The Laziest Girl in Town
Slowing down, Elizabeth McQueen?
On an unseasonably warm January afternoon, Elizabeth McQueen lounges on the curved tangerine sofa in her East Austin home, glasses whimsically askew atop her sculpted nose. With a wave of the hand, she revisits the epiphany that brought her to Austin from Maryland in 2001.
"Commuting. Sitting in traffic, gridlock, I thought: 'I'm not doing it. I'm not raising a family here or going to be part of this East Coast thing.' That's when I decided to move to Austin. I'd never been to Austin. I just knew the thing I really wanted to do was play music."
Common revelation that, oft-told and rarely with a twist, except maybe this one: McQueen was departing from her home in Columbia, Md., where, in 1970, a newly minted country band called Asleep at the Wheel coincidentally played its very first gig.
If few bands were playing Western swing that year, fewer still played it on the East Coast, and in 1973, bandleader Ray Benson moved the group to Austin, the cosmic cowboy capital. In the 40 years since, Asleep at the Wheel has amassed Grammys (nine) while circling the globe as freewheeling ambassadors of good-time Texas swing, a job that's called musicians left and right into the spotlight. A few were Texas-born; most, like Benson himself, moved here with purpose.
"For some reason," echoes McQueen, approximately the 83rd member of Asleep at the Wheel, "Austin was the only place I wanted to go."
"I feel like a Texan. My dad actually grew up in the Valley – Mercedes, Texas. When he was 14, he moved to Little Rock, but he always felt like a Texan. I think I inherited that feeling. I never felt totally at home until I moved to Austin."
Texas mojo lured Elizabeth McQueen back south naturally. Born in 1977 in Little Rock, Ark., she was only a few years younger than her father had been at the time of his uprooting when the architect relocated the family to Columbia, Md., a near-utopian sort of community. A self-proclaimed geek in high school, she took classical singing lessons and performed in bands with names like "William James Said."
"But I was just the singer. I didn't even know how to set up a mic. I didn't play an instrument. I'd never considered music a viable career choice. I come from a family of visual artists. The idea of making a living doing something so fun didn't seem possible."
At the University of Maryland, McQueen got two degrees, one in English, the other in anthropology. Life's path led to social work, a noble effort she burned out on after a year, but through which she recognized her desire to move to Austin.
Once settled here, she formed and bestowed on her new band a name that sizzled with her own vision of 1980s-informed, rootsy rock. Between 2003's The Fresh Up Club and Happy Doing What We're Doing two years later, Elizabeth McQueen & the Firebrands left their mark on the local scene. "The many men and women who've been Firebrands" include lead twanger Andrew Nafziger, bassist Lindsay Greene, and guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, now of Okkervil River.
One bandmate stood out: Wheel drummer David Sanger, a bear of a man currently rattling around in the kitchen as the couple's 2-year-old daughter Lisel wakes from a nap.
"I met Dave because I wanted him to produce a record of mine," says McQueen, coyly toying with the heavy chestnut braid resting on her shoulder. "We started hanging out and much to my dismay, he asked me on a date.
"I was like: 'Come on! We're 16 years apart! You seriously think I will go out with you?'"
"I told her I was good at making babies!" calls Sanger from the kitchen, shuffling behind Lisel into the living room.
"I wanted an old-school country feel to my record," she says. "When I first started talking to him about it, he showed up at my door with a huge stack of records he'd produced, so I listened to them all."
So, Mr. Sanger ... was that to demonstrate the work you'd done, or to impress her?
"Yes," Sanger grins affably.
McQueen and Sanger began dating in 2001 and married in 2004, a heady romance fueled by tours, gigs, recordings, and joint projects, including the singer's jazzy 2010 gem, The Laziest Girl in Town (see "Texas Platters," Nov. 26, 2010).
"Elizabeth really produced that record," insists Sanger. "After telling me to back off about 10 times, I did."
"We've made good records together, and we are still together!" McQueen volleys back.
Sanger chuckles and looks down to the pixie-faced Lisel, now brandishing a black umbrella.
"Come along," he says, folding his bear paw around his daughter's elfin hand and leading her to the front door. "Let's go look for rain."
David Sanger, raised in Southern California, moved to Austin in 1984. He gigged with W.C. Clark, Elouise Burrell & Trickle Down, and others before signing up with Asleep at the Wheel later that decade. Although he took a sabbatical from the kings of Texas swing in the 1990s, he rolled again as a spoke in the Wheel when he and McQueen married in 2004. At Ray Benson's birthday show the following year, Sanger's wife summoned the courage to sing two Wheel songs.
"So, when ya gonna get on the bus with us?" drawls McQueen, imitating the band's 6-foot-7-inch figurehead. "I laughed because I didn't know what to think. He's my husband's boss – really big and kinda intimidating."
McQueen's career stood at the proverbial crossroads in 2005. Five years of steady gigging and good notices with the Firebrands meant upping the tour ante and aiming for a higher national profile. One night, her husband called from the road, mentioning that a band member was leaving and her name was up for consideration as replacement.
McQueen pauses for effect, breath held for a count, then pumps her fists into the air.
"The fact that Ray hired the wife of one of his longtime band members is an amazing thing," continues the singer.
"I was presented with the opportunity to play in this awesome band, travel with my husband, and learn this amazing music. Luckily, musical personalities worked, and it was an easy transition for me into the band.
"My hat's off to Ray for taking that risk. It could have been Spinal Tap."
