Blue Cactus is modern classic country duo Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez. Together they conjure a sound that will take you back to the best duets from Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons (the amazing Nudie suits don’t hurt), the twangy, deep vocals of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and the true grit of Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, but it’s not that simple. They’re also among a growing vanguard of musicians pushing today’s country music into better and smarter and much greener pastures. For those of us clinging to the past of country music but desperately looking to the future, Blue Cactus gives us hope to fight another day. I was thrilled that one half of this duo, guitarist and vocalist Steph Stewart, was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her music, the two Souths, activism and music in Raleigh, and her favorite Southern folks making music today.
Where are you from? Where are you now?
I grew up in Catawba, a small, rural town in the foothills of North Carolina. I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, back in 2003 to attend undergrad, and with the exception of a year-long experiment in Seattle, I have remained in the Chapel Hill area ever since.
Tell me about the music you make.
In Blue Cactus, Mario and I make music that we refer to as “modern classic country.” Today’s watered down clear channel radio country we are not, and I feel it’s important to make that distinction. The Triangle area, where we live, is a very diverse place, and our audience reflects that diversity. It’s not uncommon for someone to come up to us after a show and say, ‘I don’t really like country music, but I really like what you guys are doing.’ I love it when we trick people into liking country music, and I’m glad we have the opportunity to expose people to country music that’s different than what they thought they knew. Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams Sr., Dwight Yoakam, Gram Parsons, Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, George Jones… We love country music, and we love a whole lot of other stuff too. We let that wash over us and inform the Blue Cactus sound, which is essentially sad country music with a healthy dose of honky-tonk humor.
Does living in the South impact your music? How?
Willie Nelson once described country music as “three chords and the truth.” To that, I’d like to add “and hope.” There are two Souths, and I have lived in both: One of them is telling a little girl to love her neighbor as herself while the other, filled with hate and intolerance, threatens to rise again. When I was 22, I drove 3,000 miles across the country and moved to the Seattle area. And do you know what I learned? “The South” is in the North too. It’s in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest and all over the world, everywhere I’ve ever been. Both Souths. But you know what else? There’s always hope, and the music I write is interested most in that.
The music heritage of North Carolina is especially rich– Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, Nina Simone, Doc Watson, John Dee Holeman, John Coltrane, Earl Scruggs, just to give you a taste– and it’s only growing stronger. The music community in the Triangle is an integral part of society here. When the State passed HB2, the music community was among the first to rise up and speak out. I am proud to be among them and to call home a place steeped in such a rich living legacy of talented, creative people fighting the good fight. Hope lives here.
How do your family and job affect your music-making?
Mario (my partner and the other half of Blue Cactus) and I share a tiny apartment with my dog and all of our gear. My muse is found most easily when my living space is clutter-free, so it goes without saying that our current situation isn’t the most conducive to creativity. I need to be alone and in a space that feels prepared for me to focus on writing, which has been a challenge in this small apartment. However, we recently learned that we were accepted to Wild Acres, a week-long artist residency nestled in the Pisgah National Forest. It’s quite an honor, and I’m pretty eager to get out there away from all the distractions here and focus on making more music. We also just paid our deposit for a sweet house in the woods just a little bit out of town, and I’m super excited for all of the creative energy that move is going to spawn.
Until the music feeds our bellies (and not just our obsessions), we’re bound to our day jobs as well. Luckily, I really enjoy mine. I’m a trained Montessori teacher and teach a classroom of some of the sweetest and most wise 3-6 year olds. I also work part-time at an amazing outdoor education program where I teach a weekly after school club and summer camps, emphasizing environmental stewardship and primitive skills. Early mornings and weekday commitments make intense touring impossible for now, but my schedule does make space for weekend tours and longer runs over holidays and summers when school is closed.
What are your hopes for your music?
I share the same hope as many artists: That my work will be relevant and meaningful to an ever expanding listener base. Connecting with other people is the best part of this work. Most of my closest friends have been made through the music community, and I look forward to future friendships and collaborations.
