“I think in life you need to reinvent yourself,” reflects Markey — the namesake and frontwoman of the Nashville blues act Markey Blue — via email. “I don’t believe in being stagnant,” she continues, “[I] always wanna be growing, learning, and getting better at a craft.” However broad the statement, if ever there were a person to which the term “reinvention” could be ascribed, it’s Markey. The band’s debut album, Hey Hey, started with a meeting between Markey and guitarist Ric Latina, conceptually evolving from a four-track EP to a full-length release, and in the process morphing from a more traditional blues sound into a self-described genre bending “New Indie Soul/Blues” mix. “I had to re-learn how to sing. My gut bucket belting was not gonna work for this project. And Ric, holy cow he really worked to find different sounds for this album.” Markey’s history of reinvention runs far deeper than this most recent musical shift though, as her journey as an entertainer winds back through country music, the Pacific Northwest, and periods working as both a stand-up comic and impressionist, which all kicked off at the age of 19 when she became the youngest chorus member among one of Las Vegas’ premier dance troops.
Born in Hemet, California and raised in southern Oregon, Markey landed in Las Vegas where her plan was to major in dance at UNLV. However, “within my first month or two of school,” she says, “I heard one of the longest running shows was having auditions, the Lido De Paris. With braces still on my teeth I auditioned and got the show.” She quickly worked her way up to lead showgirl, starring in a variety high profile revues up and down the strip. “I made billboards, taxi cab board[s], magazines, TV ads, I thought that was the peak of my career. But then I started seeing girls in their 30s being let go for being too old… and I decided I’d better learn another craft.”
This early transformation left Markey taking a turn away from dance, transferring her abilities as a performer to the comedy world. “John Byner, from the HBO show Bizarre, taught me my first voice, Dr. Ruth. I put shoes on my knees and a little dress, and would come through the curtain and give a sex quiz to the audience.” The duo continued working together at the Sands Hotel until a new opportunity became available. “I heard there was an opening for a starring role in Crazy Girls at the Riviera Hotel for a comedian/lead singer. I didn’t know how to do either. I rented a bunch of stand up videos, and Sandy Hackett — Buddy Hackett’s son — helped me put an act together from a bunch of stolen jokes. I found a karaoke tape with one song I could kinda warble my way through. ‘Do Right’ from Roger Rabbit.” She continues, “The audition was: they threw you in the show. They put a horrible wig and a sequin evening gown on me; I was so flustered I forgot to be nervous. I got people to laugh at my jokes and I got the job.” From there, when an opportunity opening for Rich Little surfaced, she jumped at it and began doing impressions full-time.
This fresh direction led to a shift in both the audience Markey was performing in front of, as well as the sort of performer that she was working alongside. Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Phyllis Diller, Mickey Rooney, and Charlton Heston are but a few of the names who occupied this new world Markey found herself in, though eventually the work began to wear on her. “At one point the producer of Baywatch offered to back a two man show on Broadway with Rick Michel and myself doing impressions,” she says. “[But] by that time I was so tired of not getting to be myself. I was doing countless radio interviews and the DJs would always ask ‘what does Cher have to say’ or Joan Rivers.” Looking for a fresh start after a high-profile relationship had ended, Markey left Las Vegas in 1996 and returned to Oregon’s familiar landscape to begin anew. “I went through a hard divorce, I didn’t ask for anything, just to be free… and walked away from everything to start my life over.” Reinvention.
Working at a country bar, Markey was occasionally reminded of her past life despite relocating and turning her focus toward writing and singing her own songs. “A few people came in with pictures or concert tickets I had signed years earlier from Reno or Vegas as I was clearing off their table [and] they would ask ‘Is this you?’ I would say yes… I’m just starting over.” There she began singing with a band, which led to securing an agent and booking more shows. Before long she was signed to a small country label. “A manager bought me off that label and moved me to Nashville,” she says. “He died a few months later. I decided to stay in Nashville and learn how to song write. So I found a job as a waitress, and started the next new life as a country singer/songwriter in Nashville.”
