Chicago blues singer Zora Young has spent the last four decades wringing joy, grief and everything in between out of her music.
The Mississippi-born singer performs at the Denton Blues Festival at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, and said her only plan is to evoke a feeling in the audience. Special guest Carl Weathersby will join her on stage. Like Young, Weathersby is a musician who achieved escape velocity from the Windy City. Young lives between Georgia and Chicago, while Weathersby found the music scene in Austin. She’s been performing a little less lately, she said, to make time to care for her mother. But she still performs, and makes her first trip to Denton for the festival.
When it comes to the blues, Young said the genre is more like her native tongue.
“Blues is just part of the culture,” Young said. “You sing in church, and then you sing the blues. But I’m not like that, not too sacred. I like gospel, I like the blues, I like country. I like anything as long as its good.”
Young has made six studio albums since 1991, recording on Deluge, Delmark, Airway and Elrob records. She’s the owner of a smoky contralto that blends easily with a jangling guitar and wailing organ. On numbers like “Mystery Train,” Young deals an easy croon that rasps and swings. In numbers like “Wang Dang Doodle,” Young moves from a tenor growl to a confident belt. And why not? The song suggests a night of partying — or passion. Her vocals are an authoritative counterweight to the smartly placed brass (“Mister horn, can you boogie all night?” she calls, fetching a flashy response from her horn section.) In a medley of “Since I Fell For You/Silhouettes,” Young affects a velvet delivery about bad decisions and all things regrettable.
Young is working on material for a new recording, which is more of a habit than a set-in-stone.
“I don’t want to stay away too long,” she said. “I’ve always got something in my head or my notebook that I’m working on. I have them in my mind long before I record them. I might start out with just a few words.”
Young said recording requires a plan and intention to match the energy of the live stage.
“You have to know what you’re doing when you go in there,” she said. “Hopefully, it works for the people like it does when you’re singing live.”
When it comes to performing live, though, Young doesn’t think a plan is as important.
“Whatever you’re doing, it has to come from the heart,” she said. “You have to look at the people and see what they like. You can tell, too. If you’ve got them moving, waving their arms, you’re doing it right. If they’re yawning and acting like they want to go to sleep, you better do something else to get them going. The thing you have to remember is that not everyone likes the blues. Not everyone likes the same thing. I always hope to convert someone. If they get to tapping their feet, you’re on your way.”
The blues attract a broad audience because it’s about real life, Young said. And though a lot of people believe the genre is really a wellspring of despair, Young said the blues celebrates as aptly and as easily as it grieves. Yes, B.B. King expressed an exquisite agony in his famous song “The Thrill is Gone,” but John Lee Hooker celebrated expert female flirtation in his classic “Boom Boom.”
“The blues is as much about fun as it is about being sad,” Young said. “And John Lee’s ‘Boom Boom’ is pretty happy. That’s a boogie. That song took him to the White House in 1963, and I guess Mrs. Kennedy danced to it.”
Young said the blues can be a balm for our fractious times.
“We should do the blues at times like this, because its real,” she said. “The blues is all about reality, and how you live in it. That’s what ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings’ is about. I guess you could say its about Sept. 11. But the fat lady being the powers that be. But at times like these, I think you need this music. You can say something and be heard.”
Young shares the stage with headliners Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers and Sugaray Rayford, who play on Saturday, and with Buddy Whittington and Fingerprints on Sunday.