She may only be 21, but guitarist/vocalist Ally Venable is on her way to being one of her generation’s blues/rock guitar greats. She’s already somewhat of a legend in her home state of Texas alongside other lone star guitarists from T-Bone Walker to Billy Gibbons. On her fourth album, the new Heart of Fire, she shows her chops on more of the same, inspired by some of the people who guest star on the recording, like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Devon Allman. The album drops on February 26.
Venable wrote or co-wrote most of the material on this album from German indie label Ruf Records, with a couple exceptions like the Bill Withers classic, “Use Me,” and kind of an unlikely choice in the Bessie Smith classic “Hateful Blues,” which seems like the furthest thing from an electric blues/rock tune. Smith was the queen of the blues in the 1920s and 1930s, setting the standard for female blues vocalists before Venable’s grandparents were even born. Venable discussed her love for Smith, and other blues giants she has discovered as a student of blues history, over the phone with American Songwriter.
“I try to do a Bessie Smith song on every album, because she’s a big influence on me and on the blues in general,” she said. “I want to incorporate her into what I do. She was one of the originals, and I’m constantly going back and studying the history of [the blues].
“I do a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan [on the new album] as well,” she adds, “where I kind of draw from his songs ‘Lenny’ and ‘Riviera Paradise.’ When I first started listening to Stevie I hadn’t really taken to the guitar the way I do now. I was more into country music, I first picked up the guitar when I was 11 or 12. Then I started discovering Stevie Ray and I really didn’t know a lot about the guitar, what I really noticed about him was his voice, how unique it was, and it wasn’t until later that I found out he was doing the guitar playing. Hearing him was a segue into the blues genre, into learning about Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Leadbelly, people like that.”
Venable recorded the new album in southwest Tennessee with producer Jim Gaines (John Lee Hooker, Santana), and collaborated with a couple of her influences in Shepherd and Allman. “It was a really big honor to have Kenny on the song ‘Bring on the Pain,’” she said. “He brought things to another level, he’s a big hero of mine. He’s a really great person, has been really great to me. I opened for Devon a couple years back, and he’s another person that has been awesome, really great to me during my musical journey, and it was such a great time working with him as well. I co-wrote ‘Road to Nowhere’ with him, he just brought it to a whole new level and I couldn’t be happier. Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars played drums on the track.”
Guitar aficionados may at first think that Venable performs on a Gibson SG when they see her with a double-cutaway instrument, but guess again. “I’ve been working with Gibson for the last couple years,” she said, “and they sent me this black Les Paul special double-cutaway with P-90s [pickups], so it has like a Straty-er tone to it. And I have several different [single-cutaway] Les Pauls that I’ve been playing.”
Venable realizes that most blues fans may be a generation or two older than she is, but that’s not stopping her from spreading the blues message. “The genre does have an older audience, and my sound is more contemporary,” she said. “But I think with social media and the internet we have a more modern way of distributing the content that helps us reach a younger audience, introduces them to the music. So that’s kind of my goal with my music, to introduce people to the blues who don’t know a lot about it, about the guitar, the way that Stevie did for me.”