There are few greater joys than discovering something that's made for you, something that you are damn good at doing. Second-grade teacher and singer Julea Thomerson, 29, stumbled onto classic country music in her mid-20s, and immediately knew it was her calling. The discovery led her from merely dabbling in music to fronting one of Atlanta's youngest and purest country bands, Her Dear Johns.
"I got my first guitar when I was 13 years old," Thomerson says. "I played around with it for a few years, mostly learning gospel songs. I never really wanted to perform publicly until I was in my early 20s — I was too shy."
The blues came first: Hound Dog Taylor and Howlin' Wolf, then Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, and Lucille Bogan. Soon enough she had become a regular at Atlanta blues dives Northside Tavern and Blind Willie's, where she befriended local stalwarts Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck, Bill Sheffield, and the late Donnie McCormick.
"Sometimes they would let me get on stage with them and sing a couple of songs," she says. "Those were the first times I sang into a microphone, in front of people."
She immersed herself in the blues, soaking up its rich details in songs, stories, old records, and anything else she could find. The blues were a gateway; it was classic country music that got her hooked.
"I love all kinds of music, but I don't love anything as much as I love country western music and rockabilly," Thomerson says.
That realization came while working on a duet with Mudcat, covering Tennessee Ernie Ford and Patsy Cline's high-energy boogie "I'm Hogtied Over You." She followed Mudcat's recommendation to seek out the "King of Western Swing," Bob Wills.
"I couldn't listen to anything else for months," she says. "From there, it was Roger Miller, Billie Jo Spears, Charline Arthur, Eddie Noack, Sanford Clark, Kay Adams ... and on and on."
While singing with the short-lived BareKnuckle Betties, Thomerson studied the vast yet obscure work of women in country music, and was inspired to reach out to some of her favorites. She struck up conversations with Mimi Roman, June Stearns, and friends and family of Jean Shepard and Melba Montgomery.
"I like to honor my heroes, both passed on and still alive, and let those who are still alive know that they are important, and that I love them and their music," she says.
All of this listening and learning helped shape Thomerson's own vocal style. With a strong and confident alto/soprano voice that combines the clarity of Connie Smith with the twang of Loretta Lynn, she also has mastered the subtle innuendos of song delivery. Her Southern roots guide her sound, and she knows how to express both emotional dependence and empowered individuality.
There are only a few EP recordings of the BareKnuckle Betties, and a few YouTube videos floating around featuring Thomerson's tunes. But her abilities are most obvious in her solo material. Songs such as "E.F.F.O.R.T" and "Livin' on Your Lies" are indistinguishable from the best work of her idols, as her performances flow smoothly from original tunes to covers.
Julea and Her Dear Johns maintain an active performance schedule and feature a cast of formidable players, including Spike Fullerton on electric guitar, Chad Vaillancourt on bass, and Mario Colangelo on drums. All veterans of Atlanta's roots music scene, they summon a mix of country western and rockabilly dance music with a smidge of pre-war blues. The band has become a favorite of the Star Bar crowd, and garnered a few choice gigs at various other venues such as the Earl, H. Harper Station, this year's Rockabilly Luau, East Atlanta Strut, and the Little Five Points Halloween Festival.
When teaching, Thomerson makes sure music is ever-present in her classroom. "I've always found a way to incorporate the arts," she says, naming a long list of instruments she keeps in the classroom, including guitar, sleigh bells, guiros, castanets, maracas, and tambourines. "I try to write songs about concepts we're learning in class to help with understanding and teach them to the kids. Sometimes we'll write songs together. I've taught fractions through musical notation. I've even taught about cause-and-effect relationships in literature through 12-bar blues lyrical patterns."
You can bet that at least one of those second-graders is going to remember Ms. Thomerson and her songs, and we'll hear the result in about 20 years.
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