Jeanette Williams—She’s Got Her Walkin’ Shoes On

Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine

September, 2004. Volume 39, Number 3

Since she burst into national prominence with her debut solo album on Doobie Shea Records, “Cherry Blossoms In The Springtime,” in 1999, Jeanette Williams has proven she has the stuff to persevere for the long haul as a bandleader and artist. Despite personnel changes, a label change, a band name change, and the decision to pick up a new instrument, the petite, strawberry blonde, bass-playing Mary Kay cosmetic consultant from Danville, Va., just keeps on singing. In addition to picking up the bass, recent developments include a new gospel album, an appearance in a movie soundtrack and CD (Bell Witch: The Movie), and a new touring bus.

Jeanette’s new recording, her second for the Bell Buckle label, is an all-gospel bluegrass album released in December 2003. The title cut on “Get In The Boat,” written by Tom T. and Dixie Hall, debuted at #1 on the “Gospel Truths” chart in Bluegrass Now magazine. The album cover, which features an original pastel drawing of Jesus walking on the water (and pulling Peter back into the boat), was done by Willard Gayheart, the well-known artist who draws the annual MerleFest posters.

In addition to the title cut, the Halls penned a second song on the new album. “Mama’s Sunday Ride,” which is based on a true story about the importance of making sure Janette Carter—Sarah and A.P.’s daughter, of the renowned Carter Family—gets her ride to church every Sunday morning. Bo Jamison of the Tennessee Heartstrings Band contributes “Are You Trusting In Sweet Jesus,” and bluegrass songwriter/attorney Mark Mathewson offers “When The Harvest Has Come,” along with a song from Jeanette’s husband and partner in the band, award-winning songwriter Johnny Williams.

Although not as prolific as her husband, Jeanette is a songwriter, too. She contributes the autobiographical “Father’s Hand.”

“My father passed away 15 years ago,” Jeanette recalls. “One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is sitting in church with him. Daddy was a farmer; he worked outside all of the time. He worked six days a week, so he was always at home, but he was working. So when we went to church on Sunday morning, I sat there next to him and traced the lines in his hand.” With her small hand in his, in the album liner notes, Jeanette says she felt “so secure that he was there to take care of me. What an awesome feeling to know that my heavenly Father is always there with an outstretched hand to lead and guide me.” 

The decision to record a gospel album came at her fans’ request, Jeanette says. “Because of my beliefs, I felt led to do a gospel album,” she adds. “I’ve wanted to do one for quite a while, and I’m glad that we finally got the opportunity.”

Jeanette says she and Johnny haven’t tried co-writing yet. In fact, it’s not likely to happen! “Johnny and I have such different personalities,” she explains, laughing softly. “We work well together because what I focus on, he lets go; and what he focuses on, I let go. We complement each other. I am so detail-oriented that I will spend hours and hours trying to make something ‘just exactly so.’ And he just feels it and goes with it! I’m a thinker; he is a doer. I’m a planner, and he gets things done. I see the details, and he sees the end result.”

The Jeanette Williams Band contributes four songs to the movie soundtrack of Bell Witch: The Movie, set to be released nation-wide later this year. The movie takes place in the 1800s and is the true story of John Bell and family, from Adams, Tenn. According to legend, John Bell is the only person in Tennessee history to be terrorized by a spirit who called herself “Kate.”

In searching for music for the movie, Doris and Shane Marr, of Big River Pictures LLC, based in Sevierville, Tenn., said they were looking for traditional songs, along with music that sounded like it came from that era. In addition to Jeanette’s band, Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, Pine Mountain Railroad, and Jeff & Vida contribute cuts.

“We did three songs that Johnny wrote,” Jeanette says. “‘Mountain Way Of Life’ and ‘What Will Become Of Me’ and one called ‘I Remember.’ That’s on Marsha Bowman’s solo album (the banjo player in the Jeanette Williams Band); and we did one that Becky Buller wrote, ‘The Blind Beggar.’”

