The success of Walt Disney Company and Hollywood Records’ new sensation was not hampered by her background.
Raised in rural Roseburg, Ore., ZZ Ward had no connections to the music industry before she was discovered on MySpace by the producer-manager who works with Beyonce, Rihanna and Britney Spears. E. Kidd Bogart recognized Ward’s talent, which trumped what has held back so many talented singers, and we are not talking about Ward being a complete unknown.
The first song Ward ever performed onstage was an Albert King cover. Her favorite artist is Vera Ward Hall, known only to serious ethnomusicologists. And her dog, which travels with her on tours, is named Muddy Waters.
Pop luminary ZZ Ward is a product of the blues.
She resisted the notion before copping to it.
“I don’t think I could be labeled as a blues artist because I write most of my own material independently and I don’t write blues songs,” the 27 year old told Tahoe Onstage. “I would say my voice is probably very, very bluesy, though.”
It was only four years ago when Ward sang on Oregon sidewalks and sold her demo CD from parking lots, and just two years ago when she was in Los Angeles, sleeping on an air mattress, surviving on a $200 monthly check her mother mailed.
“I booked my own shows and started at the bottom,” said Ward, whose debut album, “When the Casket Drops,” released in October 2012, became a national success and included the hit single “Put The Gun Down,” the only one of her three singles that resembles blues.
Ward, who called us from Baton Rouge, La., is touring the country, en route to her first Lake Tahoe visit and an April 5 concert in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. She’s been on “Leno,” “Conan,” “Kimmel” and “Ferguson,” impressed and made fans at Austin’s South-by-Southwest, and this year will sing at the Coachella and Bonneroo festivals. She’s befriended Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris and Jakob Dylan, who praised her for “Put the Gun Down.”
“When I had my first shows in Chicago and New York, people were coming out and they knew the lyrics to my songs and they were people I’d never met before,” Ward said. “That was my first experience having fans. Now, obviously, it happens every night with hundreds and thousands of people who know the words. That part happened pretty quickly and it’s very surreal.”
Rural roots keeps her from being unearthed by sudden fame.
“I have a dog and I clean up after her, and it keeps me grounded,” she said. “I’m never too good for that. I have a good family and I’m from a 23-acre ranch out in the middle of nowhere.”
When Muddy Waters gets too rambunctious, the dog is sternly referred to by its owner by the bluesman’s birth name, McKinley Morganfield, which, again, gives away Ward’s musical education.
Her father had a blues band, and Ward used to hang out at rehearsals. She said she’s always liked to sing and had no trepidation about doing it in front of others, like the first time she performed King’s “As the Years Go Passing By.”
“I grew up listening to Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, Tina Turner when she would sing the blues,” Ward said. “I heard her singing with Ike and she was singing the blues and I was absolutely blown away. I was inspired a lot by real strong female vocalists, women who had a lot of power, a lot of emotion in their voice. Later on I was inspired by a singer named Vera Ward Hall.”
Born Adell Hall Ward, the Alabama folk singer had a hit song in 1937, “Trouble So Hard.” Her unique, soulful voice inspired Alan Lomax to include it in Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
“I like back-porch bluesy stuff,” Ward said. “Real old stuff.”
Ward has taken her appreciation for the nation’s earliest music and given it a modern, popular voice.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 5
Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room
Tickets: $38.50, general admission, must be 21