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Deborah Coleman proves its never too late to find musical success.

Lady Plays the Blues

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Deborah Coleman knew she wanted to become a guitar-slinging music star from the time when, as a young girl, she first saw Mike Nesmith and The Monkees on TV and heard the psychedelic guitar-greats of the late '60s. But it wasn't until she accidentally heard a live blues show a few years later that she discovered the soul of the music scene she would pursue.

"It was at Tidewater Community College," the longtime Chesapeake, resident recalls. "It wasn't my idea [to go]. I was hanging out with friends and partying… .It could have been anybody [performing]."

But as luck would have it, the show featured the amazing lineup of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf.

"I said, 'What is this?' …It was kind of hypnotizing," she says. "I got lucky to see those cats."

Coleman started buying blues records and merging her already accomplished rock style with her newly found passion. Nearly 30 years later, Coleman continues to blend the two styles on critically acclaimed recordings and throughout a grueling year-round touring schedule. On Friday, April 20, Coleman returns to Richmond for the first time in several years for a show at Fireballz.

During the mid-'70s, Coleman and her guitar found a home in several Tidewater rock and blues bands, including a 13-piece funk outfit. But she also found herself married at age 25, and a child was soon on the way. She continued playing the occasional jam, but family and a day job as a nurse became her focus.

"I had to make that big decision…[and] that was a no-brainer," she says, recalling her choice to take a break from the guitar to raise her daughter. She knew the music would return. "I knew it wouldn't be forever."

In 1993 when her daughter was 15 and she was "fortysomething," Coleman jumped into the business with a vengeance. After reading about a talent search in Charleston, S.C., Coleman recruited her brother and his friend to back her, entered the contest and won. As a result, she hooked up with an agency and began touring. Chapel Hill-based New Moon records signed her, releasing her first CD in 1994. Blind Pig then took notice, and she has recorded three projects for that label during the past four years. Both her recordings and live shows have captured media and popular attention.

Although it has been far from smooth, Coleman acknowledges that her ride to acclaim has come with relative speed, considering the competition and especially given that there are not many band-leading, African-American women blues guitarists out there. But it's a ride that Coleman relishes as she continues developing her style.

"If I'd done it younger, I probably would have blown it," she says. "[But] it's working out fine. Maybe I got something somebody likes."

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