Robin O'Herin found her calling singing the blues



Robin O'Herin was a graphic designer, attending a seminar on time management skills, when she had a revelation. The leader of the seminar asked participants to imagine themselves at 90 years old, sitting on a rocking chair and reflecting on what they never had time to do.

"Oh my gosh," O'Herin imagined herself saying, "I forgot to be a blues musician!"

So she set out to change that. Though she'd been a music lover since childhood days, and enjoyed playing guitar in her spare time, she set about recording an album and booking gigs. Her growing acumen, as well as economic circumstances, propelled her shift into full-time musician status.

"Within a year I had released my first CD, and I was laid off from my art director job. I always had guitars in my life and I always played guitars, but I started taking it very seriously," O'Herin recalls in a telephone interview from her home in Lee. She wrote a business plan, picked up some freelance jobs and committed herself to her music career.

Playing a mix of acoustic blues, folk and Gospel -- including songs by legends of the genre as well as original tunes written in the classic style -- O'Herin plays the Gypsy Joynt Café Saturday night at 8.

She released CDs in 2002 and 2003, and started gigging regularly, playing shows and folk festivals on the east coast, Midwest and Europe. She's also been active with nonprofits using music as an educational tool, she says, including Guitars in the Classroom, Raising the Blues, and the Berkshire-based Music in Common.

"It's been proven, music just makes your brain work better. You can learn math better. You can learn language skills better. If you have an hour of music before math class you'll be more alert, you'll get it. Test scores go up," she says.

O'Herin first fell in love with artists like Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell and Muddy Waters as a child borrowing her father's old 78-rpm records. Later, a compilation of relatively unknown gospel singers "changed [my] life," she says, and added another offshoot of American music to her repertoire.

Her lifelong love was evident early on, she says, though it took a while to figure out how to pursue it.

"I think I was born to be a musician. It's just that my family didn't get that," she says. "I think they just didn't understand that it was a viable career choice. So instead I went to school for fine art, which isn't much better!"

She doesn't relate too closely, artistically speaking, with folk-oriented singer/songwriter types. Instead, O'Herin pens original tunes that come straight from the tradition of Delta blues and gospel. Less prominent, but still in the mix, is Appalachian old-time music. ("Appalachian music is white, mountain-people blues," she says good-naturedly.) Her bottleneck guitar style sounds vintage. In a setlist spanning from the Robert Johnson chestnut "Walkin' Blues" to the original gospel-influenced number "Redemption Road," it can be tough to tell where the history yields to innovation.

She began playing upwards of 150 shows a year, she says, before she was slowed in recent years by Lyme disease. She's been recovering, though, and by her count jumped from 40 to 110 gigs last year. Now she's planning her first major tour in a couple years, traveling down to Florida and back. She's also working on another album.

O'Herin has also created presentations for student linking the blues with other cultural phenomena, like poetry and the Harlem Renaissance. She and Berkshire dancer/choreographer Stephanie Webber have also developed a performance/lesson on the intersection between blues and tap dance; their next one will be Feb. 17 at the Spectrum Playhouse in Lee. (The night before, she hosts the first of three monthly open mic nights at the same venue.)

These ways of melding education, musical history and live music also come through in O'Herin's performances, where she's fond of clueing audiences in to the original of a given song or the history of a favorite artist.

"It just feels more authentic and personal than a stadium concert," she says. "I'll get people to sing with me on some songs. A lot of what I do is based on the call-and-response mode of spirituals, which grew into gospel and then grew into blues. It feels more interactive. I feel really connected to an audience and they feel that connection, so they respond to that. It's more than a performance."

In concert

Who: Robin O'Herin

When: Saturday 8 p.m.

Where: Gypsy Joynt Cafe, 293 Main St., Great Barrington

Admission: none

Information: (413) 644-8811;


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