Barrelhouse Bonni’s stage name recalls the old upright pianos in the juke joints that once peppered southern cotton fields and lumber camps. Her left-hand rhythms lay the backdrop for her low, smoldering voice. She brings back some toe-tapping boogies plus slinky songs from the classic 1930s blues divas, throwing in some 1960s soul ballads and her own 21st century blues. Bonni plays as an acoustic solo for parties, restaurants, nursing homes and small festival stages. She also gives blues classes and workshops for all ages and backs up some of Chicago or DC’s finest authentic blues musicians.
Catching the blues bug after losing her job in middle age, Bonni set about learning the trade from the Uppity Blues Women of Saffire—Ann Rabson, Andra Faye Hinkle, and Gaye Adegbalola--at Augusta Blues Week in Elkins, in her home state of West Virginia.
She enjoys playing an acoustic piano whenever possible; she also has an 88-key electric piano and sound system. “The old uprights have a great percussive sound,” she says. “Having 88 keys and percussion, you can pretend you’re a whole band!”
Since coming to Chicago from West Virginia in 2003, Bonni has been crafting her music at the unorganized, but very much present, “West Side School of Blues.” She aims to support these neighborhood musicians who survive the hardships of the inner city and exude the power and joy of this groovy, soulful music. In 2004, she and Larry Taylor, stepson of early Chicago guitarist Eddie Taylor, co-produced Larry’s first vocal album, They Were in This House, featuring a kick-butt crew of West Side musicians.
Through her website Blues Schmooze, she has recruited Chicago blues stars for small ensembles, including vocalist Shirley Johnson for the Women’s Entrepreneurial Conference at Navy Pier, saxophonist-singer Eddie Shaw for an AIDS fund-raising house party, and Larry Taylor and brother Eddie Jr. for an acoustic show at the downtown Blues Exchange tourist center.
Her first full length CD, Barbershop Blues, released independently in July 2003, guest stars three acoustic bluesmen from the Archie Edwards Heritage Foundation barbershop in D.C.: Jay Summerour (Warner Williams’ harp man in Little Bit O’ Blues), guitar/bonesman Mike Baytop and old-line Delta guitarist N.J. Warren. Her original tunes, backed by Shenandoah Valley, VA. musicians, sing of world peace, dragonflies, romance, vegetables, trains, and mountaintop removal mining. The CD is sold on CDBaby under "Songs and Recordings" on her website:
The following press release was issued in the summer of 2006:
West Virginia writer tells story of Chicago's wild, musical West Side
CHARLESTON WV---West Virginia freelance writer and blues piano player "Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown spent three years on Chicago's tough West Side, learning blues from those who grew up with it. Now she's had a chance to portray their talents, opinions and dreams in a cover story for the Aug.-Sept. issue of the national magazine Big City Rhythm and Blues.
The magazine is the product of editor Robert Jr. Whitall's noble obsession with 1950s-70s blues and soul. This highly rhythmic and emotional music, sung by neighborhood vocalists backed by small electric bands, is still found in small corners of African-American city neighborhoods, but seldom heard these days on radio.
Bonni appears on the cover with a host of emerging West Side musicians including drummer and singer Larry Taylor, whose album she co-produced. In her interviews, the musicians described how teenage bands got their start playing at neighborhood talent shows and skating rinks, as well as following their elders to the elder market on Maxwell Street. Bues and soul giants like Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam and Tyrone Davis appeared in small neighborhood clubs.
Today's middle aged West Side musicians, like many American artists, tell of their frustrations in making a living. Poverty, health problems and racial discrimination complicate their situation.
"One of their main problems has been lack of publicity, " McKeown says. "Acts that imitate the blues have money to attract promoters. These guys are the real deal and people love their music whenever they get a chance to hear it. It comes from the heart, and it makes you dance! Hopefully this will be the start of some long-deserved attention for them. The West Side is truly the Best Side! Check it out."
Big City Rhythm and Blues, a Detroit based magazine. is available in many bookstores. Subscriptions are available at their website www.bigcitybluesmag.com/