By Eleni P. Austin
If you only know Katey Sagal as slatternly matriarch Peg Bundy on “Married With Children” or as Machiavellian matriarch Gemma Teller Morrow on “Sons Of Anarchy”, you don’t know the whole story. Katey Sagal is also a world class singer.
Katey Sagal grew up in a Hollywood household, the eldest of five siblings born to Jean and Boris Sagal. Her Mother was a writer-producer. Her father directed episodic TV shows (“Twilight Zone”, “Peter Gunn”, “Columbo”) mini-series (“Rich Man, Poor Man”) and feature films (“Omega Man”, “Girl Happy” with Elvis Presley). Even her younger twin sisters started in show business as “Doublemint Twins”.
Sagal never harbored theatrical ambitions; she wanted to be a singer. She got her start singing as a back-up vocalist for Bob Dylan, Etta James and Tanya Tucker. Her vocals appear on albums by disparate artists like Molly Hatchet, Olivia Newton John and Kiss.
By 1976, she was fronting a band called The Group With No Name. They released an album, Moon Over Brooklyn on the Casablanca label. Two years later Sagal was on the road with Bette Midler as one of the Harlettes.
Initially, acting was just a way to pay the bills. When Sagal gained steady employment on “Married With Children” in the late ‘80s, she put her singing career on the backburner. Her solo debut, Well…. arrived in 1994.
“Married With Children” ended in 1997, but Sagal was still a presence on television. She was the voice of “Leela” on Matt Groening’s animated series “Futurama” and she also played John Ritter’s wife on his final TV series, “Eight Simple Rules For Dating My Daughter”. Her sophomore solo effort, Room was released in 2004.
When Sagal’s husband, Kurt Sutter, created “Sons Of Anarchy”, the part of ruthless biker-Mama, Gemma, was written with Sagal’s specific talents in mind. Sagal owns the role; Gemma is by turns vicious and virtuous. Each season Sagal’s singing abilities have been featured in the thoughtful musical montages the show is famous for.
As she juggles her “Futurama” and “S.O.A.” duties, Sagal is also a wife and mother to Sarah, Jackson and Esme’. Somehow in the midst of all that activity, Sagal carved out enough time to record her third album, Covered.
With her first two solo efforts, Sagal was the primary songwriter, relying on a couple of interesting cover songs. For Covered she has flipped the script, recording a collection of ten songs by songwriters who have inspired her.
The album opens with Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”. The insistent rhythm of Petty’s original, is supplanted by a hiccup-y pulse. Sagal’s breathless vocals are matched by intertwined acoustic and electric guitars.
Sagal’s choice of songs and songwriters is impeccable. Deep catalog selections from Jackson Browne, Ryan Adams and Steve Earle, give Sagal the opportunity to brand each song as her own.
Tackling Browne’s “For A Dancer”, Sagal imbues the lyrics with a sense of hard-won wisdom… “Just do the steps that you’ve been shown, by everyone you’ve ever known/Until the dance becomes your very own.” Cushioning this life-is-a-dance metaphor are graceful pedal steel notes coupled aching acoustic riffs and Hammond B3.
Originally, Ryan Adams’ “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say”, was a mournful declaration of love. Sagal’s rendition is equal parts torch and twang. Blending coruscated guitar chords, pedal steel shadings and Sagal’s soulful vocals the track locks into a Stax-Volt groove.
On Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”, Sagal and producer Bob Thiele swap out Earle’s spare acoustic arrangement for an Eastern European feel. The song features Wurlitzer, violin and Laud Banduria (kind of a Spanish mandolin). Sagal trades verses with Jackson Browne and the bittersweet duet is etched with regret and romantic recrimination.
The best tracks on Covered are “Gonna Take A Miracle”, “Orphan Girl” and “For Free.” Most people know Deneice Williams version of “….Miracle,” (jam-packed with vocal gymnastics and oily 80s synthesizers, it’s the musical equivalent of onanism). Sagal takes her cues from Laura Nyro’s more restrained rendition. Yearning and tender, the tune is awash with Girl Group urgency, while the sophisticated arrangement recalls Burt Bacharach’s timeless Pop classicism.
The lively Blugrass arrangement of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” employs a sprightly mix of mandolin, 12 string guitar and harmonium. Sagal’s joyful vocals belie lonely lyrics like “I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother/ I am an orphan girl.”
There aren’t many singers confidant enough to re-interpret Joni Mitchell, but Sagal manages “For Free” with aplomb. Of course she can’t match Mitchell’s crystalline soprano, but by slowing the tempo, and accenting the clarinet fills, Sagal’s sultry vocals underscore the melancholy mood of the song.
Other highlights on Covered include Sagal’s heartfelt takes on Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart,” and Tonio K’s “Follow The River.” The album closes with a bluesy interpretation of Ray Lamontagne’s “Roses & Cigarettes.”
Katey Sagal didn’t make this record alone. Handling production chores is “Sons Of Anarchy” music supervisor, Bob Thiele Jr. In turn, Thiele enlisted a crack team of musicians, including multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, (k.d.lang, Matthew Sweet), drummer Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos, Wallflowers), and bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing). David Faragher (Elvis Costello) and Gia Ciobotti (Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams) supplied backing vocals.
Katey Sagal is the best kind of singer, someone who inhabits the song completely. Hopefully we won’t have to wait nine years for her next record.