Written by Richard Skanse--October 2017
When Kelley Mickwee released her debut solo album, You Used to Live Here, back in 2014, she wasn’t kidding when she described the move as feeling like “totally starting from scratch again” … and more than a little scary. Although she was already a seasoned artist at that point with a decade’s worth of experience under her belt, up until then all of her performing and recording experience had been as part of a unit: first as half of the Memphis-based duo Jed and Kelley, and then as one-fourth of Texas’ acclaimed all-woman Americana group, The Trishas. But when The Trishas, all living in different parts of the state or as far away as Tennessee, collectively decided to slow their roll a few years back, Mickwee realized that in order to keep living the dream of playing music for a living, she was going to have to strike out on her own. Which she did, beautifully— and may well do again, some day. But right now, three years down the line from her last big career leap, Mickwee is excitedly taking a new one. Only this time it’s not a matter of “starting over from scratch” so much as just learning how to take her hands off the wheel and have fun as a proud member of one the hottest acts in Texas: Shinyribs.
“I really wanted to prove to myself that I could go out and play shows alone, and I did, and I can do that,” says Mickwee. “But ultimately, I really like to be part of something bigger than me.”
Her new gig certainly fits that bill. Launched in 2007 by Gourds co-founder Kevin Russell as a “solo” vehicle, Shinyribs has since evolved into arguably the most explosively entertaining band to spring from Austin in decades. Mickwee joined the family in September 2017, claiming her spot onstage next to Alice Spencer as one of the band’s two harmony and backup-singing “Shiny Soul Sisters.” She had to hit the ground running and learn the ropes fast (knowing that Shinyribs would be taping its debut appearance on TV’s Austin City Limits the following month), but from the start she felt not just right at home, but exactly where she needed to be.
“I still love playing with my own band, and plan to keep doing that when I can, but the majority of the shows I’d been doing had been just me and a guitar, and I was just looking for a change,” she explains. “In fact I had kind of been putting it out there in the universe, saying to some friends, ‘Man, I would love to be a backup singer for awhile; I just want to have fun doing something that takes some of the responsibility off me so I can really enjoy just getting onstage again.’” She readily credits one friend in particular for helping to make that wish come true: beloved Austin musician and Shinyribs producer George Reiff, who died of cancer earlier this year.
“It was George who suggested me for something else a few years back, and I think Kevin just remembered that when this spot opened up.”
ot surprisingly, that spot turned out to be just what the (soul) doctor ordered, with Mickwee having such a blast getting her groove on as a Shiny Soul Sister that she calls Shinyribs her “priority for the foreseeable future.” But she’s hardly just a “sideman.” After all, The Trishas never did exactly breakup, meaning that Mickwee and her other song sisters Jamie Lin Wilson, Liz Foster and Savannah Welch still happily reassemble every once in a blue moon when their schedules line up or a favorite gig comes around — like the annual MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they all played their very first show together as part of a 2009 salute to Savannah’s father, renowned songwriter Kevin Welch. Mickwee is also still an active partner (alongside co-founders Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkins, Drew Kennedy, Josh Grider and Brady Zdan) in the Red River Songwriters Festival, which will celebrate its seventh anniversary in 2018 with headliner Darrell Scott. “That's our little baby, and it’s doing pretty well — the last one sold out!” Mickwee says proudly of the event, which is held every year in Red River, New Mexico and preceded by a short “Traveling Red River Songwriters” tour.
And then there’s Mickwee’s weekly on-air gig, hosting the “River Girl Radio” show Sunday mornings on Austin’s “Sun Radio” (www.sunradio.com). “The format is pretty much whatever I’m feeling,” she says. “Usually I’ll try to pick a theme, or if I’m playing a festival, maybe I’ll play some of the other artists that will be there, but mostly it’s whatever pops into my head. I don’t really have any rules, other than, ‘don’t cuss!’” (In addition to doing her own show on Sundays, Mickwee can also be heard every day as “The Voice” of Sun Radio.)
With all of the above currently on her plate, one wouldn’t think Mickwee would have any time at all left over to devote to her own performing songwriter career. But even though scaling back on that was part of her plan, it’s still very much a part of her bigger picture. As time allows, she’s remains open to playing “solo” shows (albeit ideally backed by her band or with friends like Collin Brooks and John Chipman, with whom she recorded a 2017 EP, Birds of a Feather, prior to a short European tour together). But most importantly, she’s also making a concerted effort to make time to write more again, happily reconnecting with a side of her creative self that the longtime singer and guitar/mandolin player didn’t even know she had in her prior to The Trishas. She took to it like a natural, co-writing seven songs on the group’s 2012 album High, Wide and Handsome and several more since, but admits she hit a bit of an emotional writer’s block in the wake of You Used to Live Here.
“I went through a long period where I didn’t really have much to say, and if I did it was just, you know, kind of sad songs — and I got sick of writing those,” Mickwee says. “But I’m pretty happy now, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve made it a point to go spend time alone and work on songs, which is something I really didn’t do much of for the last two years. Part of that was because (as a solo artist) I used to have drive everywhere, but now that I get to just ride in the van, I have more time to sit with a journal and really focus. So I’m hoping more of that happens, because I need new songs. And whenever I get enough good new songs, I’ll record them. But not until then.”
And in the meantime? This brand new Shiny Soul Sister couldn’t be happier just singing her ass off as part of the gang. And figuring out how to dance while doing it, too. “That’s something I’d never actually done onstage before,” she admits with a laugh. “I was always sitting on a stool or hiding behind a guitar. But now I’m learning all these moves to do onstage with Alice, and … it’s a workout. It’s definitely taking me out of my comfort zone. But, that’s what I love to do: get pushed.”