Ann Rabson is at home playing guitar or piano. Her March 25 concert in Ashland will feature her piano-based blues. - Photo courtesy of St. Clair Productions

Ann Rabson at the Unitarian

There's two kinds of blues: the happy blues and the sad blues. "The happy blues make you feel happy, and the sad blues make you feel like you're not alone," says blues pianist and guitarist Ann Rabson.

The Virginia-based musician will perform both types at 8 p.m. Friday, March 25, at the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

While Rabson has received world recognition for her piano chops, she is equally at home on guitar. Rabson started her professional music career in 1962 as a guitarist, and it wasn't until the early 1980s that she taught herself to play the piano.

"There was a period of time when I couldn't tour, so I got ahold of an old Fender Rhodes and started banging on it," she says.

Rabson's "banging" quickly evolved into more refined, piano-based blues forms such as barrelhouse and, more specifically, boogie-woogie.

This vigorous and percussive approach to playing piano requires the left and right hand to play two different melodies simultaneously.

"I play with my left hand, my right hand and my vocals, and one of them is always improvising," says Rabson.

On guitar, Rabson exhibits a Piedmont finger-picking style in which "your thumb is playing the bass lines and your other fingers are playing everything else," explains Rabson.

Rabson's deep contralto vocals, Piedmont fingerstyle guitar and barrelhouse piano licks lend themselves to a well-rounded blues show and several Blues Music Award nominations, including nominations for Traditional Female Blues Artist of the Year, Song of the Year for "Elevator Man" and Album of the Year for "Music Makin' Mama." She also was nominated for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award.

"Having people in the industry think that you're one of the five best in the planet is really cool," she says.

Rabson, who injured her index finger in a bagel-cutting mishap, will perform primarily piano at the Unitarian concert. Her program will include makeovers of such songs as Richard Jones' "Little Red Wagon," Josh White's "One Meatball," Lucille Bogan's "I'd Rather Be a Sloppy Drunk" and "300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy," which combines Willie Dixon's original lyrics with Rabson's New Orleans- and Huey Smith-influenced arrangements. The show also will feature "I'm Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song" by Thomas A. Dorsey, the "father of black gospel music," who disapproved of people singing gospel songs in bars and requested this song be sung only in church.

Rabson says she embraces the traditional blues songs, both "profane and sacred," and aspires to make them her own. She also writes her own sassy and soulful songs, including "Girls Don't Treat Your Man Like a Dog." She has three albums to her credit: "Music Makin' Mama," "Struttin' My Stuff" and "In a Family Way." Her most recent project was an instructional DVD sponsored by Hal Leonard Corporation, a national music publishing company.

Rabson will offer an intermediate to advanced boogie-woogie workshop from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 26, at the Unitarian Center. The class is $25. If possible, bring an electric keboard.

Tickets to Friday's show cost $20 in advance, $22 at the door, $10 for youth (ages 12-17) and free for children younger than 12 years old. Tickets are available at Music Coop in Ashland, at www.stclaireevents.com or by calling 541-535-3562.

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