Atlanta singer-songwriter Doria Roberts‘ new album, “Blackeyed Susan” is designed to engage all your senses. When you slide up the lid on the wooden “Blackeyed Susan” box created out of scraps from a guitar manufacturer, the scent of loose tea perfumes the air. There are blackeyed susan seeds for planting, honey to accompany the tea, a piece of Atlanta designer Kathleen Plate‘s Smartglass recycled jewelry and, after a five-year wait, Roberts’ latest song cycle, inspired by and featuring songs long associated with her late mentor and civil rights folk legend Odetta Holmes. Roberts will introduce fans to the project this week at Decatur CD on Tuesday night at 7:30 with an album release gig (a massive reproduction of the album cover is now displayed on the side of the building) and Thursday at 5 p.m. at the East Atlanta Farmers Market. For the first time, Roberts says she has no plans to issue a digital version of the project (“I want people to enage all their senses with the keepsake box,” she says. “You can’t achieve that with a download.”).
Last month, the finished “Blackeyed Susan” boxes began arriving at Urban Cannibals, the East Atlanta bodega Roberts runs with her wife and chef Calavino Donati, on the 48th anniversary of the biggest gig of Odetta’s career — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington where she energized the assembled with the spiritual, “I’m On My Way.”
“It’s a happy coincidence,” says a smiling Roberts while taking a break at an Urban Cannibals window table on a recent sunny afternoon. “This whole process and this box project has been a series of happy coincidences.” The album mirrors Roberts’ real-life experiences with the civil rights icon. A chance meeting in a hotel lobby in 2003 led Odetta to invite Roberts to open for her at the Knitting Factory in New York City and then a subsequent tour together. For Roberts, the life lessons from her mentor began that night at The Knitting Factory when she nervously apologized to the audience while taking too long to tune a guitar. An agitated Odetta was waiting in the wings when she finished.
Recalls Roberts: “She told me, ‘Don’t you ever apologize. Ever!’ It wasn’t about apologizing for the guitar. It was about not apologizing for who you are and what you do and how you do it. In this society, there are a lot of things that rub people the wrong way, based on my demographic. Living in the South has its challenges. I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me in South Carolina. But I’ve carried her words with me and I wanted to share that.”
The idea for “Blackeyed Susan” first began to germinate in 2008 when Roberts would reference her then-ailing idol to fans at shows and blank stares greeted her. “That was heartbreaking for me,” she recalls. “I would have to say, ‘You know, the woman who inspired Bob Dylan?!’ There would be no Bob Dylan without Odetta. I felt that she was getting lost. I came up with the album title because, as a child, I thought blackeyed susans were sunflowers that didn’t grow. I always felt a little bad for the blackeyed susans because I thought they were sunflowers that didn’t get enough sun. I think the same way about Odetta and her music.”
While Roberts recorded songs closely associated with Odetta, including “Another Man Done Gone,” she fuses the set with originals as well that honor the spirit of Odetta. “I didn’t want this to be a covers record,” she explains. “What was really important for me was to capture that truth. There’s that thread of honesty throughout everything she ever did.” Odetta once covered Woody Guthrie‘s “Why, Oh Why?” which inspired Roberts to the include her answer-oriented composition, “Because” on the new album. “It was a song written out of frustration,” she says. “People were always asking, ‘Why are you so angry?’ I remember thinking, ‘No one ever asks [Pearl Jam frontman] Eddie Vedder why he’s angry. I decided to put all of the personal things I was feeling into a song. I mean, my nephew has been deployed to Iraq five times. The things that I see on the road and on the news. The things that hopefully we all have reactions to. Odetta was speaking for her times. It was equally important for me on ‘Blackeyed Susan’ to speak for my times. The greatest homage I could pay to her is to be myself. That’s what she made me do. She didn’t ask me. She told me, ‘You are going to be yourself.'”
Later this month, Roberts hops on a train to bring her Farm to Ear tour across the U.S. where she’ll play club gigs and cook dinners and play living room concerts for fans who financed the $20,000 to create “Blackeyed Susan” via Kickstarter.com.
The songwriter says life on the road always supplies her with material for future songs: “I’m the type of person who pulls into the Waffle House parking lot, sees a car with a gay flag and a Confederate flag bumper sticker on it and I immediately have to go inside and find out who that car belongs to. It’s just who I am. It’s how I stay true to myself.” And thanks to Odetta, with no apologies.