Every city has its hometown acts, the local band that can pack a favorite venue on a Friday night. Their fans know the road stories — playing out to eight people in a Brooklyn bar.
And yet, there are artists among us whose anonymity exists in their hometowns. There are musicians who sell out spots abroad while struggling to find an audience at home.
Singer, guitarist and composer SharBaby Newport is one such artist. SharBaby sets out on a 22-date European tour next week. Although the Birmingham transplant sees her local audience growing, SharBaby’s local gigs remain scarce.
“I’m sort of a throwback to the old country blues players like Jimmy Reed and the early Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf,” SharBaby told Weld in an interview at her comfortable Irondale home.
“But each show I play, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. And at 61 years old, Birmingham is where I am going to stay,” SharBaby said, practicing a Howlin’ Wolf riff in her basement studio, surrounded by her gear – mostly electric instruments. On the walls hang framed stories and awards.
Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, SharBaby – who has always preferred to be called by the nickname given to her by a young relative who could not pronounce her real name, Sharon – grew up in a musical household in which her father played in various gospel groups and her mother loved listening to the blues on old records and local radio stations.
“I can remember music from the time I was in the crib,” SharBaby said, “My father’s group would be practicing in the living room and my mother would be playing records in the bedroom.”
SharBaby turned out to be something of a musical phenomenon herself. Given her first guitar, a cheap red plastic six string, by her father when she was 11, SharBaby was a year later winning local talent shows. By the age of 14, she was singing with a touring band called the Checkmate Part 2.
Less than a year later she formed her own band, South Sensations. The band played mostly rhythm and blues Motown songs at gigs in her hometown.
After marrying Jim Newport in 1990, she moved to Pensacola, Florida, where she jumped into the local blues scene.
SharBaby came to Alabama for good in 2005 after hearing the great blues visionary Willie King, whose rural Pickens County Freedom Creek Blues Festival is still being held every year despite King’s death three years ago.
“I don’t know, hearing Willie King, something just clicked — especially in the kind of music we like and play, and we’ve been friends ever since,” she said.
“He invited me down to play Freedom Creek, and once I saw what Alabama was all about, I knew this was the place for me.”
Owners of local venues where SharBaby is a regular are also happy she made her decision to live in the area. “She’s one of my best acts,” says Gip Gipson, the owner of Gip’s Place, which had recently received a lot of interest as one of the last remaining BYOB, sit-out-in-the-yard juke joints.
“She plays that old kind of finger-picking county blues that I grew up on, and any Saturday night she is free, we’ll have her play here in Bessemer. She always draws a big crowd.”
SharBaby’s February 16 gig at Gip’s was the last one she will have played before leaving for London, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Daniel Day, who runs DanielDay Gallery/DreamMecca with his wife Melody Musick, says their bond with SharBaby has grown stronger over the last three years.
“Shar’ has called DanielDay Gallery/DreamMecca her home base in Alabama since she started playing here three years ago,” Day said.
“She owns New Year’s Eve whenever she can play it. Melody and I are so fortunate to call SharBaby and her husband Jim true friends and colleagues in the music world.”
Like Gipson, Day says SharBaby attracts some of the largest crowds to his two performance spaces. But as impressive as the crowds at Gip’s and DanielDay might be, SharBaby and her band get little Birmingham recognition beyond those specialized scenes.
SharBaby’s current band includes Tim Boykin on lead guitar, Lee Brown on bass and Jesse Suttle on drums. The band will not be accompanying SharBaby to Europe for this international tour, her third.
“No, the guys who have put the tour together have said they will have a band waiting for us when we get there,” SharBaby said. “We’ll just have to see how that works out.”
SharBaby’s European tour comes at a time when she has been making strides to create a real name for herself, both nationally and internationally.
Last November, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in San Francisco and shared a stage with fellow blues luminaries like Johnny Lang, the King Brothers, Eddie C. Campbell and others.
In April, SharBaby received three awards for her current album SharBaby’s 11 O’Clock Blues at the Indie Music Channel Awards in Los Angles.
Later that night she found herself out in West Hollywood rocking a packed house for some of what she called the major movers and shakers in the independent music business.
But through it all, SharBaby says she will remain true to the place she now calls home: Birmingham.
“I am really excited about going back to Europe,” SharBaby said. “But I know I will just as happy to back to home sweet home and start gigging around Birmingham again.”
For more information on SharBaby, visit sharbaby.com.