- By Alan Richard
QUEEN ESTHER: RECLAIMING HER COUNTRY
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Queen Esther lives in New York City — but don’t you dare tell her she’s not a Southerner.
Her very presence will prove you wrong. Then she’ll sing you a country song, as she’s done in Harlem’s jazz clubs, Greenwich Village folk institutions, at international music festivals and roots-music spots in Nashville.
“When I’m right in front of you and singing George Jones and I’m nailing it, you can’t walk away from me and deny me,” Queen Esther said. “It’s like okay, that was the truth.”
Bold and outspoken, sweet and generous in spirit, she moves quickly in conversation from discussing violence against Black Americans to her passion for country music to myths that have haunted the South since the Civil War and long before.
One of country and Americana music’s most fascinating artists, Queen Esther’s range stretches far and wide creatively.
She’s a vocalist, songwriter, lyricist, musician, solo performer, playwright, librettist, essayist, actor, TED speaker and producer. As a bandleader, her projects range from The Hot Five (1920s) to jazz and Americana collectives that shift easily from electric to acoustic and include bassist Hilliard Greene, tenor saxophonist Patience Higgins, and drummer/percussionist Warren Smith.
Her trajectory as a theater performer has taken her from her solo shows and performance art to original musicals, Off-Broadway productions, national tours and cabaret, and now The Hang, a new jazz opera with a libretto by MacArthur Genius Award recipient Taylor Mac and music by Matt Ray, set to open in January 2022 at HERE Arts Center.
On the music front, her latest single is an unexpected jazz version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, released on January 6th — marking the one-year anniversary of the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. The song’s bracing music video is set to a timeline of the Capitol attack. It’s the first single from the soon-to-be-released EP Rona (EL Recordings, 2022) that Queen Esther recorded during the heart of the pandemic.
Queen Esther’s take on the rock classic is much like her view on life and music. In her version, accompanied only by guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, she picks up the tempo and reaches a taunting, ragtime-like frenzy. The performance reflects the madness and uncertainty of a country torn apart by racism and inequality — a pandemic thrown in for good measure.
If her wide range of artistic endeavors seems strange to some, Queen Esther will tell you right away that she sees jazz, blues, country and rock ‘n roll as close kin of course — and all a part of who she is.
That’s especially true of country and Americana music, which truth be known, Black Americans have been integral in from the beginning.
“How can you leave Black artists out of country and Americana music, when we are everything that it’s made of?” Queen Esther asked. “The shock and awe of the irony is just dizzying to anyone that’s paying attention.”
Even Mickey Guyton, the gifted and passionate pop-country singer who this month was nominated for three Grammy Awards and recently hosted the Country Music Awards, was put off by the country music industry for years — and her excellent songs aren’t making the splash that they should on the airplay or sales charts.
“The fact that they’ve gotten away with it for this long is nothing less than stultifying,” she said of the mainstream country music industry. “Our Blackness is the DNA of all American popular music. So why do they need to believe that we had nothing to do with country music?”
“They love us. They hate us. And we want them to stop murdering us and disenfranchising us. That’s the story of America, in a nutshell.”
Queen Esther’s most recent full-length album Gild the Black Lily (EL Recordings, 2021) is full of her bracing, original hard country and alt-country songs and many tasteful covers — including some interesting choices for a country album.
It was recorded before the pandemic at Brooklyn’s Mighty Toad Recording Studio and officially released in March 2021. After a flurry of delays fueled by the coronavirus, there was a sold-out album release party in October 2021 at New York City’s infamous cabaret venue Joe’s Pub.
The title speaks to the strength of Queen Esther’s creative independence and the resilience and fortitude synonymous with the Black American experience.
“Gild The Black Lily — it doesn’t need anything,” the artist said of the album title during her recent trip to Nashville. “It’s enough in its own natural state. If it had another title, it would be I Am Enough. My Blackness is enough. The version of the South that I embody is enough.”
The record includes stellar original songs, and covers that run the gamut of American roots music, from her stunning acapella take on the spiritual “John the Revelator” to The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit,” and George Jones’ iconic “She Thinks I Still Care.”
