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August 15, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 33

Nice Girl

Knoxville's very own waifish chanteuse Jennifer Niceley meditates on matters of the heart

by Jack Neely

At the Tomato Head on a sunny afternoon, she's eating some gumbo, picking out the okra and saving the rice for later. She's been to too many parties lately, she says, and is trying to get in shape for Nashville. She is, unfortunately, moving to that municipal talent leech in a couple of weeks to attend Belmont College, where she'll study the music business.

She doesn't relish the business side of music, but at just barely 21 she's practical enough to know she'll need to make a living someday, and wants to be prepared to make a living doing something she loves.

What she loves is music, a passion passed down to her from her family: her Dad who taught her to play guitar when she was 12; the grandfather who hosted hoedowns in the family home; even her great uncle, the fiddler who died on the railroad long before Jennifer was born but left the family his fiddle, a hallowed and much-used heirloom.

She was the first woman in the family in generations and took the traditional name of J. J. Niceley, though she was the first Jennifer Jane.

There's an esoteric darkness in her music, a mystery that makes you need to go back and hear it again. On her eponymous CD, she sings long, slow lyrics to accompaniment that's so light it seems spectral: an ambling bass here, the ghost of mandolin there. Through several songs, plucked guitar strings throb like a heartbeat. You listen to it like you listen to the weather.

Her songs are as much about death as about love. There's a minimalist ethic here, vivid images without apology or explanation, like haiku. Some of her songs are almost like Zen meditations. One sentence can stretch as far as a dream. You may need to back it up to recall the subject.

In person, on a sunny afternoon, she's neither morose nor mysterious as she tries to ignore her plate of gumbo. "In the circle of things, death's just part of it," she says. She's cheerful, open, practical. She speaks in a soft, middle-class Tennessee accent, very different from the accent reminiscent of Natalie Merchant you sometimes hear on the record.

She says songs come to her without deliberate purpose. "People have asked me why I strum or pick. I never really know. A lot of the time, I write music and words at the same time." She says if her songs are elliptical or enigmatic, it's only because she has tried to write other kinds of songs and failed. "I wanted to write story songs," she admits. "I tried, and I'm just not good at it."

She showed up here about five years ago fronting an electric band of Jefferson County High compadres called Soul Penny that you might have seen at the Mercury, Gryphon's, the old Ace of Clubs. At the Tomato Head, they were part of one shared bill that turned so rowdy it threatened a permanent ban on rock 'n' roll performances.

Like most teenagers, she was much more interested in appearances then. "I wore antique clothes, long, old, fragile dresses," she remembers. Her performances these days are much simpler, less pretentious.

She wandered around the UT campus for a couple of years, hoping to seem like a student, but felt desperate to get out—of UT, of Tennessee, of America. She elected to study abroad and ended up in Swansea, Wales, a place she didn't find as lyrical as its name.

"It's a city full of old people in dreary clothes, bumping into you all the time," she says. "I knew no one, and was stranded without a car. But the thing that really kept me down was the weather, gray every day."

But it may have been a provocative experience. "To say that it taught me about loneliness and suffering sounds stupid. But it really kind of did. And it taught me about where my roots are." Those roots are symbolized on her CD cover, a sepia-toned shot of summer vines entwined around an old snapshot of three impish young women with bobbed hair, circa 1925. It's Jennifer's Jellico-raised grandmother and her two sisters.

The CD, released less than two weeks ago, was produced by Niceley's distant former in-law Don Cassell, the wild man of the mandolin whose Cassell Tunes released jazz songstress Nancy Brennan Strange's Les Etoiles Mysterieuse last year. With bassist Will Byers and Cassell assisting on mandolin and dobro, they recorded Niceley's album in three sessions at Southern Sound in West Knoxville in May. She's pleased with the record, but she's not sure she likes recording. "You can't relax," she says. "I was nervous because I knew money was being spent."

On "Valentine," the plucked strings rotate the melody like a sad tune on a forgotten music box. "When I Lay Myself Down" is an old-fashioned mandolin ballad, by far the most conventional original song on the album. "Everybody says that's their favorite," says Niceley, as if she's surprised at the fact. She is for the moment resisting suggestions to move closer to the traditional genre. "Wait for the Darkness" came to her as she was driving near her home along the Holston River ("All there is to do, these sunsets, is breathe in the life/And wait for the darkness").

So she's off to Guitar City, but expect her back. She's terminally attached to her family's riverside farm in Strawberry Plains, where horses graze and 500 acres of tomatoes—and several of her songs—grow.

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