Bluegrass Over Shakespeare

For the bulk of her young life, Oklahoma’s Kristen Hemphill did most of her performing in a theatrical setting, appearing in numerous plays and musicals as she made her way through the Broken Arrow school system and on to Oklahoma State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in theater.

But while she was in Stillwater – a town known for its homegrown music – she fell in with some bluegrass musicians, who inspired her to begin forays into the genre. A post-OSU semester at South Plains College in Lubbock, Texas, gave her new guitar skills as well as an approach to singing that, as she notes with a laugh, “wasn’t so theater-like.”

Gradually, her passion for creating music began overtaking her love of the theater. And finally, bluegrass trumped Shakespeare.

“I’d planned on doing theater after college, and I went down to Dallas to audition for some Shakespeare productions,” she recalls. “But I ended up turning down a role to do a concert show. So I thought, ‘Well, if I’m getting parts, and I’m turning them down, I guess my heart really is in the music side of it.’”

“So we were driven by hunger.”

So she followed her heart, began writing and playing wherever she could (including Tulsa venues like Smoke, the Hunt Club and Elwood’s), and finally recorded her first CD. She plans to debut it Saturday, July 13, in an event at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street.

The disc was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., at a studio owned by longtime country-music figure Gary Baker, whose credits include a stint with the late ‘80s band the Shooters and a co-writing credit on the Grammy-winning song “I Swear.” As it turned out, Baker’s partner in the studio was also a former business associate of Hemphill’s father, which gave the young singer-songwriter a calling card. She and Baker hit it off, and the two began writing together, along with Baker’s songwriting protégé, Matt Johnson.

“I think we wrote eight songs for the album in four days,” she says. “It was one of those things that was just magical. We’d be in a room, and we wouldn’t eat lunch until we’d written a song. Then we’d come back, and we wouldn’t eat dinner until we’d finished a song.
“Dad was in the studio, and he loves to eat. He’d be saying, ‘You guys written a song yet? I’m hungry.’” She laughs. “So we were driven by hunger.”

For the CD release party, Hemphill will have a six-person band, including the noted fiddler Rick Morton. And while country music – Hemphill calls hers  “country-Americana” – isn’t a staple of the Jazz Depot, Jazz Hall CEO Jason McIntosh feels that the show is a perfect fit.
“Part of what we do is help musicians,” he says, “and Kristen is a rising young talent. We’re very pleased to have her here for the CD release show.”

Admission is free to the concert, which begins at 8 p.m. with opening act Desi & Cody. Hemphill’s CD will be available for purchase throughout the evening.