Cincinnati-based blues singer-guitarist Kelly Richey is a true road warrior. She estimates that she's traveled some 800,000 miles to play some 3,700 shows in the course of her 25-year career. For Richey, who started playing Cleveland early on — she used to perform at Wilbert's when it was located in the Warehouse District — touring is essential for any artist hoping to build a following and establish a career.
"I've been able to make this thing work and work quite well but I haven't totally gotten into the mainstream market," she says via phone from her Cincinnati office. "I'm not just a guitar slinger and oh my god, it's a girl. That doesn't translate to radio, though it may to the live stage. That's how I've been able to do this. CDs hold less value. You have to be out there playing."
Born in Lexington, Richey has been "out there playing" from an early age, too. She initially studied piano and then drums before she picked up the guitar at age 15 and started practicing furiously. Once out of high school, she hopped in her pick-up truck and hit the road.
"I wasn't a great student, mainly because I was dyslexic," she says. "Guitar was something that I could really do. I never set it down. I slept with it and played 12 to 16 hours a day. When I got that guitar in high school, none of the guys would let me play. I had a chip on each shoulder. I had an attitude and an ax to grind. It took me awhile to grow past that. I've taught lessons since I got a guitar. A lot of females try to play; it's a physical instrument and you have to do more than just cut your fingernails."
Initially, she joined the country-ish act Stealin' Horses and signed a deal with Arista Records that didn't pan out despite the fact the group sold some 100,000 albums.
"When I was on Arista Records, I saw a major label deal go south," she recalls. "This was an artist that signed its songs away. I sat front and center row in a very difficult artistic situation. I was really gun-shy. About that time, Ani [DiFranco] hit the scene. She was a chick putting out her own records [on her own Righteous Babe Records]. I wanted to do that. Business-wise, that's what I wanted."
And so she did. Richey went solo and started issuing blues-rock records that she supported with relentless touring. But by 2010, she needed a break. So she decided to take the year off and when she went back to touring and recording in 2011, she not only had a fresh perspective but she also had a new band that now features funk bassist Freekbass, a legitimate artist in his own right.
"Freekbass heard I had a new CD and wanted to make some changes and contacted me and said we should talk. He said he'd like to support and enhance what I'm doing. I said, 'Let's go.'"
And off they went. Richey, however, says that as much as Freekbass might add a new dimension to her sound, she's still going to sound like herself.
"I'll do my old stuff that people like," she says of the current tour. "It's not like I'm a different person but we have a whole new album's worth of material. I just needed to step into something fresh and new and sometimes you just need to step into something fresh and new. I knew I had to make a move and Freekbass called and I realized that this is it. What a treat. Anything I can do, he can do better. It really challenges me to do anything I can think of."
Richey says she hopes her new CD due out in March will expand her audience. She already appeals to the jam and blues crowd but she's hoping for a hit record to keep her career going strong for another 25 years.
"I'm all for 20-minute guitar solos and the show still has that, but the new record, these are all 3-minute songs," she says. "I'm so excited about it. I've done a lot of records and this is the first one that I've done that really has commercial appeal and I'm thrilled. I was a guitar player first and then I developed my vocals and my songwriting has developed. Marketability-wise, this is my first record that shows all three strengths. Hence, I can't get wait to get my feet on stage this year. I have the best band I've ever had and the best record I've ever had."