But though she can flawlessly reanimate prewar blues classics, Flower isn’t content to be just another curator of the classic blues museum. Instead, she draws on traditional, contemporary, and original material to create something brand new, a sound that, while uniquely her own, remains true to the timeless power of the blues. As the only woman to twice finish in the top three at the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship, and with six critically-acclaimed CDs (her just-released Bywater Dance is the latest), and three instructional DVDs to her credit, Mary Flower is a highly respected and world-renowned singer/guitarist, in demand for festivals, concerts and guitar camps on both sides of the Atlantic. She has honed these skills in 30 years of performing, starting in high school in her home state of Indiana, where she grew up in a musical family. There wasn’t much of a blues scene in Indiana then, but her career inspiration came when she saw a performance by Delta transplant Yank Rachell, the singer/mandolinist/guitarist who recorded with both Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Williamson I on some of the most powerful and important blues recordings ever made. Rachell spent the final years of his career in Indiana. Thus inspired, Mary left Indiana and head west to Denver, where she would make her home for the next 30 years and where Flower’s career truly, er, blossomed.
She began taking her music more seriously, teaming with country-folk singer-songwriter Katy Moffatt, testing her skills and learning the ways of the road on the national coffeehouse circuit. Then life got in the way, and Mary, tired of the grind of touring, settled down, getting married and raising two kids. But if she gave up the business end of the music business, she never slowed down her musical pace, woodshedding through these years, developing the individual styles that serve her so well today. For most performers this would have been the end of the story. But for Mary, it was just the beginning.
In a way, her break from touring may have been the best thing ever to happen to her. Mary’s break allowed her to continue playing without becoming burned out living out of a suitcase, going through the endless grind of national tours that singer/guitarists faced in the ‘70s and 80s. Instead, she stayed close to home, hammering out a career as a regional favorite, working with future Prairie Home Companion regular Pat Donohue and the loosely organized band called the Mother Folkers. Gradually, she developed a strong following, winning regional music awards, while continually sharpening her singing, playing and songwriting skills. After a divorce and when her kids were old enough, Mary returned to the national music scene with freshness and new resolve. Her break had given her the unbeatable combination of a veteran’s skills and a rookie’s enthusiasm, that openness and joyful commitment that Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.” Her national career resumed in earnest in 1993, when she served as a guest artist for Blues Week at the prestigious Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia.
Word spread fast, and she quickly became an attraction on the national concert, coffeehouse and festival circuits. She’s also become an Augusta regular, returning there to teach just about every year. Her love of the blues tradition and her desire to extend that tradition to future generations has led her to become one of the most in-demand teachers and performers at other guitar camps and seminars in the States and Europe. She has twice placed in the top three at the hotly competitive National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship, the only woman to ever do so.
Before Bywater Dance, she made five fine records (Blues Jubilee, Rosewood & Steel, Honey From the Comb, Ladyfingers, and Ragtime Gal), receiving rave reviews and the attention of the guitar, folk and blues press, including articles in the mainstream print media as well as Acoustic Guitar Magazine. She’s also made three instructional DVDs, Fingerstyle Ragtime Guitar, Fingerstyle Blues in E, and Guitar Arrangements in Dropped D Tuning. Her growing reputation as a blues expert also led to her being invited by the Blues Foundation to sit on a panel during the W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis, the Grammy Awards of the blues world. But Mary Flower, who now makes her home in Portland, Ore., has never been a simple traditionalist, content merely to reproduce the great music of the past.
Flower’s innovative spirit and long familiarity with the blues inspires her to break new ground, mixing genres and creating fresh sounds that nonetheless remain true to the spirit of the blues’ originators. It’s that mix of tradition and innovation that drew the attention of Yellow Dog Records, a label that has quickly earned a reputation for bringing new sounds under the blues tent. So while it’s her fleet and fluid take on Piedmont guitar and classic ragtime, as well as her unique lap-slide blues that first catch the ear on her new CD, it’s Flower’s adventurous spirit that burns brightest on Bywater Dance, with its compelling, freewheeling blend of her own stellar fretwork with New Orleans rhythms from jazz to funk. The 14-song CD is a full dance card, blending Flower’s masterful guitar and vocals with a Who’s Who of contemporary New Orleans greats, including pianist Henry Butler, clarinetist Dr. Michael White and keyboardist Jon Cleary, among others.
Despite those impressive names, it’s Mary’s own vision that takes the lead in Bywater Dance. That’s the best way to get to know who Mary Flower is. Give it a listen and you’ll be swept away by her unique mix of master musicianship and the pure joy of creation. With three decades of music and a couple of detours behind her, today, Mary Flower is a performer in her prime, playing at the top of her game and enjoying every note every step of the way.
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