How old is old enough to know how?
Marge Calhoun is reluctant to say at first, the hesitation before revealing her age a reflex more than real reluctance, she said.
"I’m 47, and I feel pretty good about it," she said. Colleen Shanley is a little more forthcoming, proudly admitting she just turned 50.
Their ages are especially relevant these days, Calhoun admits: Calhoun and Shanley are each celebrating the release of their second CDs Feb. 18 with a concert at IOTA called "Old Enough to Know How."
Shanley, an Arlingtonian, and Calhoun, and Alexandria resident, have been comrades on the Washington music scene for years, and friends for five years who got to know each other through shared backgrounds and influences.
Both are Army brats, growing up around the country before settling in the Washington region. Both come from folk-music backgrounds. Both release their second CDs in five years this year. Both have been single mothers. "We’re both kind of late bloomers," Shanley said.
Both agree now, they’re happier that they’re older. "You trade wisdom for youth, and it’s not a bad deal," Calhoun said. Shanley agreed. "I’m glad I know what I didn’t 20 or 30 years ago," she said.
She said her just-past 50th birthday sent shivers down her spine when she was younger. "It used to frighten me, but I still feel like a kid," she said. "A couple years ago, I asked myself: Am I too old to be doing this? You’re never too old."
<b>Under the Influences</b>
<bt>Shanley first came to the DC area with her family in high school. She moved here for good 23 years ago, and started playing gigs around the area five years later, initially sitting in with her second husband and guitarist, Casey O’Neal.
"I started at Whitey’s, when you still had to put the stage together before you performed," she said.
Shanley got a late start, without an exceptional music background during her childhood – "I only performed for family functions," she said – and only picked up the guitar in her 20s, in time spent sitting on a commune.
As she started playing, she found herself drawn towards folk music, but has since tempered that with strong doses of blues and country. When she was younger, she said, The Byrds’ "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and the Burrito Brothers "really got me."
But Shanley also had a soft spot in her heart for the big band music her father listened to when she was a child. "I loved that. I hear that swinginess in what I’m playing now," she said, in the jazz-like chord progressions on her cover of Willie Nelson’s "Night Life," for instance.
Her new CD, "This Time," is a departure from her first album, "Let’s Go For That Ride." Part of the difference is just maturation as an artist, she said, but it’s also intentional. "Casey convinced me to do more blues," she said. "He said ‘You’ve got the voice for it.’"
That led to choices of some blues covers, like Delbert McClinton’s "Better Off With the Blues," but with a country sound. "I did that with a rootsier sound, on purpose," Shanley said. "I wanted a back porch kind of sound."
The range of influences on Shanley’s second album is another sign of her maturation, she said. "When I was younger, I was bound and determined not to let anything influence me," she said. "I wanted to find my own sound."
<bt>Calhoun started out with some of the same influences, but less anxiety about sounding like them. "I was totally thrilled and immersed in Joni Mitchell’s style," she said.
But when she began playing, Calhoun found herself, quite by accident, playing with a lot of country bands. Like Shanley, she looked to her father’s record collection for help. "I knew just about all of the songs" at the country gigs, Calhoun said.
That led to a decade and a half of playing, singing and writing country music. But about five years ago, Calhoun began writing songs like Mitchell’s, songs that didn’t fit well within the confines of country.
"Trying to jump genres is like turning around an aircraft carrier," she said. "I moved from facing south, towards Nashville, to north, towards New York."
Instead, with saxophonist Ron Holloway and bassist Gary Crockett, she began playing and recording music she calls "urban folk," combining poetry and a rhythmic groove, refined on "Twisted Tales of Passion and Pain," her second CD. "Many people wondered how acoustic guitar and saxophone come together," she said. "It’s a very likable sound. When people hear it, they’re pleasantly surprised."
Like Shanley, Calhoun said recording her second CD was a smoother process. "Instead of going to studios in Nashville, I did it here, with lots of friends and acquaintances," she said. Still, it took her more than a year, as she fit studio time around work and raising her now-19-year-old daughter.
Calhoun said the doubleheader CD release made sense, highlighting the different paths both women have taken from similar starts. "We both got into the country music scheme of things," she said. "We’ve taken different paths … what resulted is similar influences made refreshingly different."