FEATURED SUPER AGER – CELEBRITY INTERVIEW With Maria Muldaur – A story of inner strength put to work

By Sheldon Baker 

Perhaps one is showing their age if they truly remember Midnight at the Oasis, the mega-hit song by singer Maria Muldaur. How many of you sent your camel to bed? I’ve certainly remembered the song’s lyrics since I first heard it, and you’ll find I’ve mixed in a few of those words in this interview. It’s great to have a long shelf life and both the song and singer have had just that. Muldaur, who is now a vivacious 80, received several Grammy nominations and Midnight, first released in 1973, is still aired on numerous radio formats.

Muldaur’s 60-year career has led her down a long and winding road filled with adventure and experiencing vari­ous musical categories. Maybe it’s the traces of romance in her head.

During the folk revival of the early 60s, she began exploring and singing early blues, bluegrass, and Appalachian “old timey” music, beginning her recording career in 1963 with the Even Dozen Jug Band, and shortly thereafter joining the popular Jim Kweskin Jug Band (where she first met her former husband), touring, and recording with them throughout that period.

In the 50 years since Midnight at the Oasis first hit the pop charts, Muldaur has toured globally and recorded 43 solo albums covering a wide range of American Roots Music, including blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, jug band, jazz, and big band, as well as several award-winning children’s albums.

Today, Muldaur has settled comfortably into her favorite style – the blues. She often collaborates with some of the top names in the music business. Overall, she has recorded and produced on-average an album per year, several of which have been nominated for Grammys and other awards. She certainly has been kicking up a little dust.

Over the years, she has teamed up with a bevy of well-known music industry folks. Singer-songwriters John Sebastian and Dan Hicks, and mandolinist David Grisman can be found on Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy, which garnered Muldaur her fifth Grammy nomination, and was also nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year by The Blues Foundation.

Her 2008 album, Yes We Can! (remember who made those words famous?), featured her Women’s Voices for Peace Choir, which included Bonnie Raitt, Joan, Baez, Jane Fonda, Odetta, Phoebe Snow, Holly Near and other music industry icons.

Also of note, Muldaur’s 40th album produced the critically acclaimed First Came Memphis Minnie, a caring tribute to the pioneering blues woman who inspired and influenced so many female blues artists who followed in her footsteps. Many joined Muldaur on this special project including Raitt and Snow, Ruthie Foster, Koko Taylor, and Rory Block accompanied by amazing guitar work from a variety of musicians.

More recently, and before Covid really hit home, The Americana Music Association presented Muldaur The Lifetime Achievement Americana Trailblazer Award for her lifelong work of covering the depth and breadth of American Roots music and for being one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for what is now known as Americana Music.  The year 2020, produced her 43rd album, and found Muldaur collaborating with the world acclaimed New Orleans band Tuba Skinny,

Let’s Get Happy Together, a collection of 20s and 30s vintage jazz and blues. Ultimately released May 2021, the album received rave reviews and The Blue’s Foundation’s nomination for Best Acoustic Album and voted Best Traditional Jazz Album in OffBeat magazine’s Best of The Beat Awards.

Speaking of Covid, in 2021, Muldaur and her guitarist, Craig Caffall, wrote and co-produced a single entitled I’m Vaccinated and I’m Ready for Love to help inspire others to get vaccinated and to celebrate her feeling of liberation and renewal after her second shot.

Currently, this Super-Ager is busy with an unbelievable live performance schedule. And as 2023 marks the 50th Anniversary of Midnight at the Oasis, she and her band will be presenting her Way Past Midnight multimedia retrospective chronicling her long journey to The Oasis and Beyond at special live performances. The special presentation will feature all her hits and fan favorites from every stage of her career, as well as fascinating, entertaining, and humorous stories of her personal encounters, friendships, and collaborations with many of the greatest names in music.

Perhaps throughout her career, that half moon has played a major role. If you’ve missed my references to her hit songs, you’ll just have to Google it.

The Baker Buzz: Mainstream audiences, aka baby boomers, mostly know you from your song Midnight at the Oasis. Did you feel the tune would be so successful?

Ms. Muldaur: In 1973, having just separated from my husband Geoff Muldaur, Warner Bros. Records gave me the opportunity to go to Los Angeles to record my first solo album. Since Geoff was my marital and musical partner who masterminded everything we did together, being a solo artist was completely strange and alien, and rather scary territory for me. There I was in the studio with so many the top guns. Outstanding musicians like Dr. John, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Linda Ronstadt, David Grisman, and other fabulous artists who played on my first solo album. It was overwhelming to say the least.

Right after my marriage broke up, I began working on some small local gigs with young guitarist, David Nichtern. He was very encouraging and told me, “You can do this. Maria.” I was sobbing and was just a mess.  He said, “Look, people still know you from the Jug Band, and if I can get work in these little coffee houses, you can too.” So, we put together a few tunes, and he got us some gigs. This was real low-profile stuff. I’d be crying all the way up to the performance, and he’d say, “Okay, go dry your eyes and wash your face. We’re on in 30 minutes.”  He was just like a very supportive little brother to me.

So, when I was in California doing my solo album, I planned to do one of David’s songs. He’s a very lovely songwriter and he’d written this beautiful song called I Never Did Sing You a Love Song, a very sweet lyrical country-style waltz. He knew I had all these fabulous musicians in the studio, but he came out on his own dime. He felt just maybe they’d let him play rhythm guitar on his own tune. He drove out in his little VW bug and slept on a mattress on my living room floor in the Hollywood Hills. He came to the studio every day observing everything and did get to play on his own song.

