Life in the blues jungle is demanding. It's a specific musical society with a well-defined culture and attitude and to thrive therein, a player must be ready to deliver the uncut goods. For Texas blues guitarist-singer Catherine Denise, a figure so diminutive it seems her guitar might outweigh her, the challenges can be even greater.
“It's always been hard being a woman in the blues.” Denise said. “You get to a club and when the people see a woman come in, especially a petite woman, they all say ‘Uh-oh, what is she going to do?' But after that first song, once we've broken the ice, the people always like it and I feel good. But I always feel good — the stage is my home.”
Already a blues veteran even though she is barely out of her 20s, Denise, who appears Sunday at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, has established herself as a formidable talent. Her debut album, 2001's “Treat Me like a Lady” was a soul-stirring collection of guitar-driven blues and she has spent the majority of the last decade barnstorming from Texas to California, enlivening the blues circuit with powerhouse guitar and smoldering, understated vocals. And she has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, Denise was named both a great blues artist and an ambassador to San Antonio by the Texas Blues Hall of Fame.
Denise is a completely self-propelled force, not just as a musician, but also as her own booking agent, webmaster, graphic artist for her own fliers and soon, legal advisor. “I haven't been gigging that much because I am finishing law school. I am earning a JD, Jurist Doctorate, studying music law, because I think it's important to know every aspect of the industry you're in. And I'm finishing work on my second album — I hope to have that out next year.”
Music has been a lifelong avocation for Denise. “I was classically trained on the piano from age 6, and a few years later I picked guitar, and I was able to learn that very quickly. My fingers were flexible from playing piano; I had studied music theory and that made it easy to learn guitar.”
After she discovered the blues as a teenager, her life's course was set, despite the inevitable oppositions she faced.
“I was 15 when I started in the blues,” she said. “And I'd go into recording studios and the musicians and engineers would tell me, ‘You'll never be able to play lead guitar — your hands are too little!' I always thought that was funny. And I would just tell them, ‘Well, I am going to try it anyway.' And to this day, I will still sometimes go up to another guitarist and say ‘Let me see your hands.' And their fingers are maybe just a little bit longer, but that doesn't matter — it's all about technique, how you do it.”
She does it well indeed. Her guitar tone is rich and slightly dirty, and she has skill enough to play rhythm and lead simultaneously, which — ask any guitarist — is no small feat. Denise's soloing is always tasteful, never overplayed; and her vocals are put across with communicative flair and a tinge of steam-heated, old-school soul. It's a rich, full sound which she has worked very hard to achieve.
“Texas is guitarland, especially Austin; there are a lot of good players,” Denise said. “If you want to play regularly, you've got to go to Austin. Even though I'm from San Antonio, when I was starting out, all the gigs there lasted four hours and I couldn't manage that at the time. I just didn't have the repertoire to be able to do that. So I'd have my mom drive me to Austin; there were always a lot of jams going on.
“When I was still a teenager, one of teachers threw me onstage at [legendary blues club] Antone's. Oh yeah, that was a lot of fun! I was really nervous, but it worked out just fine.”
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Sunday, Oct 6, 8:30 p.m.
Cost: No cover, two-drink minimum
More info: (818) 729-0805
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”