Deborah Coleman was wowed by the blues grooves of Hooker, Wolf, and Waters

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 20, 2000

There are a helluva lot of lead guitarists in the world, and a tidy portion of them are blues pickers. Increasingly, that category includes females, from veteran slide specialist Bonnie Raitt to 14-year-old blues-rock sensation Shannon Curfman. But for some reason there aren’t many black female lead guitarists in the public eye. The only one I can think of is Deborah Coleman, so when I reach her at her home in Chesapeake, Virginia, I ask her why she thinks that might be.

“I’ve been asked that question a million times,” she replies, “and I don’t have a clue. But there are a couple. Like Beverly Watson is kinda comin’ on the scene here. And there was another woman, B.B. Queen, but I don’t know what happened to her. It does seem as though the rest of the [black] women are in another genre of music, hip-hop or R&B or something.”

With her assured new album, Soft Place to Fall, the 43-year-old Coleman shows just how potent an African-American woman with a cranked Tele can be, whether on ace originals like the slinky title track or on a ripping version of “I’m a Woman”, the Ellas McDaniel tune Koko Taylor made popular. While her accomplished fretwork might lead you to guess otherwise, Coleman didn’t start off as a six-string bandit. According to her Blind Pig Records bio, she originally played bass, then switched over to guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix.

“Yeah, well, the reason I started playin’ bass is because all the guys were playin’ guitars,” she explains, “and that was the only way I could get in a band. They’d say, ‘Well, if you’re playing bass, you can play with us, but you’re not playin’ guitar.’ But that changed after about a year. I said, ‘No, no, no—I want to play guitar too.’ ”

By the time she was in her teens, Coleman’s childhood infatuation with the Monkees (“I wanted to be Michael Nesmith!”) had transformed into a love of British blues-rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and, in particular, the Jeff Beck–era Yardbirds. Then, when she was around 20, Coleman experienced something of a blues revelation.

“I saw John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at a show,” she says, “and I was just blown away. You know, when I started playin’ guitar I was basically doin’ the I-IV-V thing anyways, but when I heard these guys, and heard the grooves they had, it was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

When she was 25, Coleman put her music career on hold so she could concentrate on raising her daughter, working as a nurse and electrician along the way. “That was a difficult decision,” she says, “but I felt like I made the right one. And now, lookin’ back, I know I did. I’m just fortunate that I had the opportunity to actually get back into it and have some success at it.”

With four albums to her credit, and a steady touring schedule that brings her to the Deer Lake Blues Festival on Sunday (July 23), Coleman’s career is in high gear. Her daughter’s 19 now and, fortunately, doesn’t mind the music her mother makes. “Actually, she likes the money better,” quips Coleman. “Her thing is like, ‘Hey Mom, you got any more money?’ And if I tell her no, she says, ‘Well, you better get out there and start pluckin’ those strings again.’”

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