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Why Rebekah Meldrum's Spirit is Free
As Rebekah Meldrum can attest to, a journey to a happy place often covers both years and miles.
by Donovan Wheeler photos by Geno Malusek, Tasha Ramey, and Rob DeVoe
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]itting inside The Slippery Noodle, I nursed my “Dis-is-it” IPA when Rebekah Meldrum approached us. Her face was flushed, bearing the kind of red you wear on your cheeks when you’ve finished the first leg of the Iditarod. Outside the soft winds of one the coldest Valentines evenings in recent memory kissed everyone’s cheeks. Sure, “cold” and “Valentines” are typically synonymous terms. But this particular Valentine’s was cold. Still…other than a moment or two of discomfort, no one really cared. It was a Friday, for starters…and that aforementioned holiday to boot. The weather, at least, gave us all something to talk about. Since Bob Knight’s firing and Gene Keady’s retirement, the weather has been about the only thing worth mentioning in the middle of February.
Meldrum approached my table, shaking off the frostbite and working up her trademark grin.
“I found some flip-flops,” she announced. I laughed, while my fiancée ran the forecast through her head and threw Meldrum a raised eyebrow.
“I thought I was going to have to do my show in these,” she said pointing to black ankle boots wrapped around her feet.
The very idea…
To say that Meldrum is a “free spirit” is the sort of understatement that borders on cliché. But weigh that cliché against Melrdrum's biography and you get the very logical sense that hers is a hippie-vibe well-earned. She grew up in California, the daughter of a private school teacher and an IFB pastor. The “IFB,” by the way, stands for Independent Fundamentalist Baptist.
“You have all the doctrine with all of the legalism as well,” Meldrum explains. “No dancing. No movies…” her voice trails off a moment as she talks about it.
“Secular life…?” she asks with pronounced rising inflection. “We had none of that.”
In Califorina, living in a gated community surrounded by like-minded members of the church, Meldrum lived comfortably with the only life she knew.
“I lived very much in a bubble,” she says. “I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night… We lived at the church in the parsonage, and I went to school at a church. I wasn’t exposed to much…”
“Actually, I was exposed to a lot," she continues. "For example, I was exposed to death very early in life. When people come to their pastor it’s generally not when they’re having the best times of their lives. We dealt with a lot of domestic abuse [and things like that]."
“I would see police lights outside our house at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Some guy would decide that he wanted to off himself, and he would find my dad’s number in the phone book. So, dad would go and pray with him. When I was young, I didn’t really know what it all meant.”
"Preacher’s kids generally fall into two categories: you either conformed or you went full-on wild atheist rebel. And I actually fell somewhere in the middle of that. Life was never that cut-and-dried for me."
Photo by Rob DeVoe.
Before she moved to Indiana. Before the bubble that had sheltered her and her siblings began to rupture, she was the young girl who discovered the blues by happenstance, after watching The Cosby Show's Rudy lip synch to Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Woman.”
“We didn’t have Google, but I did have the library,” she says. “Luckily, the librarian was a huge blues fan.”
Donovan Wheeler: So, what happened after that?
Rebekah Meldrum: “I would spend hours reading and listening. This was back when libraries had the big headphones…? I learned anything and everything about Koko Taylor, which then led me to Big Mama Thornton and Ma Rainey and Jimmy Reed. This was how I learned about all these great musicians, but it also wasn’t something I could talk about, either.”
Wheeler: You didn’t have any access to traditional pop music growing up?
Meldrum: “I listened to pop music. I had a headset, a Walkman. That was all I wanted for my birthday when I was a nine or 10-year-old. We lived in an old school in Thousand Oaks. We called it the ‘gated compound.’ It was huge, all of it enclosed. It had a huge playground, and I would sit on the swing by the hour and listen to music on that Walkman. Then I would feel so guilty about it, because I knew that I wasn’t supposed to listen to it. I would tell on myself all the time.”
For her part, Meldrum doesn’t know if she would have gravitated to the blues had she lived a normal childhood, but that she found herself attached to the antithetical offshoot of the steady diet of gospel music on which she grew up… Well, that irony is not lost on her.
Meldrum: “It’s the secular side of gospel. That’s always the easiest way to explain it to people. It all derived from gospel. It all derived from the cotton fields. It’s derived from slavery. There’s a musical fork [in that history]. There was a movement happening with the music. The focus shifted from ‘God is good. God is great.’ to more realistic messages: ‘This sucks. This is real life. Our God isn’t coming down and saving us.’ And there was a secular juke-joint on one side of the street and a church on the other. You either went to one or you went to the other.”
