Messin' With the Blues: A Conversation with Danielle Schnebelen

  • Post Author
    by Web manager
  • Post Date
    Tue Dec 10 2013

Schnebelen Article Photo

If you were to speak with almost any devoted fan, critic, or purveyor of Blues music in 2013, you'd have more than a sporting chance of hearing them utter the phrase “Keeping the Blues alive”.  This rhetorical niblet has become the unofficial battle cry of the Blues community over the past twenty years, and while it has surely helped spread enthusiasm for the genre, it also implies the impending death of a certain brand of Blues.  Many bands today try to rescue that music by Xeroxing the styles of the past, often sounding stale or overzealous in the process.  When modern Blues is at its best however, is when musicians with a keen understanding of the past push, prod, and mix the genre to help it evolve.

Few bands are currently doing this better than the sibling power trio Trampled Under Foot.  The group is comprised of Kris (drums), Nick (a stinging, Albert King-like guitarist and singer), and Danielle Schnebelen.  The latter's powerhouse vocals and smooth bass grooves have propelled the band to a win at the 2008 International Blues Challenge and wide critical acclaim for their 2013 release Badlands.  She recently spoke with WSUM's The Roots & The Fruits about TUF's sound and her take on the genre.

It is clear from the start that Schnebelen is anything but stuck in the past.  Of her motivation to make music, she says that “I've always loved the roots of Blues, but it's also about furthering the longevity of the Blues and keeping it modern and evolving, the way that music and life does. There have been some times where I've been writing a song and I consciously say, ‘Okay, I don't need to do that, cause it sounds like this old Blues song.'”

So while most of TUF's tunes lack the classic 12-bar structure and Jimmy Reed backbone of traditional blues, Danielle and her brothers are also well aware of those old school sounds. This may be a symptom of their hometown of Kansas City, a place that has served as a healthy home for R&B and Jazz artists for over 75 years.  “Being from Kansas City and going to the jams at such a young age really put a lot of swing into our sound,” Schnebelen says.  She describes that swing as “blues with a little bit of jazz in it”, something epitomized by Kansas City stars like Count Basie and Big Joe Turner.  However, she bemoans the fact that “A lot of people don't realize that Nashville, Chicago, the Delta area, they were all coming through Kansas City as a crossroads. So it became a really big melting pot of blues and jazz and folk . . . that's where swing was born, man!  And I really like telling that story.”

Trampled Under Foot's Badlands album covers a variety of styles, from funky soul on “Bad Bad Feeling” to a splash of country blues on “Down to the River”.  What ties them all together is a lyrical and musical honesty, perhaps the one characteristic that has stuck with the Blues since its beginnings.  Danielle's raw delivery comes with a considerable emotional investment however, and she admits “I've been through some trials and tribulations myself . . . and I'm not always in the best mood to rehash all that stuff, but it's not just about me.  “Goodbye” is such a popular song because it's relatable.  It's not a fake pain, it's a real pain.  And if it helps somebody else get through some hard times, then I'm always willing to be there for people.”

Schnebelen recognizes that the Blues may remain a style with only a niche audience, but she has no plans to give it up, saying “If my health keeps, I can still be performing in 30 years.”  Her allegiance to the genre runs deep, for it is, as she puts it, “The foundation of American music. Everything you hear nowadays; pop, rock, country, it all stems from the Blues.  I think that's why it's so imperative to keep it alive. You keep the roots of our country and our music alive.”  It is that respect for the past, combined with a willingness to nudge the genre into the future that makes one think as long as Danielle Schnebelen and Trampled Under Foot are making music, the Blues will remain alive and well.

-Dean Knetter