Valerie June has spent 2017 confounding expectations and astounding audiences around the globe.
The Tennessee-born singer, who first gained widespread acclaim with her 2013 Concord Records debut Pushin’ Against a Stone, returned this year with The Order of Time, and confirmed her status as a multi-hyphenated musical wonder: a folk-blues-soul-gospel-jazz-rock singer/songwriter with a singular talent.
The Order of Stone, which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart in April, ends the year on Best of 2017 tallies from The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other outlets. Meanwhile, on a year-long tour, June’s compelling genre-mashing style has carried her far and wide. She played a festival headlined by Snoop Dog one weekend and by Willie Nelson the next (respectively, LouFest in St. Louis, Sept. 9 and Farm Aid, outside Pittsburgh, Sept 16). Between those bookings, she played the Americana Music Festival in Nashville.
“I’m grateful that I was accepted in [those] communities,” says June, during a conversation backstage at Farm Aid in September, her voice rich with a Southern twang. “Every time I get to share my music, I’m like, ‘Okay, cool.’ I just keep focused on the fact that I’m a songwriter… So if people invite me to go play in different genres and different settings, I do what I came to do.”
June’s booking agent, David T. Viecelli of The Billions Corporation (who also represents Arcade Fire) signed the singer in 2011 after watching her perform solo at the Hilton Garden Inn in Austin, Texas during South By Southwest. “She was incredibly beguiling,” Viecelli later told Pollstar. “You could not help but be amazed.”
“Amazing” is one word to describe June’s touring this year. “We have been on the road since January and it’s really busy and I love that,” she says. Good thing: By year’s end, June had played nearly 100 shows in a dozen countries on four continents, including dates in the U.K., France, Germany, Australia and Japan.
One of those shows was a midsummer performance at the Clearwater Festival in Croton Point Park, some 30 miles north of New York City. The festival supports the environmental work of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, the creation and legacy of folk music icon Pete Seeger.
Beneath her striking tangle of dreadlocks, and dressed in a shimmering silver and black dress, June took the stage for a late morning set before the Clearwater’s blue-jean-and-tie-dyed-shirt crowd. Few may have known her music yet. But it did not take long for June to win over the crowd with her front-porch authenticity. (June also is no newcomer to Seeger’s Clearwater — in 2012, she could be found seated upon the deck of the Hudson River sloop, an acoustic guitar strapped around her neck and a red tambourine at her feet, playing traditional folk songs during a fundraising dinner aboard the sailboat).
Roots matter to June. When she was growing up, she says, her grandparents lived in a house with a big vegetable garden in South Fulton, Kentucky. “You could cross the railroad track and be in Tennessee,” she recalls. She was raised an hour or so further south, in rural Tennessee, between the towns of Humboldt and Jackson.
“My musical experience started when I was a little baby and they took me to church,” she continues. Her family belonged to the Church of Christ, which traditionally banned musical instruments. “So we only had voices, and everyone sings together as one. And there were no rules, like, ‘You can’t sing, get in the back row.’ No, everybody can sing.” So on Sundays, she says, “I heard these 500 different people singing at the top of their lungs.”
Moving to Memphis during high school, June discovered the musical roots of her region, taking up guitar, then the banjo and ukulele and listening to the vintage recordings of “Mississippi” John Hurt and the Carter Family. “Once I discovered country blues and straight-up old-time country, I never left it.” she said in an interview in 2013.
Yet her father, Emerson Hockett — who passed away in November 2016 — also was a part-time concert promoter. “He promoted Bobby Womack and K-Ci & JoJo and people like that. I loved that.” And the first record she remembers purchasing? “It was “Imagine.” John Lennon. And that’s kind of the way I live my life and that why I love that song so much.”
June’s Twitter feed traces the arc of the year she has spent promoting The Order of Time. With the album’s release in March, she debuted the disc on NPR’s First Listen, hosted a Facebook Live event, returned to perform at South By Southwest —and wrote about the loss of her father in an essay in The New York Times. “Without his music promotion, I never would have followed a musical path myself,” she penned. “His dream became my own.”
The artist’s 2017 performances included a stop at Dylan Fest at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — and she learned on Dylan’s website that he had been listening to The Order of Time. “I lost it,” June told David Browne in Rolling Stone of Dylan’s nod. “My biggest gift, I feel, is songwriting. So to have the god of songwriting mention he was listening to my music is huge. I never went to college, so I felt like when he mentioned my name, I got my degree that day.”
Amid the non-stop promotion and performances, June also found time in the year to just be a music fan. After the Clearwater Festival gig, she had a brief break in our tour schedule. So there she was, on an early summer night, walking up to the bar of the Mercury Lounge on Houston Street in Lower Manhattan. Now living in Brooklyn, June had come to cheer on Concord Records labelmates Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real as they showcased their new self-titled debut album for Concord.
She saw Nelson again in September at Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert for family farmers organized by Willie Nelson (Lukas’ father). On the bill that September day also were Sheryl Crow and Margo Price, among others.“These women are so great,” she raves. “And [so are] the women are up there taking about their farms — and the women who are running Farm Aid,” referring to the team lead by Farm Aid’s executive director, Carolyn Mugar. “One of my songs is called `Workin’ Woman Blues.’ And we’ve got these women working… woo-hoo!”
This year’s Farm Aid was the first since the 2016 election and, backstage, talk inevitably turned to politics. But in a divisive time, Valerie June has found a space apart, a place for healing. “The world is focused on artists talking about what they feel about politics,” she began. “What I feel about politics is that the healing starts at the dinner table… We all can come together as a community, [all] races, simply eating some food, and chowing down, and realizing there is a kindred spirit between us.
“It’s not about skin color, it’s not about age,” she continues. “It’s about healing. And it’s going to happen, just the same as farming, one seed at a time, one little plant at a time.”
There is a parallel for June in the unifying force of her musical vision. She acknowledges that fans (or perhaps mostly music writers) have an urge to sort and classify musicians “and fit them in certain [pigeon-]holes… I just keep saying to myself, ‘Well, I have to serve the song, every single time. And if a song wants to be a rock and roll song, I got to let it be it. If it wants to be a blues song, let it be that. If it wants to be country, let it be country. Because I’m really just a songwriter. And if there’s a pigeonhole to have me, it would be within the songwriter realm.
“I write songs of multi genres, and I feel like they touch people of different ages and races,” she continues. “And that’s where my job on earth is, is bringing together communities through songs. And it’s happening, it’s happening. One song at a time. One seed at a time.”