Juke Joint Madonna
The Real Toni Price
The women lined up in front of the monitors at the Continental Club are spellbound. They sway with rapture usually reserved for revival tents. One of them is tall with a rhinestone tiara in her long, wild hair; she was passing out the colorful metallic stars the others have sprinkled on their cheeks, foreheads, and breasts. Lost in their reverie, the women dance like disciples of a modern-day muse. A muse named Toni Price.
Sitting between guitarists Caspar Rawls and Matt Giles, Price closes her eyes and tilts her head to the side, as if waiting for a cue only she can hear. Her chestnut mane is shot with silver, and its loose, curly waves are draped around her face like a juke joint Madonna in meditation. She's wearing a Sixties-style floral top over Joplinesque leg-hugging pants, her heels keeping time to the music in backless black pumps. In one liquid movement, she lifts her head and leans into the microphone.
It's dark, smoky, and just past 7pm, but the club is bursting at the seams. Such has been the scene at the Continental every Tuesday for more than seven years, with Price having achieved cult status long ago as the hottest residency in Austin. The men love her, the women adore her, and the guitarists flock to her side -- she's featured just about every six-stringer in town from Rawls and Giles to Jon Dee Graham and Scrappy Jud Newcomb. Moreover, she's a songwriter's dream, blessed with a divine set of pipes. When Toni Price sings, the crowd swoons. Question is, would they react like that for a girl named Luiese?
Turns out Toni Price was born in Philadelphia with another name, but her adoptive parents, the Prices, named her Luiese Esther after her grandmothers. Luiese moved to New Jersey where she started school, then moved to Nashville, where a summer parks program featured a talent contest in her 10th summer. She entered it and told the emcee her name was Toni Price.
"I was determined to sing," says Price. "I remember standing onstage, holding the microphone -- that old-fashioned kind. Just gripping it and singing 'One Tin Soldier' with all my heart, a cappella. Ten years old!
"I got in the car with my mom afterward, thinking she'd say, 'Wonderful!' Instead, mom turns to me and says, 'Who in the heck is Toni Price?'"
Far from the Tuesday ritual and even farther removed from that summer day in Nashville, Toni Price sits in a booth at the Bluebonnet Kitchen, an unpretentious homestyle eatery on Burnet Road that's quickly losing its status as a neighborhood secret. The singer's somber expression is a reminder that Mambo John Treanor died the week before and the loss is fresh on her mind. Price stood by Treanor until the end, and is satisfied he passed in peace.
"I'm not afraid of or hate death," she says thoughtfully. "It's just the suffering and missing the person. Mambo was so strong, I never believed anything could whip him. Even the last night, his hands felt strong and his eyes clear. He was giving orders and saying funny things. I thought, 'All the life's flowing out of his body and still he can do all that.' I really thought he'd make it 'til morning.
"He's gone to his next adventure, and we're left to miss him. I bet Mambo and Doug Sahm are having a talk about groove right about now. A long talk. You know they got a good band!"
Getting Price to talk is an adventure in itself, the singer protecting her private life fiercely and turning down interviews on a regular basis. She almost canceled this one, in fact, begging off by offering, "I say everything I need to say in my songs." And yet, the question remains: Who in the heck is Toni Price?
Onstage, the answer is that she's the loving earth mother of a muse, blessed with a honeyed alto that flatters more styles of music than oughta be allowed. With five critically successful CDs in 10 years, Price is arguably the most popular and successful female vocalist in Austin and keeps it that way by seldom playing far from home. She sports a red heart tattoo on her shoulder in honor of Keith Richards and is no shrinking violet when it comes to stating her opinion. She's done her share of drinking and brawling in the past and doesn't hesitate to criticize sacred cows like South by Southwest. Toni Price even "fired" the Chronicle once.
Away from the stage, spotlight, and adoring fans, Luiese is mother to 7-year-old Della and keeps in regular contact with a married daughter, Amber, who lives on the East Coast. She reads Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, and Gabriel García Márquez, eschews TV, and tends a garden with flower names like Rock Rose and Blue Days. You might say Luiese is the private side of Toni Price the entertainer. If there's any mystery to Toni Price, that's it, but it's no mystery to her. She's known she was Toni Price since that moment onstage.
"All that summer, I told people my name was Toni Price," she explains. "From the Toni perm! I thought it sounded French, kinda elegant. Luiese seemed like a big name for a little girl. I got called Lulu, which I really hated back then. My parents call me Lu. My sister calls me Toni Lu. Names are important."
Important enough for her to change it for that first performance before an audience.
"I didn't really know what 'One Tin Soldier' was about, but it meant something to me. I didn't see the movie [Billy Jack], I just knew the song. Those were the days of listening to the radio for hours just to hear your favorite song. The radio meant so much then. Every song seemed so wonderful, memorable, reminding you of the times of your life. I'd fall sleep with the radio to my ear, a Nashville station playing."
Price's conservative family wasn't particularly musical, though she recalls that her father sang in street corner harmony groups as a youth.
