Voices Of Live: Jackie Venson On Making Her ‘ACL’ Debut & ‘Black Girl Magic’

Jackie Venson
Ismael Quintanilla III
– Jackie Venson
makes her debut on “Austin City Limits” with an Oct. 1 performance at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater that will air nationwide on PBS Nov. 14.

Singer/songwriter and guitarist Jackie Venson caught Pollstar’s attention when she ranked No. 9 on the Top 50 Livestreamers Chart for Q3 with 1.58 million views, the fourth artist overall on the chart, ahead of major acts like Brad Paisley, Melissa Etheridge and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. But she has two other numbers on her mind right now – Nov. 14, the date when her debut Austin City Limits performance airs on PBS stations nationwide, and Oct. 30, the release date for her sophomore album, Vintage Machine.  

The 30-year-old musician – who shreds a blend of blues, rock, R&B and soul – has been surrounded by music from a young age, thanks to growing up in Austin with a professional musician as a father. She majored in composition and studio production at Boston’s Berklee College of Music but didn’t start her journey on the guitar until returning to Austin, having initially concentrated on the piano. It wasn’t until two months before graduating that she was inspired to learn a new instrument after seeing how much fun a classmate was having with the guitar. “It was just this simple, basic excitement,” Venson says. “It’s hard to find simple excitement the older you get; it’s like a kid seeing a flower for the first time.”

Venson released her debut album in 2014, the same year she was one of the winners of the Modern Southern Music competition, getting the chance to open shows for Tim McGraw, James Taylor and Jason Aldean. She joined Gary Clark Jr., on tour in 2017 and reunited with him last year for an ACL Fest Late Night Show at Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater.

She’s spent the past seven months livestreaming up a storm, totaling roughly 100 livestreams, including some performances at local (empty) venues, along with an appearance at a three-day drive-in event in Cedar Park, Texas. Venson, who is managed by Louie Carr at Own Path Media Group and represented by Ryan Slone at Bonfire Music Group, is ready for her next big moment. 

Pollstar: As an Austin native, what did playing ‘Austin City Limits’ mean to you?
Jackie Venson: I feel like I’m in some kind of crazy waiting room until [it airs] Nov. 14. It just feels like my life is going to be different – not drastically different at first. Because nothing is ever drastic in my life, it’s always gradual. It’s like three years after the air date my life will be drastically different. The day after the taping is not going to feel that different. 

Can you talk about the outfit you wore?
I wore a dress with 73 names of African-American people murdered by police violence in America. My sister made the dress, well she bought the dress and handwrote all the names. It was a really emotional process for her because she was looking up the names and reading the stories. Some of the names on the dress are 7-year-old kids, 12-year-old kids. Some of them are mothers of like four or five. It gets really heavy.  

What was it like for you to wear that dress during this really important moment in your career?
I, to my very core, hate that I have to wear this dress. I’m not excited about it, like, “Ooh, I look so great in this dress with the names of murdered people.”
I hate that I have to stand on a stage and tell people that murder is wrong. Are you kidding me? You’re telling me that the world I thought I grew up in, I thought murder was wrong, but it turned out that not everybody in the country that I live in agrees that murder is wrong.

Who were you joined by on stage? Some of their outfits were making a statement as well.
The band members were wearing Black Lives Matter face masks. The band is made up of my bass player, Nick Clark, he’s been playing with me on and off since about 2018. The drummer actually played with my dad in my dad’s band for 25 years. My dad retired and then I hired him. His name’s Rodney Hyder, he’s been playing in my band for going on eight years. He’s been through thick and thin with me. 

I think after this taping that these talent buyers will start paying me more, maybe I can afford to bring someone else out. People forget that we live in an independent world. It costs $500 to bring anybody [on tour], like even to hire somebody to be a runner is $500 a day. 

Talent buyers are like, “We’ll pay you $1,500 but we need you to bring a five-piece band.”  $1,500? That’s a one-piece band. That’s my rant on talent buyers right now. Maybe because I’m speaking to Pollstar my message will get through. 

After this taping I’ll have the ticket sales and the buzz to make more money on the road and I’m going to start traveling with a three-piece band. Up until now I’ve just been touring with Rodney. Me, Rodney and a robot. I’m on guitar, Rodney’s on drums and the robot takes care of the bass and keyboard parts. 

