Singer/guitarist EG Kight knows that the blues is rooted in devilish imagery. You have Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil. You have Howlin’ Wolf singing “Evil.” But it’s not the defining characteristic of the style.
“I know the lyrics of some of the blues [are] not something you’d want to sing in church, but most of the time, it’s uplifting and makes folks smile,” she says. “I’ve been told that I have my own little music ministry.” For Kight, the blues allows her to connect with people she might not have met in a church.
“People come up to me all the time at my shows and tell me what’s going on in their lives, what’s weighing heavy on them, and many times they’ll say a certain song lifted them up.”
Kight also says she doesn’t feel a tension between her faith and the blues.
“I’ve never struggled with that,” she says. “I’ve used the blues, the songs that I write, as a vehicle to get to people…what we write and sing, it can be uplifting music. It’s the same subject matter as if I was in country or pop or whatever. It just doesn’t bother me because the Lord knows my heart.”
Kight’s blues style is rooted in lush vocals. Her 2021 album, Trio Sessions, is Kight playing acoustically with guitarist Ken Wynn and drummer Gary Porter. The format allowed her to stretch out, connecting not just to the blues, but also to her country roots, where she began her career. She calls country her education, where she learned to perform and gained exposure. But country began to change for Kight, becoming more Hollywood and pop-oriented. She says she felt like it was no longer about real people.
Feeling lost and wondering what to do next, a fan, noticing Kight often featured bluesy songs in her country set, told Kight to listen to blueswoman Koko Taylor. Kight got a cassette, Queen of the Blues, and threw it in her car stereo while driving down the interstate.
“Her growling took me by surprise, and I loved the whole feel,” Kight says. “Most people sing from their diaphragm, but I could tell she was singing from all the way down to her toes! And after listening to all the songs, I was an instant fan.”
The memory is so strong, Kight can tell you the two songs that bowled her over and captured her heart: the aforementioned “Evil” and “I Cried Like a Baby.”
“She just made me smile and laugh,” Kight says. “Just [taking] so much emotion in what she was doing. I thought, ‘Gosh. Who is this woman?’”
Powered by Taylor’s energy, Kight started putting more blues songs in her set, letting the audience know she was about to turn on the blues by putting on sunglasses.
“It didn’t matter how country the crowd I was performing for, they would start yelling, ‘Put on those glasses, girl,’” she says. “So it became so popular in my country act, at a certain point, I just jumped over into the blues.”
And it was a good move for Kight. Her move to blues has resulted in seven Blues Music Award nominations plus a 2021 Blues Blast Music Award nomination for her latest album.
Kight eventually shifted from Taylor fan to Taylor friend, with Taylor even recording some of Kight’s songs, which Kight says is one of her proudest moments as an artist. Kight also calls Taylor her mentor and “blues mama,” turning to her with professional and personal issues.
“She would always encourage me,” Kight says. “I miss her terribly.”
The blues has been a good fit for Kight, not just in a commercial sense, but also artistically.
“I started writing some [as a country artist], but nothing like I did once I got into the blues,” she says. “The blues tells it like it is, there’s no sugar coating it. If I was going to write a country song about my husband running around, I’d probably say something like ‘He’s been unfaithful and my heart is broken.’ If I was writing that same scenario in the blues, I’d say ‘My man is like a tomcat; he’s always on the prowl.’ Now, instead of it being depressing to my audience, that kind of twist on the situation always gets some laughs.”
Kight also appreciates the unvarnished nature of the blues.
“Country and blues, it’s about real life and what’s going on,” she says. “Sometimes country might make it a little more pretty. The blues is very real. And to me, it’s been a lot more fun to write.”
Part of the fun is the humor that’s possible within the blues.
“You can put [a song] in an enlightening way and a comical way that makes people smile, even though you’re talking about the same subject [as country],” she says.
She releases most of her music on Blue South, her own label. “I’ve ventured out and released a couple of albums on other labels, but I always seem to come back to Blue South,” she says. She cites 2004’s Southern Comfort as an album that helped put Blue South, and herself, on the map. Kight hasn’t had the time to add other artists to her roster, but it’s something she’d like to eventually tackle.
While Kight found a home in the blues, after coming out of country, she’s also connected to gospel. Her mother was offered a gospel recording contract, but declined it.
“I was an infant,” Kight says. “She decided she wanted to be more of a wife and a mother and not get into all that. She didn’t seem like she had time, with me being so young.” Her mom continued to sing, performing on the radio, and, of course, singing in church. “We all have choices and they direct our path in life. I don’t think she ever regretted that choice.”
Kight says her mother’s choice didn’t influence her perception of the music business, or of the importance of record contracts.
