Barrelhouse Bonni's stage name recalls the old upright pianos in the juke joints that once peppered southern cotton fields and lumber camps. Her left-hand rhythms lay the backdrop for her low, smoldering voice. She brings back some toe-tapping boogies plus slinky songs from the classic 1930s blues divas, throwing in some 1960s soul ballads and her own 21st century blues. Bonni plays as an acoustic solo for parties, restaurants, nursing homes and small festival stages. She also gives blues classes and workshops for all ages and backs up some of Chicago or DC's finest authentic blues musicians.
Catching the blues bug after losing her job in middle age, Bonni set about learning the trade from the Uppity Blues Women of Saffire-Ann Rabson, Andra Faye Hinkle, and Gaye Adegbalola--at Augusta Blues Week in Elkins, in her home state of West Virginia.
She enjoys playing an acoustic piano whenever possible; she also has an 88-key electric piano and sound system. "The old uprights have a great percussive sound," she says. "Having 88 keys and percussion, you can pretend you're a whole band!"
Her first full length CD, Barbershop Blues, released independently in July 2003, guest stars three acoustic bluesmen from the Archie Edwards Heritage Foundation barbershop in D.C.: Jay Summerour (Warner Williams' harp man in Little Bit O' Blues), guitar/bonesman Mike Baytop and old-line Delta guitarist N.J. Warren. Her original tunes, backed by Shenandoah Valley, VA. musicians, sing of world peace, dragonflies, romance, vegetables, trains, and mountaintop removal mining.
Bonni's simple, spiritual 9/11 ballad "98th Floor", on her CD, won the Chicago songwriting contest in October 2003 sponsored by the presidential campaign of truth-telling underdog Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Since coming to Chicago from West Virginia in 2003, Bonni has been crafting her music at the unorganized, but very much present, "West Side School of Blues." She aims to support these neighborhood musicians who survive the hardships of the inner city and exude the power and joy of this groovy, soulful music. In 2004, she and Larry Taylor, stepson of early Chicago guitarist Eddie Taylor, co-produced Larry's first vocal album, "They Were in This House," featuring a kick-butt crew of West Side musicians. Larry's album is also available on CD Baby.
Barbershop Blues ends with "We'll Still Have Memphis," celebrating the multicultural throng that gathers each May for the W.C. Handy blues Awards. "The world should be like that," says Bonni. "African-Americans created the blues to help them survive. Now, people around the world love this music. If we can boogie together, we can survive."