Gild the Black Lily begins with “The Black Cowgirl Song,” a stirring country song with western overtones, driven by Jeff McLaughlin’s memorable guitar licks.
The song is a tribute to Cathay Williams, a Black woman who joined the U.S. Army at the end of the Civil War by disguising herself as a man. The song may also be about herself, describing a life on the frontier that parallels that of artists and musicians finding their own way.
“There were Black women in The Old West. You wouldn’t know it from watching a Hollywood western.” she said. “We were wives and mothers, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, mail order brides, sodbusters. And yes, we were cowgirls.”
Her stirring version of Take It to the Limit recasts the call-and-response chorus. “When I was a kid, I always thought that Eagles song was a gospel song,” Queen Esther said, “so I had to put a lot of sacred steel in there.”
“When I listen to it now, it sounds like a call-to-arms,” she continued. “Every generation, you have to take it as far as you can with this struggle for equality and civil rights. Now it’s our turn. And with that perspective, It turns into a kind of a Black Lives Matter anthem.”
Long journey home
Queen Esther sat at a table in her hotel lobby during Nashville’s AmericanaFest 2021, wearing an especially large mechanics blue-gray jumpsuit emblazoned with the logo of now-defunct TWA Airlines, with her hair wrapped in Nigerian mudcloth.
“My Daddy worked for TWA for 35 years. He had seven union cards. Wearing this jumpsuit makes me feel closer to him,” she said. “He probably is anyway, whether I have this on or not.”
Her father’s generation was part of The Great Migration that happened at the turn of the century — and later, the Great Migration in reverse, a 1970s phenomenon that saw many Black Americans returning to the South. In the same way that some Asian American cultures send their children to live with grandparents, Queen Esther spent her earliest years with family in Charleston, South Carolina.
Her immediate family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia at a time when Maynard Jackson — the first Black mayor of any major Southern metropolis — was forging a new progressive dynamic in business, academia and the arts, creating a mecca for the Black middle class. She went to a magnet high school for the performing arts and while there, she studied acting techniques, classical music and sang opera.
How she went from performing in musicals to writing and singing songs, to producing her own albums on her imprint EL Recordings is an epic story not unlike her father’s generation and their migration to the city to find their place in the sun.
Queen Esther is genuinely baffled by people who push back on classroom teachings about race and American history, the removal of Confederate monuments — and by anyone who questions the Black presence in country, Americana and bluegrass music.
“I can’t ever remember not hearing that twang, that dissonance,” she said. “It was in the air. That blue-ing of the note, that was a way of life. That’s as true for me as it is for Mickey or for any other Southerner. It’s not the kind of thing you think about. It just is.
“It was the everyday, ordinary little things. My great-granddaddy always had a transistor radio tuned to a country radio station on the porch,” she said. “My grandma kept country gospel stations on the radio percolating constantly — from the Mighty Clouds of Joy to The Statler Brothers — right by her bedside. It was always cranking on low. There was sacred steel in church and we went to church just about every day.
“Never mind the fact that Hee Haw was on all the time. We watched that show as a family.”
Millions of Black Americans who’ve migrated north at different times in American history, she points out, carried all of their Southern culture with them, some with recipes in their heads, some with banjos and fiddles in their hands.
Once upon a time when country music was called hillbilly music, it was played and sung mostly by Black jazz musicians. That’s none other than trumpet master Louis Armstrong and his wife pianist Lil Armstrong on “The Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers songs “T for Texas” and “Blue Yodel No. 9.”
Queen Esther explored these ideas and more with her first TED Talk about the Black roots of country and bluegrass. This lecture was the first time that some realized the founding fathers of these genres — from Bill Monroe to Hank Williams and even Johnny Cash — had Black mentors that taught them everything they knew, something these artists openly acknowledged while they were alive.
This is American history, pure and simple — which is why Queen Esther finds it curious that Black artists often find resistance in country, Americana and bluegrass.
It’s why she decided to include her dark-and-stormy take on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” on her 2004 record Talkin’ Fishbowl Blues.
