GENOA – Monday through Friday, Rachel McPheeters teaches English at Genoa-Kingston High School. On the weekends, she performs throughout the area as a vocalist with The Relics, a popular DeKalb-area band which specializes in the music of the 1950s through 70s.
“Anyone would kill to be a part of a band that performs gigs regularly,” McPheeters said.
Influenced by her mother, who once sang gospel music on a southern Illinois radio station and still performs today, McPheeters has been singing since she was a teenager. Her love of music, she says, has encouraged her to try different things, an attitude she hopes to pass on to her students.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Northern Illinois University, McPheeters earned her masters in teaching and leadership from St. Xavier University. Besides teaching dramatic and contemporary literature at GKHS, she is also the varsity academic bowl coach and senior class sponsor involved in the school yearbook and newspaper.
McPheeters talked about singing via email with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: What were your biggest influences musically?
Rachel McPheeters: My biggest influence has been my mother. When she was young, she was part of a trio that sang gospel on the radio in southern Illinois. She actually performs today in a show called “MC Glamour.” I don’t think the call to perform ever leaves the ones who naturally do it well, and she does. She was a lover of country music. Together we enjoyed singing The Judds, Tanya Tucker, and other country favorites. In the 90s, I would hook up our karaoke system and put on “concerts” while my mom tidied the house, praising me between each one. Some country influences of mine included Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Pam Tillis, and of course, my all-time favorite, Wynonna Judd.
MW: Do you ever get any fan feedback?
RM: Last fall, at Creston Booster Days, I saw a familiar face in the crowd, a regular from PJ’s 10 years ago from my karaoke nights. She simply hugged me and said, “I’m so proud of you.” It meant a lot. I think anyone in my shoes would feel on top of the world getting to do what they love, however local it is. It’s the time of my life, and I think musicians at any age will always be looking for that thrill.
MW: Have any of your students ever seen you sing?
RM: A few students have seen me perform. Last year at September Fest, for example, since it was a family thing. Perhaps it might have gone differently had we not got rained out at Corn Fest this year. But since we perform in restaurants and bars 21-and-over, they don’t see me perform. Some graduates from years ago are now turning 21, so they may see us perform sometime.
MW: Is it strange when they see you?
RM: I do enjoy talking about it, and every now and then I bust out a song in the middle of class, just to remind them that teachers have other interests and lives outside of teaching. I think it also teaches them courage ... to get out of their shells a little bit. Since I teach dramatic writing and performance, I always find ways to share with them the importance of pursuing something you love, even if as a hobby.
MW: How did you get into The Relics?
RM: I met Gary (Hiland) when I was in college at NIU singing karaoke all over town. I was a regular who showed up for the love of singing. Now, 10 years later – and two children later – my husband and I ran into Gary and his wife, Pat, back at PJ’s. ...He said,”Hey Rachel, so why did you never sing in a band?” You can imagine my response. I said, “No one ever gave me the opportunity!” And my good friend Gary gave me my “big break.” Singing with these guys, at these wonderful, welcoming establishments, is big enough for me.
MW: Do you like the type of music The Relics do?
RM: My parents exposed me to some of the greats of Motown, but more often than not, these songs became favorites of mine because they were on the soundtracks of some of my favorite movies. The film “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey is one in particular that had a soundtrack that moved me. Songs like The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You,” and a more recent addition of ours, Soloman Burke’s “Cry to Me,” are all songs I sang then and get to perform now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to sing these songs in particular because I felt a deep connection with them even as a young girl singing in our family room about love.
MW: Are you familiar with all the songs?
RM: A good number of the other songs we sing ... I have recognized as having heard them a time or two. Others I have never heard in my life, but was asked to learn them. You may not believe me, but I have come to love nearly every song we sing because I find it simply amazing and special to be a part of live music and creating the sounds and harmonies, and connecting with each other through the music makes each song an incredibly fun and special performance.
MW: Do you sing with anyone besides The Relics?
RM: No, except on a date night with my husband singing karaoke. I am perfectly fine with that. The band has agreed to only perform together as long as we are, well, together.
MW: So why do you do it?
RM: Who wouldn’t do it? Anyone would kill to be a part of a band that performs gigs regularly. I am one of six musicians who all offer something special ... each of whom can play by ear and pick up any song at any time. This gives us the luxury of varying our set lists to keep new songs coming for our fans.
Having any fans or a following is the icing on the cake. When you have familiar faces in the crowd, smiling, swaying, singing along, you can’t help but feel so blessed for each opportunity to perform. I always said I’d sing to anyone, even the guy closing down the bar, mopping the floors, as long as I could sing. That’s why I do it. It’s in me.
MW: Do you think young people get into music thinking they might have a shot at making it big?
RM: Yes, I do believe young people get into music and believe that it is only a matter of time before they get their big break, become stars, and then before long they’re doing interviews talking about the road to stardom. I believe these reality shows make it seem that easy.
MW: What about you?
RM: I used to waitress at PJ’s in Sycamore, and every karaoke night the regulars would say, “You need to try out for American Idol!” Honestly, I didn’t, and still don’t, believe I was good enough to win a show like that. I even tried out for “The Voice” just to say that I did it, but wasn’t asked back to the next round. However, I knew I was good enough to be a part of something special. I am a performer. It comes very easy and naturally for me.