Monica Rizzio was born in New York, but spent her formative years on a ranch in Quitman and she’ll be returning to her roots when she steps onto the Bowery Stage for a concert Saturday, May 13.
“My dad grew up right outside New York City,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Cape Cod, MA. “He met and married my mom there. When I was four, we moved to Quitman, along with my brother and sister, who were older. My granny was there. My dad was this Italian cowboy who built a 30-acre ranch.”
Rizzio grew up a cowgirl, riding horses and participating in rodeos. She ran the barrels at the Winnsboro rodeo every year.
She also grew up going to church “three times a week,” playing and singing music.
“I got my start singing in church and tinkering with the piano,” she said. “We didn’t have the financial means to put me in any sort of private lessons, but I was lucky in that people from my church would give me a check to go to band camp or someone would pay for a month’s worth of lessons.”
She said the community realized she had a passion for music and provided her a keyboard.
“They saw something in me at an early age,” she explained.
Rizzio won the talent contest at the annual Old Settlers Reunion in Quitman when she was 12.
“I sang, but I don’t remember what,” she said.
The family lived in Quitman from the time Rizzio was in kindergarten until her senior year in high school, when someone from Dallas purchased the ranch and the family moved back to New York.
Although people offered her a place to stay so she could graduate with her class, Rizzio decided being that far away from her family, especially her parents, Dennis and Judi, would be too hard.
“I am incredibly close with my parents,” she explained.
After graduating from Fox Lane High School in 1998 in Mt. Kisco, NY, she earned a full music scholarship to Adelphi University on Long Island, where she attended for 2 years.
A vocal teacher at Adelphi encouraged Rizzio to transfer. She had been accepted to study in Granada, Spain. She also had a friend who was studying acting in Tennessee. Rizzio decided against going abroad and settled on Belmont University in Nashville.
“That was a huge blessing and I loved, loved being there,” she said. “The song writing circuit there is unbelievable. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to study there.”
It was at Belmont where Rizzio learned the business end of show business. She earned a degree in commercial voice, with a required minor in music business.
“If you’re studying at Belmont, it’s mandatory to have a music business minor,” she noted. “You need to know how to negotiate.”
The university had showcases, where artists had to search out a management major and make a demo with someone studying recording.
“The whole thing is hands on,” Rizzio explained.
Rizzio learned her lessons well. In addition to touring and recording, she runs a successful music school in her adopted hometown of Cape Cod, MA.
“The fact that I get to make my own schedule and teach music is incredible,” she said. “It allows me the flexibility to tour as much as I do, plus my students think it’s cool that their teacher in on tour.”
Rizzio released her first album, “Washashore Cowgirl,” last year. The collection was nominated for Country Album of the Year by the Independent Music Awards.
When you aren’t a native of Cape Cod, you’re called a “washashore.” Add cowgirl to the mix and you’ve perfectly described Rizzio.
“I knew I wanted to go back to my East Texas roots,” she noted. “I wanted people to hear the journey from Quitman to the shore of Cape Cod.”
Assembling a crew to help her in the studio proved pretty easy.
“I was lucky enough that most of my friends jumped on and played for me,” she said. “I wanted ‘Washashore’ to have a big sound, I wanted its presence to be very organic and tethered between my acoustic world and my Texas country side which I feel captured both really well.”
She cites Ricky Skaggs, Willie Nelson, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland as early musical influences.
Her song writing heroes include John Prine, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Hayes Carll.
She’s shared the stage with artists ranging from jazz pianist Diana Krall to ukulele impresario Jake Shimabukuro.
“Diana Krall was among one of the most divine people I have met yet on the road,” Rizzio remembered. “She is so genuine and thoughtful as an artist! And, I got to sing vocals on one of the songs Jake wrote. He’s the nicest guy. He’s just incredible.”
While teaching and involved in recital season, Rizzio has started work on her sophomore record.
“I’m trying a different approach to the production side,” she said. “I want it to be a little more raw than ‘Washashore.’”
Rizzio is also giving back, not forgetting the kindness paid to her when she was beginning her journey as a musician.
“We created Vinegrass, a non-profit, in 2013,” she said. “We help families who don’t have the means for lessons or instruments.”
For this tour, Rizzio and her husband purchased a mini-van. Before they reach Texas, they’ll be playing shows in Cape Cod, Boston, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. They’ll visit Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona before winding things up back in Boston.
While she’s had a lot of experience in the classroom, on the road and in the studio, this trip marks Rizzio’s first time to play in Texas. She expects to see cousins, friends and high school classmates.
“I think it’s going to be a very emotional show,” she reflected.
Tickets are $15 general admission and $22 reserved. They are available at the arts center and Winnsboro Emporium or by calling 903-342-0686 or visiting the arts center’s website, www.winnsborocenterforthearts.com