Beth McKee made her name in New Orleans in the 1990s with Evangeline and NO Angels, back when “roots rock” was a musical description with currency.
She released a new solo album, “Sugarcane Revival,” in May at an annual event she calls Swamp Sistas La La, but the work she put into organizing it kept her from promoting the release of her album.
Now, she is finally satisfying Kickstarter obligations, writing press releases, sending out review copies and promoting the album.
McKee will play Chickie Wah Wah on Friday, but it’s not exactly part of a tour. She’s coming to southeast Louisiana to see her dentist and figured she ought to play a show while in town.
McKee’s relationship with New Orleans is a long-distance one, as it has been for more than 10 years.
When her husband Juan Perez’s aging mother started to need help, the two moved to Orlando, Florida, to be closer to her.
“When she passed away several years ago, by that time we had some roots there,” McKee said by phone. “When I moved into this multi-ethnic neighborhood, it was the only place I could have moved after New Orleans and been OK.”
Like many creative people, she approached Orlando with trepidation. The common perception is that Disneyworld and Universal Studios are black holes that devour culture, but over time McKee found a growing, nurturing creative community. The city turned out to be a good place for her to lick her wounds after moving down the ladder from two albums on a major label with Evangeline to bandless on the musical sidelines in Florida.
“The theme parks are basically just an employer,” McKee said. “There seems to be a real desire among the city residents to be creative and move forward and be forward-thinking.”
After a decade more-or-less out of the business, McKee began to write and think about recording again. She had fooled around with “I Don’t Want to Know,” a Johnny Adams song written by the great Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles. Perez insisted that no matter what her project became, she had to record that song.
This was a time when she felt insecure about her own songs, so when the idea came to her of an album of songs by the Louisiana songwriting great responsible for “Walking to New Orleans” and “Before I Grow Too Old,” she loved it.
The resulting album, 2009’s “I’m That Way,” became her return to recording. Once she was done, she reached out to Charles — who lived in Abbeville until he died in 2010 — and struck up a friendship.
“It was a graduate level course in songwriting,” McKee said. “I had many conversations with Bobby because he’d call. I would ask him, ‘Bobby, what should I do?’ What’s your biggest piece of advice?’ And he said, ‘Just follow your gut. Quit second-guessing yourself all the time.’ It was important for me to hear that from him.”
McKee wrote or co-wrote all of “Sugarcane Revival,” and the songs have clear roots in the ’70s blues/country/folk-pop — a Rolling Stones guitar lick, some Bonnie Raitt soul, a Carole King-like piano-driven melody — filtered through the good musical sense that comes from growing up in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, as well as time spent in Austin and New Orleans.
“Seduced by the notion / of life in constant motion,” she sings in “Promised Land,” and that thought runs through “Sugarcane Revival.” McKee’s songs deal with people searching for something that they had from the start.
“The opening track, ‘Long Road Back,’ is about the feeling that we’re all looking for places and answers,” she said.
“Looking for acceptance. Feeling like outsiders. The whole world is full of outsiders because we all perceive ourselves as on the outside looking in. That’s human nature, but for me, a lot of those answers came from returning home to Mississippi or home to Louisiana or now, home to Orlando.”
The road that winds through her recent songs has become McKee’s life again. Orlando is at the intersection of I-75 and I-95 — the two main arteries out of Florida, one eventually heading west via I-10 and one north up the East Coast. She normally has a small band that includes percussionist Perez on drums, and she’s enjoying the freedom that accompanies scaling down. When she plays Chickie Wah Wah, it will be just the two of them traveling old school in a 2005 Astro Van — the last year that the Astro Van was made.
“I’ll weep salty tears when it won’t carry me down the road anymore, because I love it,” McKee said, laughing.