“I have sung that song so many times to Black audiences and had them on their feet cheering,” she said. “I think it’s an anthem to Black men. And it’s not necessarily romantic. What I’m saying when I sing it is, I’m gonna hold your hand and we’re going to get through this.”
Building a movement
Indeed, during her visit to Nashville, Queen Esther warned that country and Americana music will be different from now on.
She and other Black country music artists met new friends and kindred spirits at Nashville’s AmericanaFest 2021, a festival and conference for alternative-country musicians first held more than 20 years ago like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and later Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and that sort. At the festival, Queen Esther found many artists she now calls family.
Gathering with other Black country and roots musicians at what organizers music critic Marcus K. Dowling and promoter Lady Holly G. called The Black Opry Outlaw House, named for her website and advocacy of these artists, Queen Esther witnessed the dawning of a new day in American popular music.
“It was like wow, we are a community,” she said. “Now we all know each other. We’ve had a whole week to share and bond and connect. We have all of these ideas, all of these shared experiences, and it was one long fellowship — and it was fun.”
One night they even gathered at the Black Opry Outlaw House with pioneering country artist Frankie Staton, who in the 1980s helped found the Black Country Music Association.
“This elder, she unraveled all of it, from the beginning of the Black Country Music Association and here’s a song she wanted Lee Ann Womack (to sing)” to “when executives were saying things like there are no Black country music performers,” Queen Esther said.
“We were all riveted, just sitting, listening to her play the piano and hearing her sing and talk and tell these stories,” she said. “We are all the fruit of her labor.”
The experience gave Queen Esther even greater understanding and context for Black Americans in country music.
“Now it feels like a movement. I mean it felt like that anyway, but … what people forget is that what’s underneath is what next,” she said. “People are looking at Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens and Allison Russell, and they’re wonderful — but they are not all there is. The industry can’t seem to sense what’s next.
“There’s an avalanche of Black country and Americana performers right beneath the surface,” she continued. “The country music industry has no idea. Before the Black Opry, Lady Holly G. and the Black Opry Outlaw House, neither did we.”
Rooted in Charleston
Queen Esther was raised in a part of the South that most Americans aren’t aware of unless they’re from that region. Even those from South Carolina find Charleston, with all its beautiful architecture and tourist friendly grandeur, to be something of an enigma.
With more than 40% of African captives entering the United States through the port of Charleston — the center of the slave trade — the city is considered to be the Ellis Island for Black Americans. By 1860, four million African captives lived in America and about 400,000 — yes, 10% — lived in South Carolina, comprising about 57% of the state’s population. Much of the African language, food and culture remained intact in the region, and throughout the centuries the culture from this area has edified the nation in every way imaginable.
It was in North Charleston’s Dorchester County — surrounded by her great-grandparents, grandparents, and her parents along with a host of aunts, uncles and cousins — where Queen Esther took root and began to grow. “That’s where I was christened as a baby. That’s where I went to church and heard sacred steel for the first time, from my Uncle Tyrone. That’s where I started to sing and found my voice,” she said. “That’s where I began to tell stories.”
“It was so community oriented. Everyone looked in on each other, took care of each other, looked out for each other,” she added.
“There’s a reason why the Civil Rights Movement started in the Southern Black church, and there’s a reason why Black women are the ones who organized and spearheaded the bus boycott that got everything off the ground in Mississippi.” Queen Esther continued. “Church wasn’t just a place you went to on Sundays. There was always a reason to be there — choir rehearsal, a fish fry on a Friday night, an usherette meeting — and there was always music.
“For Black people, it was and still is a gathering place.”
The idea of someone crying out to God to give them strength for any minor infraction probably seems far-fetched to some, but that’s the South that raised Queen Esther. She believed from a very young age that God is real because she could feel His presence in the smallest most ordinary moments. She knew even then that music is a spiritual conduit, and that God would meet her there, when she sang, if she allowed it.
“God was everywhere, like death was everywhere, like life was everywhere,” she said. “And everyone was always singing to themselves. A little hymn, a little song, a little something. That was a part of the soundtrack of my childhood, like Howlin’ Wolf and Tammy Wynette and Grady Tate and the Allman Brothers and Al Green and the Eagles and Blossom Dearie and whatever was on American Bandstand and Soul Train and Hee Haw and everybody else.”
