A week before she sets off on a 26-city, three-month tour, Jackie Venson is packing up to move into more spacious digs in her hometown of Austin, Texas.
“If you want to tank a relationship, live in a one-bedroom apartment together,” the guitarist deadpans as she grabs a drink before settling into our Zoom call. “I don’t give a shit who you are… you can literally be Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa, and they’ll kill each other in a one-bedroom apartment.”
“We have to be out [of the current apartment] by August, and I’m gone for three out of four weeks in July, so the few days that I have home, I’m packing boxes.”
So it goes for a working musician like Venson, who’s slowly but surely built a fanbase around her effervescent blend of blues, soul, pop and R&B since the release of her debut album, The Light In Me, in 2014. Venson knows what it takes to make a living as a musician, having watched her father, singer and bassist Andrew Venson, work stages around the country until his retirement a few years ago.
And while 2020 certainly changed Venson’s plans, it didn’t exactly slow her down. She released five albums last year: one of new material, two live albums and two albums of remixes of her own work under the name jackie the robot. From March to October she livestreamed nearly 100 shows before making her debut on the long-running PBS show Austin City Limits in November.
But 2020 wasn’t all fun and games. Last June, Venson took to her Facebook page to call out white tastemakers in the Austin music scene for exclusionary booking practices. Things came to a head when radio host Andy Langer offered Venson a spot on last year’s virtual iteration of Blues on the Green — aptly redubbed Blues on the Screen — with white blues artists Bob Schneider and Shinyribs.
“And I didn’t want to be a part of that, because I felt like I would have been a direct hypocrite to everything I just posted publicly online,” Venson told the Austin American-Statesman. “I’m getting dangerously close to a token situation right now.”
Venson and her manager, Louie Carr, pushed for an all-black lineup, but, according to Carr, Langer said there weren’t enough Black Austin artists with a large enough draw to support an all-Black bill. When Venson was dropped from the bill entirely (replaced with two Black artists), she decided to get louder.
“The [American-Statesman] called me and asked me if I was comfortable telling the whole story, and I was like yeah, I am very comfortable disclosing this entire story,” Venson says. “Five years ago I wouldn’t’ve told this story, but now, no, I don’t need this guy. I don’t need this show. [Blues on the Green has] a responsibility to the community to foster a cultural scene that actually represents the city.”
Langer ate crow after the article ran and offered Venson the opportunity to curate an all-Black lineup for Blues on the Screen, which she did. But she’s not surprised it took a fight.
“Same shit, different day,” Venson says. “I’ve heard that shit 10,000 times before … that I’m not a national act and I don’t draw a crowd — for a free event. I’ve heard that through other people… It’s just the same shit every day.”
Everyday as a Black person in America, that is. Venson knows how it goes: Black folks create the culture, white folks appropriate it. It’s foundational to American pop culture, from hairstyles to music to clothing to slang.
Venson seems to address this ongoing battle for recognition and equality in “‘Til This Pain Ends,” the lead single from her forthcoming album, Love Transcends:
I will not be fooled / Shall not be moved / Won’t sell my soul, won’t live in vain / Know I was born to work until my dying day / So that’s what I’m gon do, til this pain goes away
Venson channels generations of Black culture and pain into the track, weaving together the mournful cry of blues with the transcendent invocation of gospel with the defiant scream of rock. Her virtuosic skill on guitar is a sonic prayer to those who paved the way for her: Libba Cotten, Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie.
“Blues has always been a rebel cry,” Venson says. “It’s saying what everyone else is too afraid to say. It’s doing stuff people don’t expect you to do. It’s about following what’s truly in your soul at the time of the creation of the blues. The blues was created by slaves in the field. They’re supposed to be working. They’re not humans, they’re animals, and they’re treated as such. And the fact that they sang words to each other and feelings to each other while working, that’s a rebellion. Do animals sound like this? Do animals speak language? It was like a rebellion in its earliest form.”
On the bill: Jackie Venson. 9 p.m. Saturday, July 10, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $15-$19.
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