By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
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By Christian Schaeffer
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A decade after putting out her first record (a cassette that was later re-released on CD), Mary Alice Wood is finally ready to release her sophomore effort, Daisies in My Hand. Despite the long gap between albums, the 38-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist has been keeping busy these past ten years. For most of the 1990s, Wood was a fixture on the local roots-pop circuit, performing solo or with the Belinda Chaire, sugarstickygirl and Slim. In '94 and '95, she won first place in the Best Local Songwriter category of the RFT Music Awards. But by 1997, the second lineup of sugarstickygirl had unraveled, and the band's newly recorded CD was put on hold.
"I just kind of sat on it," Wood admits. " I started working at [local marketing firm] Busch Creative, and that was a really, really high-demand position. I'd been playing out seven years, and it was really tough because I'd always had a full-time, demanding job. It started taking a toll physically, so I just took a hiatus."
Wood gave up the heavy gigging, but she didn't give up music. She hosted regular jam sessions at her home, founded the acoustic-country collective the Cheyenne Social Club and learned to play the fiddle. After a while, though, she noticed that she wasn't writing many songs. "I started wondering, 'What if I don't have anything left to say?'" she remembers. "Here I wrote for six years flat-out, songs just flying out of my head, and then they just kinda stopped. Things were going well in my life, and it's easy to write songs when you're really mad or really sad, but when you're happy, you don't know what to write about."
Wood may have been happy, but she wanted something more. After four-and-a-half years helping clients market their products, it was time to market her own. Call it a self-financed sabbatical. "I was a good girl, and I saved a lot of money," she says. "I'm working harder now than I've ever worked before, though. I easily work twelve to fourteen hours a day."
Wood's professional marketing experience is coming in handy. Though she has hired a manager and an entertainment lawyer, she's doing most of the promotional grunt work herself: designing the press materials and CD packaging (some of the loveliest work ever to grace Radar Station's mailbox, as it happens), doing marketing research, writing retail one-sheets, sending out and following up on promo packages and checking online orders. She has even assembled a mini street team, complete with matching T-shirts, to distribute free three-song sampler CDs at various concerts around town.
"I will do whatever it takes," Wood says firmly. "I will tour as much as my managers and booking agents will let me. Obviously my goal is to go on tour with Lucinda Williams." Wood laughs but admits that she did design business cards imprinted with the slogan "I will tour with Lucinda; just wait." Something of a late bloomer herself, Wood finds inspiration in Williams' career path. "Lucinda's 50," Wood marvels. "She was 38 when Mary Chapin Carpenter covered her song 'Passionate Kisses' -- that's how old I am now.
"The nice thing about country is that families would play it on their front porches," Wood continues. "Kids would learn from their parents and grandparents, and everyone passed it down. There's no age limit that says you can't play it past a certain age. I love that -- where your music can just continuously grow and evolve. Even if I don't ever get a record deal, it doesn't even matter if I keep getting better and evolving as a musician."
Wood's attention to her craft is obvious on her new CD. Recorded at the Broom Factory by local engineer extraordinaire Mike Martin, Daisies in My Hand boasts some of St. Louis' finest musicians: John Horton on guitar, Thayne Bradford on fiddle and mandolin, Lynne Reif and Kip Loui on harmony vocals, Brian Reed on drums and Jim Brennan on Hammond organ. Against this tasteful backdrop, Wood catalogs the disappointments of daily life -- lovers fall out of love, behave foolishly, remember things they'd do better to forget -- but thanks to her restraint, these timeworn truths never come off as mawkish or unearned. As a singer, Wood lacks the magnificent coloratura of a Neko Case or the ravaged soul of a Kelly Hogan; where a diva would wail, Wood simply sings. Nevertheless, her voice -- a plain, pretty calico dress of an alto that sometimes breaks into a woozy falsetto -- is surprisingly affecting, the perfect vehicle for these deceptively simple story-songs.
Wood celebrates the release of Daisies in My Hand on Saturday, March 22, at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room.