Libby Koch has deep, deep roots in Texas. and it’s clear how deep they are when you listen to her smooth and soulful voice. Libby’s commitment to the Texas music scene is also deeply rooted and her songs live and breathe a special quality that soars from one side to the other of the Lone Star State. The Texas music press adores her; one writer said that she could easily become the “next Queen of Americana music.”
Get to know her by visiting her website.
Here’s Libby singing “Ready Now” at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio.
Libby Koch will be joined by Terry Klein and Chuck Hawthorne at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on October 11.
You’re a seventh-generation Texan. How did your family end up in such a tiny town as Tennessee Colony?
My mother’s side of the family settled in Tennessee Colony in the 1830s and 1840s. The story of their journey to get there originally is told in my song “Wagon Train.” Their initial goal was to settle in California, but halfway there they decided to stay put in Texas and let the wagon train travel on. Hey, it was a long trip! My grandparents (who are the subject of my song “Naomi”) were each born outside of Tennessee Colony, but their families moved “back to the land” in the 1930s when they lost their livelihood during the Great Depression. My grandparents met in the seventh grade at the one-room Tennessee Colony school, started dating shortly thereafter, and married during my grandfather’s senior year at Texas A&M University (which is my alma mater as well). Two days after his graduation, he enlisted in the Army and went to Europe to fight in WWII. He fought all over Europe in Patton’s Third and made it home without a scratch. My grandparents settled down in Houston after the war, and my mom was born soon thereafter. I was born and raised in Houston as well, but we often traveled to Tennessee Colony through the years for our frequent family reunions, and my grandfather, who was quite the storyteller, frequently told me stories of his experiences growing up in the tiny East Texas town.
You’ve said that discovering the photo of your grandmother, Arabella, in a family scrapbook set you off on the path to writing songs about your family and your home. What was it about the experience of finding that particular photo that led you to the making of Tennessee Colony?
My sister looks exactly like my mom, but I always thought I looked like a mix of my parents, even favoring my dad’s side of the family a bit more. But then one day I was helping my mom unpack some winter clothes for my grandmother, and I picked up a scrapbook that was sitting on top of one of the boxes. A photo fell out onto the ground, and when I picked it up and looked at it, it felt like I was seeing myself in one of those old-timey sepia photos you can take at the amusement park! I flipped the photo over, and it said: “Arabella Shelton, School Teacher” on the back. I asked my mom who that was, and she said it was my Nana’s mother – Shelton was her maiden name before she married my great grandfather. Neither of us had ever seen a picture of her when she was younger, so we were both shocked at the resemblance!
Libby’s great grandmother, Arabella
Like I said earlier, I grew up hearing all of my granddad’s old family stories (many times over, as those things tend to go). I thought I knew all the family history in great detail, and I didn’t really think there was much else left to uncover. But finding that picture of Arabella made me rethink that…if I missed the person who I resemble the most, what other parts of the story was I missing? It also made me examine a lot of ideas about who we are in the context of genes, nature, nurture, our choices, and the like. Interesting stuff, to me at least. So, like we songwriters do, I started to write about it (see “All That Love”). Then I thought it might be cool to set some of my grandfather’s stories to music as well. I didn’t imagine that it would turn into a full-length album, but as I wrote more, the songs really felt like a collection to me, and from there it became a fully formed project. It really ended up being a labor of love and an homage to my family, particularly to my grandfather, the storyteller.
How wonderful that you’ve done a complete reworking of your first album, Redemption! How did you reimagine it? Do the songs mean something different now than they did ten years ago or has your musicality changed a bit?
This was a fun project that started from an idea I had to book a concert and play my first album all the way through on its tenth-anniversary date. As the idea was growing into filming and possibly recording the show, I attended a music business workshop at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, just south of Austin. Blue Rock is a beautiful, state of the art studio in a gorgeous setting in the Texas Hill Country. They also do a Blue Rock Live series where artists perform and the studio records the live performance while live broadcasting the show online. A quick tour of the facilities and talk with co-owner Billy Crockett after the workshop convinced me that this was the place for the Redemption 10th-anniversary show.
