She’s been on this stage countless times before. It’s the stage she talked her way onto for her first paid gig. But Kristine Jackson’s cheeks are shaded chianti in embarrassment.
Austin “Walkin’ Cane” Charanghat has wandered off in the middle of their set, and she’s sitting behind her guitar, looking fully like half a duo. Walkin’ Cane is sharing a story with some Parkview Nite Club regulars, and ignoring the look piercing through the back of his skull.
Kristine tries to get the crowd to cheer him back to the stage. He waves her off without turning his head or stopping his story. “OK, fine,” she says. The crimson leaves her cheeks just as fast as it arrived, and she picks at her guitar, belting out a soulful, bluesy tune.
It seems like everyone in the West Side bar knew it was coming except her. Her voice — too strong, too raw, too big to come out of such a little bitty girl — captures the audience, brings them along for the three minutes, and then Walkin’ Cane slides back in his seat, a smile filling his face, and a knowing glance thrown her way.
Kristine Jackson is the un-blues star. The 28-year-old is modest, and yet, even when she’s speaking humble words, she emits an aura of star power. Oddly enough, she sings the blues better now that she’s overcome the devil inside her, having faced a traumatic past head on.
“I first saw her back in October at a benefit, and I was blown away by both her singing and guitar playing,” recalls Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum vice president and chief curator Jim Henke. “It’s surprising to hear that voice come out of that body.”
Kristine Jackson has wandered through the musical transition that has taken her from elementary school choir flunky to up-and-coming blues artist. She started playing the trumpet in the fifth grade and evolved into a high school band geek.“When I was a senior in high school, my band director gave me a few records, vinyl: Buddy Miles, B.B. King,” she says. “I remember asking my dad for his old record player. I’d spend hours up there listening to old records, then I dug out my dad’s old albums like the James Gang, CCR, Peter Frampton and a whole bunch of classic rock stuff. A whole new world opened to me.”
After graduating from Midview High School near Elyria, she briefly attended the University of Akron. But professors guided her toward classical music, so she dropped out to jam in bars with her trumpet. She moved in with Walkin’ Cane because he needed a roommate, and her musical world expanded again. This time, she heard the painful, beautiful sound of Tom Waits’ voice drift out of speakers through an open window as she and Walkin’ Cane sucked down beers on their porch. Soon, she started picking at his guitars that he left around the house.
She kept playing jam nights and, when Norm Plonski, owner of the Parkview Nite Club and Major Hooples, said he’d book her when she got a band, she told him she already had one. “I called up a few of my friends that I’d been jamming with, and I told them we needed to get a band together because we have a gig.”
And Kristine Jackson became a paid musician. The band was called Blues on Purpose, and they developed a small following.
Kristine explains that music has always been an escape for her. Between the ages of 3 and 7, she turned to it as a way to put the sexual abuse she was suffering from relatives out of her mind — first by listening, mostly to Majic 105.7 FM. Later, performing helped her put it out of her mind. Sometimes she would black out when playing on stage.
And though Blues on Purpose was a success, Kristine eventually wanted more. So, much like her first gig, she told a bit of a fib. She contacted a few bands in Amsterdam saying she was a solo guitar player and singer. They told her to come on over. She spent a month there, reinventing her musical self, and returned as Kristine Jackson, solo artist.
It was around that time that she also confronted her abusers, who were long out of her life, and she came to terms with what happened. She says her relationship with God became even stronger, and she now uses music to empower, not to hide.
“It’s not dark anymore,” she says. “I don’t think music should be dark, even if it’s a dark message. You don’t need to be downtrodden to sing the blues.”
Kristine is starting to find her way. She’s able to make a living solely on music. She’s released a three-song EP, “Almost Famous.” A 15-minute tryout turned into a two-hour show when attempting to win a spot in the International Blues Competition, hosted in Memphis.
“Even though she’s young, she delivers her songs like she’s an old soul. She’s an inspiration to me,” says veteran blues and jazz artist Becky Boyd. “She is the one who got me to dust off my acoustic guitar again.”
Kristine purses her lips and blushes a bit when she’s given compliments. She talks about her future success as a musician in a way that you think she’s definitely going to make it. But if you agree, she demurs.
Then she flips her curly, long hair in a way that makes it apparent that she’s got a presence, almost celebrity. If she does make it, she’ll probably insist she hasn’t.