Kelly Thomas would be pissed at me if I started rambling on about feminism and her victories over the stereotypical "woman's place" in music. Well, OK, not pissed exactly. She'd probably roll her eyes and shriek, Scarlet O'Hara-style, "Ohhhh, ah tayle yah, lahff is soooo hahrrrd on us laydeeees!"
And then she'd chuckle, slap the table and lean closer, finger-stabbing the air conspiratorially as if suddenly reminded of something — "No, but I'll tell you what does get on my nerves ..."
Kelly's a sister-girl. Talk to her for five minutes and she'll have gleaned your deepest secrets, summed up your love life and put you to work at the door for one of her gigs. Her animated, thought-a-second style of interaction is evidence of an overflowing plate.
Working full time as a social worker, it might seem logical to call her music a side gig, but that's hardly an apt description. She organizes the Rivertown Music Club (which she began with her old band, Second Sister), a regular showcase at various local venues featuring a spectrum of artists, including her own act, Kelly Thomas & the Fabulous Pick-ups.
She also teams with other music enthusiasts to divvy up the Red MacCormack Memorial Recording Grants, a fund for local musical acts commemorating a musician whom, in life, Kelly both admired and admonished, and now misses dearly.
Name any local music gathering within the past few years and there's a good chance Kelly played a role.
"It's funny (being such a visible part of the local music scene)," she says. "I have my (16-year-old) son's friends coming up to me and saying, 'Ms. Thomas, you rock!' and I'm like, 'Oh my God, it won't be long before they're hanging out in the same bars as me!' "
As with any (over)working mother, one is prompted to wonder if she ever has time to feel. But if proof is needed, one can pop Another Mile into the CD player. Kelly's new effort speaks volumes.
The album's last track — a throaty, hotter-than-a-Cincinnati-July cover of Etta James' "At Last" — is one of her favorites. "We purposely left a lot of mistakes on there," Kelly admits, "but you can hear little things, like my laugh at the end. That's my laugh, that's me."
Much of the CD embodies a style similar to songstresses like Patty Griffin, who might be one of Thomas' few concessions to the feminism debate ("Put her right up there next to Neil Young; the girl holds her own"). There is a comfortable, fireside feeling to songs like "Girl Like Me"; the Baptist organs and woeful lyrics recall a much-needed aside with a close friend at the church picnic. It's that system of conversational performance that Kelly believes to be in short supply locally. As part of her album release celebration, one show at the Poison Room will be a more intimate, listener-friendly affair.
Kelly's Appalachian roots are evident in the music she creates as well as covers. "I don't know how literally she meant it, but (my grandmother) said she walked here from way down in Kentucky to be with the rest of her family after her father died," Kelly says. "Those stories remind me that I'm strong, that I come from a long history of strong people."
The title track — a hillbilly-mod hymn that Thomas co-wrote and recorded with fellow local musician Ryan Mallot (of 500 Miles to Memphis) — chronicles that journey and is a prime example of the record's collaborative spirit. But that's not where the song was conceived — it was actually one of many seeds planted in Kelly's consciousness by a former love, a guitar man.
"I am an absolute guitar freak; I pray for guitars I can click with," says Kelly, who does not play an instrument ("At least not in public!"). Vocals are her main concern, something that is obvious when listening to songs like "Take This Heart" and its simple acoustic guitar backdrop showcasing pure vocalized desperation. That same recipe is used in "Man of the Hour," only with a little extra audible hurt thrown in.
"I get an idea and I sing it into a tape recorder," Kelly says. "Yeah, it's a pain in the ass, but I can hear myself and my ballsy, imperfect voice."
KELLY THOMAS (myspace.com/kellythomasampthefabulouspickups) hosts a CD release party Saturday at The Poison Room and June 10 at The Blue Note.