Moving to Georgia was the right step for her family.
Life in Maynard Jackson’s Atlanta was an explosion of creativity, entrepreneurial growth and in a way, it was a realization of the promise of Reconstruction. Although White Flight was rampant and many programs evaporated when white people left, the Black middle class grew and dominated the city, making their own opportunities – as they always have.
Queen Esther’s mother taught her how to read when she was three years old. By the time she was five, she could read with the speed and comprehension of children that were more than twice her age. She was placed in a program for gifted children with an emphasis on creative writing, sang gospel music in church and classical music in state chorales, joined a debate team and learned how to play chess.
“When I came to New York City, my library card was my most prized possession, and with good reason. Libraries are one of the last places in this country that aren’t monetized,” Queen Esther said.
“I could go to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and get sheet music for auditions, listen to rare 78s, watch Judith Jamison perform Cry. During the pandemic, they assembled Tech Kits — everything that you’d need to document and post performances online, including a 12-inch Mac laptop, an O-ring light, a mic, a mini-keyboard, you name it. You can check that out of the library just like a book, for free. And you can hold onto it for up to three months. Isn’t that amazing?
“The officials at that library thought that a musical I co-starred in, George C. Wolfe’s Harlem Song, was important enough to preserve for future generations, so when you stop in for a visit, you can see it. It’s wonderful to have work that’s a part of one of the premier performance art libraries in the world.
“God, I love New York City,” she said with a joyful sigh.
A musical journey
Acceptance to a prestigious magnet school for the performing arts (Northside School of the Arts, now called North Atlanta) meant getting bused from the southwest side of town to a predominant\ly white area of the city.
She formally studied acting, refined her vocal technique and studied opera, performed in musicals and plays, and continued to sing classical music in regional and state chorales. A performance of Bernstein’s MASS with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and participation in the Governor’s Honors Program in Drama instigated an application to Young Arts, a program committed to finding and nurturing artists in every discipline throughout their careers. Alumni include actresses Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, Broadway choreographer Camille A. Brown and musician and composer Terrance Blanchard.
Through Young Arts, she was offered college scholarships from all over the world. She accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, even though she really wanted to attend a theater school in London.
“I never wanted to be a singer or a songwriter or a musician. I wanted to be a theater actor — and that’s it. I thought it would be a good idea to work at my singing and sight-reading in case I got cast in a musical. I never considered film or television to be a viable option for me because I didn’t think some white guy behind a desk would think that I was pretty enough to give me a job,” she said. “And I didn’t know what I’d have to keep turning myself into, to be acceptable enough to keep working.”
When she didn’t have any acting opportunities at the university, Queen Esther ventured into Austin, where she found a home in the theater community, immersing herself in regional productions directed by Boyd Vance and singing with the funk band Moving Parts, opening for Steely Dan guitarist Larry Carlton and Crowded House.
Eventually she joined RoTel and the Hot Tomatoes, a local institution known for incredible covers of girl-group songs from the 50s and 60s and over-the-top costumes.
“There was a blonde (Linda Wetherbee), a brunette (Jeannie Baxter) and I was the redhead. Big bouffant hairdos, silver lame heels. Lotsa gowns. Lotsa Aqua Net. It started off as a joke at Esther’s Follies. Boyd Vance was Tina Turner and Linda, Jeannie and Shannon Sedwick were The Ikettes,” she said. “We did private parties for The Bass Brothers and H. Ross Perot. We played every honky tonk in Texarkana and then some. We played all the society parties, too — The Governor’s Ball, The Zoo Ball. We opened for Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Temptations. We opened for Chuck Berry. We performed constantly. It was the hip thing to have us show up and decked out like it was the 50s, and rip it up with serious musicians backing us.”
Her time in RoTel gave Queen Esther something that school couldn’t – years of experience in performance in front of enthusiastic audiences.
