Interview with Kimmie Rhodes
Kimmie Rhodes has just released a new book entitled ‘Radio Dreams’ detailing not only her own life and career but also the life and career of her late husband and soulmate Joe Gracey.
As she prepares to bring her book tour to Belfast as part of the 2018 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival I caught up with Kimmie Rhodes for an in-depth conversation about the book, live show, and life in France.
You’re a well known and respected songwriter and performer now turned author. Why now and what made you decide to go in the direction of writing a book?
Processing the past has helped me move forward — beyond any hard times — and it’s been liberating as a songwriter to write free of rhyme and time limitations, although it was helpful to have been “pre-versed” at finding core meaning. It’s comforting to peruse Joe Gracey’s memoirs because, for at least a little while anyway, the void left by his absence has been filled with words that ring with his unique sense of humor and his own beautiful truth.
By the time I met him in 1979, Gracey had started writing a book he was forever meaning to finish. He gave it the title ‘Radio Dreams’, because of a recurring dream he had about getting into situations in which he was trapped outside a radio station, helplessly listening to the dead air that is every disc jockey’s nightmare. I knew his friends and fans would be happy to hear his sweet smart voice again and enjoy his personal account of who he was and why he so passionately tightened his embrace on an existence that shaped him into someone who owned a wisdom earned through quiet courage in the face of hardship, but which he tempered with levity and wit in a very cool way.
Would it be right to describe the book as dual autobiography?
I think a dual memoir would be the most accurate description of the book because of the way it was compiled from years of individual written pieces that were woven together to tell our story. I began to think of our lives as the string and the memoirs as pearls that placed in order told the story in a cohesive way.
Your father was an orphan who was raised during the depression era by a hoochie-coochie dancer. Is it true he bought you a record player when you were three, taught you to sing at six and do you think that his upbringing enabled him to see and encourage your emerging talent?
On my third birthday, my mother gifted me with a prized possession called ‘The Magic Mirror Movies’. This contraption, a faceted, mirrored carousel with a wooden red ball finial on top, when positioned on the center of special records, produced by a company called Red Raven, displayed three-dimensional full-color movies based on illustrations of songs, which were specially written and recorded and labeled for the toy.
The Red Raven always showed up in the scene in subtle ways along with frogs, ducks, trains, boats, soldiers, cowboys and Indians and any other fantasy the songwriter might have imagined in the lyrics of the tunes. I spent many hours with my face pressed to the floor listening to the music and watching the pictures and I believe it had a huge impact on me because I learned to sing all the songs.
My Dad was indeed a Depression-era orphan. I was the only kid on my block that had a carnie for a father! He could find a quarter in your nose, lose it and then find it in your ear! He loved to sing and played the spoons and percussion on the phone book with his elbow. He was a gambler and a hustler, and a quite good one I might add. His idea of parenting was to teach me to survive, as he had been forced to do on the streets at seven years old.
So, when I was around that same age, he took note of the fact that I was good at singing and knew a lot of songs and decided that would be a fine direction for me to go. That all worked in his favour as well because he could stand me out front of car lots to entertain and distract salesmen and their customers for ten cents a song while he checked football bets in the back offices that were really fronts for gambling operations. AND by the way, he was right about the survival thing because it’s many decades later and that’s still what I’m doing!
You first met Joe Gracey when he was working as a recording engineer and producer. Can you remember that first meeting and did you both feel a connection right away?
I tell the story in the book of how I had already had a dream about Gracey before I met him. I dreamed I was sitting in a big room looking at him through a piece of thick glass that I later realised was a recording studio, but I had never been in one yet at that time. On the day I walked through the door of his studio in Austin and shook his hand for the first time I recognised him as the man I had seen in my dream. There was an immediate connection as artist and muse but it was several years before we married. We spent the next three decades together as constant companions and had a wonderful life together.