"Even though I didn't step into an immediate slot, when I started listening to the older stuff, I knew I had serious shoes to fill. I couldn't just get up and do what I was doing. I had to learn some chops, because the history of women in Asleep at the Wheel is heavy."
That unexpected weight swung into McQueen's capable hands when she got on the bus in 2005. The Wheel hadn't featured a female vocalist since Chris O'Connell left the second time in 1990, and its short list of female singers and players includes Maryann Price and Cindy Cashdollar. The challenge of taking her girl-next-door style – strong, soaring, big-band vocals that suit jazz as well as country – into a legendary band as at home at the Kennedy Center as the Broken Spoke appealed to McQueen's sense of adventure.
"At the 40th anniversary, I finally got to see Chris with the band. There's a lot of lore about Chris, and to see her sing live was amazing! I've known Maryann for a long time, what an incredible singer, too!" enthuses McQueen.
"When I joined Asleep at the Wheel and heard Maryann and Chris, I thought: 'I better learn to sing. Really sing.' I started listening to Betty Carter and Nina Simone the way [Bob Wills' Texas] Playboys showed the Wheel guys how to play.
"I hope there's a generation coming up now who'll be going to Ray, 'Hey, can you show me that lick?'"
Sittin' on Top of the World
"Ray Benson," begins McQueen, words tough, "is the Man.
"He does more work than anyone else in the band. As a bandleader coming into another band, I'd never seen anyone work as hard as Ray. That was an eye-opener. He's the boss, the rest of us are employees, but we're not peons. It's a familial and ever-changing dynamic. Even though the Wheel is primarily based around the idea of being a Western swing band, it means you have heavy blues and heavy jazz influence. They are jazzers. Ray wants people to play different solos every night. That's the basis of jazz.
"I probably never sang the same song the same way twice. Ray never came to me and said, 'Just sing it like Chris.' If you go really far off the rails, he might take you aside and say, 'Tone it down.' That's his way. He took me aside once and said, 'You sing with a lot of vibrato, and you need to straighten it out.'
"I was like: 'Whatever! I don't sing with a lot of vibrato!'
"But it was easy for me to sing with a lot of vibrato. So I listened to other singers like Ella Fitzgerald and thought about how you make a tone more even.
"When we went out on the Willie & the Wheel tour with Willie [Nelson], that was the thrill of the lifetime, because I got to sing with Willie. Every night. 'Sittin' on Top of the World.' He was so nice. He'd always say, 'And now here's my favorite part of the show.' That's another, 'Thank you, Ray Benson,' because it was Ray's idea to do that song as a duet. When we started, I thought, 'Great, I'll be doing background vocals!'
"But he said, 'We're doing a duet, and you're gonna sing with Willie.'
"I had no concept of what it was like to sing with Willie until we did it live. Amazing. Words fail me. He's such a present guy as a performer. When you sing a duet with him, he looks into your eyes the entire time. And he's Willie Nelson, so he changes things every night. So I'd change things, and we'd play off each other. It was like, 'Wow.'
"Just to watch Willie sing and engage the audience is something, because people lose their shit when Willie walks onstage. Unbelievable. And it's because he's open, full of love, that he makes you feel open and full of love. He is everyman. He really is. It was like going to school every night – someone I could watch and learn to be in my own life. It's not just showbiz hocus-pocus where he walks offstage and it's like, 'Nah, kid.'
"He's the real deal."
Elizabeth McQueen's hand rests on her softly curved belly. She is content in repose. For the moment, the house is quiet, the voices outside muffled. It won't be that way long.
The second McQueen-Sanger production is slated for arrival April 28, and she plans to stop performing at the end of March. In July, she'll resume local appearances and expand Wheel shows from there. Certainly, she will post, as she frequently does on her Miles & Miles of Diapers blog. At 33, the determination in her voice suggests she may start another album before the baby's born.
The Laziest Girl in Town not only celebrated McQueen's first decade in Austin with a sultry, jazzy style, a departure from the Firebrands' leathery roots and rock, it was also the first under her name alone. The Fresh Up Club and Happy Doing What We're Doing were both credited to Elizabeth McQueen & the Firebrands, symbolic of the fierce loyalty she feels to the circles of friends and family that link her life on and off the road.
"You go through this intense period of living with people who are friends but not family, then you go home and live with family until you go back to work.
"Now, we're like satellites, pilot fish. Here's the huge bus going down the road and our little van, the baby bus, next to them (but mostly, in front of them). We only see them at gigs or checking into the hotel. We don't spend a concentrated amount of time with them anymore.
"It almost makes playing more fun, because when I get there, all I have to do is play music. For 90 minutes, I don't have to parent or plan. Dave and I have this ongoing logistical conversation: How are we going to do this, personnelwise, kidwise? The evolution of having a kid on the road has made touring more fun. There's something very meaningful about traveling with your family."
Lisel's squeal of laughter from the yard punctuates McQueen's words.
"It's been great for both of us, co-parenting, so that neither parenting nor making money is a burden shouldered on one. We always thought it was badass to be a couple on the road, touring the country, playing, going to Europe. Now, we get to do it with our daughter.
"When I got pregnant with her, I thought: 'That's it! It's over, I'm done!' People would even say, 'Yeah, mmm-hmmm, slowing down ...,' and part of me believed it. And without the band's help, I might have left.
"But I could Wheel the rest of my life."