One day when we were almost finished recording, the producer came in the studio and said, “…I’ve been listening to the rough mixes, and I think we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got some up-tempo stuff and we’ve got some nice ballads. I think if we had one more medium tempo song, the album would be nicely balanced, and we’d be in good shape. Does anything come to mind?”

David was standing right there. Just off the top of my head, kind of as a gesture of gratitude, because he’d been so encouraging and supportive to me, holding my hand throughout this entire overwhelming experience, I said, David has this song. It’s really a funny little song, but it is medium tempo. I asked David to play Midnight at the Oasis to see what they thought. I’d heard it before, and I thought it was just a goofy little song. I didn’t think much of it one way or the other. So, he whipped out his guitar and started to play it, and I sang it. And the producer cocked his head, “That’s cute, want to do that one…?” I said to David, yeah, let’s do that one because I have no other bright ideas. We called in a few great studio players and cut it that very afternoon. My gesture of gratitude was rewarded because that goofy little song about a camel climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for months, was nominated for two Grammys, put me on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and as they say, the rest is history.

The Baker Buzz: Musically, who were you most influenced by starting out in your Greenwich Village days?

Ms. Muldaur: There were many. Bessie Smith, Doc Watson, The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Johnny Herold and the Greenbrier Boys, Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers, The Staple Singers, Alan Block, (a local fiddle player, and the father of Rory Block) Horace Silver, and Victoria Spivey, one of the original Classic Blues Queens, and a contemporary of Bessie Smith’s, who had moved to NYC, She was the first artist I know of to be savvy enough to have her own record label (Spivey Records). She took me under her wing and personally mentored me in the art of singing the blues and performing in general.

The Baker Buzz: How did the Grateful Dead relationship come about?

Ms. Muldaur: Early in 1974, I hired a very talented bass player named John Kahn to do the Johnny Carson Show and a few gigs with me. Before we knew it, we fell madly, passionately in love. He was Jerry Garcia’s bass player and musical director and was producing Jerry’s first solo album. He invited me to sing harmony on a few tunes with Jerry, and a few years later I was invited to join The Jerry Garcia Band. I performed and recorded with them through the late 70s. An incredible experience and happy memories for me.

The Baker Buzz: Your 60-plus year music industry career has spanned folk, blues, country, and gospel. Where are you today?

Ms. Mudaur: I recorded and performed with Dr. John throughout the 70s and 80s. He taught me so much about New Orleans music. I became addicted to that funky soulful sound, and it became an integral part of my sound. The words I made up to describe my sound are Bluesiana, New Orleans flavored blues, R&B and swamp funk. I tour and perform this music with my Red-Hot Bluesiana Band, but I also really love vintage jazz.

I often perform and record with my Jazzabelle Quintet. Recently, I recorded an album of vintage jazz called Let’s Get happy Together with the delightful young New Orleans Street band, Tuba Skinny. The album was voted Best Traditional Jazz Album of the Year in the New Orleans Best of the Beat Awards

I just love to collaborate with artists I really admire and enjoy. Over the years I’ve done duets with the likes of Hoagie Carmichael, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, and several others. It’s fun to blend voices with other voices you really love, but I also love collaborating with brilliant instrumentalists and have been so blessed over the years to work with people I have referenced earlier.

The Baker Buzz:  The song you and your guitarist Craig Caffall wrote and co-produced was meant to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Ms. Muldaur: The day I got my second shot I left the vaccination place and experienced this rush of exhilaration and liberation after living under the cloud of Covid for so long. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was just filled with a sudden irrepressible joy. I rolled back my car’s sunroof and spontaneously started singing, vaccinated and I’m ready for love at the top of my voice.

Craig helped me finish the song. We recorded it together and put it out as a single. I was hoping that if for all the other good reasons, it would encourage people hesitant to get a shot to do so. Perhaps the idea of resuming a healthy love life might just be the inspiration that cinched the deal. We got lots of positive feedback, and people love to hear us do it live.

The Baker Buzz: At 80, you’re like the Duracell energizing bunny. A super-ager who keeps ongoing. Any health secrets to pass along?

Ms. Muldaur: For years I’ve had a passion for swimming and to this day swim an hour daily, six or seven days a week. I also gave up my bad habits years ago figuring I wanted to be doing what I loved for a long time. I take a nice assortment of organic nutritional supplements and although I love food, I always try to eat healthy. I just feel better that way.

The Baker Buzz: Forty-three albums and counting. What’s next?

Ms. Muldaur: I’m now planning to record my 44th album, which will be a tribute to Victoria Spivey. As I previously mentioned, she was my mentor, and it’s one way I can pay tribute to her.

The Baker Buzz: You have been recognized for your music but still knocking on the door for a Grammy win.

Ms. Muldaur: I’ve been nominated six times or a Grammy and haven’t won one yet but it’s always an honor to be nominated. I’m not giving up any time soon. I’ve also been nominated for numerous Blues awards by the Blues Foundation.

The Baker Buzz: Anything else you want to share?

Ms. Muldaur: Yes. NaturAlley readers should go to my website (www.mariamudaur.com) and sign up to receive occasional newsletters with information about upcoming performances in their neighborhood.

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This interview will appear in the Summer 2023 issue of NaturAlley.
Click to read or download it in PDF format.

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