As live music cautiously returns to Nashville venues, fans are anticipating the revival of longstanding residencies that anchor the local scene. One that feels particularly heartening is the homecoming of the Time Jumpers to 3rd & Lindsley in a sold-out show coming Monday, Oct. 5. Singing lead vocals will be the newest member of the Grammy-winning, Western swing super-group Wendy Moten. Besides a dazzling voice, Moten brings a one-of-a-kind story to the stage.
LISTEN TO THE STRING WITH WENDY MOTEN HERE
“My Hee Haw dreams came true,” Moten said in a recent conversation with WMOT about her formal recruitment, which was announced last Fall after months as a guest singer. “Here's a real country band, with a real audience, in a real club, a real live setting, where it's taken seriously. Their fans are serious. And I just didn't think it could be any greater. And then when they decided to make me a member, I knew I was living my country dreams. It's amazing.”
The established narrative about country music would compel me to assert at this point that an African American pastor’s daughter who grew up in 1980s Memphis must be pretty far out to have grown up with “Hee Haw dreams.” But that’s the kind of thinking that’s pressed us to the current 21st century reckoning with the history, prejudices and prospects of and for Black country music, including the question of who gets to be acknowledged and heard in twang space.
Moten is what we mean when we talk about a musician’s musician. She’s made solo albums as a Top 40 R&B singer and a jazz singer. She’s toured as a harmony and duet vocalist for Vince Gill, Martina McBride and Julio Iglesias among others. She’s a veteran of Nashville studios and stages, having developed a complete arsenal of styles and sounds to be that versatile professional vocalist who can give a producer or an artist what they need on a moment’s notice. And her passion for the whole scene was actually born watching Hee Haw as a kid.
“I thought wow, I love the music. I love the humor. And I just could connect. It was like they were inviting me into their country world,” she recalls. It was one of a number of shows that projected a world of genres and performance styles into her Memphis home, where she was second youngest of six children. She cites Soul Train and Lawrence Welk, The Midnight Special and Carol Burnett, among others. It was a broad spectrum of music and, as far as she was concerned, open doors. Being a generalist rather than a specialist may have limited her chances to be on the marquee, but with the release of 2020’s pure country album I’ve Got You Covered and a Grand Ole Opry debut late last year, Wendy Moten’s moment as a country artist seems to have arrived, in its own way and time. “It just started as a child watching that television show and loving all styles of music and being influenced by many styles of music,” she says. “And it ends here in Nashville, and those doors opened. I can't even explain it. I've had a very unconventional music career.”
Moten attended Overton, a performing arts high school, where she studied classical music. She worked seasonal shows at Libertyland, a Memphis answer to Opryland USA that opened on July 4, 1976. Then she joined some USO overseas tours before finding a solid job in Memphis with a 10-piece, Top 40 party band called MVP. “They were like the best band (in the city). And they paid the best - two week paid vacation. It was amazing,” she says. “In the 80s and 90s, restaurants could afford large bands. So that was my first practice ground - and my first time defying my father. Because my dad was a preacher by then. And he was like, my daughter is not gonna be singing for the devil.”
Usually this is a battle church kids fight when they’re young, not over 21 and making their first solid living with their talent. So Moten made it known that Dad, who’d become a minister later in life, couldn’t just go changing the rules mid-stream like that, and he’d have to deal with it. The funny thing though is that all this time, Wendy was determined to study law and become a corporate attorney. But her voice steered her toward a different future. One day a significant record executive visiting Memphis overheard her singing a jingle in a recording studio and asked to hear more. After getting to know her he developed demo recordings and, lo and behold, landed her a record deal with EMI in the modern R&B field. “Because you know how record companies are,” she says. “Whatever's hot, they want one. So everybody was looking for a Whitney Houston. Right? I was EMI’s Whitney.”
It didn’t go badly at all. Moten snagged a Top 5 adult contemporary single and toured with Michael Bolton. She headlined overseas and released several albums. When it didn’t go Whitney-scale, Moten wasn't crushed, noting that she kept her expectations in check. When the pop chapter was over, she wanted to stay in music professionally, and fate brought her to Nashville in the middle 1990s with her long-time life partner, touring bass player David Santos.
