I first discovered Beverly on a list of female songwriters I stumbled across this Summer.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins.
Up until that point I’d never heard of her.
The corresponding picture featured on that list was of a woman crouched down with her guitar. A bona fide bad ass if I’d ever seen one. “Don’t Mess with Miss Watkins”, it warned.
Boy, was I in for a surprise when I investigated further (see video above).
I took to google and came across video after video of a Miss Watkins absolutely crushing it on stage. She’d sing. Then she’d solo. Then she’d flip her guitar above her head and sing and solo while playing behind her back.
Did I mention the part where she’s doing this at well over 70 years of age?
Currently rounding the corner towards her 75th Birthday, Beverly’s still trying to make it. Despite some turbulence along the way– she’s survived both a heart attack and lung cancer — she’s not letting anything slow her down. She’s told me on more occasions than I can count:
“I’m only 74, I’m young” she insists “mine is a gift from God”.
Upon finding her on the Internet I reached out to The Music Makers Foundation — an organization that deserves all the recognition and praise in the world. Their mission is to “support Roots musicians” and Beverly is one of the artists that they’ve taken under their wing.
I figured I could chat with her for an FDL piece– just a little something that could help contribute to getting her name out there.
I followed up and followed up and followed up and finally got a response!
Beverly was willing to talk to me!
The first time I called her it took quite a bit of explaining before she caught on to who I was. They’d told her about me but she had a lot going on, a show in New Orleans on deck– gigs throughout Atlanta– awards to receive.
We dove right in and started just talking. Well, Beverly did most of the talking; story after story of her life to date. She told me about starting to play guitar when she was 8. She told me about meeting Piano Red and going on the road. She told me about opening up for Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and James Brown. She told me about being a single mother and when the band broke up. She told me about working at a car wash to help pay the bills while she kept on making music. She told me about recording her debut album in her 60s. She told me that music is what’s keeping her alive.
So for months we went back and forth–I’d interview and transcribe and take a stab at writing something. She’d call to check in on me and say hello.
Drafts became more drafts become overworked drafts.
The pressure was high. Beverly was trusting me with her story and I didn’t want to mess this up.
Getting this “right” was super important to me because- beyond the fact that she’s more than paid her dues– my heart and guts and stuff need you know that she exists.
I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut feeling all the pressure in the world to strike a balance between being myself and being dubbed the black girl who acts white. I grew up feeling pressure to act, and talk, and dress a certain way because of what I looked like. I took a lot of those insecurities with me into adulthood and I spent years wandering and stumbling and trying to fight back. I worked in fashion and politics and technology. For the longest time I had the instinct to create but without the skill set.
Then I found music.
I was 24 the first time I picked up a guitar and I only found the drums in the last year.
Now, music isn’t a choice for me.
There’s life before it and there’s life after and there’s a split second in between when something snapped and I knew my life would never be the same.
I will always do this thing because I have to.
Beverly knows a thing or two about that.
She called me a few weeks ago to tell me that she had a performance in London that she was flying to in mid-November. Then she mentioned super casually that she also had a brain aneurysm that the doctors were going to operate on in December.
I met her for the first time this past Monday in the waiting room of an Atlanta hospital just hours before her stent procedure.
She danced her way into surgery.
Don’t mess with Miss Watkins.
I thought of that picture standing with her in ICU a few hours later.
She was already antsy to get back on stage. “Just get yourself better,” I told her, “I’ll keep practicing while you do.”
Without skipping a beat her eyes tightened and she responded super seriously:
Beverly’s given me a lot in the last few months that I’ve known her. She’s pushed me and coached me on and reminded me time and time again of the power that comes with just being yourself. She’s showed me what it looks like to love and trust and place faith in an absolute stranger. As soon as her health clears up, we’ve got all sorts of adventures dreamed up.
I’m nervous about this. I might as well say it out loud and upfront. But I’m also emboldened by the magic that’s brought me this far. Finding Beverly wasn’t an easy journey but as I was reminded by some graffiti on the bathroom wall of Northside Tavern last night:
Smooth sails do not a strong sailor make.
It’s been a long road getting this far and as nervous as I am– I know that you’ve got to start somewhere.
So here we go.
I’ll be posting her story and recapping this trip to Atlanta here on Firedoglake.com over the next week or two.
I couldn’t have made it this far without the support of FDL and Jane Hamsher specifically– so I also want to start out with a heartfelt thank you to her and to all of you for reading this far.
Let’s get messy.