Singer-songwriter Kim Richey took a circuitous route to a musical career. In truth, the peripatetic Richey has always being a big proponent of circuitous routes.
One of those routes will take her to the B-Side at One Lucky Guitar on Jan. 4.
Richey is a glorious songwriter and performer whose music bridges genres, despite her initial identification as an alternative country artist.
She was raised in Dayton, Ohio, attended colleges in Ohio and Kentucky, and eventually graduated with a degree in environmental education. She’d played in bands in high school and college but the next few years were spent traveling the globe and working in nature centers and restaurants.
During that period, she lived in Washington State, Colorado, and Boston. She also lived in South America and Europe.
In Washington, she ran into two musicians she had played with in college: Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd. They told her to move to Nashville and devote herself to
So she did. The year was 1988.
‘The great credibility scare’
Richey said Steve Earle referred to that time as “the great credibility scare.” It was when a dozen maverick artists made their debuts and challenged what country music and the country music business had been to that point.
“I went there mostly because that was when Steve Earle’s first album came out and K.D. Lang was going on and Dwight Yoakum,” Richey said in a phone interview. “I was really taken with the songwriting. I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ I didn’t think much would come of it.
Richey soon got a publishing deal with Bluewater Music.
“I was writing for those guys always with the idea that at some point I might be able to get a record deal,” she said.
Richey’s songs were recorded by Foster, Trisha Yearwood, and Brooks & Dunn, among others.
Even though Richey had solo aspirations, she said that selling songs to big stars was an unmitigated joy, because the odds are stacked against a Nashville songwriter.
“It’s fantastic to have somebody cut one of your songs,” she said. “It always kills me to think of how many songwriters there are and how many songs they are writing. And then somebody cuts a record and they can use 10 to 12 songs at most. So to get a song on a record is amazing. And then to get one on the radio? That’s like winning the lottery or something.”
Richey describes the quest for a record deal as a roller coaster.
“I remember at one point I called a meeting at Bluewater and I said, ‘This is wearing me out, this record deal business,’” Richey recalled. “‘One minute somebody’s on board and the next minute, they’re not. I don’t know if I want to do this or not.’”
But she kept plugging away.
Finding her way to a label
One night, she goofed around on stage with some musician friends and a guy named Luke Lewis came up afterward and told her how much he liked her music.
“I was packing my stuff up and I said, ‘Oh, thanks.’ And he said, ‘I work over at Mercury Records.’ And I said, ‘Oh, how do you like it over there?’ He goes, ‘Well, I like it just fine.’ And I said, ‘OK, well, nice talking to you.’ And that was it.”
Richey didn’t know it at the time, but Lewis didn’t just work at Mercury Records. He was in charge of Mercury Records. When Richey told executives at Bluewater about this exchange, they raced to set up a meeting with Lewis.
Richey’s self-titled debut album was released by Mercury in May 1995. She was 39 years old at the time. She has since released eight albums on five labels.
All of her albums are well-regarded and have tended to produce newspaper and magazine stories that predict imminent blockbuster status for Richey. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Richey doesn’t sound too upset about it.
“I’d like to be playing bigger places, but it’s all relative,” she said. “I have no doubt that someone’s looking at me right now and saying, ‘Oh, I’d like to be playing where she’s playing.’
“I would never say that I never wanted a blockbuster hit,” Richey said. “Who doesn’t want a blockbuster hit? That would be awesome. But the thing that came first for me was the music. I needed to feel good about what I was doing, what I was creating. That was my most important thing. It wasn’t getting played on the radio.”
Richey has been around long enough to have accumulated caches of loyal, ticket-buying fans almost everywhere.
During a house concert in New Jersey in the spring, Richey played a few cuts from her most-recent album, Edgeland.
The album had just been released, yet many people in attendance had already memorized the lyrics.
“They started singing along really loud to a couple of the songs,” she said. “And it was so emotional. It made me tear up. It’s really sweet. The same thing happened in Pittsburgh.”
Time to slow down
After years of living a vagabond lifestyle, Richey said her wanderlust may be on the wane.
She spent five years in England working for a London music publishing house and decided thereafter to move back to Nashville.
“I’m kind of getting worn out with the nomad/gypsy thing,” she said. “You don’t know where your stuff is. I am looking forward to getting my stuff out of storage and putting it in a house and just staying put for a while.”