Valerie June: American Songster Radio Episode 4

Sep 1, 2016

Dom Flemons with Valerie June
Credit Vania Kinard

Before Valerie June had ever written a song of her own, she was busy putting up show posters for artists like Bobby Womack and Prince. You might say June was born into the music business.

"My dad had a promotion company called Music Makers Production, and he put all of us to work!" the singer told Dom Flemons in their interview for American Songster Radio.

Valerie June’s whole family pitched in on bringing national acts to their home town, Jackson, Tennessee.

"I was just working with my dad. My brothers and sisters were working with my dad. My mom was his secretary. We were all working together," she said.

When Valerie June launched her own career as a recording artist, in the mid-2000s, she knew just where to turn for help with the business side of her project.

"When I was on the road and I couldn’t handle everything myself, I needed a team. And I was like, well, why don’t I just call up my girls and see if they’re interested," she said. "And they were. And they’re brilliant!"

Valerie’s sister, Jasmine, now administers the Valerie June web presence and her mother manages the artist’s online store. "We’ve been supporting each other and working together for years."

In one of her most popular songs, "Working Woman Blues," Valerie June sings frankly about the female experience of social and economic burdens. It’s a song that is rooted in personal experience but resonates with a wide audience:

"A young girl who’s taking care of her brothers and sisters could feel a little bit of the Working Woman Blues," she said. "You could feel a little bit of the Working Woman Blues if you’re a man and you’ve got a mom or a grandmother who’s working all the time, or your wife or whoever, to take care of whatever it might be. The Working Woman Blues is something that happens quite a lot."

Like a lot of Valerie June’s songwriting, "Working Woman Blues" is a seamless continuation of the best of American roots music. The song updates the folk and country music tradition of voicing women’s resistance to restrictive gender roles. This tradition spans songs about the drudgery of domestic labor (the Carter Family’s "Married Girl, Single Girl," Bill Monroe’s "True Life Blues") to critical observations about women’s work lives outside the home (Hazel Dickens’s "Working Girl Blues," Freakwater’s "Waitress Song"). In taking up this song tradition, Valerie June showcases the power of old musical forms to comment on current social issues.

On Episode 4 of American Songster Radio, Dom Flemons calls Valerie June to talk about hymn singing, the Carter Family, and the story of her unlikely first gig in New York City.

To cap off the program, Flemons performs a version of "Strange Things Happening Everyday," a song by gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.