“It didn’t phase me,” Kight says. “I could understand why she did that. It’s a major decision to make a career out of music. You have to sacrifice a lot. You certainly have to have a lot stamina and determination.”
For Kight, the sacrifices include time at home and relationships.
“I never found someone who would, I’ll say, put up with my career,” she says. “They seem to support it in the beginning but that doesn’t last too long. I can understand that. It would be hard being married to a professional musician.”
Kight’s commitment to music has required a lot, but it has also had a healing effect on her. In 2011, doctor’s diagnosed Kight with meningitis and encephalitis, two very serious diseases. It took her at least a year to recover, although she still lives with some of the fallout. Kight had to relearn things, like songwriting and guitar-playing, always hoping the skills would return, but never certain until one day, an entire song came to her.
“I just remember thinking that I would never be able to write again and one day I was walking around in my bedroom and the sun was coming out, coming through the window real bright, when the sun came up and warmed my face, it felt so good to have another day,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I believe that’s part of a song.’ So that’s part of the song, “Holdin’ On.” It makes you appreciate everything you do. It just makes you so happy to do anything.”
That song became a collection of songs, 2014’s A New Day, an album Kight can’t quite describe: “It’s not really the blues,” she says. “I don’t know what you would call that.”
Writing and recording a new album was an important milestone for her recovery, but it doesn’t signify the conclusion of the experience.
“My self-confidence took a beating and it’s still not quite where it was before 2011, but it’s getting there,” she says. “I’m blessed to be able to do things I used to do where there are many people who have had this illness that still can’t do a lot of things. The extent of the disability is different for each person, depending on the area of the brain that was most affected, and the severity of the damage.”
She even dedicates part of her website to what she calls “Survival Story,” using it to raise awareness around encephalitis.
If A New Day doesn’t lend itself to a pithy summary, Trio Sessions, with its stripped down sound, is much easier to describe.
“I call it going back to my roots because for many years I played a lot of solo work, doing acoustic,” she says. The two guys that play in my trio, [Porter and Wynn], that I’ve been playing with for over 20 years, they’re like my brothers, and I knew what kind of musicians they were, and I just ran it by them. I said, ‘Would y’all being interested in doing something different? And simplifying this thing?’ They were all in for it.”
Kight especially enjoyed the harmonies on Trio, which took her back to her, and her mother’s, gospel roots. And while she appreciates the acoustic sound, it’s not something she’d shift to permanently.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she laughs. “Sometimes my guitar player will pick up his electric guitar and just let it fly. It gives the fans a variety.”
Kight also finds variety in photography, a hobby she’s had since she was a young woman, having even taken photos for her high school yearbook. “I’ve won quite a few ribbons for my photography,” she says. “My camera is next to my guitar as far as my loves. I just enjoy it a lot and I enjoy taking photos on the road. I’ve been out west a couple of times just to take pictures. And I take a lot of pictures of my pet goats, and the fans really love those.”
She shifted from amateur photographer to professional when Covid shut everything down. Kight had a long tour on the books and an album about to come out, and suddenly everything stopped. She used the time to write a children’s book, Things I’ve Learned From A Goat, featuring pictures of her goats. Because in addition to music and photography, Kight also raises goats. “You just got to keep trying to be creative, no matter what’s going on.” But the combination of these activities is what energizes Kight. “I always say God, goats and guitars, along with my family and friends, have gotten me through a lot,” she says, perhaps the first time all three have been invoked together in a statement of gratitude.
The United States is in a new phase of the pandemic, one that’s allowed Kight and her band to perform some outdoor shows, although some dates have been canceled, which has been frustrating, as she’s ready to get back on the road and in front of her audience.
“I can’t hardly get [by] without music,” she says “I did for a while when the pandemic hit and we all had to quit and everything closed, I kind of got away from [music] for the first time since I was a teenager, just feeling weird about it and not motivated, now that I’ve gotten back into it and we’ve been performing some, I can’t hardly go without it. I can’t hardly go a day without picking up my guitar now. It makes you feel better.”
Everyone take a different path to and through the blues. Kight’s is no more or less circuitous than anyone else’s but what’s interesting is how all of the stops along the way, in gospel, country, and church, have informed her blues sensibility. When hearing my suggestion that Trio had a darker feel from her other work, Kight suggested it’s more a result of the natural growth that takes place as we age and mature.
“I didn’t mean for it to have a darker feel,” she says. “As the years go by and we experience life, as we all do, songs may turn out a little different from time to time. Maybe my writing has changed a little, but it’s always been about relationships, getting out of bad ones, or wanting to get out and can’t, or falling in love when you least expect it.”
They’re all universal themes given a bluesy twist in Kight’s hands.
Visit EG’s website at https://egkight.com/
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.