Valerie June Hockett grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, working alongside her brothers at demolition sites, knocking mortar off bricks at her father’s material reclamation company. Emerson Hockett was also an independent music promoter whose most famous clients were Bobby Womack and Prince. “My father’s goals fed each other. Without construction, there would have been no music promotion,” says Valerie June. “His dream became my own.” People tend to marvel at the timbre of his daughter’s voice. Once heard, it is unforgettable for its hauntingly childlike quality, tempered with worldly wisdom.
Music, for Valerie June, is a safe space where she can be her own poetic self, regardless of what people think about the way she looks and how they assume she ought to sound. This is an artist who cannot be confined by artificial labels and categories. When asked to define her personal hybrid of southern folk, blues, and soul, she calls it “organic moonshine roots” or “cosmic ethereal heart music.”
Just about everyone who watches her online or in concert starts naming musicians who they sense are inspirations and kindred spirits. To me, a Valerie June performance often feels like a visitation from legendary blues woman Memphis Minnie. Other listeners compare her with Van Morrison, Little Esther Phillips, or Erykah Badu. Powerful and fascinating as a soloist, Valerie June can really blast off when surrounded by a full band. She is enormously popular in Europe. The audience adored her at the 40th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and she will return to play the Ark on June 16.
Valerie June has a lot in common with contemporary country blues master Alvin Youngblood Hart, including a powerful grasp of tradition and a hearty willingness to disregard genre distinctions. Her stash of instruments includes a diminutive banjo ukulele, which she loves to cradle and caress, calling it her baby. Her singing and songwriting blend the earthen gravity of Otis Taylor with the feisty pluck of Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks. Cooing and buzzing her way through Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene,” she nonchalantly embellishes certain words by raising the pitch in a little Appalachian yodel twist.
Refreshingly spontaneous and unafraid to express herself unconventionally, Valerie June is an outspoken animist. She feels that everything on this earth is alive, that her musical instruments are alive, as is the music that she summons from them. Those melodies she hears at night while dreaming, the songs she learns from the voices in her head, all are living entities, and it is her chosen path to serve them. “Songs tell you what they want,” she says. “Songs have minds, they have lives, they have feelings.”