Professionally, I hope to continue challenging myself to improve my guitar technique and to push beyond my self-imposed limitations. Right now, Mario and I manage most of the business side of our music together, with my focus being on PR, social media and booking. It’s a lot of work. Pretty much every day I come home from a full day of teaching and get right to work for several hours on band business. I don’t sleep much. I figure I’ll get plenty of that when I’m dead. I believe in the music we are making with Blue Cactus, and until the right people come along and believe in it just as much, I’m going to continue managing these aspects.
As a woman, I hope little girls will see me on stage and see a place for themselves playing and creating music. It’s hard to imagine yourself in certain spheres until you see someone like you in that space. It’s a very powerful and essential experience.
Where will you go and what will you do next?
I don’t really know, and I’m pretty excited about that. I’ve always believed in the power of a strong worth ethic, and I work my ass off for this music, and I really believe in what we’re doing. We’re going somewhere important, and even though I’m behind the wheel, I’m on this road I’ve never traveled before, and there’s no map . . . it’s pretty exciting. All I can say for sure is that I’m going to keep writing music that matters to me and sharing it with as many ears that want to listen.
Where are you headed on tour?
We’re focusing primarily on building up a strong local fan base, so we’ve got several gigs all around NC on the horizon and our first trip to Nashville quickly approaching at the end of March. My booking goal this year is to play all along the east coast. Our drummer and co-producer, Nick Vandenberg, just moved to Boston, and I’d love to tour with him again through NYC and New England. We are constantly adding more dates, and I try to post them on the website as soon as they’re confirmed. Shakori Hills, Artisphere (in SC), and The Beaufort Music Festival are some of the bigger festivals we are excited to play in the near future.
Who do you listen to? Why?
When I’m listening to music, I tend to focus primarily on vocals and lyrics, at least initially. I am drawn to powerful, dynamic singers and lyrics that are able to deliver a familiar message in a way I’ve never heard it said before. For me, the first line of a song is the most important one. Songs that knock me out from the start are the ones that keep me coming back time and time again. I’m kind of masochistic that way.
Lately, I’ve really been digging Margaret Glaspy’s new record. We saw her play in town about a month ago, and it was killer. It’s rare to hear something that sounds unheard in a world full of so much music, but I think Margaret’s music is the closest to something original that I’ve come across in a while.
Neko Case continues to remain an all-time favorite. I love everything she’s ever released. Her voice is incredibly dynamic; every syllable is sung with conviction and intention. Her music embodies everything I love in a really great short story… It both satiates me and leaves me hungry for more in the same breath, and the depth of her lyrics is incredibly profound. I’m always hearing new things and discovering new meaning.
Who inspires you?
The children I work with. They’re so wise and honest. Adults like to think we’re so different and that we always know best, but children have taught me otherwise. You never have to guess where a kid stands on anything. They’re not afraid to tell the truth or express their emotions, and I love that about them. They’re some of the bravest people I know.
Any favorite Southern women?
I come from a family of strong women, and they have been a constant source of inspiration and support. I could write a biography on each of them, but because we don’t have that kind of time, I’ll just say that my mother and my grandmother are the only two people I know who have known me my whole life and always believed in my music. They taught me all of the important things, and if I’ve done anything worthwhile, it’s because of them.
Any other Southern women or non-binary or trans Southerners making music that we should know about?
Kate Rhudy just wrapped up recording her first full length record, and it’s insanely good! Do yourself a favor and seek out her stuff. We recently did a little tour run with her, and I can’t recommend her enough. She’s a solid writer and player and a damn good singer. You should also know about Skylar Gudasz if you don’t yet. She’s been involved in the Big Star supergroup for a few years now, and she also manages to actively pursue her own work, which is simply breathtaking. Her latest album has been on constant rotation in my car, and she’s easily one of the best writers I know. Somehow I convinced her to sing some backing vocals on the Blue Cactus record, and singing with her was a total dream.