3 Female Songwriters Putting Greensboro on the Musical Map
Everything you ever heard or thought about songwriters is probably wrong. And right.
Every generalization ever made about the art of tunesmithing can be contradicted. Or proven.
Every song that strikes a universal chord is the product of divine inspiration. Or the pure sweat off one’s brow.
Indeed, if there is a truism that applies across the board to songwriters, it is that they are an oft-misunderstood lot, at once a disparate breed yet one with eerily similar characteristics. Searching for that one common thread that unites them all would be a fruitless task. They are often viewed as somehow out of the mainstream, a bit freakish, borderline manic-depressive, even. And perhaps many of them are. But, again, many of them aren’t.
For every tunesmith who marches to the beat of a different drummer there is another in lockstep with 9-to-5 society. They are both the freak living in a treehouse and the housewife next door, the slacker subsisting on tins of tuna and the millionaire with the mansion on the hill, the dedicated composer who polishes his craft daily and the hobbyist who dashes off a ditty when the mood strikes.
Songwriting is something that almost everybody thinks they can do but that almost nobody actually does. It is seen as formulaic, yet that view ignores the fact that if there were a set formula for penning a song, everybody who ever put melody and lyric to paper would be rich and famous.
While there are more questions than answers about the art of songwriting, it may be safely affirmed that it is not a profession for the fearful and faint of heart. There are far easier ways to make a living, but if one is able to justify it as its own reward, then it is among the most gratifying of creative pursuits. If one can, to twist a Jackson Browne lyric slightly, put aside the struggle for the legal tender and concentrate on the longing for love, it can be orgasmically satisfying.
There is one other generalization about songwriters that defies explanation. In terms of pure numbers, there are far more males of the species than females who call themselves songwriters. There is nothing in the psychological, emotional or intellectual makeup of men that favors them over women in the pursuit of this craft. Granted, there remain societal and environmental factors that push women toward child bearing and rearing and preclude their career goals, but there is nothing innate to explain it. No stigma exists for women that doesn’t for men, so it must boil down to choice.
And while there have always been talented and prolific female songwriters, there seem to be more and more choosing to ply their craft as songwriters. Perhaps spurred on by ’60s pioneers such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Carole King; or perhaps by the succeeding generation of tunesmiths who defied stereotypes such as Ani DiFranco, Janis Ian and Sheryl Crow; or contemporary singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Lucinda Williams, the fact is that songwriting is in no way the domain of those possessing a Y-chromosome. Women are, in increasing numbers, making their presence felt.
And, not surprisingly, some of those women making their voices heard are local. Greensboro and the Triad seem to be in the process of becoming a proving ground in many areas for those of a creative bent. While the ideal espoused by Carnegie Mellon professor Richard Florida of a creative class is still more of a theory than a reality, the Gate City and surrounding area does appear to be inching closer toward that goal. And many on the vanguard of that creative movement are women.
Let it be said here that Guilford County and the Triad is home to dozens of accomplished female songwriters. Any number of them could have (perhaps should have) been included herein – names such as Becky Brackett (AKA Treva Spontaine), Mary Lyons, Toy O’Farrell, Lauren Myers, Shiela Klinefelter and Martha Bassett – all of whom have numerous credits and lengthy catalogues.
While no slight is intended toward any of them, the three women profiled below are there for a reason. They represent the cream of the crop; they have the track records and are in demand right now. They are not only hot commodities, but their best work and higher acclaim may actually lie ahead. What’s more, they have recently performed together and plan to do so again in the near future. They are bound by gender, talent, attractiveness and love for their craft.
Which, come to think of it, is more than what binds most male songwriters.
In the early ’90s vocalist Kristy Jackson and sax wizard Neil Clegg, both playing with the band Timepiece and collaborating on original tunes, did an interview with ESP Magazine. Kristy had written a tune called “Take It Back” that Timepiece had recorded and had enlisted the services of what is known as a “song plugger” to pitch the song around Nashville in hopes of a major artist recording it. Kristy revealed that the plugger had told her that he’d taken the song to none other than Reba McEntire and that she seemed interested in it. At that time Reba was the brightest star in all of country music, and Kristy had already been around the music business long enough to be understandably skeptical.