“I Remember” is the backdrop for a scene in the movie set in the hills of east Tennessee. “It looks like the scene in The Sound Of Music, where Julie Andrews is on the mountain, dancing around and singing ‘The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Music,”’ Jeanette grins. “The witch has told John Bell’s daughter that she has to break up with her boyfriend— it’s a break up scene. They’re walking across the meadow on a mountain top, and it’s filmed from a helicopter. ‘I Remember’ is just clawhammer banjo, guitar, and vocal.”

In the current lineup of the band Jeanette is playing acoustic bass and Johnny plays guitar. Steven Fraleigh, who has re-joined the group after a two-year absence, plays fiddle, mandolin, and lead guitar on a couple of songs. Former bass player Marsha Bowman—who has always been featured on a clawhammer banjo tune during each set—has moved to (Scruggs- style) banjo full time.

When asked what she particularly enjoys about this lineup, Jeanette talks about personalities as much as the music. “Everyone has input in the band; we all work together,” she states. “Everybody is considerate of everyone else’s opinion” as far as song selection and arrangements go. “The personalities work well for us off-stage, as well as on.”

Jeanette is a relatively new bass player. In fact, her performing debut on the instrument was at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in October 2002.  “For years I didn’t play anything,” she says. “I played guitar and fiddle a little bit around the house. But the fiddle is such a hard instrument; I decided I didn’t want to put the time into learning it. When the mandolin and banjo slots came open—we had a married couple, Sandra and Kevin Baucom, playing with us—we just decided that it would be a good time for me to go ahead and get serious about learning the bass.”

It’s going well, she says. “I hope to be a good bass player one day,” she quips modestly. “Marsha showed me the basics, and if I have a question I go to her. But it’s funny…sometimes I’ll ask her, ‘How did you learn to do this?’ And she’ll say, ‘I don’t remember. I don’t remember when I didn’t know how to play.’ It was the first instrument she learned how to play; her dad bought her a cello when she was four years old and strung it up like a bass.” 

Williams, who is one of those naturally gifted vocalists who sings so well that she doesn’t really need to play an instrument, nevertheless says, “I like playing, a lot. It’s nice to be involved in the instrumentals. Before, I would usually walk off stage and just feature the band…It does make me feel more connected. I feel more a part of the band. I guess that sounds kind of odd, because it’s always been kind of my band,” she laughs.

The acoustic bass is a deceptively simple instrument in bluegrass music—it sounds a lot easier to play well than it actually is. But if you’ve ever heard a bad bass player in a jam session, you know how crucial the timing and simple foundation that the instrument provides actually is in a perfectly tuned bluegrass machine. The whole band rides on those few, evenly spaced, in-tune low notes. If they’re not there—in the right places, the train derails in no time flat. “I’m just trying to keep good time and play the right chords,” Jeanette agrees. “I figure I’ll learn the fancy stuff later. I just want to keep good time and good tone, right now. That’s what I’m concerned with.”

Jeanette, along with bluegrass singers like Valerie Smith (who has since picked up the guitar) and Alecia Nugent, have been criticized in the past by bluegrass fans for not being an instrumentalist. “It was never said directly to me, but I heard a lot of things,” Jeanette says. “And of course there have been a lot of discussions among the musicians as to how that looks and how they feel about it. When I first started singing I never thought it would be an issue, but apparently for some people it is.  Not growing up in bluegrass, I never gave it a second thought.”

The criticism wasn’t what convinced her to pick up the bass, though. “It was right for the band at that time, and also economically it was more feasible,” Jeanette says. “We’re doing this full time now, and every little bit helps.”