Wheeler: Explain how your parents balanced the need to raise you with an awareness of the outside world alongside the demands the church placed on them to conform.
Meldrum: “Probably the hardest thing for me to hear as an adult is when my parents told me that they never had a problem with all the secular pastimes our church had prohibited. The music, the dancing, the movies…they didn’t have a problem with it. My dad and I would listen to some Led Zeppelin and the Beatles—when it was just me and him, and he would remind me, ‘Don’t tell your mother.’ And my mom loved the Beach Boys, which I always thought was ironic.”
Wheeler: But despite your parents’ tolerances, you faced some challenges.
Meldrum: “Once they let my brother take me to see Beethoven. He talked them into it because he wanted to meet a girl. Somehow, somebody saw us, and later on an elder’s wife cornered me. She asked me why I was at the movies, and I was a little kid. I didn’t know how to answer her. It was like they were gathering ammunition to throw at my dad…”
Meldrum: “The meetings and meetings and meetings about meetings which Dad had to endure with elders about all of us kids… That’s why we moved so much. There was a lot of hurt, and a lot of conflict…and it was always because of the legalism. It was always because my parents chose the moral high ground. They stood up for their kids, and they decided to leave.”
Once the family moved to the Hoosier state, things changed. No longer attending an enclave school squat in the middle of an IFB commune, Meldrum, her brother, and sister found themselves at Beech Grove learning to tread the dual tightropes of adolescence with one foot and the church’s searing expectations with the other.
Meldrum: “The pastors’ kids in Indiana were strait-laced, seen-not-heard, all of that. And here we were these ‘wild’ kids from California…except we weren’t wild. We were just normal kids. After a couple years, Dad finally left the church. He's at a Southern Baptist church, now, which doesn't observe all the legalism.”
Wheeler: So, your parents made huge sacrifices then for you and your siblings. Yes?
Meldrum: “My parents left a lot of churches for us. I have tremendous respect for them. They’re both extremely, highly educated for one thing. They both carry a lot of degrees, and they chose the two worst paying professions on the planet: teaching and preaching. But they both picked things they are passionate about. I admire that, and I get that from them.”
Young Meldrum with her sister.
Meldrum, her parents, and her siblings.
By the late ‘90’s as Meldrum (then a high school senior) and her parents both adjusted to new chapters in their lives, Rebekah found herself hanging out at The Willard in Franklin, Indiana. There, she met Paul Holdman and Phil Pierle just as the duo was forming what would become the Woomblies. In that environment, in the jam-session conditions that best percolate a musical future, several of those futures got their start.
Meldrum: “My sister would often sneak me in [to the Willard,] because I wasn’t old enough. And I would get up and sing with them. For the longest time Paul thought that I could only sing one Susan Tedeschi song…because that’s the song I always sang with them. And I wasn’t well versed back then. I didn’t have some deep catalogue at the time.”
Quickly, things mushroomed. In short order she found herself occasionally sitting in with Holdman and Company at The Rathskeller’s famed Kellerbar in an event she affectionately describes as “a big deal.”
Meldrum:“Then life just sort of happened. I got married, I had kids, and [Paul and I] lost touch with each other.”
Over a decade later, as she and her sister attended a gig at Indy’s Flatwater Restaurant in West Broad Ripple, Meldrum happened upon Holdman once more.
Meldrum:“He originally taught me how to play guitar way back when, and we talked about resuming those lessons. When we sat down to work on my guitar, he hit me with a proposition. He was working on an album, and he said, ‘I’ll give you free guitar lessons, if you’ll sing on a couple tracks for the record.’ Well, we never really got very far on the guitar lessons. We would always get sidetracked working on the music for the album.”
Meldrum: “And then he had the opportunity to open a house concert for Phil Madeira, who is Emmy Lou Harris’ songwriter…a great songwriter out of Nashville. That was the second show the two of us had ever done, and it introduced me to that whole musical family.”
Meldrum: “That group is a very, very close-knit group. They are very tight. And here I am this new brainy, 30-year-old, shiny-penny. And everyone is thinking, ‘Who is this woman?’ I mean…nobody knew who I was. It took them a little bit to warm up to me, and today I’m super-close to all of them.”
Wheeler: [Laughing] I’m imagining that first meeting right now.
Meldrum: [Also laughing] “There aren’t a lot of upsides to being a preacher’s kid, but one advantage is that I can be thrown into any situation…I mean any situation, with any type of person, and I can thrive.”
