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Bettye LaVette says she’s not a songwriter or a producer. She’s a singer. And for more than 40 years, she’s been soul-singing in a voice that, during a lively phone interview, she describes as “very different,” “raw” and “harsh.” With that unique, drama-drenched instrument, she’s taken command of songs by everybody from Joe Simon and Janis Joplin to John Prine and Bruce Springsteen. Most recently, on the Grammy-nominated and Drive-By Truckers-backed The Scene of the Crime, the material formerly belonged to the likes of Don Henley, Elton John and Willie Nelson.
But wait: She is a songwriter, albeit a reluctant one. “Patterson [Hood, of the Truckers] started from the moment we got there, ‘You’ve got to write a song,’” LaVette recalls of the Crime recording sessions in Muscle Shoals. “I said, ‘Patterson, I can’t write.’” But Hood was relentless, citing things that LaVette would say in the studio like “Close shooting don’t kill no birds” and how they’d be perfect in a song. “I speak in quotes like all the black women in my family, and they’ve said some funny shit.”
After some transcription and some spirited back and forth, “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)” was born, cowritten by LaVette and Hood. It has, of course, an opening line about close shooting.
And she is a producer, too, even if her methods are a little unconventional. “Because I don’t play any instruments, I had to act out what I wanted them to do,” says LaVette about how she communicated with the Truckers. She’s listed alongside Hood and David Barbe as a Crime producer. “Mostly what I do is just feel, and if you’re trying to get somebody to play an instrument, you have to give them a little more than that.” At one point, LaVette fell screaming in the middle of the floor. After that, she simply said, “Can you replicate that on guitar?”
That’s just moonlighting, though. Bettye LaVette, as you might have noticed, is a singer. So what songs will that offbeat masterpiece of a voice take ownership of next? Any within earshot, most likely. “When I hear a song, I don’t even hear the other person singing it,” LaVette says. “I hear me singing it.”
Bettye LaVette will perform at Cary’s Herb Young Community Center Saturday, Jan. 12, as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Dreamfest. Tickets range from $15-$18, and the evening starts at 7:30 p.m. with monologist Mike Wiley opening.