Patty Reese is the youngest of seven siblings, a Silver Spring native who grew up in the midst of “a little Brady Bunch nightmare,” she said. When Reese was 3 years old, her mother married her stepfather and integrated her own four children with her husband’s three. Her parents weren’t musicians, but Reese remembered growing up surrounded by her family’s varied musical tastes.
“Everyone had their own rooms and liked their own styles of music and I just loved it all, really,” she said. “Anyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Led Zeppelin. Bonnie Raitt. Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, John Denver. I had a lot of influences.”
The 54-year-old performer may have been the baby of the family, but her music has grown up over the course of her more than 20-year career. For a long time, she was the frontrunner of other bands — Jr. Cline and The Recliners, a band called One Night Stand, a country girl group named Plum Crazy. As her confidence grew, she struck out on her own, launching an acoustic career and a band centered around her own original music.
“Really, I love songs that tell a story,” Reese said. “What is the human condition, you know? I write love songs, hate songs, love-gone-bad songs. Songs about old people getting ready to pass on. No matter what cross each person has to bear, we all get down, we all celebrate, we all have joy of some kind. I write songs that encompass all those things.”
Reese, performing at Alive @ 5 tonight, ties in original songs from her last three albums with cover songs from other songwriters including Bob Dylan and Steve Earle. Her records have garnered her accolades — 17 different awards from the Washington Area Music Association and a top-five spot on the national Contemporary Blues chart — but they’ve also been a way for Reese to divulge intensely personal experiences.
Take “Is It Too Late,” a gutsy look at the final stages of addiction before recovery. Reese has been sober for 24 years, but there was a time, before she got clean, when all she had was a bicycle, a guitar, “and a friend nice enough to let me stay in her basement because I had nowhere else to go.”
Loving someone with addiction can be just as hard. Before “Letin the Sun,” her most recent record, Reese made “Here and Now,” a self-described “divorce album” inspired by her first marriage. Reese lived with her then-husband in Mount Shasta, an isolated town in northern California, but quickly realized that he had little interest in recovery or self-improvement, she said.
She returned to Maryland in 2001 and wrote “Here and Now” as a solo acoustic album. The songs are some of her most introspective, driven by a steely-eyed look at the reality of her relationship.
“It was all driven by fear that I was getting older and that I needed to settle down and I had to make this work, which is the biggest lie ever,” Reese said. “You know what they say — let go or be dragged.”
Reese’s music has been cheerier as she’s gotten older. Seven years after “Here and Now,” she released “Strong Medicine,” an album she finished around the same time she met her current husband, Mark Pankow. The track “Good Lovin’ Man” — Reese’s first real love song — is about him.
“I had never, ever written a song like that before,” she said with a laugh. “It was always ‘screw you, I made a mistake’ songs.”
“Let in the Sun” also gave her the chance to experiment with style. One of her favorite songs from the album is “Your Love,” a James Brown-inspired funk ballad. Another is “Soul Satisfier,” a horn-infused power ballad.
Reese said the arrangements are also heavily dependent on input from her band, a diverse group of musicians scattered across Maryland. One her longtime collaborators, bassist Sonny Petrosky, lives in Frederick and has played with Reese for more than 20 years.
“I like to say that we’ve been playing together for so long, she’s like my sister,” Petrosky said. “She knows where I’m going and I know where she’s going when it comes to writing and arranging her songs. It’s very comfortable.”