Wheeler: This is something that goes way back for you, then.
Meldrum: “Oh yes. Most of the people at my church didn’t look like me. Most of those folks were Hispanic, so when we moved here to Indiana it was like, ‘White… white… more white.’ I’ve been exposed to the super wealthy, and I had to learn how to navigate that. I’ve also grown up around the poorest of the poorest of the poor. Somewhere in between all of the groups I had to find common ground.”
"I had to get to a place where I was okay about writing about my past. When I first sat down to write about it, I was not ‘okay.’ The difference is that I am now. I’m a much different person. I’m a different artist and musician than I was when I first started."
Photo by Tasha Ramey
But Meldrum didn’t merely have to go through life finding common ground with strangers or newfound friends. She also had to navigate the same waters with herself, especially with her past. When her musical arc took her to the recording studio, she produced a self-titled debut that has been warmly received by fans and critics alike. As The Alternate Root says of her record: “Whether leading the way in a sad soulful ballad (‘Far Away’), stepping lightly between funky guitar wiggles (‘Coat Tails’), or turning the lights low for late-night Blues (‘Whiskey and Wine’), Rebekah Meldrum guides the music with a loose hold on the rhythm and a tight grip on the heat.”
In producing that record, Meldrum left much of the story she wanted to tell on the shelf, mostly because she simply wasn’t ready to tell it.
Meldrum: “This record was a ‘testing of the waters’ for me. I’ve got a lot of material I’ve written that… Well, the next album will be a far more honest record. With this first album I decided to step into this gradually. Because I don’t want to hurt my parents. I don’t want to offend them. But I’m at a point in my relationship with them now where… Well, I’ve talked with them for hours about how I really feel that they understand. They won’t be offended.”
Wheeler: But, to be clear, when you set out to write your first record, you were working on something very different than the one you pressed onto vinyl.
Meldrum: “I spent a lot time in a very dark place, stewing over anger and resentment. The record I started writing… The one I was writing before I settled on the album I actually released… I wasn’t getting the results I wanted with the first one. I finally realized that I had to move past it. It was eating me from inside.”
Meldrum: “So, I went back to California. My sister was living out there at the time, and I went to Joshua Tree. I did a lot of writing, and I did a lot of…letting shit go.”
Meldrum: “That’s when my writing changed. After that, I wasn’t as interested in making a traditional blues album. After that it became about writing my journey.”
Wheeler: This idea of what constitutes the “blues” is a big deal among traditionalists.
Meldrum: “A blues album doesn’t have to be [constrained to a rigid form]. The genre is progressing. It has to. Because if it doesn’t it’s going to die. Sure, there are a lot of old-timers who say, ‘This is how it is, and this is how it’s going to be,’ but… if [the blues sticks to that formula] it’ll die. And I think even they know that.”
Wheeler: Still, people don’t like change.
Meldrum: “I understand the sadness of that. But the exciting thing about the changes is that musicians right now get the opportunity to push the blues in a new direction. This a chance to open it up to a massive audience which it’s never had before.”
"I will always be an album person. For me, an album tells a story. When I listen to a record, I listen to the whole thing. That’s storytelling. Probably the best example of that is Grace Potter’s new album. It’s fantastic."
Photo by Geno Malusek.
What she’s describing is the standard history of music. It changes. It evolves. From the loins of an old genre steeped in tradition is born something new. We’ve seen it before, when both Elvis and Johnny Cash walked into Sun Records in Memphis and transformed the gospel rhythms they grew up on into the genres that would consume the back-half of a century.
Meldrum: “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, you’re a blues musician, and you’re white.’ But I am acutely aware, all the time, that this genre of music did not come from a bunch of white protestants landing on Plymouth Rock. This music came from the horrific history of our country. And not that long ago. My dad remembers segregated pools, drinking fountains, and bathrooms. That is not that long ago. You can fill your seats with your Samantha Fishes, but you also can’t negate the reason why Samantha Fish is standing there in the first place. That’s hard for me. I struggle with that.”
If anyone understands why she’s standing on her stage, at her moment, it’s Meldrum. As she crooned her way through that frigid 14th of February, she did so from a place that exudes peace. All you had to do was watch. Standing in front of the mike as she balanced her sultry lower octaves with seemingly coordinated hand motions Rebekah Meldrum did the thing she does best. She filled the room with music, and she made the world feel much warmer than it really was.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.