Meet an Artist - Michell Belanger

Michelle Belanger, musician and leader of the Mystery Hillbillies, strums her guitar in her Winston-Salem garden for a portrait last week.

Whenever the Mystery Hillbillies group is asked to perform, leader Michelle Belanger has several musicians she can call on at any given time.

“I have a couple of bass players,” Belanger, 59, said. “I have a handful of guitar players, and I’ve got a couple of drummers. That way, if I get offered a gig and I call a guitar player and they’re busy, I have another guy to call.”

In addition to being a band leader, Belanger is a singer and guitar player. She grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Mich., moved to North Carolina in 1986 and now lives in Winston-Salem.

People who have never heard her sing before may be surprised at the power in her voice.

“It has the capability to be really loud. ... My voice can cut like a knife,” Belanger said. “People have heard me across a long field, through the woods. ... I worked with a vocal coach for about a year and a half, quite a while back, but I’m continuing to work with the tools that he gave me.”

She loves to dance and is featured on four CDs by old time string bands where she offers the sound of her dancing.

“Different people have invited me to play my feet on their record,” she said, laughing.

She has her own portable dance board that she takes to studios. Her style of dance is primarily based on clogging and hoofing.

“I play the rhythm of the melody, and I can play my feet along with other types of music, not just old time and bluegrass,” Belanger said.

How would you describe your art?

I play guitar and sing vintage country, rockabilly, R&B, boogie and blues for listeners and dancers. I am the fearless leader of the Mystery Hillbillies, which is a team of sidemen I play gigs with. I invite them in groups of two or three at a time to play trio and four-piece shows as they are available.

Occasionally, I work a duo, and with Covid-19 in our lives, it looks like I will be doing some solo livestreams as well, with my first one scheduled this weekend.

How have you evolved as an artist?

My first band, the Revelators, was built around 1950s and early 1960s R&B and blues — the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon — which was the music that influenced a lot of the rock bands I grew up listening to on Detroit radio. I also play some old time and bluegrass — starting in my late teens. Traditional music festivals and fiddlers conventions have been formative in my musical experience. I came into the vintage country from that direction. Rockabilly turned out to be a great bridge between those two worlds, so it was a natural for me.

Plus, I have a great voice and attitude for it. I have always been a great dancer, so that has been a big influence on my playing and song choices.

Who has influenced your art?

A whole lot of musicians I know (and know of) that make all or a significant part of their living playing music they love in what I affectionately refer to as the “Medium Time.” They have built enough of a reputation for great music, professionalism, and business savvy to be able to have a good following of people who love and support their music.

But they can go to the grocery store without getting mobbed or stared at. Also, Carter Minor, my vocal coach, who taught me some great tools to make the most of my singing, then suggested I start learning as many songs as I could and see where that took me. And my friend Dave Raffenaud, who suggested I would be good at singing rockabilly. He sent me to look for Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores. Good call, Dave!

What is your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenges at this point are how to replace the income when I can’t play gigs, and how to stay connected to people when I can’t see or hug or even shake hands with them. Or share the experience of being in a room together enjoying music and dancing. There is nothing like that feeling. We all need it, but crowds are the most dangerous thing right now, and that fact is gonna be with us for a while yet. No telling how long.

What does art do for you?

It gives me an outlet for my powerful voice and my love for songs and grooves. There is an absolute delight that comes from the musical conversation that happens when well-matched musicians play together on songs they love. We become more than the sum of our parts.

The better I get, the more fun that gets. And not just for me. There is also great delight when we are in a room full of people who come along for the ride. I especially love to play for dancers.

Any advice for other artists?

Work hard. Build your chops and your repertoire. Do a lot of listening. Pay attention to the details. Reach out and share your music and your personality and passions. Make meaningful connections and build relationships. Be gracious and respectful. Learn the business side of things. Be your best self. No one can be a better you than you. Being a musician is not a destination. It is a road. Find yours, stay on it, and put your heart into going where it takes you.

Fran Daniel writes for the Winston-Salem Journal. Contact her at fdaniel@wsjournal.com or 336-727-7366.

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