Kimmie Rhodes all set for return to Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival

The 13th United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival moseys on into town in a few weeks, its rootin’ tootin’ line-up including Paul Brady, Kimmie Rhodes, Darrell Scott and Declan O’Rourke. Texas songstress Rhodes told Ralph McLean about her life in music and how she’s looking forward to playing in Ireland again

Multi-platinum-selling Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes has been playing Ireland since the 1980s
Multi-platinum-selling Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes has been playing Ireland since the 1980s Multi-platinum-selling Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes has been playing Ireland since the 1980s

THE music of Texas songbird Kimmie Rhodes has taken her all over the world but Ireland remains a place very close to her heart. She’s been coming here since the 1980s and her passion for this country is clear from the moment she opens her mouth.

“It’s the love of music!” she tells me from the family home in Austin. “I love the inherent social grace of the people, the kindness, the appreciation for the writer. I love the way people listen to the lyrics and learn them and sing along.”

Rhodes is back next month for the 13th United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriter’s Festival and looking forward to rekindling a love affair that stretches back decades.

“I came to Ireland way back in the early 80s” she says in that sweet Texas twang. “We played a place in Dublin called Bad Bob's. When we arrived for soundcheck the audience was already there and for the most part they were already drunk! I almost had my party dress ripped off of me because there was no way out the back of the venue and the place was packed so the only way out was through the audience. The second night of the run I exited through the audience before the encore so escaped with my clothes intact.”

Clothes-ripping antics of the crowds aside, Rhodes’s love of performing here is genuine and the fact that her next appearance is at an event dedicated to the craft of songwriting itself isn’t lost on her either.

“It makes me happy when the focus is on the songs and those who wrote them. It all starts with words and music, which come from the hearts of those who create them. It’s always amazing to see how a song transforms filtered through the talents of various artists but the song will always be the child of the writer.

"Take [Rhodes's fellow Texan] Townes Van Zandt or Dylan – I've always felt the soulful nuances shine through much more on their own versions no matter how gorgeous the renditions of others have been.”

Writing songs and playing music comes as naturally to Rhodes as breathing. Growing up in small-town Texas – the same home town as Buddy Holly in fact – it was also a means of escape.

“There wasn't much to do in Lubbock besides listen to or play music or get in trouble and we did a little of both but ultimately music was most rewarding.”

And did the shadow of Buddy Holly and the great Texas tradition hang heavy over the young aspiring songwriter?

“I often wonder what Buddy would be creating now if he was still with us.” she says, looking back on the impact of the pioneering rock and roller. “Buddy was well before my time but I am influenced by his music because it used to blast from the yellow radio that sat in the passover between the kitchen and dining room at my babysitter's house when I was just a little girl.”

Since first coming to prominence in the late 70s Rhodes has worked with some true musical greats – from Waylon Jennings to Emmylou Harris – and had her songs performed by everyone from Peter Frampton to Trisha Yearwood. It’s her relationship with Willie Nelson – which has seen them work closely together over three full decades – that intrigues most, though. Ask her what the Red Headed Stranger is really like and the depth of their friendship is crystal clear.

“He's the most amazing dichotomy of normal guy and guru you could imagine.” she tells me. “His own rich experience is so vast he's like 10 people 'smooshed' into a single body. I am so fortunate to have had him as my mentor and especially my friend and above all he’s really fun to play music with.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, of course. Every great writer needs a muse and Rhodes found hers when she met Joe Gracey, a legendary Texas DJ and producer on the so-called 'progressive country' scene of the late 1970s. They married in 1982 and were together as musical and life partners until Joe died of cancer in 2011. The passing of Gracey, as she always called her soul mate, left her devastated.

“My Dreams Of Flying album addressed a lot of what was going on and how it felt when Gracey's death was a looming possibility and then I did a long-hoped-for record, Covers, where I let other writers speak for me. Because I was in such a sad place I wanted to wait for some light before I addressed how I felt in my own songs.

"Writing has always been how I understand my world and singing has always been the way I free my heart.”

With the support of her family – her son Gabe plays and travels with her on tour – she has pulled her life together with admirable strength and dignity. Live, she plays her songs and tells her story with a warmth and a natural passion that is all her own.

Ask her what keeps her going and she’ll tell you quite simply: “Love of family and friends."

When she takes to the stage of the Clayton hotel in Belfast next month for the Belnash festivities those friends will be in attendance once again.

:: Kimmie Rhodes plays the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival on Wednesday March 1 and Thursday March 2. More details at belfastnashville.com


:: Wednesday

Paul Brady In Conversation – The Strabane-born songwriter talks about his life in music and plays significant songs from his career to date.

:: Thursday

Paul Brady/Declan O’Rourke/Darrell Scott – Three of the finest songwriters in the world today join forces for an 'in the round' special

:: Friday

Triona – Rising star of country music in Northern Ireland launches her new single

:: Saturday

From Willie To Waylon – Celebrating The Outlaws – A night of chat, clips and live music remembering the outlaw country movement of the 1970s.

(All events at the Clayton Hotel, Belfast)