Story by Matt Wickstrom, Smiley Pete
Photos by Sarah Cahill
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky may be known far and wide as the home of bluegrass music, but lately a certain band of another persuasion has been showing an increasingly national audience that the state has more to offer.
Since forming in late 2016, the Lexington-based Southern rock-and-blues outfit Magnolia Boulevard has quickly progressed from performing at sparsely attended local venues to selling them out. This past fall, the band’s fast rise to widespread success culminated in a 12-show run in November supporting the seminal rock band Blues Traveler. That tour, in conjunction with the help of a new professional management and booking team, has helped propel the group onto the lineups of some of the biggest music festivals of 2020, including the second annual Railbird Festival (Aug. 22-23) at Keeneland Race Course, here in their hometown.
The seeds for the band’s formation can be traced to the spring of 2016, when singer and guitarist Maggie Noëlle had a chance encounter with lead guitarist Gregg Erwin at Al’s Bar. Noëlle, who was there playing with Moonshine District, her band at the time, quickly became mesmerized by Erwin while watching him perform at a songwriter’s round that was taking place at a neighboring venue – ironically, letting his slide guitar do all the “singing.” After taking a few months to muster up the courage, Noëlle reached out to Erwin on Facebook about getting together to play.
After hitting it off, the two eventually recruited veteran drummer Todd Copeland (Born Cross Eyed, Green Genes, The Other Brothers) and Jackson, Kentucky-based guitarist-turned-keyboardist Ryan Allen to back up the sounds they’d been working up. The group’s first show took place on Feb. 26, 2017, opening for Restless Leg String Band at Cosmic Charlie’s. After shuffling through bassists in its infancy, the group finalized its lineup with groove-laden bassist John Roberts later that summer.
Pulling from a mix of the Allman Brothers Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Grateful Dead, Magnolia Boulevard’s flashy Southern rock anthems are a stark contrast to the old-time mountain music on which Noëlle was raised in southwest Virginia. While she grew up listening to fiery female vocalists, from Aretha Franklin and the Soul Sisters to Bonnie Raitt and Heart, much of her own performing experience prior to Magnolia Boulevard was of the old-time bluegrass and folk variety.
“Stepping into the electrical world, I’ve become more confident because I’m able to be louder and a bit more soulful with my voice,” Noëlle explained. “It’s helped me to branch out a bit more with my vocals and be more loose up on stage.”
Born in Clintwood, Virginia, Noëlle was given her first guitar at age 8 by her mother, Theresa Fleming, who also taught her basic chords at a young age. An admittedly shy performer – even to this day, though the power of her voice and her stage presence certainly help mask that – Noëlle’s confidence began to soar with a move at age 18 to Asheville, North Carolina, where she cut her teeth performing around bonfires at parties and singing backup vocals for other acts. Noëlle began to branch out more in 2014 after meeting fellow musicians Katie Caudill, now of Louisville-based Mama Said String Band, and Jared Hamilton at Super Moon Music & Arts Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky. The following year, the trio formed Moonshine District, which dissolved shortly after Magnolia Boulevard began to take flight.
Noëlle’s confidence and musical evolution is prevalent on “Sister,” a strikingly soulful ballad that has become a rallying cry for Magnolia Boulevard’s loyal tribe of followers. After including the song as part of the group’s self-titled EP – recorded in 2017 with Duane Lundy of the Lexington Recording Co. (formerly called Shangri-La Studio) – the group recently rerecorded “Sister” near Baltimore, with the help of Paul Reed Smith, owner and founder of the Maryland-based guitar and amp manufacturer PRS Guitars. The song was then sent for mastering to sound engineer Ted Jensen, whose past work includes such bedrock albums as The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me.”
The band’s relationship with Smith is one of a handful of relationships that has changed the game for the band in recent years. They first met Smith in 2018, when he attended the 50-year anniversary of Lexington instrument shop Willcutt Guitars, where they were performing. Smith was blown away by the performance, and a few weeks later invited the band to perform at Experience PRS, the company’s flagship event and one of the world’s ultimate guitar festivals. Smith and the band have since developed a tight bond and dual appreciation for one another, with both Erwin and Noëlle becoming officially endorsed by PRS Guitars later in the summer. The relationship with PRS Guitars opened up opportunities for other important relationships, including Paradigm Talent Agency, a major national agency that now handles the band’s bookings, and Revelation Management, which helps oversee day-to-day details for the band in its journey transitioning to the national spotlight.
For Noëlle, that journey has coincided with another adventure of a lifetime: becoming a new mom. While adding a newborn baby to the mix can often spell disaster for a burgeoning young band, having a baby on board has only brought Magnolia Boulevard closer.
Noëlle and fiancée Casen Baumgardner – also a musician and a member of Lexington-based Restless Leg String Band – officially welcomed their firstborn, Evelyn, in April 2019. Neither has let parenthood slow down their music careers. After returning to the stage that summer, at the Mountain Music Festival in West Virginia, Magnolia Boulevard toured relentlessly last summer with the little one in tow. In fact, Evelyn racked up miles in 17 states in her first year, including visits to Virginia’s FloydFest and the aforementioned run of dates with Blues Traveler through the northeastern and midwestern United States.
“I was terrified going into it,” Noëlle admitted. “It’s not easy being a musician or a mom, and especially both. At the same time, I wanted to prove that women don’t have to give up their dreams when they have a baby, no matter how bold or ambitious [those dreams] may be.”
Noëlle expressed gratitude for a tight-knit group of friends and family that have extended support over the past year. At the center of that are her bandmates in Magnolia Boulevard, who are constantly fighting for Evelyn’s attention, whether it be in the studio, in the green room or on the road between cities.
“Evelyn has brought the band closer together in many ways and helped to fill our moments on the road with happiness and light,” said Erwin. “There’s nothing better than being in the van with her, and she is smiling at you.”
“We recently did a three- or four-day run where she didn’t go, and it just wasn’t the same without her,” Erwin added.
Another of Noëlle’s biggest supporters from day one has been her mother. When the band found out last fall they’d be going on tour with Blues Traveler, Fleming didn’t hesitate to join them to help look after the baby during the band’s first extended run of shows since her birth. She joined the band for the first leg of that 12-show run, switching out spots with Baumgardner at the tour’s closest stop to home, a Nov. 8 sold-out show at Headliner’s Music Hall in Louisville.
“My mom has always been my No. 1 supporter, with music and anything else for that matter, so it was great to see her living her best life backstage with her grandbaby,” said Noëlle. “She was a trooper and a huge help to me the first half of our run with Blues Traveler.”
Magnolia Boulevard is poised to take its rock ’n’ roll circus on the road in 2020, with appearances scheduled at
the second annual Suwannee Rising at Florida’s Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (April 16-18); the 20th annual Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois (May 21-25) and a return to the Mountain Music Festival in Minden, West Virginia (June 4-7). The group will also perform at Trash Bash at Rockcastle Riverside in Livingston, Kentucky (June 5-7) and the aforementioned Railbird Festival in Lexington (Aug. 22-23).
This story was originally published with a full photo gallery from Sarah Cahill at SmileyPete.com.