Bettye LaVette Returns to the Scene

 
She would prepare for a take the way I picture De Niro getting into character for a film. It occurred to me that Bettye was very much a method actor and her attention to every minute detail of a lyric is nothing less than astounding.

-Patterson Hood

 

Building on her buzz, LaVette's booking agent invited Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti- Records, an imprint of Epitaph, to come watch her perform.

Bettye LaVette
"My agent booked a show and asked Andrew to come and he did. He came in the dressing room, and he has this huge afro and he's almost seven feet tall. He had on this dingy t-shirt and no socks and these fluffy loafers, I thought, 'Oh my God, as bad as I need a record [deal], and this is who I impress?'," recalls LaVette, who is still amazed, "That this young guy could even hear me."

Kaulkin came straight from his table into the dressing room and said, "I want to do a record with you." LaVette continues, "He had never heard any of my records. He didn't know who the heck I was but, by the same token, I had never heard any of his records, and I didn't know who the heck he was either. And I looked cuter than he did and had just done a good show, so at that point, in the dressing room, I had more going for me between the two of us."

"I had never heard of Epitaph. I had never heard of Anti-. I had never heard of him or any of the artists on the label. I know how long I had been doing it [and] he didn't look old enough to have done it that long," adds LaVette. "When I did find out who he was, and about the company, well, it's like your grandchildren sitting down and saying, 'I don't want to be with my friends, I want to spend the whole day with you, grandma.'"

LaVette says from that moment on Kaulkin has been "The Bettye LaVette Brain."

"This is the smartest guy, in terms of this business. I believe the last time I had anything to do with this business in any major way was almost all of his life ago," she says. Kaulkin suggested that LaVette record an entire album of compositions by women songwriters for their first project, an idea LaVette originally opposed.

Kaulkin & LaVette by Kevin Kiley
"I just don't have a clue," she laments. "He thinks of the greatest things for me to do, and gives me so much leeway to do them. When he came up with the idea for the all-woman thing, I said, 'Well first of all, I'm not sitting around listening to no broads sing all day long, trying to find those songs. So, you listen to them.'" Kaulkin sent LaVette 100 songs of which she chose ten. "He thought I was going to choose maybe 30 or 40, maybe 50. I said, 'No, there's just not that many songs that I want to sing.' Out of any ten, there may be one that I want to sing, but not necessarily. I think if people chose their friends and people more selectively like that, it would work out a little better," offers LaVette, a master of the lost art of reinterpretation. "I choose the songs that I want to sing, that I can interpret best, and that really have something to do with me, or at least something that I want to speak on."

When LaVette sent Kaulkin the ten songs that she wanted to do for the new album in their original form, he wasn't sure they would go together. LaVette told him, "They will when I sing them. I'll be the tying force - they'll sound more alike when I sing them." Kaulkin trusted LaVette's artistic vision and the result, 2005's critically applauded I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, spoke for itself.

"[Andrew] says, 'You rock!' and I say, 'I don't, Andrew. I roll.' He's wonderfully smart and he believes me, and if I say I can sing it, he believes me at first."

Returning To The Scene

Finally, LaVette was experiencing long deserved success, but she wasn't done yet. It was time for her return to The Scene of the Crime. Kaulkin's next idea was to pair LaVette with a working band to record an album. Turns out that one of the players from the 1972 Atlantic sessions, bass player David Hood, had a son named Patterson of the legendary (in some circles) Drive-By Truckers.

Bettye LaVette
Patterson Hood recalls receiving the call from Kaulkin, "Having grown up worshipping the great soul albums and always wanting to get to work with one of the legends, I jumped at the chance to get to work with her. I had found an import of the 1972 album and was also a huge fan of her Anti- debut." Hood explains that Kaulkin's vision was to create "a sort of Exile on Bettye LaVette Street." Except, LaVette is no fan of the Rolling Stones and having worked so hard for so long for her time in the spotlight, she wasn't about to share it with a bunch of "young upstarts like myself and my band," recalls Hood, who set out to select songs for LaVette to sing and experienced even less success then Kaulkin. "Having established that we wouldn't be co-writing together, I sent her around fifty songs to listen to and batted a big zero, as we didn't record a single one of them," moans Hood.

LaVette laughs at this recollection, "Patterson's been saying he sent me 50 songs and I threw them back at him. So I've been telling people he did not. He only sent me 40. When I hear a song, I know whether it applies to what I want to sing. It's like choosing someone that you want to go to bed with. That's why no one can choose a song and give it to me. It would be like choosing someone for me to go to bed with."

Once the songs were selected, everyone involved in the project convened in Muscle Shoals. LaVette and her husband met Hood at Swampers, the lounge in the Marriott Hotel made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Swampers is covered nearly wall-to-wall with photographs of the many greats who came to Muscle Shoals to make records back in the '60s and '70s. Hood arrived late because he hadn't expected to see LaVette that evening and his ringer was turned off.

"They had sat there at the bar for a little while before I got there to pick them up. Tired from their trip down from New Jersey and no doubt having a cocktail or two, surrounded by black and white photos celebrating a musical legacy that she was a part of," Hood says. "It was surely duly noted that there was no photograph of Bettye LaVette on the wall of Swampers and with the addition of a couple more cocktails there just might be hell to pay."

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