"Since I was adopted, they didn't know what to expect of me, and I believe you're born to do whatever it is you do -- that maybe my [birth] parents were musical. Maybe not. But I knew as a little bitty child I was going to be a singer. I didn't know how you did it or know any musicians, but I knew I would get there."
"There" was eventually Austin, where manager Cameron Randle brought Price in 1989. During the Eighties, she'd kicked around Nashville in bands with names like Mel & the Party Hats, flirted with the Billboard country singles chart, and had her first child. Randle, who also handled Lou Ann Barton, felt Price was ripe for Austin's blues scene, so he booked her on a SXSW showcase. After that, moving to town was a natural. Price was welcomed into the Antone's coterie of players and singers and quickly became one of the most sought-after vocalists in town, even doing a few stints as a singer in Ted Roddy's Graceland Revue.
Welcome to Austin
"The three queens ruled," remembers Price, "Lou Ann, Marcia [Ball], and Angela [Strehli], and I was some sassy butt from Nashville. They were so encouraging, like sisters. No competition, just, 'Come on, little sister, hop on!' In Nashville, everybody hates everybody; it's not loving like it is here. Clifford Antone was, 'Come in to the Home of the Blues.' Just welcomed me. And thank God for [Continental Club owner] Steve Wertheimer. He's there all the way, so hands-on. That's why the club is jumping all the time. I love this town. I kiss it.
"The first time I won Best Female Vocalist, I thought, 'What?!' And Lou Ann says to me, 'Well, honey, you deserve it.' That's how Austin is, open arms. In Nashville everyone's like, 'Oh, you're trying to get my piece of cheese!' But here, we've got plenty of cheese for everyone.'"
That Austin Music Award for Best Female Vocalist was a high-water mark for Price in 1994. Her first full-length album the previous year, Swim Away, had landed her in the ranks of the "Three Queens." Austin fell in love with Toni Price, and Toni Price loved Austin right back. But the cheese Austin offered was spread thin, and after a while, some of it didn't smell too good to Price, especially the annual music conference that had first presented her.
"I told John Conquest's Third Coast it was unfair the whole town worked on a volunteer basis for SXSW, while the artists are underpaid and pushed out of their gigs, and all that money gets taken in instead of going to the musicians. I got this nasty letter from [SXSW director] Roland Swenson that more or less said, 'We are God and you better apologize.'
"So I wrote him back, in blue crayon to show him I am insane, and said, 'South-by crap is one thing, but harassment is another story if you wanna go there.' I never heard from him, and my name was never mentioned in the Chronicle again except for an occasional snide remark. I still think SXSW is not handled well from the artist's point of view. Cab drivers make money, restaurants make money, hotels make money, and the artist, who is the source of all this revenue and hoo-ha, gets nothing. And maybe kicked out for their usual gig."
Though her criticism of SXSW is shared by other local musicians, no one has yet gotten rich working for the venerable conference, and their cramped, overflowing offices are testament to a tight budget and dedicated staff. The conference is, after all, only five days out of the entire year. But that's Toni Price for you, and if she's critical of SXSW, she was just as mad at the Chronicle when Ken Lieck's "Dancing about Architecture" column joked about Kelly Willis and Buck Owens. "Y'all are fired!" wrote Price in a scathing letter to "Postmarks."
"It was too much for me when Buck Owens came to the Continental and something was insinuated about what he and Kelly Willis did in the trailer," contends Price. "That just blew my head off. I felt like, how dare you! These two people are revered. They went off to talk and that's the best the Chronicle can say about Buck Owens? So. I was like, 'Y'all are fired!' and I didn't read the Chronicle for many years. Then I realized I didn't know what was going on in town and I missed everything happening, so I started looking at it again."
Price also protests the rigors of touring, and while she plays select dates around Texas, extended touring is not in her immediate future.
"They've been asking me to go to Europe for years, but I just can't yet. I know many, many men artists who love their children, but it's different if you're the mother and you're the only parent. A lot of physical, emotional, and psychic energy is involved being a mother. It's not a complaint, it's a fact. That comes first. Always.
"After that, I book my band and make sure we work and that I have energy to perform. Men just get up and go perform, and that's fine, but it's not my case. I have a lot of things to do. Plus, I need time to dream. I'm a Pisces. I need time to sift through songs, to cry, or whatever. I need my sleep, and I need my life, freedom.
"You trade all of that for that next level of fame. It's like a cage they give you money to get in, and I don't wanna be in that cage. Ever. I'm so happy with the way things are. I can go to a fancy lunch or Thundercloud, whatever I want. If I were on the road, I'd be tired, I wouldn't eat right, I'd worry about my child, and it wouldn't be good for me or my art or my health.
