J.R. Rolf and Wil Thomas • Photos: Cory Weaver
If you don't know Valerie June, you should and soon will. She hails from the small town of Humbolt, Tenn., but spends her time in New York these days when not on the road sharing her voice.
Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet. ~African Proverb To that, Valerie June says, “call me a fool,” as she unabashedly plunges herself into her passions. Indulging instinct and inspiration. Projecting wisdom and beauty. Diving full immersion into her world, which is music, song and songwriting.
If you don't know Valerie June, you should and soon will. She hails from the small town of Humbolt, Tenn., but spends her time in New York these days when not on the road sharing her voice. Her honest folk—yet contemporary—style breathes new life into traditional music. Touches of old Appalachian banjo alongside soulful melodic tones set the stage for her to work the magic she quite literally hopes to spread. Spreading kindness, possessing a wisdom beyond her years, and sowing seeds for listeners to nurture and be nurtured, June is the embodiment of nostalgic familiar tradition laced with pearls of contemporary wisdom.
Seeing her perform live makes you feel as if you’ve been transported to her lush, backyard garden, where she’s invited you to grab a drink and take a seat underneath the stars before the storytelling and show begin. Nature and our role in the universe are key themes in June’s life and help her feel connected to the world, providing inspiration for her songwriting.
At Delmar Hall on May 22, nature was front and center, as the stage was surrounded by vases upon vases of flowers, accompanied by a sign that read, “Flowers are the Stars of the Earth.” Touring in support of her latest album, 2021’s The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, June took the stage following a few minutes of “Starlight Ethereal Silence”—sounds of nature, chimes and instrumental music. Her look was glamourous yet down to earth as she was donned in a glittery jacket and bejeweled shorts, telling the audience that she dressed up for St. Louis. “I’m growing, y’all,” she said, commenting on the fact that she was performing at Delmar Hall instead of Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, where she’s played in the past.
Part of that reason is the growth she’s experienced with the new album, which received critical acclaim globally, and her Grammy-nominated song “Call Me a Fool,” which she recorded with guest vocalist Carla Thomas. At Delmar Hall, that song appeared early in the setlist to much ovation. June also performed the hauntingly beautiful “You and I” and the philosophical “Two Roads” from The Moon and Stars, among others.
Her catalog has blossomed since her self-released The Way of the Weeping Willow in 2006, which means some songs you may have expected to hear live didn’t quite make the cut. She still managed to spread the love, selecting songs from all of her past releases as well as some covers, including Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
Album standouts “Astral Plane” and “Slip Slide On By” were among the Order of Time selections, as well as the bluesy rock song “Shakedown,” which had June on electric guitar against the background (and sometimes foreground) of the raucous and lively keys.
She peppered her set with personal stories and adages, danced in a shimmering cloak, played both acoustic and electric guitar and banjo, and brought out “Baby,” her beloved little banjolele, during the encore’s “Somebody to Love,” from 2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone. She explained that Baby would be featured in a book set to be released in the fall by Third Man Store.
“Drink Up and Go Home,” also fittingly in the encore, was our cue to do just that, but not before wishing she’d keep the magical night going.
As eclectic as Valerie June’s flower-laden stage show, and as bold and striking as the crown of dreadlocks upon her head, she is both alluring and inviting to her audience—and seemingly everyone she comes in contact with. We caught up with Ms. June before the near-capacity show and sat down for a quick chat to hear from the songstress herself. Bands Through Town: Your latest album is titled, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Is dreaming, meditation, manifesting a part of your process? Valerie June: Yes absolutely!! It’s my most important part. BTT: How do you find the time or that place where you can hear yourself or simply meditate and shut your mind down? Is it difficult on the road? VJ: I have to surround myself in nature. I live to be near my plants and garden when I'm at home. On the road when I set the stage for the show, that’s the time I meditate.
(If you haven’t seen Valerie’s live show, it is just that. Alive with an entire stage full of flower bouquets and plants of every variety. She personally sets every flower arrangement in place with seeming intention, resulting in a scene that visually transports the audience into her nature-filled world. It’s her garden. It’s a small glimpse into Valerie’s personal world, and amid the organic flora, a simple easel and sign reads, “Flowers are Stars of the Earth.”) BTT: In the album title, the word “Prescriptions” implies something or someone needs healing? VJ: Yes, well you know we’re all in need of healing after these last couple of years [said with a coy gleam in her eyes]. Music is powerful, magic and transformative. I hope people find healing in whatever small way through my music. BTT: There’s a quote/interlude on your new album…about testing the depth of the water? VJ: Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet. BTT: Where did you hear that? VJ: It’s an African Proverb
BTT: Is that how you approach life?
VJ: [on cue with that same coy gleam, she says with a quip and a chuckle] Quite to the contrary! I believe people should jump in with both feet! Throw caution to the to the wind in all matters of the spirit and the heart. Fully immerse themselves in their passions no matter what! Oh, and share kindness!