One of the things about Jeanette Williams’s singing style that is usually mentioned by music critics and fans alike, is that she doesn’t really sound like any other female singer in bluegrass music—which, of course, is a real plus for any artist trying to do something creatively and artistically unique. “I didn’t grow up in bluegrass, so that’s probably the root of me having my own sound,” she explains. “I didn’t even know what bluegrass was, until I was an adult! Of course, like every aspiring girl bluegrass singer, I did a lot of Alison Krauss songs, starting out. Emmylou Harris was one of my biggest influences. When I would do an Emmylou song, people would say, ‘Oh, you sound like Emmylou.’ And when I would do an Alison Krauss song, they would say, ‘Oh. you sound like Alison.’ But when I started doing my own songs, I just sang them the way I felt them, and I never tried to think, ‘How would Alison sing this?’ or ‘How would Rhonda sing this?’ I never thought of it in those kinds of terms. I just sang it how I felt it.”

Jeanette loves singing harmony as much as she does lead, and she has a voice that is flexible enough to complement a variety of other singers. In fact, one of her goals is to do more recording session work, backing up other vocalists on albums. Jeanette’s husband, Johnny, sings leads often in the band, particularly on the songs he writes. His country blues-tinged vocals fit somewhere stylistically between Hank Williams and Dan Tyminski. Sidemen Marsha Bowman and Steven Fraleigh usually stick to harmonies, but are encouraged to contribute a lead vocal per set.

Jeanette grew up the youngest of eight children on a tobacco farm near Cascade, Va., just outside of Danville. Several family members were musically inclined. One brother eight years older had roles in all of his high school musicals, and another one (two years older) played bass in a Southern rock band that performed a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special. Jeanette’s earliest memories of learning to sing in harmony are from singing with the congregation at church, and also from watching southern gospel quartets perform early Sunday mornings on television while getting ready to go to church. Her first time onstage was in the fourth grade, where she rendered John Denver’s “Lady” in a talent show at school.

At 23, Jeanette got involved with a local country music take-off on the Grand Ole Opry. She was recruited to do the Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris numbers, and it was there that she met Johnny, who played Hank Williams, Sr., in the show. Johnny hired Jeanette as the tenor singer in his new bluegrass band, Clearwater, in 1989, and they were married in 1991.

During the past 16 years, Jeanette has gone on to win a number of awards, including being named the Virginia State Champion Female Vocalist. She was nominated for SPBGMA’s female vocalist award in 2000, 2001, and 2004. A personal highlight was being asked to perform with the Dan Tyminski Band at the 2000 International Bluegrass Music Awards in Louisville, Ky. Jeanette has been featured on all the Clearwater albums, as well as on two solo projects: “Dreams Come True” (1994) and “Cherry Blossoms In The Springtime” (1999), which spent nine months on Bluegrass Unlimited’s National Bluegrass Survey radio airplay chart. The single, “Break My Heart,” reached the #3 slot and “In His Arms” stayed at #1 on the Gospel Truths Chart for two months. The Jeanette Williams Band has two recordings—“Too Blue,” their 2002 debut for Bell Buckle Records, and the current gospel album, “Get In The Boat,” also on Bell Buckle.

In addition to previously recording for Doobie Shea, Jeanette also worked for the label in radio relations and advertising. Her current job with Bell Buckle Records is a similar position that occupies around twenty hours a week out of her home office. “I do radio relations, set up radio interviews for artists, and just keep in touch with the DJs,” she says.

Jeanette met Valerie Smith and J. Gregory Heinike at the IBMA Trade Show when Val’s first album “Patchwork Heart,” came out. “When we got ready to put out the ‘Too Blue’ CD, they asked us if we wanted to put it out on Bell Buckle, and we went from there,” Jeanette says.

Johnny Williams manages the Jeanette Williams Band, in addition to playing guitar and singing lead and harmony vocals. He also writes most of the band’s original material. Johnny came to national prominence as a songwriter in 1998 and 1999 when he won the bluegrass division of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest two years in a row. Williams also owns and operates Grass Tank Music, a song publishing company. His originals have been cut by artists like Rambler’s Choice, New Classic Grass, and Larry Stephenson, among others. In March 2004, the Jeanette Williams Band signed with Hope River Entertainment, and Johnny manages the firm’s Virginia office.

