Her Sound: On the back of her rustic acoustic guitar playing and her immediately recognizable, sometimes-childlike-sometimes-antiquated vocals, Valerie June mixes rural blues, Southern soul, back porch country, old-time gospel and Appalachian folk into a sonic stew she cheekily calls “organic moonshine roots music.” “Being from Memphis, I truly love all of the different genres of music that were born and married there,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Blues, gospel, rockabilly, country, I love all of it.”
But when June first started dishing out her bluesy concoction, audiences didn’t know what to do with the finished product, much less how to label it. “At first, they didn’t know what to call my music. So I knew I had to help people out,” she relates. “I wanted to call it something magical, and at the core of blues, gospel, folk, and rock & roll is roots music – so that’s what I ended up calling it.”
Big Break: In 2009, June appeared in the MTV series $5 Cover, an episodic show chronicling the modern Memphis music scene from the mind of director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan). June came by the gig pretty easily — “I used to serve Craig coffee every morning,” she reveals — and it certainly paid off for the struggling artist. “I acted on the show and I got to perform ‘No Draws Blues,’ my only blues song at the time, for a huge audience. It was the first national attention that I received.”
It was both her appearance on $5 Cover and the following year’s release of her collaborative EP with Old Crow Medicine Show, titled Valerie June and the Tennessee Express, that lead to June gaining quite a fan base in Nashville. “Those things opened the door for me to work with Dan [Auerbach, of the Black Keys] and the guys at Easy Eye Studio in Nashville. Having their stamp of approval on the music that I was making really helped to crack open some doors for me to kick the rest of the way in.”
The Auerbach-produced Pushin’ Against a Stone was released in 2013 and featured Memphis legend Booker T. Jones on “Somebody to Love” and “On My Way.” Prior to the album’s release, June also made a name for herself in the U.K. after performing stunning versions of “Workin’ Woman’s Blues” and “Twined and Twisted” on the show Later… With Jools Holland and by supporting Jake Bugg on his European tour.
Why We’re Listening: June’s homespun brand of blues is rich with emotion and a well-earned authenticity that she has come by honestly and naturally. “Memphis is not a machine, and it’s not going to make you a star,” she asserts. “What it’s going to give you is a soul and a heart that you can take anywhere in the world and people are going to get it.”
June’s approach to the blues is also something that is more a product of her internal character than her external circumstances. “I’m really picky about my blues. When I was playing Memphis, I only had like one blues song in my set. It was kind of an accident that I started playing blues music because I never really planned it. My songs just end up coming out bluesy and folksy.”
Listen closely to the moan ‘n wail wallop of songs like “You Can’t Be Told” and “Workin’ Woman’s Blues” from Pushin’ Against a Stone and you won’t just feel the primal stomp-and-sway of June’s songs, you’ll believe every word she’s singing. June believes that this is because love is at the heart of all of her songs. “Sid Selvidge did an incredible version of the song ‘How I Got to Memphis’ that talks about people finding themselves in Memphis because of love,” she says. “It’s funny because when I heard that song, I was like, ‘Yep, that’s how I got to Memphis too!’”
Favorite Memphis Music Venues: If you ask June what some of her favorite Memphis music venues are, be prepared for an eclectic and enticing list of haunts. “When I first started playing music in Memphis, I told my band that I wanted to play Java Cabana because they’ve got the oldest running open mic night in Memphis. That’s where we started building our first following,” she reminisces.
Some of the musician’s favorite spots in Memphis are just as much for listening as they are for playing. “Wild Bill’s is a venue to just go and see music. It’s a down-home juke joint, not like Beale Street blues, but like serious, fun blues. It’s so tight and sweaty in there and everyone’s eating fried chicken and drinking forties. It’s a late-night spot. They don’t really get going until after one in the morning. Also, there’s the Buccaneer, where your feet stick to the floor and you can crank up the amps and get crazy. It’s just a really fun vibe, like being in somebody’s garage with a bunch of booze and loud music.”
Memphis Scoop: “Memphis is a very nurturing town to an artist who’s just starting out,” says June. “You can perform in front of a crowd of people while still having your training wheels on and you won’t get discouraged. If you’re attempting to do something, Memphis will be cool with it and still give you a pat on the back.”
It’s not just the encouraging music-listening audiences in Memphis that stick out to June, but the individual people, as well. “In Memphis, you’ll meet people that fill your soul. You’ll never meet anybody that can replace the people that you meet in Memphis.”
For June, two of those memorable individuals are Jason Freeman and Robert Belfour, who passed away earlier this year. “Jason is a friend and a musician in Memphis that shared his amazing record collection with me. He showed me an old E.C. and Orna Ball blues song (“Trials, Troubles, and Tribulations”) that I ended up covering on Pushin’ Against a Stone. Mr. Belfour was an amazing hill country blues musician that I stalked all over west Tennessee and Arkansas. If I heard that he was playing a show somewhere, anywhere, I was there.”
While June admits that any road trip to Memphis should definitely include such legendary landmarks as Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Center for Southern Folklore, there’s one not-quite-so-famous stop that she’s convinced should be added to the itinerary: an odds-and-ends gift shop called Maggie’s Farm. “I can still remember the first time I walked into Maggie’s Farm. I was 18 and I had just moved to Memphis,” she remembers. “It’s a beautiful gift shop and a really sweet place where you can get all kinds of teas, oils, incense, and beautiful candles. I ended up working there for almost 10 years.
“I loved working on Maggie’s Farm,” she laughs. “I don’t know what Bob Dylan was talking about.”
Watch for Yourself: Earlier this year, June was invited to participate in the “Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster” concert at the Kennedy Center celebrating the revered bluesman’s legacy. During the show, she boldly belted an acapella version of “Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well No More” to an enraptured audience response. The day before, June recorded a live solo acoustic take on “Goodnight Irene,” one of Lead Belly’s most celebrated signature songs.