Alicia Marie Venchuk looks back at woman guitarists

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Alicia Marie Venchuk has long been fascinated with the pioneering blueswomen of the early 20th century — both from a historical perspective and as inspiration to her own career as a female blues musician.

“Since the ’20s and ’30s you’d think a lot would have changed, but it really hasn’t,” Venchuk says. “As a woman guitarist you have to always kind of prove your ability and prove that you can play as well, that you take this music seriously, that — as much as I hate to say it — you can play as good as a man.”

The Ludington native will present a unique homage to three of her favorite blueswomen Sunday at the Scarab Club in a program called “Women of the Blues.” Venchuk will intersperse lectures on the lives of Memphis Minnie, Geeshie Wiley and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins with live performances of their music, backed by the RJ Spangler Trio.

Venchuk holds a copy of a record by Memphis Minnie, whose career will be part of Sunday’s show.

Memphis Minnie is perhaps the best known of the three musicians, noted for her 1930 song “Bumble Bee” and 1929’s “When the Levee Breaks” (later thoroughly reworked by Led Zeppelin). Wiley has the most cultish appeal of the trio, with six recordings in 1930 and 1931 representing her total career output. Born in 1939, Watkins is the spring chicken of the group, still a touring act noted for her searing electric guitar work today.

Venchuk says the women are united by more than just their gender and the musical genre they’ve worked in.

“They had a desire for greatness at a time when you didn’t really see women coming out and being as bold as they were,” Venchuk says. “(The ‘Women of the Blues’ event is) drawing attention to that, but also making it a musical tribute as well — paying tribute to the influence these women had on history, but also on me personally.”

Venchuk is only 21, but her musical resume is already impressive. She estimates that she began playing guitar around age 9 or 10, inspired by seeing B.B. King on television. About two years later, she became fascinated with teaching herself to jam over a recording of blues backing tracks, and in her early teens she began delving into blues history.

“Before that point I had never experienced anything that let me express myself really fully, just tell my story and come out and express what I wanted to,” Venchuk says. “Blues gave me an avenue to do that in an uninhibited way.”

Completing a bachelor’s degree in English in just three years at the University of Michigan, she delivered a senior honors thesis on the proto-feminism of Memphis Minnie’s music. Venchuk is now pursuing her doctorate in English literature at the University of Mississippi, and says she hopes to teach English or American studies when she’s through.

Among her recent academic pursuits, Venchuk has also found plenty of time for playing music. Her YouTube channel, “bluesbaby8,” has over 1.2 million views. And in 2014 she was invited to join RJ’s Kansas City Six, one of Detroit blues stalwart Spangler’s multiple ensembles. Spangler says he and Venchuk immediately bonded over their passion for blues history.

“I come from a history of doing my homework,” Spangler says. “And Alicia was certainly out of that mold before she even knew me, so we have much in common even though I’m way, way older than her.”

Spangler is enthusiastic about the “Women of the Blues” event, praising Venchuk’s taste in discovering and spotlighting the works of obscure blueswomen like Wiley.

“No one else is going to do these songs but her,” he says.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Women of the Blues

1 p.m. Sun.

Scarab Club

217 Farnsworth, Detroit

Tickets: $5

(313) 831-1250

scarabclub.org