Full-Time Gig

Cathy Rivers plunges wholeheartedly into her music career.

For more than six months, Cathy Rivers hasn't had a job. But she has not been out of work.

Since September, Rivers has been a full-time musician.

Maybe that's not the most remarkable news around the globe these days, but it's a major development in the life of this 35-year-old alternative-country singer-songwriter. The change, which she views as a true blessing and not something to be taken for granted, marks the latest step in Rivers' growth as an artist.

"It's been really scary, but it's also been the best thing for me, too," she said during a chat over some strong coffee last weekend.

The evolution of Rivers' music career has allowed her to open up creatively and take more risks on her forthcoming second album, Ascension, on which her neo-honky-tonk sound takes a haunting new turn toward melancholic chamber-pop, infused with strings, vibes and accordion, but still fueled with the expansive scope of the West.

"It's a lot darker than the first record," Rivers said. "It goes to a place that's a lot deeper."

To showcase her new songs and new direction, Rivers has corralled the opening slot on a bill Tuesday night, March 2, at Solar Culture Gallery. The concert's headlining act, by the way, boasts as rarified a pedigree as you might find these days when it comes to the musical hybrid called, variously, alternative country, insurgent country, Americana, roots music or whatever.

The lineup is mostly made up of artists from the Chicago-based alt-country label Bloodshot Records--esteemed vocalists Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark will team up with steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse, a Phoenician whose second album, Steel Guitar Rodeo, will be released by Bloodshot later this month.

For the Solar Culture gig only, the jazz-pop-rock Nick Luca Trio will be Rivers' backing band. It's the first time she has worked with the trio as a whole, although Luca plays piano and organ on Ascension.

Currently being mixed at Wavelab Studios, the record was produced by roots-rocker Teddy Morgan (as was Rivers' debut CD, Bleached) at his home studio, Esquire Ranch. If all goes as planned, Rivers expects Ascension to be released in April on her new imprint, Alto Voltaje Records--she lost the rights to use the name Horsethief.

The core band on the new album features Rivers and Morgan on guitars, drummer Richard Medek, bassist John Penner and pedal steel player Eric Haywood. Guests include the aforementioned Luca, vibraphonist Jimmy Carr, Calexico's Joey Burns on acoustic bass and accordion, Truck's Leah Stanley on cello and violinists Michael Fan, David Rife and Steven Moekel.

Rivers said she thinks immersing herself fully in music also has caused observers to take her more seriously.

"Yeah, now people say to me, 'Wow, I kind of thought that (music) was just a hobby for you.'"

As if her love for music were ever in question.

Born in Kansas City, Kan., Rivers is the adopted daughter of a doctor father and a teacher mother. She grew up mostly in Cleveland and attended the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music before moving to Tucson from Kansas City in 1992.

In the Old Pueblo, Rivers joined her first band, the excellent but short-lived Brenda's Never Been, an experimental rock ensemble bolstered by classically trained string players. Therefore, her return to strings and moody textures on Ascension brings Rivers full circle in a sense.

At around the same time, she started working as a radio DJ. Reflecting her diverse interests, Rivers has DJ'd for both country and alternative-rock stations. She left the airwaves for artist management in late 2000.

"I was in radio because I really loved people, and I really loved music. Then I found out that it really wasn't about people, and it really wasn't about music."

Although she feels as if she developed an easy rapport with her listeners, Rivers has missed the radio business only once since she left it behind--following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"That day I felt like I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, that I should have somehow been involved in doing the news or just connecting with people through the medium."

As part of the management team surrounding local music impresario Mike Lembo, Rivers worked for almost three years with such acts as the North Mississippi All-Stars, Cracker and Tony Furtado. During that time, Rivers released her 2002 debut on her own label, Horsethief Records.

"The first one was a good example of where I was up until that point. This one (Ascension) is more where I am at now, and it's also sort of about moving toward a new place."

Rivers said her husband of three years, Kris Kerry, a doctorate candidate in archaeology and a part-time booking agent at the nightclub Plush, deserves much credit for giving her courage to pursue music full-time.

Speaking with the sagacity of a grown-up and the enthusiasm of a younger maverick, Rivers said she has abandoned expectations and goals for the satisfaction of a more balanced pursuit of her craft.

"I used to think about where I was gonna get in music. Not anymore ... I mean, I know I am not going to be Britney Spears. ... Now I think about where I am today. Every day is a new surprise. Everything terrifies me in this really exciting way.

"For me, the evolution is the prize. I really feel that way about life and music. I'm only going to get better."

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