Music Row was new and not entirely comfortable terrain, she says. “Memphis is 60 percent black. And when I moved to Nashville, I was like, where are the black people? I didn't see any black people really, in the sessions or anything.” Paving the way for her was friend and supporter Bekka Bramlett, the daughter of famed soul and rock and roll singer songwriter Bonnie Bramlett. Bekka intervened to make a safe space in Nashville’s exclusive and elite recording studios.
“When they saw me walk in the room, it wasn't a good thing,” Moten says of some early sessions. “I think they thought that it was going to be R&B or something. And they just assume that, you know, you're black, it's going to not be as great as they want it to be. And Bekka was like, I'm gonna break this up. She brought me in. She brought in Crystal Taliefero, who is today still touring with Billy Joel. And she was trying to break new ground and prove that we are capable of doing the job.”
The years in between have been full of jobs, none as long or as high profile as 15 years with Julio Iglesias, where Moten was a featured duet singer. Then Moten landed on a series of star country tours, but she speaks with a special glow about Vince Gill. He called her out of the blue in early 2016 with a referral via his wife Amy Grant and she joined his road band. And beyond being a stature gig, it was an emotional assignment. Gill was filling a void on the stage and the heart after his long time singer Dawn Sears died of cancer in 2014 at age 53.
“They had a special bond. Her voice was amazing,” Moten says. “And so I looked her up first, I wanted to know what kind of relationship they had. I was like, Okay, this is perfect. I got this, because their relationship was similar to what I had with Julio Iglesias. Julio and Vince are very organic type singers. Yes, the song is the same. But depending on how they feel that night, the melody might slightly change. They may hold a note a little longer, because they feel something. And they need that freedom to just, you know, to switch it up. And so that prepare me.”
Knowing Gill led Wendy to the Time Jumpers, a Nashville phenomenon with its own story, aura and following. Launched in the late 90s by veteran Music Row and Grand Ole Opry musicians, it became arguably the most authentic expression of Nashville history and ethos in town, filling Monday nights at the Station Inn and then 3rd & Lindsley with Western Swing and hillbilly jazz played and sung at a pinnacle of mastery. They have been, as Moten put it, a “serious” band playing for “serious” fans. Many stars have sat in, and Vince Gill loved it so much he became a formal member around 2010. Dawn Sears, whose husband Kenny was a founder, had been a lead singer with the group since the beginning, so her passing left a big soul-shaped hole. Moten loved singing classic country material with them, and after many guest slots, she was invited to formally join this time last year.
By happenstance, Gill has left the band due to heavy commitments as part of the current day lineup of The Eagles. But amid the swirl of recent comings and goings, Gill stepped up to produce Wendy Moten’s first-ever country album, a project she conceived, inspired by the Time Jumpers’ sound and her own fascination with Ray Charles’s landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music.
Moten’s modern sounds opens with a punchy take on Ernest Tubb’s swinging “Driving Nails In My Coffin” decorated with Rhodes piano, stabbing horns and the voices of Gill and Bekka Bramlett. Then Moten sings a rapturous interpretation of Jeannie Seely’s signature hit “Don’t Touch Me.” Moten’s southern roots tangle beautifully through Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe.” The command of the material becomes uncanny when one learns that Gill offered some of the tunes up to the singer as the sessions began. She knew “Ode To Billy Joe” from childhood. But some of the tunes were entirely new to her. It was for Moten a surprising but refreshing way to attack an album.
“His thing was, I'm glad you don't know them, because then you can truly make them your own,” she said. “We cut the record in three days. The guys would listen to the original two times, write charts. I'd make some notes. And then we cut it. And I said, this is what Ella Fitzgerald must have felt like, being in the room, because you got the heavy hitters, and they're saying, ‘you're owning this stuff!’ The band is in your corner. You got the eight cats, saying ‘Yeah!’”
There will be multitudinous ‘yeahs’ on Monday when Moten returns with the Time Jumpers, and the album offers quite a few as well.
Wendy Moten will be the featured guest on WMOT’s The String on October 11.