Women In The Round
Before Jewel pouted her way into the national spotlight, before Shania blended techno-pop glamour with Nashville twang, and some time after Dolly started having to remind people she was blessed with a great voice, too...there were Women In The Round. The appearance by this occasional troupe of singer/songwriters is one of the gems that should not be overlooked among the array of stars to be found at Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival.
Women In The Round, made up of Ashley Cleveland, Karen Staley, and Tricia Walker, will bring their mix of well-crafted music, passionate delivery, genuine camaraderie, and (if the mood is right) hysterical laughter to the AmSouth Bank Stage on Thursday, June 12, beginning at 8:30 pm.
"In the round" refers to a fairly recently-instituted Nashville tradition in which songwriters set their chairs in a circle in the middle of the room, and take turns performing their songs as they face one another. This enhances a sense of mutual support and cooperation...or congenial competition, depending on the temperament of each artist. In some cases, it also adds extra temptation to try to make fellow songwriters crack up during performances, the results of which can be as entertaining as the songs themselves.
Though the AmSouth Bank Stage will most likely require the conventional in-line stage setup (as most "in the round" performances do, in spite of the term), the other elements of the experience should remain intact. It promises to be an unforgettable evening for all the attendees who find their way down underneath the Walnut Street Bridge to the spot that has become a favorite for many at Riverbend.
After their Riverbend performance, Women In The Round will return to their "home turf" of Nashville, with a show at the Bluebird Cafe on Friday, June 13 that will include a fourth member for the evening, Amy Grant. Other notable scheduled performances include the Sundance Arts Series in Sundance, Utah (August 2003), and a Valentines weekend series where the three will accompany the Nashville Ballet (February 2004).
Of the three, Ashley Cleveland is the most likely to consider Chattanooga "home territory," since much of her upbringing took place in Knoxville, and some in California. While a student at the University of Tennessee, Cleveland developed her performing skills at clubs on the Strip, often singing with fellow student Pam Tillis. After relocating to Nashville as a professional songwriter, her phenomenal voice, an edgy and soulful combination at once reminiscent of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, became a high-demand item. She kept busy as a vocalist both in the studio and on tour. She can be heard on albums by John Hiatt, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Amy Grant, Reba McIntire and a host of others.
Her 1991 debut solo album with Atlantic Records was named "One of the Most Overlooked Albums of the Year" by the trade publication Billboard. Cleveland went on to sign with Reunion Records, a contemporary Christian label, and garnered numerous Dove Awards and nominations for solo and collaborative efforts. She eventually won two Grammy Awards for Best Gospel Rock Album, for Lesson of Love (1996) and You Are There (1998). Her latest work, Second Skin, interweaves themes of hope and suffering, from someone who has known her share of both. Cleveland's penchant for making overtly spiritual statements from a very down-to-earth perspective make her tough to pigeonhole into "mainstream" or "Christian" marketing schemes, which is one reason this album is independently released. On the other hand, her brutal honesty about her faith and her struggles give her music a depth not often found in any arena, and give her performances a sense of intimacy and freedom that are equally rare.
Riverbend will not be Tricia Walker's first performance in the area; last October she performed a benefit concert at Chattanooga State for Friends of Chattanooga Animal Services (FOCAS), a division of the Chattanooga Police Department.
Walker's musical development was influenced as much by the turbulence of life in the 60s as by the R & B, Gospel and swing she listened to while growing up in Mississippi. She says the programming of WDIA in Memphis and WLAC in Nashville provided late-night inspiration for her--in secret, while her parents were asleep. Walker pursued a more formal education in music at Delta State University. A move to Nashville and a staff writer deal with Gospel music company Word, Inc. led to her songs being recorded by Debby Boone, the Imperials, and Kathy Troccoli. From there she signed with Polygram and enjoyed continued success, with cuts by artists including Faith Hill and Patty Loveless. Alison Krauss won a Grammy for her performance of Walker's "Looking In The Eyes Of Love."
In addition to her success as a songwriter, the versatile Walker has found outlets for her other music-related skills. She was a co-founder of Crossfield Music, a publishing and production company where she served as Creative Director. Her instrumental skills earned her a spot backing Opry star Connie Smith for six years, and she was touring keyboard player and vocalist with Paul Overstreet and Shania Twain. She continues to pursue a solo career in addition to the now-legendary Women In The Round performances, and has been a New Folk winner at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival.
For the last 20 years or so, Karen Staley has been honing a sterling reputation in Nashville and beyond as a first-rate singer and songwriter. She is originally from western Pennsylvania and moved to Music City after a brief stint with a record label in Los Angeles. Along with the usual bread-and-butter studio work, she toured with Faith Hill as backup vocalist in 1996 and performed solo during Hill’s costume changes during concerts. Her tour resume also includes Reba McEntire, the Judds, and Gospel artist Russ Taff. In 1998 Staley released a solo album called Fearless, on Warner Brothers. On stage, her robust alto voice and her sharp wit bring to mind Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Staley's early songwriting credits include "Lonely Days, Lonely Nights" and "Wicked Ways," both recorded by Patty Loveless. Staley was a co-writer on Faith Hill's "Take Me As I Am" and "Let's Go To Vegas." She co-wrote Confederate Railroad's first single, "She Took It Like A Man," with Danny Mayo and Paul Nelson. The smash single "The Keeper of the Stars" (by Staley, Mayo and Dickey Lee) became a signature ballad for Tracy Byrd. Voted Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music, it was the fifth biggest selling piece of sheet music in 1995 and remains one of the most popular American wedding songs to date. Other artists that have recorded Staley's songs include Dolly Parton, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Terri Clark, Kathy Mattea, and recently, Trick Pony.