Trudy Lynn's Royal Oak Blues Cafe is entering its second week in the No 1 spot on Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart this week. She's pretty happy about it.
"Oh my God. Isn't that wonderful?", Lynn said by phone Wednesday morning. "I'm just floored. I don't know how I feel about it. I'm elated, I'm happy. Finally my ship has sailed in."
Royal Oak has had a relatively long climb to the top for the longtime Houston blues singer. It was originally released locally last November on Connor Ray, the label run by Lynn's collaborator Steve Krase, who receives under-the-title credit on the album. It has been climbing Billboard's chart since getting picked up by MDI Distribution earlier this summer. It became available on iTunes in July and first appeared on Billboard's blues chart the week of August 2, where it debuted at No. 11 as the "Hot Shot Debut."
"It's an all out marketing, booking, and distribution push," says Lynn's publicist John McNerney, who professionally goes by John In Houston. "The woman is an incredible talent, tremendous stage presence, and I think all that she lacked was the support elements that get someone of her talent and experience a good chance to reach the top."
McNerney says Royal Oak's path to No. 1 began when Lynn suggested that Krase talk to John Abbey, the UK-born co-founder of Ichiban Records. Abbey started the Atlanta-based Ichiban in 1985, and the label released dozens albums by an eclectic variety of artists ranging from soul singers Clarence Carter and Millie Jackson to rapper Vanilla Ice and the Louisiana rock bands Dash Rip Rock and Deadeye Dick, until it went out of business and its catalog was absorbed by EMI.
Lynn had recorded several albums on Ichiban in the early and mid-'90s, including 1993's I'll Run Your Heart Away and 1994's 24 Hour Woman. According to McNerney, once Krase brought Royal Oak to Abbey's attention, the latter agreed to work with her again, becoming her manager and European booking agent. (McNerney handles Lynn's domestic bookings himself.)
"I knew [Abbey] would know what to do with it," she says of the new album.
Although she says other people frequently offer songs for her to record, Lynn chose the songs on Royal Oak herself, making it a point to use material that meant something to her. Titles include Don Robey's "Play the Honky Tonks," Jay McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" (also recorded by the Rolling Stones) and the traditional "Country Man Blues," as well as Lynn's own "Every Side of Lonesome" and "Down In Memphis."
"These are songs that are personal to me," she says. "I like women blues singers from way back. That music, if you listen to it on some of those old 78s, some of it is just mind-boggling."
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Lynn says she began playing some of those old songs from as far back as the 1920s to Krase, the harmonica specialist and longtime leader of Houston blues band the In Crowd. She recalls meeting Krase years ago while she was working with the late Jerry Lightfoot, the linchpin of the local blues community who passed away in 2006. Once she started turning Krase onto some of those traditional songs by female singers, Lynn recounts, the younger musician was enthusiastic about making an album together.
"He said, 'Well, when you get ready to do it, let's do that," relays Lynn. "I thought he was kidding because we were laughing around and talking, you know. But he called me a couple of weeks later and said, 'Well Trudy, you ready?'
"I said, 'Really?'" she continues. "He said, 'Yeah, ready?'"
Krase suggested making Royal Oak at Rock Romano's Red Shack Studio in the Heights, which he had used for his 2013 album Someday and where Lynn had recently been doing some background sessions. A number of other prominent Houston blues musicians appear on Royal Oak, including guitarist John Del Toro Richardson, bassist Eugene "Spare Time" Murray, pianist Robert "Pee Wee" Stephens and Romano himself, who plays bass on "Every Side of Lonesome." Lynn gives full credit to Krase for making Royal Oak happen. They recorded nine tracks on their first day alone.
"Steve Krase is a godsend," says the sixtysomething Lynn, who grew up in Fifth Ward and only moved to another part of town just recently, three children and a number of grandkids later. She has a date booked at Birraporetti's Italian restaurant downtown next Friday, then heads off to the T-Bone Walker festival in Longview and eventually the Blues Blast Awards in Champaign, Illinois next month and Lucerne, Switzerland in November.
Not to brag or anything, but Rocks Off named Royal Oak to our personal Top 10 Houston albums of 2013 back in December. Since then, Lynn has sung at this year's International Blues Challenge and the 2014 Blues Music Awards, both in Memphis. She also gave a show-stopping performance at last month's Houston Press Music Awards ceremony after Royal Oak was nominated for Best Local Recording.
"I've worked for it," Lynn says of her "overnight" success. "I really have."
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