“With Ro-Tel, I lost my awkwardness onstage. I learned how to perform, how to work an audience, how to own every little thing I did,” she said. “I learned how to present myself, with finish. Everything was theater and storytelling and spectacle, no matter how much rock ‘n roll we sang. I’d been singing harmony in church and in chorales since I could stand up straight, so all that girl group stuff wasn’t some kind of a struggle. And I had technique, I had placement and pitch. I knew how to sing correctly because I studied voice formally, so that wasn’t a struggle either. I was on the level as a vocalist. I needed to catch up as a performer. And I did.
“Daddy was right. Nothing learned is ever wasted.”
Ro-Tel’s guitarist Big Al Gilhausen introduced Queen Esther to Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitarist, Hubert Sumlin — whose sound played a major role in the popularity of the blues and the development of rock ‘n roll.
Later in New York, Queen. Esther would sit in on Mr. Sumlin’s gigs in New York City. She also introduced the venerated bluesman to guitarist Elliott Sharp, who helped line up tours for him in Europe.
“Hubert Sumlin is Jimi Hendrix’s favorite guitarist, and I sang with him all the time,” she said. “He genuinely loved my voice, which meant the world to me. To be included, to be with him and to have them look upon me as a peer and not just some kid was everything. He would look at me and murmur, ‘What a voice!’”
“Hubert felt he was better when he was accompanying a singer, which makes sense,” she added, “because that’s what he did with Howlin’ Wolf for 30 years.”
Touring the South regionally meant navigating some dark waters that Queen Esther never imagined she’d experience. She decided that requesting that specific details be carried out was the only way that she’d get through any of it with her dignity and her self-respect intact
“I was insisting on a certain standard for myself they probably didn’t think I deserved,” she said.
One of the musicians in the band in Austin called her a queen to poke fun at her behavior, and the title stuck. It was almost as though an invisible crown had been placed upon her head. When it was time to leave Texas for New York City, she left it there.
Hitting the stage
“When I got to the city, I opened Backstage and started auditioning like everyone else,” Queen Esther said. “I had no idea that talent didn’t matter.”
She saw a John Leguizamo solo show and was inspired enough to write her own, creating three solo shows and several cabaret acts, and taking a deep dive into alternative theater while making music with big bands, small combos and just about everything in between.
Working with her mentor harmolodic guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer (originally from St. Matthews, South Carolina) kept her on an international stage, and was confirmation that she was on the right track with her Black Americana sound.
“Somewhere in there, I started writing lyrics. And then songs,” Queen Esther said. “And then I thought I have to do something with these songs, so I got an admin-publishing deal with Bug Music, thanks to singer-songwriter-guitarist Alejandro Escovedo of The True Believers. And then I started a label and released an album. The ball kept rolling, with alternative theater on one hand and doing my music my way on the other hand.
“Singing all kinds of music with all kinds of bands, and singing my music with my bands, and working up monologues and solo shows and taking piano lessons and playing guitar and ukulele. And writing songs and making albums and going on tour and sitting in and hanging out, and singing jingles and acting in musicals and commercials and indie films, and writing lyrics and melodies and doing cabaret all over the place and a TED Talk — and telling stories, always telling stories.
“And here we are.”
In January, Queen Esther will perform in Taylor Mac’s The Hang at HERE Arts Center in New York City. She describes the fantastical show in between conversations on country music, all without missing a beat: The Hang reimagines Socrates’ death through jazz vocalists, dancers and jazz musicians who are radical faeries that explore the expansive moments that lead to Socrates’ death as a ritualistic celebration of life.
“This is why I came to New York, to originate work like this,” she said.
As a theater performer, Queen Esther proved herself to be a versatile performer, reprising Phyllis Hyman’s role as The Chanteuse in a national tour of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, directed by dancer/choreographer Mercedes Ellington landing plum role in the original cast of the first national tour of RENT, and creating a one person show (The “Moxie” Show) that garnered praise from The New York Times.
“I was never very good at waiting for the phone to ring so I’d have a job. Somewhere in there, I thought, wait a minute — I make art, so I’ll just create work for myself,” Queen Esther recalled.
Inspired by a suggestion from well-known curator Brad Learmonth to combine the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Billie Holiday as a tribute for The Shrines Jazz Festival, Queen Esther also wrote and developed The Billie Holiday Project — Ms. Hurston’s newly discovered urban fairy tales from the 1930s about Southern folk in Harlem, augmented by Lady Day’s lost classics — and received a performance residency from The Apollo Theater.
