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Sheila Groves-Tracey comes back to Sonoma County with new music

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If You Go

Who: Sheila Groves-Tracey and Kevin Russell

When: 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14

Where: Redwood Cafe, 8240 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati

Tickets: $10

Information: 707-795-7868, www.redwoodcafe.com

When she was a little girl, Sheila Groves loved to sing, and formed her first band, called The Bunnies, of course, when she was just 7.

As a young adult she sang with country bands, until landing other jobs in the music business, ranging from booking acts for venues such as Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre to managing artists such as Sonoma County’s David Luning.

Her singing took a back seat to these often stressful and time-consuming endeavors, she said in a recent phone interview from Redding, where she moved nearly two years ago with her husband, a retired CHP commander.

Now going by Sheila Groves-Tracey, she said something changed after the devastating Carr fire struck her Redding neighborhood during the summer of 2018.

After being evacuated during the fire, Groves-Tracey was talking to her husband about her “terrible sense of direction” and she said, “You know, I have a broken compass.”

She thought: “That’s a cool line for a song.” By the following morning she’d completed the ballad.

“So then I started writing another and another. It wasn’t like I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a singer-songwriter.’ It just kind of happened through circumstance.”

Last August, a year after the Carr fire, Groves-Tracey released “Broken Compass,” (under the name Sheila Tracey), a five-song EP that’s remarkably accomplished.

Her voice is full of feeling and emotion, yet Groves-Tracey remains confident and assured as she navigates songs such as the title track and “I Will Dream.” She sees her music as a mix of country, Americana and folk.

“It’s great to have Sheila out front singing again,” said Brian Griffith, music director for KRCB Radio. “She has been a force behind the scenes, booking most of the North Bay’s biggest music venues, and with ‘Broken Compass’ she has come full circle.”

Like a conifer’s seeds activated by a fire, Groves-Tracey says her creativity was sparked by her move to Redding as well as by the fatal conflagration.

“It’s one of those stages in life when I want to discover myself beyond what I do for work. Who am I beyond Sheila the talent buyer?”

Groves-Tracey had brought national touring bands to Napa’s Uptown Theatre where she served as general manager and booked the talent for the first BottleRock festival in 2013.

She even acted in local plays at venues such as Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse and Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center, and she owned Penngrove’s Twin Oaks roadhouse for a few years.

But the hard-driving Groves-Tracey downshifted two years ago.

“When my husband retired (after 34 years in law enforcement), he wanted a more carefree life, and I want to have that with him. Life is short, and I want to have these adventures with him,” she said.

So she gave up much of her work in the North Bay and moved with her husband to Redding because it’s more affordable.

“Because I’m not working as much, my creative side came back. I realized when I was writing the songs that this is something I really loved when I was young,” she said. “Now that I don’t have the stress I had in my life, I feel like my creative side got unleashed again. I had stopped singing in bands and hadn’t even sung around the house very much.”

If You Go

Who: Sheila Groves-Tracey and Kevin Russell

When: 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14

Where: Redwood Cafe, 8240 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati

Tickets: $10

Information: 707-795-7868, www.redwoodcafe.com

She didn’t consciously intend to start writing songs last year, but the fire, which burned a third of her neighborhood and came within 200 feet of her Redding home, helped her realize that she should do what matters to her most.

Lucinda Williams is a role model for her, as are Rosanne Cash and Bonnie Raitt, and you can hear their influence in Groves-Tracey’s songwriting and vocals.

Here are some lyrics from “Broken Compass”: “Last night I said things that I shouldn’t have, and I walked out that door when I shouldn’t have. Now I feel so lost inside, an empty shell caught in the tide.”

The words pack far more emotion in the musical context of the songs. Groves-Tracey credits Sonoma County musician Kevin Russell with helping her bring the songs to life.

“He’s a super talented multi-instrumentalist songwriter and singer; he’s like my musical director,” she said. “I’d come up with the lyrics and melody and would record songs on voice memo on my phone. Then I would send it to Kevin, and he would put it to music.”

Russell would say: “Let’s put in guitar and lap steel, and let’s get a fiddle in here.” And he co-wrote the honky-tonk song “Missing You Blues.”

After more than three decades in the music business, Groves-Tracey is “not really in a place in my life where I want to go out and tour a lot. It’s a lot of work.”

But she’ll be making a rare appearance with Russell at Cotati’s Redwood Cafe on Thursday, Nov. 14, billed as a songwriters’ evening when Groves-Tracey and Russell take turns singing and sharing the stories behind the songs. They’ll be joined by local musicians, including pianist and vocalist Spencer Burrows, formerly of Frobeck.

Naturally Groves-Tracey can sing songs beyond those on her new EP. Her heart-rending treatment of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is one of the best since that song was recorded in 1962 by Patsy Cline.

Asked what she misses about the North Bay, Groves-Tracey says: “My family, my sister is my best friend,” and the artistic community.

In the North Bay, “the sense of tribe that happens with all of the musicians is really special,” she said. “Everybody is unbelievably supportive; they go to everybody else’s shows and play with them on albums. Musicians really care about their fellow artists.”

Groves-Tracey’s goal is to have well-known musicians record her songs, “like Lucinda Williams or somebody like that.”

“Wouldn’t that be crazy?” she mused. “I have big dreams.”

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Michael Shapiro is author of “The Creative Spark,” a collection of interviews with musicians, writers and other artists. He covers travel and the performing arts for national magazines and The Press Democrat.

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