“I’ve played that song on so many stages,” says Seattle-based country singer Rachel Mae, “and each time, I close my eyes and imagine I’m on that circle.”
Rachel Mae is a singer-songwriter with a gorgeous voice that delivers honest and direct songs about different parts of her life. In an interview at a Northgate coffee shop, she told me, “I have a song for just about every circumstance in my life.” She’s very likable and is a great storyteller both on stage and off.
The song we’re talking about is called “Circle on the Floor,” which is about her biggest dream, to play it in Nashville during the celebrated Grand Ole Opry. The Opry is one of the most iconic institutions in music today, with a history that dates back more than 85 years. The Opry’s website explains, “The six-foot circle of dark, oak wood in the Opry House stage is shiny but clearly well worn. Cut from the stage of the Opry’s famous former home, the Ryman Auditorium, this circle gives newcomers and veterans alike the opportunity to sing on the same spot that once supported Uncle Dave Macon, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, and others.” It has survived the 1974 move from the Ryman Auditorium to the current home, the Grand Ole Opry House and a 2010. Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and nearly every other country music artist of note has performed there. Inclusion as an Opry member is a sign of establishment amongst the elite country music performers.
Mae plays regularly in the Puget Sound area, including both often in and outside of Seattle, but it was a fateful first visit to the Opry that inspired her to pursue this passion. She wrote “Circle on the Floor” that night and said, “I came back home and started my band and got a little bit of money together. I made a CD and just started playing these shows and something ignited in me and that became my focus.” “Circle on the Floor” is the album’s title track and it came out in 2009. It’s a lo-fi recording that shows a lot of potential. It has songs with titles like “Honky Tonkin’ Hell of a Time” and “Two Step on Your Heart” but the best songs are the aforementioned titled track and “Waylon’s Words,” where she sings openly about the inspiration she drew from the late Waylon Jennings. The cliche that Harlan Howard started is that “country music is three chords and the truth” has a beauty to it.
When I asked Mae about that, she concurred, saying, “You listen to Loretta Lynn and you don’t have to analyze her songs to find out the hidden meaning of what she’s saying. She’s got a song like ‘Fist City’: ‘You better get out of my way if you don’t want to go to Fist City.’ You know exactly what she’s saying and that appeals to me.”
Lately, Mae has been playing shows as a solo artist, sans band, or with a group of like-minded ladies called Honky Tonk Honeys. Local country singers Kate Lynne Logan and Jessica Lynne round out the trio. They’ve only played a small handful of shows to date, the first being when they opened for Elizabeth Cook at the Tractor Tavern just last month. Honky Tonk Honeys are a trio of songwriters who bring to mind a Seattle, independent version of Pistol Annies. If that is the comparison point, Rachel Mae would be its Miranda Lambert.
Mae is confident she’ll eventually become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, even if there isn’t a defined path to follow. She once tried out for the TV show “Nashville Star,” though didn’t make it through the first round (and likely that’s for the better). She told me, “I wish there was a path, like steps A, B, C and D, but it’s not that cut and dry. I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants.” She added, “It’s funny how when you put something out there, people will get behind you and support it. I’m really overwhelmed by how many people have supported me and believe in me. It fans the flame even more.”
When she does sing “Circle on the Floor” at the Grand Ole Opry, it won’t actually be the first time she’s sang it on that legendary stage. She tells this story:
Two years ago, in April, I wanted to go back because so much had happened between point A and point B. It’s already become a big part of my life, but it started to become a huge thing in my life. This time I decided, because I have a little extra money, that they have backstage tours and I’m going to take one. The first time around, it was on a shoestring budget and we were staying on this ghetto part of Nashville. We made it to Nashville, but just barely. There was no money for extra stuff the first time around. The second time I planned it much better. I’m going to do the backstage tour, I’m going to get to go on stage. They do them before and after the show, so I did it before. But they were setting up for the show, so they didn’t let people on stage. I thought, ‘you gotta be kidding me!’ So we sat there through the show, but I decided to take the tour again because I really need to feel what it feels like to stand on that stage. We did the tour after the show, tour number two. When we walked on the stage, I must have felt like a kid on Christmas. I told the tour guide I was really excited to be here and the last time I wrote about a song about it. I put out a CD and have been playing every stage I’ve been playing on. The tour guide asked if I wanted to sing it now. ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ Of course I wanted to sing it. There’s like 40-50 people that went on these little tours. They let me stand on the circle and belt it out a capella and I stood there and have never felt a connection to anything so strongly in my life. I felt that connection when I was in the crowd, but there was nothing quite like standing there and singing it. I didn’t even realize that there were 40-50 people behind me, but they were clapping and asking me to sign their tickets and they were giving me hugs. It was this amazing moment. As cheesy as it sounds, the best way I know to describe it is that it felt like home.
She then said, “Each time I get there, I feel a little bit closer. Every time I’ve been on that stage, it’s been closed, but I keep picturing in my mind what it’s like going to be singing when there’s a crowd on the other side of that stage.”
Throughout our interview, she talks of her determination and drive to play on the same stage as her heroes. At one point, she says, “I realized that I will do whatever it takes to get back there.” And then adds with a laugh, “when they’re open.”
Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.