BettySoo - Daughter of a boy named Soo
Say her name and it sounds as country as hay bales. But although she grew up in Texas, BettySoo doesn’t fit the typical image of an Americana singer-songwriter. For a start she’s from a Korean family – yes, her dad really is a boy named Soo – and there seem to be no skeletons in her closet, none of the unhappy upbringing, failed marriages, or crack house or gin house dalliances that often go hand in hand with putting your soul into three chords and the truth.
She can’t even say that, in hitting the road and releasing a series of five CDs so far, she’s doing what she always wanted to do. Because she didn’t even think about being a singer until her mentor at graduate school, where she was studying for her masters in counselling, sat her down and told her: “everybody but you seems to know that you want to have a career in music.”
“I thought that was pretty weird,” she says. “I mean, we’re a musical family. My mother has a lovely voice and my two older sisters were very accomplished instrumentalists at a young age. We were typical Korean-Americans: we all took music lessons but my parents expected us also to study hard and get good jobs that required professional qualifications. I went to piano lessons and violin, oboe and flute lessons, although I’d given them up by my mid teens, and I sang in church. I loved to sing but I wasn’t the singer in the family.”
Born in New York, where her parents had originally settled on emigrating to the US, BettySoo moved with her family to Spring, about twenty miles north of Houston, when she was a baby. Aware that she looked different from the other girls at school, she did her best not to stand out in any obvious way. She met her share of racism, as her parents had in New York, but she made friends easily and grew up on a typically Texan musical diet, as is reflected in the gospel, folk, and twang strains in her own music. First, though, came the rock years.
“There was always music playing at home and my parents would take us to the opera, ballet and symphonic concerts,” she says. “But the first actual gig I went to was They Might Be Giants in downtown Houston and they weren’t going to let me in because it was an over-21s club and I was about eleven. I was desperate to see this band and I saved up to buy tickets for me and my older sister, so that she could drive me there and back. She was only eighteen or nineteen at the time and they weren’t going to let her in either but eventually the guys on the door relented and let us both in, and it was great.”
At college in Austin, where she met her husband, she became aware of the Texas singer-songwriter movement, gathering heroes including Guy Clark, Butch Hancock and the late Blaze Foley, all of whose songs appear on her latest album with Canadian dobro master Doug Cox, Across the Border Line: Lie to Me. She bought herself a guitar just to, as she says, “noodle away on” and taught herself a few chords. There was still no ambition to take music seriously until her mentor’s intervention, by which time BettySoo was married, working in one job – she’s done the rounds of waitressing, bartending and such that keep students’ bodies and souls together - and studying to do another.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody after Cheryl, my mentor, made that comment and said I was wasting my time at graduate school until a few days later, when I told my husband. He said, ‘I think she’s right, that’s what you should be doing.’ I was gobsmacked,” she says. “But then I thought, well, maybe I should give it a try.”
From here in the story things begin to move at a considerable pace. Some friends in Austin who were looking to invest in the music business financed a record label for one up and coming singer-songwriter and decided to buy BettySoo a professional standard guitar with money they’d been holding back for a gift. So, needing to feel worthy of this new instrument, BettySoo began to practice hard. She also began to write songs.
“Well, I signed up for a songwriting class,” she says. “But I didn’t really go so that I could learn to write; I was hoping to meet some hungry songwriters who desperately needed a singer to sing their songs for them. When I brought in my first writing assignment, however, everyone had good things to say about it.”
This was just the encouragement she needed and the songs began not just to flow but also to win awards. Within a year of taking the decision to concentrate on music in 2004, she had released her first album, Let Me Love You, and was winning titles such as Best New Songwriter at the Wildflower and Kerrville Folk Festivals and Songwriter of the Year at the Big Top, Chautauqua. Her impact at these events and on live gigs generally wasn’t hindered by the fact that she has a strong, Texan-sounding voice that doesn’t match her petite appearance – she’s five feet tall in her stocking soles – and has a naturally engaging, and frequently very amusing, onstage presence.
Let Me Love You was followed by Little Tiny Secrets, the EP length Never the Pretty Girl and Heat Sin Water Skin, on which she teamed up with guitarist, singer and songwriter Gurf Morlix, whose production and musical work has enhanced recordings by Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier and Slaid Cleaves. Then while teaching at an acoustic guitar camp in Alaska, she met Doug Cox who as well as working with British blues icon Long John Baldry and guitar master Amos Garrett (still best known for his solo on Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis), turned out to be a friend and sometime road manager of a Texan whom BettySoo had grown up hearing and hearing about, Doug Sahm.
The pair clicked and despite living two and a half thousand miles apart they’ve formed a musical partnership based on their shared admiration for great songwriters like Sahm, Guy Clark and another fellow Texan of BettySoo’s, Betty Elders.
“I love working with Doug Cox because he knows all these great songs and he knows exactly what to play to bring the best out of them,” says BettySoo. “He also gives me confidence. For instance, I used to listen to Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues and think I’d never have the nerve to sing it. But it’s there on the new album and I know lots of other singers have done it before and I know I’ll never equal the original but I do it now and it feels good.”
From The Herald, September 22, 2011.