With blazing ringlets of curly red hair, girl-next-door good looks, a calm stage demeanor and hot guitar licks, Rebecca Laird, only 20, has already heard enough of "you remind me of Bonnie Raitt." But with her recent win at Guitar Center's Battle of the Blues regional finals, which brought her a trove of new gear as well as a free trip to Los Angeles for this week's national finals at Club Nokia, Laird is looking at a potentially promising career.
To her credit, she hasn't gotten the big head.
"I've only been playing about seven years, so I know I've got a lot of stuff to learn still," says Laird. "It's great that I'm getting these opportunities and this experience, though."
Laird, who works at Texas Guitar Company in Katy, tried guitar early on, only to put it down until she came back to it at age 13.
"I never really committed to playing guitar until I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan," Laird explains. "He hooked me deep. I just thought, 'Wow, I wonder if I can learn to do that.'
"But what really made me see that I want to play guitar the rest of my life was the first time I played with other people," she says. "It just felt like the coolest thing I'd ever done."
She credits her first guitar instructor, Glen Ackerman, with starting her down the right path.
"You wouldn't believe who he gets calls to play with," says Laird. "He's a big-time jazz player, but he also teaches and works in the studio."
During Laird's junior-high years, she picked up a bit of formal musical savvy playing the flute. In her matter-of-fact, down-to-earth yet thoughtful way, she notes that her current job at the guitar store has helped her learn marketable skills like repairing and setting up guitars.
"In some ways, I'm actually trying to model my career along the lines of what Glen does," says Laird. "I don't necessarily want to be famous; I just want to make a living and play guitar.
"Hopefully doing some playing, some teaching, some studio work and working at a guitar store — basically, exactly what I'm doing right now — will bring in enough income to make a decent living," she says.
"If that can happen, I think I'll be happy."
As one of the recipients of the Houston Blues Society's Jimmy "T-99" Nelson Scholarships last year, Laird stood tall and brought the heat when sitting in with local legend Texas Johnny Brown at the society's scholarship award show at The Big Easy. She has the looks, the licks and the presence for potential stardom, but is still undecided about fronting her own band.
"I'm just starting to learn to sing," says Laird, who is working with a voice coach. "I wouldn't say I'm driven to front my own band, at least not yet. But I'm not saying that's not going to happen, either. I'm working on it."
The HBS scholarship Laird won, though, didn't translate into college per se.
"I was planning to start the music course at Houston Community College, but I got so involved with the [Guitar Center] competition I just couldn't work college in around that and work," she says.
The Battle of the Blues contest spans several months, going through a series of six rounds beginning with competitions in each local Guitar Center outlet.
"I got off to a good start, so instead of starting college, I used the scholarship money to go to a really intense workshop in Austin," explains Laird.
Participation in the National Guitar Workshop at Concordia University gave Laird the opportunity to play with such legends as Elvin Bishop and recently deceased Muddy Waters guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
"They put us in various ensembles at the workshop, so I ended up playing in Elvin's band, and we opened for Hubert," gushes Laird. "Now that was fun. And unforgettable."
Lately Laird has become something of a hired gun.
"I get calls from people just looking for a lead guitarist, usually just for a gig or two," says Laird. "Those kinds of gigs fit right in with what my overall goal is.
"I enjoy learning a set of songs, doing a rehearsal or two, and then just go play the gig," she adds. "It's not always a blues gig, and every time I do one, I learn something valuable. And I like getting paid."
Laird describes her listening habits as "all over the place," noting that both of her parents were very music-oriented.
"There's just always something on the stereo at our house," Laird laughs. "So I've heard lots of old rock, blues, jazz, pop, folk music. I dig a lot of different stuff."
She lists Vaughan as her main blues influence, but also likes Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other old-school bluesmen. She also digs many of the current set of major blues players, especially Jimmie Vaughan and Joe Bonamassa, who will headline the Battle of the Blues finals.
"At some point in the program, we'll get to play with Joe," says Laird. "That's pretty huge to me because he's definitely someone I look up to and want to emulate as a player."
During the competition, Laird will perform one song in which she plays electric guitar over a recorded backing track and another song on acoustic guitar.
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"I'm sticking with the same backing track I've used in all the other competitions this year, a slow blues," Laird explains, "but I actually composed something of my own for the acoustic portion. Part of what we get scored on is originality, so I thought I'd make up an original piece of my own for that."
One side effect of the competition Laird is already feeling has been her prizes. As the winner of the regional competition, where she shot down players from Austin, Dallas and Phoenix, she got a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, a Gibson acoustic guitar, two amplifiers, some Shure microphones and a year's supply of guitar strings. But the pot at the end of the rainbow waits in Los Angeles.
"First prize is $25,000, and on top of that is another $25,000 in gear," she says. "Winning that would be huge."
Noting the windfall she's already received from her wins in competition this year, Laird says, "Whatever happens in L.A., this year my taxes are going to be crazy."