A Tune of Her Own
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."
Encouraged by her friends to take up singing again, Webb spent a day listening to all the music she had ever produced and resolved to return to performing. Although she can't name one particular experience that sent her back, she remembers the ambivalence that tugged at her. "I was a mom now. I wasn't sure I could do it," she recalls. "I remember talking about how I used to be a musician, and someone said 'It's not used to be. You are or you're not.'
"I tried to quit many times, but the music kept bringing me back," she continues. "It's so deeply a part of who I am that it just kept calling me. I wouldn't classify it as an addiction. It's a passion. There's a big difference. An addiction is self-destructive. A passion is constructive. It builds you and it builds the people around you."
In 1995 she played an open-mike night at a meeting of the South Florida Folk Club. She was well received, and the offers to play gigs began to trickle in. As Webb began to reimmerse herself in her former professional life, her personal life began suffer. Her marriage fell apart, and the couple divorced the following year. Webb now lives in Miami Springs with her life partner Brooke Bell, eleven blocks away from her former husband with whom she shares custody of their sons.
The time she looks back on as her "deconstruction period" fueled a lot of her songwriting. "I'm lucky to be able to put what's happening to me in songs," she notes. "I channeled a lot of it into the music. Part of what was happening was freeing feelings I had held inside for twenty years, and I was realizing that life is fluid and life changes and that I can change with it. I certainly didn't come from that philosophy. I was writing like crazy."
In 1996 she released It'll Happen Again on cassette. The following year she took her songs to the South Florida Folk Festival, and she was encouraged to put her work out on CD. "I had a tape, but I knew I wasn't going to get much further until I made a CD," she says. "People want something they can cue up with the push of a button." Eighteen months and close to $10,000 later, Webb completed her second album during late summer 1998.
Released on Webb's Zebra Productions label, the self-produced Songweaver features ten original tunes, solidly and artfully put together, ranging from the insistent tribal feminist anthem "I Come from Women" to the poignant ballad "Daddy Don't Let Go" (she performed both during her winning set at the folk fest) to the yearning melody "Did You Spend Last Night Like Me." Guitarist James London, Iko-Iko drummer Stewart Jean, and Ellen Bukstel-Segal and her brother Gary Bukstel of the pop-folk outfit Legacy formed a loose corps of experienced players who contributed to the album's polished sound.
The CD had been made but the official release party loomed. Webb planned a bash for the end of September at Power Studios and invited local media, friends, and diehard fans. Then came Hurricane Georges. While most of South Florida was frantically buying supplies, securing their homes, or just getting out of town, the optimistic Webb was not deterred from the hope that the party would still happen. But aside from the impending storm, she had another problem: A production glitch delayed the arrival of the 1000 CDs she was expecting from the pressing plant. "The storm was supposed to hit on Friday, and the party was on Saturday," Webb recalls. "On Thursday the FedEx truck comes to my door at noon, with nine out of ten boxes. [The delivery woman] dropped these boxes off to me and said 'That's it. That's the last delivery. We're shutting down for the storm.'" Luckily South Florida was spared the wrath of Georges, and Webb's release party, overflowing with well-wishers, went off without a hitch.
"Either the universe was saying 'Stop!' or the universe was saying 'Want it more!'" notes Webb about her many close calls regarding the making and release of Songweaver. "I chose to read it as 'Want it more.' I wanted to make a record since I was nine years old and here I finally got to make a record. And people came out of their safe and comfortable homes on a wet and uncomfortable day to say 'We love this music. Keep doing it.'"
Back at the South Florida Folk Festival, it is after 6:00 p.m. More than one hundred listeners sit attentively in brown metal folding chairs. Several others sprawl on blankets in the grass. It is pitch black in the audience but the stage where Webb stands alone, singing powerfully and vigorously strumming a teal-color guitar that matches her shirt, glows. Her presence is so charismatic that no other musicians seem necessary. As she segues from one song to the next, giving short intros, sharing bits of her life, it is clear she is a pro. At one point she breaks into "Matthew and Elizabeth," a touching ballad that she admits is "about life turning out not exactly as you thought it would be." As she sings, two toddlers (a boy and a girl) spontaneously begin to prance awkwardly on the grass in front of the stage. Anyone who didn't know Webb would assume the all-too-perfect moment was deliberate and choreographed -- that is, until an enormous black pot-bellied pig named Zsa Zsa waddles by. For Webb and her fans, the hilarious brief intrusion by the porcine interloper is not surprising at all. It's just another incident in a long career where she and those around her have learned to accept the very odd twists and turns any moment can take.
Amy Carol Webb performs at the Barnacle Under Moonlight concert series at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, January 31, at the Barnacle State Historic Site, 3485 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove. Admission is $5; children under ten years old get in free. Call 305-448-9445.
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