And then one of the singers was wearing a jacket with Breonna Taylor’s name.
Her name is Tameca Jones. She was a guest singer. She came up on stage for one song. We did a song called “Texas Flood,” which was previously performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983 for his ACL debut. [We thought] it would be a really cool, Austin, Texas, thing to do. Plus, we’re two Black girl magic chicks. We thought it would be this amazing full circle return to Black women in blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan built his stuff on the greats like B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix and everything they built their stuff on was from women like Rosetta Tharpe. Black women are who invented rock ’n’ roll in this country and that often gets lost to history. 

Black women are huge, huge contributors to blues and oftentimes pioneers. Everybody credits Chuck Berry when Chuck Berry was looking up to Rosetta Tharpe. And Rosetta Tharpe was looking up to Elizabeth Cotten. 

I thought, if we’re going to have heavy messages on “ACL,” we might as well drive it all the way home.   

During her ACL performance
Ismael Quintanilla III
– During her ACL performance
Jackie Venson shared a speech in support of Black Lives Matter: “Not the hashtag, not the slogan, not the organization – the people.”

What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the music industry and what needs to improve?
Well, what’s really interesting, something that I could not see early on in this lockdown that I can start to see now – it’s actually working itself out. 
I don’t know about other cities, but at least in Austin, the people in the industry who refused to change and hop on the future train … they’ve gone away. Oftentimes they screw themselves over. Since they are subscribing to the side that’s the side of the oppressor, they have a bad vibe. Like, why would I go to this club when there’s 200 other clubs that are way cooler and the staff is way better? Because usually the toxic nature of things is top down. So the person running the place or running the station or running the club, if they’re a toxic person? They’re probably going to attract other toxic people … until that business is not even a pleasant place to be. …Toxic people, they’re usually responsible for their own demise because that’s what happens when you’re poison, you slowly die.

So I’m watching it happen, eating popcorn like that Michael Jackson GIF … releasing music, doing my thing. 

Fortunately, us artists, we have the ability to operate without these toxic entities. We can start our own website, we can support our own albums and release them ourselves. I don’t need a label to get my stuff on iTunes. We live in a world where that is possible now. Us artists can slowly keep chugging along while the framework of a toxic industry just dies.

You ranked No. 9 on Pollstar’s Top 50 Livestreamers chart for Q3. When did you start live streaming regularly?   
In January 2019, I was trying to sell out my album release party and I couldn’t play gigs because I didn’t want to oversaturate Austin. I was playing this awesome venue called Paramount Theater that was 1,200 seats and we were hellbent on selling it out. And so I launched “Jackie Venson Live on Thursdays,” January to April 10 of 2019 I went live every Thursday. I ended up selling out that show.

It was April 2018 when I ended the “Live On Thursday” series. Fast forward to March 2020, livestreaming is the only way to go now. I’m like, well, I still have all the gear and the know-how from “Live On Thursdays” and now I’m home every single night. So I went live every single night until May 1 for 50 days in a row.

That’s when I think I laid the groundwork for that 1.5 million views and how I got No. 9 on the Pollstar chart.  

Have you continued doing livestreams? 
I do it twice a week now and I also branched out to other platforms, which has been going extremely well. YouTube has been going excellently. On Reddit there were four or five times where I earned top broadcast. There were like 20,000 people watching live once.  

The 1.5 million statistic – that’s for Facebook only. Pollstar didn’t have Reddit’s numbers when they put that together. … My Reddit numbers are insane and I don’t even know why. Reddit is such a strange beast. And recently one of my videos went viral on TikTok and I’ve gone up 12,000 followers in two days. So I’m going to start going live to TikTok. 

What can fans expect from the new album?  
I’ve been on this quest to make my version of the perfect record. And by perfect I mean all the songs are memorable, there’s a pleasant feeling when you’re done listening to it and you want to listen to it again. Nothing too long, nothing that doesn’t make sense but is also a little bit challenging, that’s interesting – it makes you think a tiny bit but not too much. You don’t want to think too much. Like relax, you’re listening to music, you want to feel good. This is my latest attempt at that. We’ll see if the public thinks I’ve achieved it.