This period saw the release of Making a Bad Impression (1998), the Introducing Jill Markey EP (2003), and Simple Things (2004), which Markey says served to separate her from her past. “I went by a nickname, Jill, to kinda hide from my past life as Jeannette Markey the stand-up comic.” Then, once again, everything changed. “I had stopped singing and writing for quite a few years. [Around] 2005/2006 my husband at the time (who was in the music business) would get very messed up and come home and tell me that I couldn’t sing or write, I might as well give it up so I did.” Despite this smothering influence, Markey surged on, taking any extra money she could save to fund studio demos. “I had been writing kinda in secret.”
Sometimes the blues works best at opposite ends of the spectrum, helping celebrate the good times or make the most out of the bad. Once this emotionally abusive relationship came to an end, Markey found herself gravitating toward the blues as something of a refuge, finding redemption in the genre and its musical community. “I walked into a Nashville Blues Society jam and there was Nick [Nixon]. I felt at home. Andy T was the house band. Over the next few months/year Andy, Nick & I would play together in different band configurations, till finally Andy started [the] Andy T [and] Nick Nixon project, which I sang back up for a good couple years.” During this period she began making appearances under a new name, simply performing as Markey, also trading her blonde hair for a darker look, allowing a visual transformation to help emphasize the new direction. In 2011 she released the Blue EP, which helped earn her the Best Female Blues Singer award at Nashville’s Blues Music Awards.
In 2012 Markey met Ric Latina (whose extensive tour history includes work with Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams III, among many others), who later called her to see if she wanted to collaborate. “I went to one of his gigs and sat in with his guys who were all tour cats. I hadn’t played with this caliber player since working with all the old stars back in my Vegas days. I was hooked.” In 2013 they began performing together as Markey Blue, that year earning a nomination for Best Blues Artist at the 2013 NIMA Awards. For their debut LP, Hey Hey, they secured a band including Rodney Ledbetter (drums), Randy Coleman (bass), Jake Hill (keys), Miqui Gutierrez (sax), Richard Griffin (sax), Scott Ducaj (trumpet), Quentin Wear (trumpet), and Jim Williamson (trumpet), also working with a number of close friends and collaborators including Jack Pearson, formerly of the Allman Brothers Band. The duo also honed in on their mutual appreciation for the Stax and Hi Records libraries, while challenging themselves creatively.
“Both of us had our ‘comfort zones,’ we were both used to playing and writing a certain way,” says Markey. “But as these songs started to form we both had to really stretch outside of that. We started looking for a sound, something different.” Picking up on this new direction was the legendary Steve Cropper, who the band opened a pair of gigs for. “He had stopped his show to talk about us, saying that Markey Blue was creating the music he would be making today,” continues Markey. “So the next time we played together he said he’d write our liner notes for us. We got the notes and were about to send in the artwork when he [texted] in the middle of the night and said he couldn’t get our song ‘Baby I’m Cryin’’ out of his head! We all about died! Our hero is sitting around listening to us!”
Cropper later joined the band in the studio where he produced the vocals on the track. “It was so surreal to watch my hero rocking out to our music, giving us thumbs up on guitar riffs. I don’t think I will ever forget that day.” There’s a tremendous sense of happiness that resonates through the music on Hey Hey: “It’s funny to think about it now,” says Markey. “But I’m such a Steve Cropper fan — his writing arranging and producing — his first band on Stax was the Mar-Keys, so it just kinda seemed fitting. I never thought I’d be getting to work with him, let alone meet or open for him.” Perhaps the tone has something to do with the sort of gratitude that Markey expresses here, a reflection of the continual transition, the constant reinvention, the ongoing survival, or the understanding that any of life’s obstacles could have left her a million miles away from something remotely resembling happiness. “Coming from doing impressions of others and singing their songs to seeing your hero digging your voice an your songs… I can’t tell ya enough how good that makes ya feel.”
Supplemental to this article is an extended Q&A with Markey, where she goes in depth about her introduction to the world of show business, the experiences that led her to the Pacific Northwest where she began singing country, Markey Blue‘s forthcoming Christmas release, and so much more.
Please connect with Markey via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Markey Blue will be hosting the band’s Hey Hey CD release show on September 28th at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, featuring The Woman of Blues to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank. There will be an on-site food drive and the Strings for Hope girls will be there, as well. (They make jewelry out of broken strings. One set of broken strings buys 80 meals!) Click here to RSVP to the event.