By David Rolland
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The tall woman with the leonine mane is wearing black jeans, black cowboy boots, and a teal sleeveless shirt. She leans forward a bit as she lugs two guitar cases and a backpack that appears to be bursting at the seams. She's not a roadie, but a musician: Amy Carol Webb. Having just finished playing a half-hour gig alongside her friend and fellow band member James London on a small stage at this year's South Florida Folk Festival, Webb is walking through picturesque Easterlin Park at a brisk clip, heading to her next performance. In ten minutes she'll headline the bill at the festival's main stage, part of her prize for winning the title of Best Overall Songwriter at last year's fest. (She also won the award for Best Upbeat Song.) When asked why she hauls her instruments herself and where her roadie is, Webb smiles broadly and quips: "This is folk!"
Carrying her own equipment may be nothing new to the 42-year-old Webb. No matter what style of music she's played in her many years of performing, it is something she's always done. What is new for Webb, though, is actively writing music and playing in public again after a layoff of many years.
Born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Webb grew up in a musical home in and around Broken Arrow, a town near Tulsa. Her father was a concert pianist, composer, music teacher, and gospel preacher. Her mother sang on the radio during the days of live shows and commercials. As a three-year-old, Webb, the oldest of four kids, began singing along to the Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, and Nat King Cole songs that she heard on her uncle's hi-fi system. At age eleven Webb got her first guitar, an $80 Harmony nylon string model. She used the accompanying Mel Bay music book and taught herself to play, starting out with the old standbys "Red River Valley" and "Camptown Races."
During her teens Webb, inspired by the Simon and Garfunkel tunes she heard on the radio and the Beatles 45s she and her three brothers fought over, began writing her own songs. Her first told the story of Martians eloping in an envelope. ("It's the only word I could find to rhyme with elope!" she remembers.) Then she gravitated to loftier subjects. "I've always written about people's self-realization and passion and aspiring to higher things in life," she explains. "In high school and college, I wrote a lot of what would be considered protest songs, which is straight out of the folk tradition. Although as a young, middle-class white girl getting a college education, I don't think there was a whole lot for me to protest."
In 1979 after graduating from Oklahoma Christian College with a degree in theater, the 22-year-old Webb decided to pursue music professionally and moved to Los Angeles. She worked days as a media planner/buyer in a major advertising agency. By night she played the coffeehouse and club circuit solo and in various bands. ("I was a kid," she notes. "I had the energy of twelve people.") At one point she auditioned and won a spot with the folkie ensemble the New Christy Minstrels (a training ground which spawned John Denver, Kenny Rogers, and Kim Carnes). She left her day job and spent two years touring the United States, Canada, and Mexico with them. On the road forty to fifty weeks per year, the band would perform two shows a night. Afterward she joined the pop-folk band the New Seekers and toured with them for a year and a half.
While in Los Angeles, Webb met the man who would become her husband. They married and eventually had a son. Her youthful vigor exhausted from playing frequent night gigs as a cover artist (performing the songs of Billy Joel, the Eagles, and Joni Mitchell, among others) and living the rock-and-roll lifestyle, Webb then traded in performing for mothering. "Playing the clubs was eating me up," she recalls. "The urge to write hadn't really been mine for a while."
Writing and performing were still languishing on the back burner in 1990, when her husband's employer transferred him to South Florida and the family relocated. For the singer who grew up landlocked but became enamored of the ocean during her years in California, Miami proved strangely comforting: "I loved living near the ocean. The sea has a rhythm, a history, and it makes its own music too," she explains.
Webb was still not making music. Confined to bed during the final eight weeks of her second pregnancy (which produced another son), she had no one to take care of her three-year-old, so she sent him to preschool at the Family Center. Four months after giving birth, Webb was recruited to perform in a parents' talent show at the center. Lacking confidence, she was initially reluctant but eventually relented, and wound up wowing the crowd.
"We hadn't even met her, but we talked her into coming to perform at this concert," says Karen Kerr, the center's director. "Fortunately she was last on the list because no one else would have played after her. She blew us away. She was truly talented and the rest of us were just being silly. The most exciting experience was to hear this person with this voice come out that you just didn't expect."