The next year Kristy’s skepticism turned to sheer delight when Reba not only recorded the song but released it as a single and it rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The song earned Kristy a BMI songwriting award, a goodly sum of money and, more importantly, membership in the elite circle of Nashville songwriters who’ve made the transition from aspiring to practicing.
Since then she has had songs recorded by artists on MCA, Universal and Giant Records. Although she has yet to strike gold of that magnitude again, Kristy’s career has blossomed in ways unimaginable. Ironically, it was the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 that marked another life-changing milestone. She penned a tribute to those who perished aboard Flight 93, among them fellow Greensboroian Sandy Bradshaw, titled “Little Did She Know (She’d Kissed a Hero)” that has become the signature song of that fateful day and its aftermath.
“It really was a fluke,” admits Kristy. “Like so many folks I was so overwhelmed by 9-11 that the only way I knew to express it was through song. Jack Murphy started playing the mp3 on his morning show on 107.5 FM, and it just took off nationwide almost overnight. I am still amazed at the impact that song had on so many people.”
In the weeks after 9-11, Kristy appeared on the “CBS Early Morning Show” and “Inside Edition” and in the ensuing months and years has received over 5,000 e-mails from people who were touched by her tune. Not only has she answered every single one, but she and editor Mike Williams compiled 160 of the most moving and turned them into a book by the same name. Both the CD and book are available at kristyjackson.com and littledidsheknow.com as a package for $15.00. She has donated all her writers’ royalties to 9-11 charities, over $26,000 to date.
“That song was a gift to me, so that’s my gift to all those who were directly affected by it,” she says humbly.
These days Kristy commutes between Greensboro and Nashville, doing most of her work from her studio in the comfortable home she shares with Greensboro’s preeminent bassist, Bobby Kelly (who has his own studio upstairs). While she maintains a condo and phone in Nashville, she strongly believes in keeping her distance from Music City.
“I go there specifically to write,” she remarks, “to collaborate with other writers to literally craft a song. It’s a very disciplined environment where you’re just cranking it out, and that’s the problem. If I get there on a Sunday, by Friday I’m writing songs that even I don’t like. It’s so contrived that anybody with a rhyming dictionary could do it. When you’re living in Nashville your writing tends to get really homogenized. That’s why it’s important that I distance myself from all that.
“After ‘Little Did She Know’ I found that I wrote fewer songs but that I liked them a lot better. I think that song kind of raised the bar for me. I need to push myself to write songs that if they got cut I’d be proud to play them out.
“When I’m at home I have the luxury of just writing when I have something to say.”
And when she has nothing to say, Kristy has plenty to do in running her label, Fever Pitch Music.
“When I’m not the artist I’m the marketer, promoter, distributor, order filler,” she smiles. “Wearing a lot of hats keeps me from getting bored. Writing is such a cyclical thing that instead of getting depressed and thinking, ‘Oh, the muse is gone,’ I just put my energies into promotion or another area.”
She also puts a lot of time and energy into being a national spokesperson educating people about the harsh reality of illegal music downloading. She has become a forceful advocate for composers’ rights and protecting intellectual property from being eroded by piracy and illegal downloads.
“It’s so sad to see the writers in Nashville who wrote the fabric of American music out selling cars,” she laments. “They’re not writing anymore because the publishing companies aren’t hiring songwriters. Music Row is like a ghost town.”
Kristy has run the gamut, from lobbying Congress to addressing middle school students.
“A lot of representatives on Capitol Hill seemed more worried about the labels rather than the songwriters,” she sighs, “but the kids get it once you explain how it’s the same as walking into a Harris Teeter and walking out with a turkey.”
Currently Kristy is putting the finishing touches on her fifth CD for her label, titled Best Seat in the House.
“This is the first one I’ve done with no co-writers,” she notes. “All my influences are on it, people like Donald Fagan, Michael McDonald, Bruce Hornsby and Carole King. It’s six fully produced songs and four of just me and my keyboard. I should have it out by the fall.”
Despite all the acclaim she has earned from “Take It Back” and “Little Did She Know,” there is another song that will always have a special place in her heart, one that she didn’t even write, the standard “Body and Soul.”
“I put a hidden track on my album of the same name,” she says, “of my mom singing and my dad playing trumpet. I spliced together two different recordings of them doing that song years ago. I lost them both within sixteen months of each other, so you can imagine how much that song means to me now.”
One can also imagine how proud they are of their daughter.
In a business where overnight sensations are often 20 years in the making, and performers, especially female ones, are on the downhill slide by age 35, Laurelyn Dossett is a bit of an anomaly. Even though she grew up singing and playing piano, after college she put aside any thoughts of a musical career to raise a family and didn’t pick it up again until her mid-30s. She married her college (Penn State) sweetheart, Justin Catanoso, who is now the editor of Triad Business Journal and the couple has reared three lovely daughters: Emilia, 18; Rosalie, 16; and Sophia, 13. She went back to grad school, earning her masters in psychology from UNCG, and was working as a counselor for Family Services of the Piedmont when the music bug unexpectedly bit her again. And in the ensuing decade, she and her band Polecat Creek have taken the old-time music world by storm and she has become a nationally acclaimed songwriter.
“Songwriting is not what I expected to be doing at this stage of life,” she admits with a wry smile. “I’m not prolific, I don’t write daily, and sometimes I don’t even feel like a songwriter because I don’t do it that way. But, I guess being older I felt that I had something to say. And I’ve had some success with it at this point, so I’m not going to worry too much about it.”
Indeed she has, and the proof’s in the pudding. But oddly enough, it happened almost by accident.
“Kari [Sickenberger] and I were in a book club and I was just learning to play guitar,” she recalls. “I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t heard Gillian Welch’s first record, but I just loved it. I’d gone to Scott Manring [Greensboro’s multi-talented string virtuoso] and he helped me learn the chords to some of her tunes. Then one day I went over to Kari’s apartment and she started singing and I put some harmony parts to it, and we thought, ‘Hmm, this sounds pretty good. Maybe there’s something here.'”
With Polecat Creek’s debut CD, Salt Sea Bound, released in March 2002, it was clear that she and harmony partner Kari had formed a synergistic bond. While they share the band’s writing duties, they’ve only collaborated on one song. And their voices are in such close agreement that it rivals the best sibling harmony.
Their second album, Leaving Eden, released in September 2004 met with more critical acclaim and only confirmed the obvious, that this was a band with something to say and knew how to say it. But a few months before its release, something happened that put Laurelyn on a songwriting level many aspire to but few achieve: Her song “Come By Here” won the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest, the same contest, incidentally, that had launched Gillian Welch’s career a decade earlier.
“Kari and I had been entering songs in various contests for years,” she explains, “just rolling the dice. We’d finished recording Leaving Eden but it wasn’t out yet, and I sent four or five songs from it to the contest. I thought the single ‘Leaving Eden’ might have a chance, but the one they picked was, I thought, the least interesting of them all. So you just never know.”
Because of the non-commercial nature of her compositions and of old-time music itself, Laurelyn doesn’t expect to be riding the crest of Nashville fame and fortune any time soon, but she does acknowledge that winning the Chris Austin has drawn some attention to her.
Some of that well-deserved attention came from Preston Lane, artistic director of Triad Stage. Lane was writing a play titled Brother Wolf set in the Appalachian Mountains and needed someone to help write the score. And Laurelyn Dossett was just the person for the job.
“Preston had heard ‘Leaving Eden’ on the BBC and called to ask if I’d be interested in writing the songs for his play,” she comments. “The fact that I’d won that award probably didn’t hurt. I thought this would be an interesting exercise in songwriting, so we started meeting and talking about the story and the script. But it turned out to be so much more than that. It was a total collaboration; the script and the songs all happened simultaneously and evolved together. He was totally supportive and gracious.”
Laurelyn wound up writing seven of the 14 songs of Brother Wolf, and she and bandmate Riley Baugus, fiddler and banjoist extraordinaire, played the songs live throughout the play’s run at Triad Stage.
Details are sketchy at this point, but plans are being made to give Brother Wolf a life after Greensboro. Given its rousing success at its world premiere run, it is certainly deserving of being seen and heard by a wider audience.
It can be revealed, however, that Preston and Laurelyn are collaborating on another play. Triad Stage’s 2006 Christmas presentation will be the Lane original, Beautiful Star, and she will pen most of the music.
“It’s based on the York Mystery Cycle and follows the Bible stories from creation to nativity through the escape to Egypt,” she discloses. “It’s a full three-week production and I’ve got two months to write it. But I won’t be performing this time; the cast will do the singing in this one.”
Laurelyn and her Polecat Creek mates recently got another perk. When Garrison Keillor brought his “Lake Wobegon Days” radio show to War Memorial Auditorium April 11, they were tapped to be the musical guests.
“We got to meet him, and he was so wonderful,” she enthuses. “That was a real thrill for us.”
There will no doubt be many more along the way.
Some people have star quality written all over them. It’s in their face, in the way they carry themselves, in the manner in which they interact with others.
Molly McGinn is one of those rare individuals. The world at large may not be aware of it yet, but a growing number of folk in and around Greensboro are coming to realize it. She’s contagious; her star is on the rise. Mark it down.
Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, it was obvious early on that Molly had a passion for music. She began taking piano lessons at the age of 4, but her early musical education came from a far different source – the jukebox her dad installed in their basement.
“That thing had everything on it from Marty Robbins to the ‘Star Wars’ theme,” she recalls fondly. “I think I grew up on Willie Nelson’s version of ‘Stardust.’ I wore the buttons on that jukebox out. I can still remember ‘Woolly Bully’ was A24.”
Her dad’s job took the family out of Kansas and she spent most of her childhood moving from place to place. They eventually wound up in Raleigh, where Molly landed an internship with the News & Observer, which later paved the way for a reporter’s position in the High Point bureau of the Greensboro News & Record.
But music was never far away. By her sophomore year at Elon University she had started a band called the Allen Smithy Band, which had a very nice run.
“I was a chick playing rhythm guitar in a jam band,” she remarks. “I thought that was pretty cool at the time.”
A succession of bands followed. Among them Mars Bound Mind, a ska funk reggae band; and Joscle Lee, an alt-country Americana band. One thing she learned from playing in groups with such a diverse sound and repertoire was that good music can be written regardless of genre.
“I’d always written to make myself or other people laugh,” she says. “It’s all about telling a story, anyway, and you can do that in a country song or a pop song or a blues song.”
Or, as she was soon to find out, in a children’s song. In November 2002 she accepted a job at Kindermusic, where she is now a senior writer, even though she is still in her twenties.
“Kindermusic has taught me the difference between learning to love music for music’s sake and wanting to own it as a performance,” she muses. “I’d gotten to the point that I wasn’t getting any better; I was so wrapped up in the performance that I’d stopped enjoying it. I’ve come to believe in what Stravinsky said: ‘The trouble with music education is we ought to be teaching kids to love it instead.’ That’s changed my perception of everything. No longer does the critic rule my head.”
Nothing other than love of her craft, it seems, rules Molly’s life these days. She is unruffled by things that would drive others to distraction. A couple years ago a crack addict broke into her house and stole her guitar amp, keyboard, fiddle and a ukulele her musical mentor had left her when he died. Her response? “That was God’s way of telling me to focus on guitar, because [the robber] took everything but my acoustic guitar.”
Lately Molly has set a goal of writing a song a day, “even if it’s only a minute long, just to make as many mistakes as I possibly can. I think I’m getting to the point that I can write on demand, especially if you throw down a couple of parameters. Either I try to write one or learn one by ear.”
Two weeks ago she honed her creative chops by scoring a film for the 48-Hour Film Project, in which participants have literally two days to produce a film from start to finish.
“We drew the genre mockumentary,” she notes, “which was perfect for us. If you perform well under pressure, this is a fun way to write and create.”
She has also taken a page out of the Austin, Texas creativity manual by taking her act to the streets when the mood strikes, setting up on Tate Street or South Elm with nothing but her voice, guitar, harmonica and pocket-sized amp.
“I’ve got about two solid hours worth of originals that I think are good enough to play in public,” she claims, adding, “more and more there’s a growing creative community around here. There are filmmakers and artists and sculptors and actors and songwriters and musicians coming out of the woodwork. If gives us the chance to see ourselves reflected back at us because it’s local, and I want to see more of that. I want to be a part of that.”
Not to worry, Molly, you are.
Ogi Overman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.