From there the wheels were really turning. I recorded Redemption solo acoustic, so I thought it would be fun to play the songs this time with a band. I called up my buddy Patterson Barrett, who is an incredible multi-instrumentalist and producer I’ve played with from time to time over the years. He lined up a killer band to play on the recording, and the two of us went through the songs with a fine-tooth comb. We did a little rearranging on some songs, and it turns out my voice has changed and matured quite a bit in ten years…many of the songs are a step to three steps higher than the original versions! Lyrically, it was fun to revisit these songs to see how they’ve changed and how I’ve changed. Many of them have taken on much greater meaning to me now that I’m a little older and hopefully a little wiser as a result of this musical journey over the past decade.
Describe your experience recording your CD Tennessee Colony. Did you have specific ideas about the orchestration of each song or did you leave all of those decisions up to your producer, Jack Saunders?
Making this album was such a blast. I had previously worked with Jack on an album I made with two of my Houston songwriter friends called The Grievous Angels, so we had a really good, organic working relationship going into it and just hit the ground running. He is an extremely talented singer-songwriter in addition to his production skills, so he really has a gift for helping a songwriter realize their vision for a project. On this record, I knew that I wanted it to generally have a very bluegrassy, gospel feel, in part because that was the music of the 1830s when my family settled in Tennessee Colony, as well as the 1930s when my grandparents moved back there. So I knew I wanted there to be an upright bass, string band kind of a feel, with gospel-style background vocals and maybe a bit of B3. Jack has some really amazing buddies like Rick Richards, Lloyd Maines, Eleanor Whitmore, Riley Osbourn, the guys from Wood and Wire, etc., so we were really able to call in the ringers and get a really cool sound!
You have collected numerous songwriting awards and accolades. Did you ever envision that you’d be receiving such honors when you first started out?
No way! I’m still pretty surprised by all of it. I decided to take a year-long break from practicing law [several years ago] to see if I could give it a go with music. All I wanted was to write and play my songs and see if that could translate into any sort of living. I had no idea what it would look like or if it would even be possible, but it’s been a really cool journey thus far! The accolades have been totally unexpected, but really nice, of course. It encourages me that somebody out there likes what I’m doing (and it’s helped with booking shows too)!
Some of your influences are pretty strong and determined women—especially Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams. Do you find that you’re not only just influenced by their music-making abilities but by their business acumen?
Absolutely! These days in the music industry, an artist has to wear so many hats: songwriter, performer, booking agent, manager, accountant, marketer…the list seems endless sometimes, and sometimes it feels like making music is too small a part of it! It can all be really overwhelming, but it’s also super rewarding when you write that next song or really connect with an audience or book that next big show. I definitely find inspiration and encouragement in those who have come before me, like Dolly and Lucinda, and also everyone around me who is making it work day in and day out.
I couldn’t help but notice that Janis Joplin is on your list of favorite musicians. Did you grow up holding her in high esteem as a true Texan treasure?
Janis is indeed a Texas treasure! I discovered her music later down the line – when I was growing up I didn’t even know she was from Texas! I wouldn’t say that she’s one of my favorite artists to listen to, but I am definitely influenced by and admire her as a performer. Her signature voice and her ability to put her heart and soul into a song to capture an audience were truly one of a kind.
Following you on social media, I can’t help but notice that you’re a bit of a sports fan. Have you always followed sports? Do you have any favorite players of all time?
I am a huge sports nerd! My dad introduced me to baseball when I was about 5 or 6 years old, and I was hooked. My favorite team is the Astros, and I was a long-suffering fan until the past several seasons, which have just been so fun. I try to get to as many games as I can early in the season since we usually tour a lot during the summer. I was able to see the Astros play in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, which was a treat! My favorite all-time players from growing up are Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio, and my favorite player on the current Astros team is probably Jose Altuve. He just plays with so much heart and joy – it’s contagious.
Do you have any hopes and dreams that you’d like to fulfill within the music industry?
Yeah, I think most musicians and songwriters are inherently dreamers, so I definitely have some bucket list type venues I’d like to play, dream co-writes or collaborations, and that sort of thing (I mean, who doesn’t want to play the Ryman or sing with Emmylou?!). Ultimately though, I’m just trying to focus on getting better at what I do, being kind and authentic, and working hard. So far, my experience has been that by doing those things my life in music has already exceeded my hopes and dreams, so wherever it goes from here will be a fun adventure! I’m definitely excited to see where it goes from here.