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Lady Sings The (Happy) Blues

With the No. 1 blues album, guitar slinger SUSAN TEDESCHI can afford to buck the star-making machine

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Perched on a bed in a Philadelphia hotel room, Susan Tedeschi looks pale, wan, and fragile — as befits someone who’s recovering from a rare ailment. Tedeschi’s particular malady hasn’t yet been recognized by medical science, but its effects can be debilitating. In her case, it put her career on hold for nearly three years. The affliction has been termed New Artist Interruptus by experts at entertainment weekly. It took hold when Tedeschi, a virtually unknown blues singer-guitarist from Boston, was unexpectedly nominated for Best New Artist at the 2000 Grammy Awards — alongside Kid Rock, Britney Spears, Macy Gray, and ultimate winner Christina Aguilera.

Such a coup should have kicked things into high gear for Tedeschi, but instead the Grammy attention resulted in a crisis of confidence. Sure, her 1998 album, Just Won’t Burn, eventually went gold, but there was a near-interminable wait for the follow-up, the recently released and too-aptly titled Wait for Me.

”Being nominated for a Grammy kind of stressed me out, to be honest,” admits Tedeschi, 32. ”I was in the process of making another record, but I didn’t feel it was really right. I ended up going out on tour for a while just to get away. I was in the midst of switching bands. I felt a lot of pressure to do something big [with the next record], to make a statement, like ‘This is who I am.’ There was a lot going on.”

Artistically, wait for me bodes well for Tedeschi’s full recovery from the post-Grammy nomination blues. The disc is currently No. 1 on Billboard’s blues-album chart and has even managed to sneak onto the lower rungs of the top 200 pop chart. Barring a piano ballad or two, it’s a characteristically gut-bucket affair in the Bonnie Raitt tradition that includes a version of Bob Dylan’s ”Don’t Think Twice” that Tedeschi recorded as a thank-you to the Big D, who invited her to open a show for him back in November 1999.

Tedeschi hasn’t thought twice about her chosen career path since she graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1991 as a blues-loving six-stringer determined to make a name for herself on the Boston club circuit. ”I loved anything that was Chicago or Memphis-style blues,” she says. ”Buddy Guy, Etta James, all the Chess Records stuff — it was all so soulful, it just blew my mind.”

Her allegiance to the purist blues tradition is proving to be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, her facility with and commitment to the music come through in her stinging live shows and on numbers like Wait for Me’s ”I’m Gonna Move Away From Here.” Yet Dave Bartlett, president of Tedeschi’s label, Tone-Cool Records, feels Tedeschi is being short-sighted in at least one respect: At a time when the surprise multiplatinum success of newly anointed Grammy contender Norah Jones might just open doors for comely young female roots artists, Tedeschi balks at making concessions to the mainstream — specifically, at the notion of making a video, which common sense says is the next, necessary step.