Alumna and Chattanooga Singers concert choir member Abby Maharaj gains traction in roots music as her debut album reaches the charts
by Shawn Ryan
When Abby Maharaj finds a song she likes and perhaps wants to sing, it isn’t an intellectual exercise or a musical brain teaser. It’s deeper than that.
“It’s very much in the gut,” she explained. “It’s something very primal that has to appeal to me. It’s whatever music that lights me up, turns me on.”
For the several years, Maharaj, a 1989 graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has been plunging down rabbit holes on YouTube, finding songs that lead to other songs that lead to others … so forth. She’s searching what’s generically known as “roots music,” a blend of R&B, rockabilly, gospel, country, even some jazz. It’s a bit of Elvis, a bit of Etta, a bit of sanctified church and a bit of smoky clubs.
Swirl it all together and you get Abby and the Real Deal, the band that Maharaj has been fronting for the last seven years. Late last year, they released their debut album, Calling Me Home, named after a song Maharaj wrote. It has been a steady presence on the altcountrychart.com for the last few months.
Calling Me Home is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music and streaming services such a Spotify and Pandora.
To obtain a physical CD, go to:
The album will soon be available in transparent red vinyl.
So how does an English and American literature major from UTC find herself with a microphone in hand and a finger-snappin’ band behind her? “I think it’s probably a good major to have as far as songwriting,” said Maharaj, who hosted the New Age radio program at WUTC 88.1-FM when she was a student.
Richard Winham, longtime radio show host at WUTC, knew Maharaj when she was hosting her program in the late 1980s. He received a copy of Calling Me Home and has played songs from it during his show, which runs from 10 a.m.-noon weekdays. “It’s a good record,” he says. “When Abby worked here at the station, she was a young woman fresh from the country working on an undergraduate degree. Fast forward 30 years and Abby now has her own band celebrating her roots.”
Calling Me Home slid in under the wire, finished just before COVID-19 virtually shut down the world, including the music industry. Geoff Barton, a well-known music writer in England and creator of Kerrang! heavy metal magazine, went nuts over it. What a great voice!” he wrote. “As of when COVID is over and out of the way and live music returns to the UK and they can come over to the UK, I will be in the front of the queue.”
Maharaj’s musical spring sprung early at her church in Jasper, Tennessee, and grew after she enrolled at UTC and joined its Chattanooga Singers concert choir. While she was a member, the ensemble and performed in such countries as England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, among others. “That’s where I learned all my chops, all the proper things,” she said.
She and her husband, journalist Davan Maharaj—whom she met when he was a fellow UTC student and who in 2017 was chosen one of the Top 100 UT System alumni—moved to the West Coast for his work at The Los Angeles Times, where he eventually rose to editor-in-chief and publisher. She spent those years staying at home and raising her kids, she said.
But on weekends, she and a few newspaper reporters would put a band together for the occasional performance at parties, weddings and other gatherings. It was nothing serious, just fun for fun’s sake. Friends and other musicians, though, told her she should do more than just sing every now and then.
When her youngest son was ready to head off to college, she decided to try. “It was almost like hanging up my apron and doing that. I just started a whole second life. I didn’t know that I could do what I’m doing now,” said Maharaj, who dresses in 1950s-style dresses when she performs live.
Two of the band’s songs—“Calling Me Home” and “My Heart Began to Sing”—were written by her. Diving down the rabbit hole and listening to her professional musician friends led her to songs by known names such as Etta James and Wilson Pickett and less well-known ones such as Wynona Carr, Jimmy McCracklin and Big Maybelle. They aren’t “cover” songs, Maharaj said. They’re “uncovered.”