Maria Muldaur began her career in 1963 with an album she recorded with the Even Dozen Jug Band, paving the beginning of a path that would later see her making music with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and then-husband Geoff before performing as a solo act. She’s experienced more than 55 years in the spotlight, navigating the ins and outs of the business while releasing 41 albums, but don’t call it the recording industry.
“We used to just call it the music business,” Muldaur says. “That sounds so much cozier.”
Over the years, she has tried on a range of genres from big band jazz and roots to bluegrass and Appalachian old-time music, eventually finding the perfect fit with her own signature blend reflective of a deep love for New Orleans, which she calls “Bluesiana” music, a recipe combining blues, R&B and “swamp funk.” Before finding this footing, Muldaur released her self-titled solo debut in 1973, not expecting it to launch her into the lengthy career she’s enjoyed.
“There was no particular aim to find a hit record, or a hit single. We just recorded it as a collection of songs that I liked,” she says. “It was a total miracle and surprise to me that one of the songs, [‘Midnight at the Oasis’], for some odd reason that I still can’t figure out to this day, it became a mega hit not just in the United States, but in the whole world.”
The single, written by David Nichtern, was nominated for a Grammy under Record of the Year, reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #21 for the UK Singles Chart in 1974. She’s continued to record and release music based on what she likes and just hopes others will too.
“The difference between then and now is things were less commercially driven—at least that was my experience—and I was lucky enough to have a few hits,” Muldaur says.
The music is about more than the recognition, although she has since been nominated for several other Grammy awards, most recently with Don't You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker) for Best Traditional Blues Album last year. That release reflects one of the tenets close to her heart: bringing older songs back to the forefront for new generations and supporting female artists like Barker as well as blues legends Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Along with this, Muldaur released tribute album …First Came Memphis Minnie in 2012 with several other notable artists such as Bonnie Raitt and Phoebe Snow who were inspired by Minnie.
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“She didn’t just sing the blues, she wrote and recorded, and played bitchin’ guitar, and these women were all kind of role models to me, not just musically,” Muldaur says. “As a young girl growing up—decades before people thought of the women’s liberation movement—these women came up, against all kinds of odds and barriers, social, racial, economic, they decided to liberate themselves and live the kind of life they wanted to live and sing about it. They unabashedly delighted in their sexuality and wrote a lot of fun songs about it and didn’t let the fact that society said, ‘Nice women don’t do that, let alone think about it,’ stop them.
“I have a love and connection to the blues and the early years, [those artists] have these deep, throaty, rich, resonant voices,” Muldaur continues. “It was always my aspiration, but it took me a long time to where I could get to deliver those kinds of songs with authority and ease and have my voice match the material I wanted to do it. I think all great musicians thrive to keep improving their skills until the day they die.”
She follows the wisdom of “practice makes perfect” and recalls with a laugh times people have told her following a performance she sounds just as good as when she first released “Midnight at the Oasis.”
To which she might respond, “You mean, after all these years of practicing, I don’t sound better?”
Meeting fans on tour is a highlight for Muldaur, a feeling she believes is mutual, especially as people more and more seem to be addicted to their smartphones and televisions.
“As I travel around the country I get to have a perspective about it, and I always have a great band with me, and we get very nice compliments at the end of the show, but now, people need it more than ever,” Muldaur says. “They come up to me afterwards and grab my arm and look me in the eye and say, ‘Thank you, I really needed this tonight.’ And it’s not just that they enjoyed my music, it’s that they got out with other people and enjoyed an experience together and that’s why we keep doing it.”