Ask Alison Self to define honky-tonk and she’ll tell you it’s classic country.
“When I think honky-tonk, I think dim lights, bottles, lots of dancing, sadness,” she says. “It’s a frame of mind that kind of engulfs you.”
With her distinctively big voice and passion for the music of the ’20s and ’30s, the singer has made a name for herself as not only an authentic country musician, but also a Richmond honky-tonk connection. Musicians from Oklahoma, Southern California, Texas and Washington know to call her when they head to the East Coast.
“Even if I can’t personally book them, I find someone who can,” she says. “I want to be the go-to because a lot of them have been told that Richmond doesn’t have a honky-tonk scene, and that’s not true.”
To prove her point, she names local bands that qualify, such as Andy Vaughn and the Driveline, Red Light Rodeo, River City Band, the Vendors, the Hot Seats and the Old Dominion Playboys, acknowledging that some lean more toward the folk side, such as the Green Boys, and others the rock side, like Horsehead.
She rates Richmond’s current honky-tonk scene a C-plus.
“It’s got room for improvement,” she says, “but it’s only going to improve if it’s a priority and I don’t mean coming from musicians. It’s got to come from bookers, promoters and fans. People say, ‘I like country music,’ and I say, ‘Where are you? It needs you.’”
A musician since 2005, Self has had her share of successes. While in high school, she went to see her favorite band, the Dresden Dolls, and folk-punk accordionist Jason Webley opened. Fast-forward to 2009 and Self opened for Webley at Gallery5. “It was so weird and amazing,” she says. “It all comes full circle.”
Lately she’s been playing with veteran musician Ward Harrison, a former member of the Hackensaw Boys. They like to duet on vintage ’70s and ’80s music by the likes of Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette, as well as on original material.
Harrison calls her a true singing talent and songwriter and co-conspirator in classic country duets. “I love singing with her,” he says. “She’s the only woman I’ve ever sung with that can belt it out as loud and obnoxious proud as me. When we sing together, we hardly need a PA. She’s sassy and hilarious and helps me straddle the line between provocative and raunchy.”
For Self, it’s the line that defines the genre, she says: “I want to play honky-tonk and make people dance or cry or fight or fuck.”
Alison Self performs at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on June 12 at 5 p.m. with Cale Tyson and Josh Small.