To date, it remains the fastest selling ticket in their black box theater, selling out the entire run within hours.
To celebrate Lady Day’s 100th birthday, Queen Esther did a month-long residency at Minton’s, a Harlem hotspot that Ms. Holiday frequented in her heyday. Minton’s is known as the birthplace of bebop, where the greatest jazz musicians and vocalists made their way onto its tiny stage: Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie, a South Carolina native, amongst others.
“I presented a different program every week that culminated on her birthday,” she said. “Those performances are ideas I’d definitely like to revisit in the near future.”
During the pandemic, Queen Esther held playwriting residencies with The American Theater Group’s PlayLAB and New Perspectives Theater Company’s Women’s Work Short Play LAB Series, where her play about the January 6th insurrection called That’s What Happened was produced in a one-act festival.
Blues, her way
Although Queen Esther’s first album came together thanks to guitarist and producer Jack Sprat, the work that had to happen once the album left the recording studio — radio promotion, advertising, finding a reputable publicist, garnering reviews and maintaining a PR campaign for months on end — rested firmly on her shoulders and became an important and very steep learning curve.
Although it took years for her to make her second solo album, she felt much more at home in the studio and ready to produce her own record when the opportunity presented itself.
“All those years in and out of recording studios, singing everything from jingles and backups to session work demoing songs and hanging out with recording engineers asking questions, were lessons learned. Working closely with producers and watching them do what they do were lessons learned.
“All those years of sitting and listening to albums, listening to guitar solos, listening to arrangements, listening to the sound and the feel of an album to get the gist of it,” Queen Esther said breathlessly. “School was in session. I was developing my ear. I was learning how to be a producer and I didn’t even know it.”
When Queen Esther wrote and produced The Other Side (EL Recordings, 2014) she included such New York City luminaries as Nona Hendrix mainstay Ronny Drayton, James “Blood” Ulmer’s violinist Charlie Burnham, and Cassandra Wilson-favorite guitarist Marvin Sewell.
She sounds right at home with rock ‘n roll and hard-country originals and covers. Queen Esther turns Paul Pena’s Jet Airliner, popularized by Steve Miller, into her own statement of Black women’s power, taking a little inspiration perhaps from Wanda Jackson on My Big Iron Skillet:
With my big iron skillet in my hand, I’m gonna show you how a little woman can whoop a great big man
Queen Esther’s take on Charlie Rich’s I Feel Like Going Home, with only her voice and a piano, reveals the song as a spiritual on life, migration and return:
Lord, I feel like going home
I tried and I failed and I'm tired and weary
And everything I've done was wrong
Now I feel like going home
Lord, I feel like going home
Queen Esther credits her mentor James “Blood” Ulmer with helping her find her way to her Black Americana sound. He recognized her as a harmolodic vocalist and encouraged her to be herself and trust her instincts.
“When I met Blood, it felt like I already knew him. He taught me that I can’t be anything except myself. I mean there’s just no other option. It sounds simple but it’s not.,” Queen Esther said. “Just look at all these folk out here that look like and sound like someone else. The entertainment industry is fueled by that.”
She stopped for a moment and then continued. “So I had to figure out who I am and what I want and what I sound like. And because that changes over timeI’m constantly rediscovering the me that I really am. I am constantly refining my aesthetic.”
Her kind of country
With the pandemic lasting longer than she could have imagined, Queen Esther isn’t sure what her immediate future looks like in country and Americana music because she’s an independent artist – and the coronavirus is still a global threat.
Maybe this chapter will fold into her journey just like everything else has — so oddly, so perfectly. For now, she is content to write songs, produce albums and gig strategically.
For some strange reason, Queen Esther has always been surrounded by Southerners in her New York City life, so it’s no surprise that none of the fine musicians featured on Gild the Black Lily or her follow up EP Rona (EL Recordings, 2022) are from above the Mason-Dixon Line.