Joe was natural born communicator with a history in radio broadcasting and on television where he was a founding member of the team behind the Austin City Limits show. How devastating was it for him and you when he lost his voice in 1979 due to cancer and how did you both cope?
By the time I met Gracey in 1979 he had recently lost his voice, having just undergone the last of a series of surgeries attempting to save his speech. There is a memoir he wrote just before I met him called Getting and Losing Cancer’ in the book in which he details the experience in real time. It is very poignant and sad of course, but also even funny at times believe it or not. One of my favourite excerpts is where he tells of being on a business trip in Nashville during the time when he was awaiting test results from a biopsy that had just been taken back home in Austin, TX. A record executive in Nashville infuriates him so much that he storms out of the office, jumps in his Cadillac and decides to drive to Sun Studios in Memphis for inspiration. He realises that by the time he makes the four-hour road trip to Memphis he won’t still be angry enough for the trip to have full effect so he turns around, drives to the airport and flies to Memphis instead. Once he arrives he visits Graceland too.
Gracey had begun to reinvent himself as a record producer by the time I met him and had just finished recording some of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first tracks. I was impressed by his courage. Having just been given a chance to survive, howbeit without being able to speak, his passion for life was magnificent and a true inspiration to everyone around him.
In later years you both spent time living in France where amongst other things you both enjoyed a passion for fine food and wine. Was this a deliberate lifestyle choice to allow you both to unwind from touring and recording?
Like most things in our life together our adventures in France were a result of a magical series of events that came our way. Gracey produced a record on an Austin artist named Calvin Russell that somehow found its way to Paris and became a huge hit. This led to about a ten-year era where many French artists started coming over to have records produced by Gracey to get that raw Texas sound. Also, Gracey was an expert at capturing a warm real sound on vocals and singers loved that. It’s why Willie Nelson called him lots of times to engineer on his records. Anyway, we began to travel back and forth working in France and I was even on a French label during that time for a while. We loved to jump in a car at the end of a tour and drive all the back roads eating and discovering wine and things or getting degustated as we called it! Paris was our stomping ground for many years and to this day I could better tell you where to get a fantastic meal in Paris than I could in my hometown of Austin. Eventually we remodelled a 1000-year old stable in a historic Cathar village in the Languedoc region on the Spanish border. That was a real trip… I still have the house and go there a couple of times a year when I’m over touring.
You are currently touring to promote the book. Tell me a little about what we can expect from the live show when you come to Belfast in May.
We decided it would be fun to make this launch tour a conversation with… event so there will be lots of spontaneous stories and songs that go hand in hand with the book. Gabriel Rhodes will be with me as always and he has just released his first solo Cd as an artist so we’ll do some of his/our new songs from that of course. You know songwriters always tell stories about things that happened that caused them to write songs so it’s natural. We invited an old friend, Ralph McLean from BBC Radio Ulster, to host the show. So, favorite songs of the fans as always and whatever songs come to mind as the chat progresses. I have a new song I wrote just for the occasion called ‘Radio Dreams’ and Ralph was such a fan of my song I wrote with Emmylou Harris called ‘Love and Happiness for You’ that he even played it at the birth of his first child! I’m sure we’ll be doing that one too.
You released ‘Rich From The Journey’ in 2000. As the years have gone by and given the experiences that you have recounted in the book do you feel the song has gained more relevance?
Oh, I’ve revisited that song many times through the years. Like a dear friend who is always there when you need her. It’s the last song I sang for Gracey actually.
Sail away sweet soul in peace. Hoist your sails into the breeze. Beneath these stars so hard to read, God speed the winds that carry me and tell my friends to look for me for soon I’ll be returning. Rich from the journey. Rich from the journey”.
Thanks for your time and see you in Belfast.
Can’t wait for this one! It’s gonna be special and we’re looking forward to being part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival at the Waterfront Hall! Thanks!
Kimmie Rhodes plays the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on the 5th May 2018. Tickets available from the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.