Story Jason Browne | Photograph Masa Hensley
That case is too big to be another guitar. There are only two of them. So whatever’s in that big-ass case is half of whatever’s about to happen.
Oh, no. Not something different.
Typically, it doesn’t take long for furrowed brows to soften. Rigid postures unwind. Gentle swaying ensues. It’s hard not to relax when Honey Boy & Boots start to cook.
The tone of Courtney Blackwell’s cello is versatile. Satisfyingly low enough to anchor husband Drew Blackwell’s guitar playing with long, forlorn ribbons of bass. High enough to lace the music with nimble tenor and baritone accompaniment. The instruments blend to create folk-meets-classical hybrid melodies, bright enough to fill a room, yet tranquil enough to avoid interrupting conversations.
“It takes some convincing with the crowd. They see a cello and a guitar and they’re not sure how it’s going to work. But after a few songs, we’ve never had a negative response. It’s eye-catching and it’s ear-catching,” said Courtney, or “Boots” as she’s called thanks to her omnipresent footwear.
To be honest, Drew and Courtney didn’t know how their sounds would blend at first, either. Drew was deep into the blues when they met in Starkville. He got the nickname “Honey Boy” as a founding member the Old Memphis Kings, a Black Prairie blues group that grew up around Noxubee County bluesman Willie King. Courtney had been training on the cello since she was 3 years old. She was playing with a half-dozen different groups at the time, but none with a guitar in them.
So the two set music aside while they got to know each other.
“We played together at home but didn’t do gigs for a while. We knew we probably would but wanted to see if the relationship would work first,” said Drew.
After getting engaged in 2011, it was safe to take the music public, and the pair have recently quit their day jobs to pursue music full-time. Drew still plays with the Kings. Courtney remains in demand for multiple classical groups. But they’re Honey Boy & Boots around the clock. Literally.
They have two cars. A Honda they use for close gigs and a van with a modified bed they use for road trips. And they stay busy.
Courtney, the duo’s de facto manager and booking agent, pulls out a log book with upcoming show dates. They’re booked well into 2015 at festivals, bars, coffee shops, weddings, parties. They’ll play throughout Mississippi and travel to Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Idaho and Boots’ native Washington from their new home base in Nashville, Tennessee.
Even days off aren’t days off. Drew writes most of the songs. They practice them at home. They try them out live. And whatever sticks will wind up on their third album.
“The first album was bluesier because a lot of the songs I wrote before we played together,” said Drew. “The second album was written with the cello in mind. And each time we record, it sounds more polished.”
The duo has tinkered with its lineup and sound some, adding percussionists or inviting Courtney’s sister to sit in on violin. But they always default to just Honey Boy & Boots.
“When you play that much with someone, you really get in tune with what they’re doing,” said Drew.
“We’re much more comfortable with each other,” added Courtney. “To the point that we can try things we’ve never tried before, even live, and adjust on the fly.”
The resulting music never feels rushed. Lyrics and verses fill some songs and are separated by minutes-long instrumental bridges on others. The couple weave their vocals as seamlessly as their instruments. Together they run the gamut from melancholy introspection to swelling inspiration. Synchronous, both musically and emotionally.