Another beautiful Queen Esther original, The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray, features Boo Reiners of Demolition String Band on mandolin. The song came to her after watching an interview with legendary Mississippi bluesman Son House, one of the most forceful and passionate vocalists in all of blues — or any type of music.
There's so much light in this heart of mine But the whiskey wouldn’t let me pray Let me pray, let me pray
I had to fight so hard not to fade away Cause the whiskey in the bottle wouldn't let me pray
Queen Esther also includes the powerful spiritual John the Revelator, a song first recorded in the 1920s by Blind Willie Johnson and later covered dramatically by Son House. Queen Esther does so on Gild the Black Lily, and fiercely.
She also matches George Jones’ phrasing on her version of Jones’ brilliant 1962 hit, He Thinks I Still Care. One of country music’s greatest songs, it was written by Dickey Lee (who recorded for Sun Records in his hometown of Memphis before becoming a hit country songwriter) and Steve Duffy.
The song Oleander came to life when Queen Esther read about the tens of thousands of uprisings by African captives that happened throughout American history, suggesting the Nat Turner rebellion was “the tip of the iceberg,” and that this is something that everyone should know.
“The Black folk that were held captive were constantly upending the status quo in a myriad of ways,” she said.
“Black people were not passive. They were not weak-willed,” Queen Esther added. “Remember, W.E.B. DuBois said that to be Black in America is to live in a world within a world. Navigating those worlds requires that double consciousness DuBois described so eloquently. Those African captives mastered this way of life in order to survive.
“I think it’s even harder for Black folks now because the lines are so blurred, they’re hardly there,” she continued. “At least back then, you knew where you couldn’t go. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging on a sunny day in a white neighborhood that he lived in. He was only two miles from home when he was murdered by his neighbors. And a big part of what infuriated the white men who killed him is that he wasn’t afraid of them.
“Oleander is a prayer. It’s also a meditative state. It’s a moment of reckoning.”
Queen Esther delivers All That We Are, another stunning song from Gild The Black Lily, as a soul ballad. She wrote it when she was asked to be the only performer at The 2018 Obama Foundation Summit held by The Obama Foundation in Chicago. This was a gathering of community organizers, students, teachers, artists, volunteers, entrepreneurs and changemakers of every description — sharing ideas, making connections, growing ideas.
Queen Esther thought the event should have a theme song. Everyone seemed especially moved when she performed it, especially one person in particular who was deaf and watching from backstage, focusing intently on the lyrics: “Hold my hand and He’ll lift us up, when the world brings us down,” the song goes. “When love is all we have and all that we are.”
“When I stepped off the stage, she was the first person I saw,” Queen Esther recalled, “She was in tears, and so was her friend. I remember thinking, wow, maybe this is a good song.”
A newly minted member of the Recording Academy and the Dramatists Guild, and a proud member of Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and Actors Equity, Queen Esther has big plans for the future. As a 2022-2023 Artist Fellow at the National Arts Club, she’s hoping to present a Pecha Kucha-style event about The Sea Islands, as well as country, Americana and jazz performances and an artist talk with live music and demonstrations that deconstructs the 1920s dance called The Charleston and how it revolutionized the world.
She’s looking forward to beginning a well-received run in the jazz opera The Hang in a few weeks and releasing her new EP Rona in the spring. Later this year, she’ll release Things Are Looking Up, a jazz album that’s basically the soundtrack to The Billie Holiday Project. She’s also hard at work on a one person show and a Black Americana album called Blackbirding — and much more.
“I don’t know if anyone will love the art that I’ll make. I don’t know if they’ll like it or if they’ll ever know anything about it. It may not ever be a blip on their radar,” she said. “Because I’m independent, I’m a record label of one. This is elevated small-batch home cooking, this ain’t McDonalds.
“This is Southern, this is Black feminism, this is country, this is Americana, this is political. This is not the norm. So I don’t know, maybe whatever I’m doing isn’t your cup of tea. But I can promise you one thing: As God gives me grace, I’m going to keep my foot on the gas.”
MORE: Queen Esther's Gild the Black Lily is featured in SoulCountry's feature on some of 2021's best music.
SoulCountry's earlier feature on the Black roots of country music.
ALSO: Additional performances by Queen Esther: