Powerful women have risen from Kansas City’s hard-driving blues scene in recent years. The latest to make her mark is Heather Newman, whose first record earned national attention three years ago and whose new release is even stronger.
After moving to Kansas City from Omaha five years ago, Newman has joined the ranks of Samantha Fish, Danielle Nicole Schnebelen, Katy Guillen and Amanda Fish, who have all earned a global base of fans.
Newman, 24, isn’t interested in preserving the sounds of the past.
“We're trying to get out of the traditional blues, which is what turns off the younger crowds,” Newman says. “We’re trying to gain those followers who are going to keep the scene going.”
In a rebuke to blues purists who disapprove of her band’s rock-informed sound, Newman insists that “we can't keep shoving blues in a tiny little box.”
Newman is in a position to break the rules because she initially learned to play by them.
“I started singing the blues around ten -years -old,” Newman recalls of her training at BluesEd, a music education program for kids, which she began attending out of sibling rivalry with her older brother, who was also in the program.
“From a young age, I was being taught and directed by professionals,” she says.
She’s now spent more than half of her life forming her raucous approach, but her path to becoming a successful bandleader contained a few detours. While working at a call center in Omaha, she dabbled in the version of folk-rock known as Americana before leaving home when she was 19.
“I got the opportunity to move down to Kansas City to do music full time,” she says.
Newman secured a gig as a rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist in a band led by Nick Schnebelen. As members of Trampled Under Foot, Shnebelen and his sister Danielle Nicole are blues royalty in Kansas City. Newman was in her element, pleased to “get out on the road, make connections and and not have the responsibility of having to choreograph everything myself, schedule it, promote, design and book. It was a good starting point.”
But that starting point became a stumbling block when a failed romance broke her heart. The experience transformed her.
“I wasn't myself, so it was kind of like that whole emergence for me when it ended,” she said. “I just kind of woke up, and I just felt so free and I felt happy and confident again.”
She made a clean break and became determined not to allow anyone to underestimate her.
“I'm a small person, but I'm strong, I’m mighty,” Newman says. “There isn't really anything that I haven't been able to do if I want to do it.”
That includes reinventing herself as a bass player.
“It took awhile for me to find the instrument that I actually felt the most connected to,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘well, maybe I should just pick up a cheap bass guitar on Craigslist, spend fifty bucks, try it out, see how I feel about it and kind of go from there.’ Two days later I was like, ‘yup, this is it.’”
She mastered her new instrument as she formed a band that features the hotshot guitarist Keith Ladd and the accomplished keyboardist Ryan Flemmer, and they honed their sound in area clubs like Knuckleheads. The blues world took notice of the band’s debut album, 2017’s “Burn Me Alive.” Blues Blast magazine named it the best New Artist Debut Album and gave Newman its Rising Star Award.
“It was really a good starting point to get those first two right off the bat,” Newman notes.
The record was also nominated for Best Emerging Artist Album by the even more prestigious Blues Music Awards. Her fellow Kansas Citian Amanda Fish ultimately claimed the prize, but Newman is philosophical about the loss.
“Just being able to throw that out- you're a BMA nominee- is really cool because it does set you apart from a lot of other people,” she says. “A lot of people have been in the scene for 20 years and have never received a BMA.”
Newman’s recent record is even tighter. Richard Rosenblatt, the founder and president of Vizztone, the Boston based label consortium that released “Rise From the Flames,” admires her evolution.
“She became a much stronger songwriter and a more confident performer,” says Rosenblatt. “She did exactly what she wanted to do with this record. She’s a great singer, a beautiful girl and a great player.”
The songs and performances on “Rise From the Flames” are likely to remind listeners of elite acts such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band. On the title track, which Newman calls her “testament,” she growls: “I feel the fire all around me, still I'm coming out in glory as I rise from the flames a goddess of groove.” And as her hard-earned accolades show, the rest of the blues world is already grooving to Kansas City’s latest export.
Heather Newman performs from 7:15-815 p.m., Friday, September 13 during the Infinity Blues Festival at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64120.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.