- Following her traumatic brain injury, the Texas native’s career is getting back on track.
The Colorado Springs singer-songwriter, who now records and performs as Whiskey Kate, appeared to be on the fast track to country-music success prior to the three-car collision that derailed her career back in 2016. The accident resulted in a traumatic brain injury, which, combined with the case of chronic Lyme disease she’d contracted five years earlier, left her unable to sing, play guitar, or otherwise function in a normal capacity.
“I couldn’t complete sentences, couldn’t remember thoughts,” says the musician, whose condition and circumstances sent her life into a rapid downward spiral. “There was also no filter. I’ve gotten better with the filter.”
Further aggravating the situation was the fact that the physical symptoms of both Lyme disease and traumatic brain injuries aren’t necessarily obvious to outsiders.
“You can’t see it. You look fine from the outside,” says Grace, who wears sunglasses during our indoor interview to cut down on sensory input. “And Lyme disease just exacerbated the problem. It made the brain injury more intense because Lyme disease affects the neurological system as well, so the doctors are saying that plays a huge part in it, too. So it’s not fun, it’s horrible. But you don’t have a gaping wound, there’s no cast, your hair is not falling out. So everybody looks at you and goes, “Oh you’re fine, you look fine to us.”
Grace soon realized that her prospect for physical and emotional rehabilitation lie in regaining her ability to make music. Unable to play guitar, she decided to learn piano.
“It was at the height of my brain injury, when I was trying to teach myself how to come back, how to play the guitar, how to sing and do all that again,” says the Texas native, who moved to Colorado eight years ago. “For months, I would black out or have seizures, and I could only lay down. So playing piano became part of my therapy. I had to sit at the piano for at least 20 minutes a day.”
Eventually, she began writing songs on the new instrument. The arrangement on “Out of Ashes,” the title song that appears as a bonus track on her about-to-be released EP, is stripped down to the core, just her voice over stark, rudimentary chords on a piano that, she’s the first to acknowledge, sounds in serious need of tuning: “I wanted it raw,” she says, “and I wanted it real. I wanted it to be exactly what it was supposed to be.”
The only real upside to the accident was that it enabled Grace to find her own voice. But while most artists use that as a metaphor for true creative expression, she means it literally.
Without trying to, the singer had traded her country radio-ready voice for one that’s deeper, darker and louder. There’s also more of a gritty soulfulness along the lines of Brittany Howard on the first Alabama Shakes album or Janis Joplin back in her “Me and Bobby McGee” days.
“People have been comparing me with Janis Joplin lately, so I’ve been listening to her more. I’ve also been listening to more Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash. And I love Lindsay Ell. She’s a country musician — I played a show with her at “Girls and their Guitars” in 2014 at Cowboys — and her guitar playing is incredible.”
Grace’s new EP, as you might guess from titles like “Old Ghost,” “Love Me Broken” and “Out of Ashes,” is a far cry from feel-good pre-accident recordings like the country pedal-steel-driven “Colorado” or the upbeat “Texas Anthem,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dolly Parton or Little Big Town album.
From the ominous electric guitar on the rock song “Love Me Broken” to the opening line of the bluesy “80 Proof” (“Mixing up a double just sounds like somethin’ Whiskey Kate would do”), Out of Ashes is clearly coming from an entirely different realm.
On “Devil’s Song,” she recounts a metaphorical visit from the character whose name shows up in more blues lyrics than “the blues” itself. “One and a two and a three and a four,” she sings, “Devil’s knocking on my door.”
But instead of bringing his hellhounds along, or offering to trade commercial success in exchange for her soul, the devil promises the song’s abused narrator something else entirely:
“He took me by the hand and he grabbed the knife
Whispered gently don’t kill yourself tonight
He ain’t worth the pain you cry
I’m coming after him, you’re gonna be alright.”
Grace ends the song by reprising its opening line, but with one crucial difference: “One and a two and a three and a four,” she sings, “Devil’s knocking on his door.”
The ghosts and devils are just metaphors,” says Grace. “What’s that quote from Shakespeare? ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.’ I think that’s from The Tempest, I’m not sure. But it’s one of my favorite quotes.”
- Will Burcher Photography
- ‘I sounded completely different before,’ says the artist of her former country radio-ready voice. ‘It was very frustrating at first.’
Today, Grace speaks articulately, in complete sentences and paragraphs, with the same candor that’s found its way into her new songs. This coming Saturday, she’ll return to Cowboys Night Club for a show that will be both a celebration of her new CD and a benefit for TESSA, the Colorado Springs nonprofit that offers shelter and counseling for victims of domestic violence.
“I came from a very troubled abusive marriage and TESSA helped me,” says the artist. “I’d found some people that were really good friends who were like, ‘No, this isn’t normal.’ And TESSA is an amazing organization to help you find your voice.”
Meanwhile, Grace’s musical voice continues to develop. She can’t imagine moving to Nashville anytime soon — “I like the authenticity of not being there,” she jokes — but found renewed inspiration in a recent visit to New Orleans.
“I stayed on French Street and I just listened to the magic of the music,” she says. “And that’s what I like. I’d like to create something that’s real and raw. When you hear me perform, I mean, it’s real. There’s nothing coming from a place that’s manufactured.”