Julie Bennett Hume knows her voice is unusual.
She describes it as gravely, brassy at times. It can go low. Sometimes, she says, it's almost a yodel.
"It can do a lot of things, but it isn't as if people say, 'Oh, that's so beautiful.' But I can do justice to a song, and that's what I like about it," she says. "That's what folk music is about."
At some point, she says, “I stopped worrying about having a ‘pretty’ voice and just tried to have an authentic voice: This is my voice, this is what it sounds like, and this is what it is when it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
For a long time, Hume sang harmony for other musicians. But now, 35 years after she played her first open mics at college in Lawrence, she's releasing her own record. She's out front, and harmony singers with gorgeous voices — namely Kristen Hamilton of St. Joseph's Under the Big Oak Tree — are backing her up.
This year, Hume will retire from her job teaching German and philosophy at Lee's Summit West High School. The new record, Late Bloomer, marks the start of her new career as a musician.
Hume grew up in small towns around Kansas. Her mother started her on piano lessons, and then she added the cello, and started playing the guitar around nine years old. It was Don McLean's "American Pie" that hooked her, and played it "about a million times and trying to figure out what the heck it meant." She played bass in the high school orchestra.
At college, a musician friend named Dave Leach introduced her to the lively Lawrence folk scene. She met a guy named Rick Frydman, who hosted a radio show called the “Ethnic Cowboy" on KJHK, and played for a while with the legendary Alferd Packer Memorial String Band. Another friend named Doug Goodhart ran an organization called the Center for World Music, and Hume spent much of the 1980s playing Cajun, Appalachian, Afro-Cuban and other styles of music.
“As an instrumentalist, I developed a lot," Hume says of those days. "Every once in a while I would pick up some bells or they’d give me a drum, but I really learned a lot about singing harmony.”
In the early ‘90s Hume played her first solo gig at a coffee shop, but she had an epileptic seizure on stage.
“It made me shy about singing in public again, even with a group, much less by myself," Hume says, "so I just kind of switched gears for a while and turned it all off.”
She went on to earn her masters in German, raise her kids, teach school. Every once in a while she would play a gig. But she was always writing songs.
“A couple of years ago I was cleaning out my house and I realized, I had 68 songs I’d written. I just sat down one day and spent the day looking at them."
They were on the back of napkins, the back of receipts, in little moleskins and eventually on her laptop.
“I just realized, if I were my best friend, my best friend would tell me, ‘Hey, you ought to do something about this.’”
What her friends, and her husband, told her was: If she had a bunch of songs, she should make a record. So she contacted people she hadn’t played with in 25 years.
“I called them up, and — glory be — they all wanted to play.”
There's Scott Tichenor on mandolin, Dick Powers on guitar, and Pete Gilbreath on jug and harmonica. But there are also musicians she didn't know but wanted to play with, such as Hamilton, and Betse Ellis on fiddle, Kelly Werts on guitar and pump organ and Diana Werts on accordion. And there's one of her former students, Alec Danforth, also on guitar.
When it came time to decide which songs to put on the record, she says, "I really tried to get a good glimpse of the years."
She'd written one of the songs when she was 19. A couple of others were from her late 20s and early 30s. Some she wrote within six months of the recording sessions. One was brand new.
She sings all of them with the wisdom of experience.
“I reached that time in my life when, as they say, women start becoming somewhat invisible, and I was just sort of angry because I’d lived and interesting life and hard life in some ways," Hume says. "I was sort of amazed by people looking at me as this soft-spoken little German teacher who’s never been anywhere or done anything, and that’s sort of what middle-aged women contend with. And it’s like: You have no idea where I’ve been.”
After she retires from teaching this year, Hume would like to tour and see where the music takes her. She's realistic enough to know she’s not going to be headlining festivals, but she'd like to get back to doing what she did when she was younger.
"It was a blast having a couple of gigs a week with really good musicians. As far as I'm concerned, that's about as good as it gets," she says.
And parts of it should be much easier.
“I have a lot more self-confidence that comes with age. It’s hard to get up in front of people when you’re young. Sometimes I think when I was younger I unnecessarily made it more about me and less about the music," she says. "The older that I get, I think we all kind of have the narcissism beat out of us.”
Julie Bennett Hume releases Late Bloomer at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Buffalo Room at the Westport Flea Market, 817 Westport Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111. Tickets are available here.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.