By Brian Ives
Best Blues Album isn’t a GRAMMY category that gets much hype, but it’s home to one of the most compelling backstories this year, and likely one you haven’t heard yet.
Singer Beth Hart and guitarist Joe Bonamassa are nominated for Seesaw, their second album as a duo. It’s one of two albums that Hart released in 2013 (the other being her solo effort, Bang Bang Boom Boom). A few years ago, the idea that she would have two albums and a shot at a GRAMMY would have been unlikely at best. Hart was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter in the ’90s, headlining Lollapalooza’s second stage back when it was summer tour and not one of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions. She had a hit single in 1999 with “L.A. Song (Out Of This Town)”, a staple on adult contemporary radio that year.
And then things went bad, as they often do in this business. Drugs, alcohol and a (then-) unmedicated bipolar disorder ran her career into the ground. A lackluster performance on Leno led to her losing her record deal, and things got worse even from there.
In a conversation with Radio.com last year, Hart described how she came back from the abyss.
“At some point, instead of me dying or living on the street, there was something in me that said you’ve got to fight back, you’ve got to get some help,” she said. “That wouldn’t have happened without my husband [her former road manager, Scott Guetzkow]. But music was over for me. I had no record deal, no touring, no nothing, I couldn’t leave the house, I had agoraphobia. But after a year and a half of therapy… I called my manager and said I really want to start working again. This was in 2001 or so.”
She released a new album Leave A Light On in 2003, and offers starting coming in from concert promoters in Europe. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna get a second chance,'” she recalls. “And then we started working a lot, and that’s where I’ve been for the last ten years.”
It took a while before she even attempted performing stateside again. “I still was terrified to come here, even though I live here,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ll become a drug addict again, I’ll freak out again if I’m in the United States.’
“And then a couple of years ago, something switched in my brain where I thought, ‘Bull****, I’m a human being, things happen.’ Could it happen again? Sure, it could happen again. But why would that keep me from at least trying. Why? The next thing I know, I had a [record] deal for the States, and we’re putting Bang Bang Boom Boom out here. If nothing else comes from it, just that story right there has brought me so much joy and healing. I can’t complain about one thing.”
It was her post-recovery gigs that have led to her ongoing partnership with Joe Bonamassa. The duo have two albums together to date: the aforementioned Seesaw, and 2011’s Don’t Explain. It was while they made their first album together that she really found her voice as a blues singer.
“I remember when I made the record with Joe, Don’t Explain, I was really caught off guard by how much joy I had,” she explained. “I think it was the first time in my life that I could hold my head up and sing the blues, and sing this type of music and believe in myself. And that was a great feeling to have after loving that kind of music my whole life and not attempting to go there.”
These days, she lives there. She sings the blues on her own and with Bonamassa, and sometimes even with a few other famous faces. She closed 2011 with a show-stopping, jaw-dropping performance of “I Would Rather Go Blind” with guitar legend Jeff Beck at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, paying tribute to a legend of the artform, Buddy Guy. This year, she collaborated with Guy on his Rhythm And Blues album. And if Buddy says you’re the blues, you’re the blues. Hart earned the right to sing them just by living them.