Austin360 Artist of the Month: Become a plum fool for Ida Red's twin guitars
When guitarist Sophia Johnson and steel guitarist Rose Sinclair teamed up to lead the backing band for a tribute to legendary Texas songwriter Cindy Walker at the Ameripolitan Music Awards in February 2019, they didn’t expect to be forming their own band a short while later. But the formation of Ida Red turned out to be a natural outgrowth from that night.
The awards show performance “was a real success,” Sinclair recalled on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at Sam’s Town Point, which has become Ida Red’s home base as a live act. “And I'm not just saying that; everybody loved it. It was a highlight.”
“After that finished, the two of us were like, ‘Well, this is fun,’” Johnson said. “Once we figured out that we both liked doing it, it was kind of like, ‘Well, we should just keep doing it, then.’”
The twin arrangements of jazz-influenced guitar and country-steeped steel have been done by other duos over the years, most notably Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant in the 1950s. But Johnson and Sinclair believe Ida Red marks a new horizon for women musicians. “For doing this material and this twin stuff, we feel like we might be the first,” Johnson said.
“Harmony Grits,” their debut album, gets its title from a Leonard Feather song recorded in 1946 by Mary Lou Williams’ Girl Stars, whose arrangement featured piano, guitar and vibes, but no steel guitar. The 13-song set is a delightful mix of both vocal and instrumental tunes in the jazz/country/Western swing realm.
Ida Red, our Austin360 Artist of the Month for May, also features upright bassist Phil Spencer and drummer Jason Baczynski. The band started playing gigs in 2019; the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 afforded a chance to sharpen their repertoire and get it documented in the studio.
“All of a sudden, there was this golden opportunity,” Sinclair said. Usually, she said, “when things start rolling, there's no time to rehearse. So we really took advantage of it, and tore apart the really complicated tunes. We were grinding away, trying to get all the twin parts down.”
Vocal tracks include the 1930s standard “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s train-song gem “Tennessee Local” and a Johnson original titled “Restless,” written with two of her family members. Instrumentals include tunes from Western swing icon Bob Wills (“Fat Boy Rag”) and jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, as well as Sinclair’s “Spider Blues.”
They also co-wrote one instrumental, which they whimsically titled “Ida Blue”; they chose the band name Ida Red as a tip of the hat to Wills, whose song of that name was one they liked and felt represented the band’s spirit.
“The verse says, ‘Ida Red, Ida Red, I’m a plum fool about Ida Red,” Sinclair said. “She’s like a wild girl, you know. We liked that.”
Sinclair and Johnson both moved to Austin in the past decade. Sinclair got here in 2012 after living in several states, most recently Massachusetts. She’d been coming to Texas for years to attend steel guitar conventions and to study the instrument with Maurice Anderson, a renowned Dallas steel guitarist.
Sinclair initially played banjo and accordion but took up steel guitar in 2000. While in Massachusetts, she took care of her mother for six years. After her mother died. “that's when I decided, ‘OK, what do I want to do with rest of my life? I want to go to Texas and play steel guitar.’ So I basically packed up my life and just came here.”
The first place she went when she arrived was the 290 West Bar & Grill, where the Austin Steel Guitar Club holds monthly meetings. That night’s meeting was canceled, but one club member had showed up: Herb Steiner, a local steel mainstay who played on Jerry Jeff Walker’s landmark 1973 album “Viva Terlingua.”
“He told me where to go, who to hear, and so I just started making the rounds,” she remembered. “It was really exciting. I knew I had landed in the right place.”
Johnson arrived six years ago from her hometown of Birmingham, England, where she’d teamed with her sister and father in a band called the Toy Hearts, which played bluegrass and Western swing. They made records and toured, including trips overseas for South by Southwest.
Artist of the Month from Dec. 2020:The musical map of Ley Line
“We started coming to Austin about 2006, and every time I'd come here, I'd make more friends,” she said. Once she decided to make the move, getting a visa took some time. She laughed when explaining that she eventually qualified for a visa as an "alien of extraordinary ability."
“When I finally got here,” she said, “I just hit the ground running and tried to get as many gigs as possible with as many people. I considered myself in guitar boot camp here, just trying to absorb, because there’s so many great pickers in town.”
While Sinclair was spending a lot of time on the road as a member of Wayne Hancock’s touring band, Johnson was turning up regularly at clubs all over Austin, both under her own name and as a collaborator with acts that ranged from country to Western swing to bluegrass. She has a band called Tiger Alley that plays what she calls “grassy country,” and she leads her own trio, SJ Three.
More Artist of the Month from 2020:Peterson Brothers are hitting their groove
Sinclair occasionally plays her own gigs under the name Cocktail Steel, but since the duo started Ida Red, that’s been their primary focus. You’ll find them most often at Sam’s, where they played on the outdoor stage every Sunday afternoon in April and will have their record-release show on May 22. Since the beginning of the year, they’ve also played the last Saturday of the month in Luckenbach, where the music booker “paid us more money than we’d agreed because he liked us so much, which never happens,” Johnson beamed.
While we were talking, Sam’s Town Point owner Ramsay Midwood stopped by the table to hand them an envelope. They’d done a recent mini-fest at the venue, and there was more money at the end of the night than expected, Midwood said..
If getting more then they bargained for is becoming a trend for Ida Red, Johnson and Sinclair will take that. And it’s well-deserved, for two ace musicians who followed a long and winding road to find each other in Austin.
Austin360 Artist of the Month: Ida Red
Members: Sophia Johnson (guitar) and Rose Sinclair (steel guitar), with Phil Spencer (upright bass) and Jason Baczynski (drums)
Releases: "Harmony Grits" (out May 21, 2021)
More information: idaredatx.com