"I can stay here, make a living, dream, sleep, and snuggle with my kid -- see what she needs. And she needs me, too. Besides my own selfish wants, I'm all she has. She's a wonderful daughter; she's half my material. Everything she says. With Amber, I missed a lot. I dragged her around on the road, left her with her grandparents to go work. I worked as a waitress, even here for the first three years. I admire girls that go out and do all they can, like Candye Kane, but I did that already, and this time I don't have to. Right about the time I started Continental happy hours, I was able to quit day jobs. I feel like I got a second chance to enjoy a child.
"I'm not ready to go away yet, but when it's time and people get tired of me, I'll go to Europe and schmooze around a bit."
Price devotes her musical energy to her voice; the singer's vocal coach since her Nashville days, Rene Grant Williams, is the first person Price thanks on every album. She knows singing is what she does best and makes no pretensions about trying to write music. Toni Price leaves that to the professionals.
Measure for Measure
"I never worried about not being a songwriter," she says blithely. "Even if I change the song, I never take the credit. I can put a dress on, take it up, put on jewelry, a belt, whatever, but I didn't make the dress. And I'm amazed at songwriters. It's a sacred mystery, what they do. Some people open their mouths to sing and that's what I do.
"Gwil Owen thinks he knows what kind of songs I'll like, but he doesn't," chuckles Price, referring to her longtime composer. "He just writes what he wants to write, then he'll send a song and say, 'I think you'll like this one,' and I won't, but I'll like two others he wrote. A song just has to move me, speak to me in some way. I see it like sitting by a river and it coming by and me catching it.
"I heard Shelley King sing 'Who Needs Tears' [see "There's Something About Shelley," p.60] and that song rocks. It says just what I mean. I just love Gwil & David [Olney's] 'Measure for Measure.' That says exactly what I want to say. 'If you don't give, you won't get.'
"And that's what it is about a song, that it says what I want to say. I find songs to say what I want to say, because I can't write. I can't. People say, "You can if you try, blah blah blah. I say this to them: 'You go get a block of marble, take a few sculpting lessons, and you carve me out a statue and we'll see what it looks like. You can't be Michelangelo just because you take some lessons.' And if I can't be Michelangelo, I don't want to be a sculptor."
Not a sculptor maybe, but most assuredly an artist. Price gets involved in everything from production to artwork, as her latest album Midnight Pumpkin illustrates. She worked alongside longtime collaborator Derek O'Brien and Stuart Sullivan in its production and mixing, and with art director Dick Reeves on the cover. The sequencing is all Toni Price too.
"I wanted Midnight Pumpkin to look like an invitation to a fun party, with the cats for a little more magic. I'm very bad at posing, terrible. I wanted something to make me smile, so I thought. 'What's cuter than kittens?' They were in the shot so I could interact with them and have a natural smile instead of ..." Price offers a frozen smile. "It was also a little get-well card to myself, not many tears in it. The sweet side of love. The first song is 'The Start of Something Good,' and the last one is 'We Couldn't Say Goodbye.' That's the happy ending. It tells a little story, something about every part of love and a happy ending."
Like Lucinda Williams' Essence, Toni Price's Midnight Pumpkin transcends genre. It rocks too much to be folky, is too folky to be blues, and too bluesy to be country. That's fine and dandy by Price. She has no patience with the star-making machinery of Nashville and its lack of respect for the old-timers.
"They gotta lotta nerve calling that country music," scowls Price. "Champ Hood played me that Merle Haggard record with the Blaze Foley song, and oh my god, it's Haggard sounding his richest. Manly, strong, tender -- real country music. Singing about grown-up man themes, not the bad boy stuff. Here's Merle, this golden jewel. I'm sure he doesn't give a shit, but why is it not played on the radio? We're getting Shania Twain's twat. It's a travesty."
About eight hours after leaving the Bluebonnet Kitchen, Toni Price is finishing her first set at the Continental to a crowd most bands pray for on a Saturday night. The stage is decorated with balloons and streamers as Champ Hood is back and it's his birthday. There's already been one round of "Happy Birthday" sung onstage, but it's break time and seemingly the entire club files out the club's back door.
Thank You for the Love
"Would you like a star?"
The girl with the rhinestone tiara and ubiquitous metallic stars offers a teal green one. Her name is Adrienne, and she's setting up a table for Hood's birthday cakes, five in all. Another regular, Tammy, baked one of them, and she arranges plates and plastic forks. Caren and some of the others who stand front and center are milling about while Adrienne runs to fetch Hood for another round of celebrating. "Where's Dottie?" someone inquires about an absent regular.
Price makes her way to the street scene, wandering among the fans who are gathered in little groups, chatting, laughing, smoking. Her followers have such a laid-back attitude that the Tuesday gig has long been dubbed "Hippie Hour," the vibe peaceful and loving.
As the break winds to a close, the crowd drifts back inside. Price lingers by the table where the remains of several cakes lie in ruins and dips her finger in one for a taste. She chats with a couple as they make their way to the back door just as the sun is disappearing. Sashaying back into the Continental, Price stops just before crossing the threshold, tosses her mane, and gestures to the street scene with a dazzling smile.
"How sweet it is!" she exclaims.
Now that is Toni Price.