Marsha Bowman, originally from Ararat, Va., joined the Jeanette Williams band in 2001. She grew up playing old- time music in her parents’ band. The Slate Mountain Ramblers. An award-winning clawhammer banjo player and dancer, Marsha has a solo release on Flyin’ Cloud Records called “First Impression.”

Stephen Fraleigh, from Raleigh, N.C., is originally from Akron, Ohio. The former Virginia State Champion fiddler’s performing career started early, with a performance on the Grand Ole Opry at age 11. Stephen’s fiddle work is featured on two previous albums in addition to the current gospel release: Jeanette Williams & Clearwater, “Blue Ridge Mountain Sun” and “Johnny & Jeanette Williams And Friends.”

Fans will want to check the Jeanette Williams Band website for upcoming dates that include gigs like the Bell Buckle Music Cruise in the Bahamas, the Bass Mountain Festival in North Carolina, the Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Ind., the Tri-State Bluegrass Festival in Kendallville, Ind., the Sertoma Youth Bluegrass Festival in Florida, the Starvy Creek Bluegrass Festival in Missouri, the Legends Festival in Mississippi, Lucketts Community Center in Virginia, and Nashville’s Station Inn.

Jeanette says the band’s goal is a common one for many in the industry— just to “make a comfortable living” playing bluegrass music. She would also love to perform on the Grand Ole Opry—the original one, in Nashville, Tenn.

Although she sometimes initially comes across as being a little reserved, Jeanette’s sincerity and genuine love for bluegrass music and her fans shines through both onstage and off. “We love the fans,” she says simply. “It’s great when people come to you and ask for a specific song, or just say they’re glad to see you. It’s like a big family, and we’re always happy to see our family on the road.”

Speaking of family, Jeanette and Johnny’s little Pomeranian, Spike, is particularly thrilled about the recent purchase of a bus formerly owned by the Grasshoppers—since it means he will be able to join them on the road. “Spike was two in June, he loves people and he loves to travel,” Jeanette says. “He is a ham bone if there ever was one! His hair is the same color as mine, and he weighs about seven pounds. We just had him trimmed for warm weather, so he looks just like a little fox. When we jam or practice, he lies right in the middle of us, usually at the foot of my bass. He likes bluegrass, but not drums or electric guitars. My brother found this out when he was Spike-sitting for me last fall, and his band had a rehearsal.”

On “Get In The Boat,” the lyrics to “Got My Walkin’ Shoes On,” a Cadillac Holmes song Jeanette learned from Randall Hylton, go like this: It’s a long way to the gates of glory, but I’ve got my walkin’ shoes on/The road ahead is rough and rocky’, but I’m gonna keep traveling on/This old world can 7 get me down; ain’t nobody gonna turn me around/It’s a long way to the gates of glory, but I ‘ve got my walkin ’ shoes on.

Many in the bluegrass industry may have thought Jeanette Williams’ success with “Cherry Blossoms In The Springtime” back in 1999 was a flash in the pan, but this woman is definitely more than a one-hit wonder…and she definitely has her walking shoes on. Thinking back on the changes and challenges along the way she says, “Well, it’s not always easy. There are times when you get frustrated, but any job is like that. Life is full of seasons. When a certain season is over and the time is not right for a particular situation any more, you just move on. We always try to look at change in a positive light and say, ‘Well, we don’t have this anymore, but what else do we have? What do we have that is new, that is better? What door is opening?’ It’s really been an experience,” she smiles, in her typically understated way. “I learned a lot from Tim and Debbie Austin,” for example. “They made it possible for me to meet a lot of people working for them, and those are relationships that I’ve maintained. I’ve been able to take that with me.”

Nancy Cardwell is the Special Projects Coordinator with the IBMA in Nashville. Originally from the Missouri Ozarks. she grew up in a family bluegrass band and has written about music/entertainment for the past 22 years.

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