-pushers who congregated at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. On one return trip, she found herself on the same little puddle jumper as New Grass mandolinist Sam Bush. It was a lighthearted, though prophetic encounter: “I said, ‘I’m going to work with you some day, Sam Bush.’ And he started laughing.” (She made good: his virtuosic picking is all over Rose of Jericho.)
Even though DeMeyer took to soulful southern-tinged music with the zeal of a convert and clearly had a gift for it, at her parents’ urging she got a serious, non-musical degree in international marketing and pursued a serious, nonmusical career, all the while making music on the side and even studying with the same vocal coach who once instructed Janis Joplin. But she ultimately turned the by-the-book plan on its head, taking a brave leap into pursuing music full-time once she was already professionally accomplished and married. The fact that she took a roundabout route has served the substance of her songs well. As she puts it, “I had to struggle a little bit and have the experience I’ve had to be able to write.”
It didn’t take DeMeyer long to find kindred musical spirits, even if it did require a little sleuthing. After watching Blade perform with Emmylou Harris’ band Spyboy, she was determined to track him down. “I ended up calling his grandmother’s phone number in Shreveport,” she laughs. He not only signed on to play on her second album, Nothing Comes Free, but produced the next two, Something After All and Red River Flower (he also co-produced Rose of Jericho), and brought in a small army of masterly players and singers he knew would appreciate what she was doing, like Buddy Miller (with whom she’s since shared the stage on more than one occasion), Steve Earle, Tony Hall, Ivan Neville, Daniel Lanois, the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers, Phil Madeira, Chris Donohue, Regina McCrary and Al Perkins (who invited her to join his European tour). On the new album, DeMeyer expanded her impressive stable of collaborators with contributions from full-throated force of nature Mike Farris, guitar gurus Will Kimbrough and Doug Lancio and—just like she’d said—Sam Bush.
All the while, DeMeyer has been delving deeper into southern musical territory. By her fourth album, she was quite literally commuting there from the Bay Area to record. A little over a year ago she took another leap, moving 2,000 miles across the country to Tennessee with her husband and their young son Jeremiah. “Everybody I love playing music with is here,” she offers, “plus I got sick of paying for hotels.” It didn’t hurt that she’d also landed a publishing deal with Nashville-based Green Hills Music.
As for the songs DeMeyer’s been writing, they draw on a mixture of firsthand experience and a rich, sensuous lexicon of gospel, blues, country and literary imagery. If it sometimes seems that popular music is a teenage fantasyland where people pretend to be without attachments or responsibilities, that’s not the case with her songwriting—she tells it like it is. On Rose of Jericho, there are songs like “Amen Said the Deacon”—a slice of gospely Chitlin’ Circuit funk—and the country soul number “This Fix I’m In” that capture the longing she feels for her child when she’s far away. DeMeyer wrote the latter on the very last flight out of Nashville the day the devastating flood hit. There’s also “Jeremiah’s Blues,” a song she wrote to and about her son, bringing to life his strong-willed personality and the equally passionate biblical prophet who’s his namesake.
But writing anything at all can be a challenge when there’s also a kid around who needs attention. “You have to stop what you’re doing a lot,” she jokes. “It used to be if mommy was distracted by music my son would have nothing of it. Now he wants to join me.” (And he probably will, soon enough. Thanks to Blade, he’s had an adult-sized drum kit since the age of three.) Nowhere does DeMeyer articulate the inner tug of war between artistry and family more eloquently than in her spare, soulful folk song “West Side Mama, South Side Me.” “When I was in California I was mostly mom,” she explains. “When I was in the South, I was me.”
She’s decided that she no longer needs to choose between the two; she’s saying “yes” to it all. You can hear that “yes” in the surefooted New Orleans R&B of the title track, “Rose of Jericho.” “Give that plant a little water,” DeMeyer says, “and it comes back to life. I so relate to that.”