That Jacqui Sutton titled her new album Billie and Dolly says much about the type of music she’s making. More than a nominal tip to two different music legends, the album’s title speaks to Sutton’s efforts to forge some new sort of American music from elements that are wonderfully compatible despite disparity in their roots.
“I feel like I’ve always listened to both Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton,” Sutton says. “They’ve always been in my ear. I not only appreciate them as stylists in those two genres, but because they were such amazing entertainers. About 10 years ago, I wondered if I could make them work together.”
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Sutton got her start singing vocal jazz in her early 20s in San Francisco. She took a different route, working for several years in theater in New York before returning to singing. Three years ago, Sutton’s husband began pursuing a creative writing Ph.D at the University of Houston, and local keyboardist Henry Darragh helped her assemble a band in Houston to execute her vision for an inclusive sort of American song she calls New Frontier Music, an earthy and rootsy jazz.
“It’s really all about what I respond to,” she says. “But it takes these great musicians to pull it off. They’re jazz musicians who don’t have a funky attitude about bluegrass or classical music. They understood it could work, and they put their hearts into it.”
Sutton hopes to record another album next year called American Anthem that further develops themes of inclusivity. “I’m hoping to touch on what it means to be American and what American music is. And to be a reminder that we’re a nation of immigrants.”