Michael Buckley Interviews Linda Nelson
Linda Nelson is a singer/songwriter with soft and soulful southern accent. She was born and raised the fifth of seven kids in Baltimore County, a rural area as close to the Mason Dixon Line as it is to the city of the same name. “My folks are from Alabama (dad) and Memphis (mom).
Before Linda was born her father, Andy Nelson, was a star player with the Johnny Unitas led championship Baltimore Colts (1957-1964). (In fact, Johnny U. and Andy Nelson roomed together.) Those same qualities of talent, dedication, teamwork and success have clearly migrated from parents to daughter.
Linda started playing guitar when she was just a teenager. “I had been writing songs on the lane to the mailbox, so when I got a guitar I just started writing songs all the time,” she remembers. Her first inauspicious public performance was at a Tupperware party. In high school things got a bit more ambitious when Linda answered a City Paper ad for a singer (“no Emmylou look-a-likes!”) and won the job with a band of Hopkins students called the Zumbuzie Warriors. Her second gig with the Warriors was on TV at the Hopkins Fair. “(I was) shaking in my boots,” she painfully remembers.
The band gig morphed into a smaller, perhaps more manageable act called the Rising Sun trio with Doug Boardman and Craig Muller. But soon the young musician caught the traveling bug and moved down to the beaches along the Outer Banks of Carolina, and then on to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands where she played solo gigs in the sun. After some tough breaks and inner turmoil took hold, Linda’s musical career lay dormant for about six years.
As luck would have it, Linda Nelson is a survivor. “I came out of that with much grist for the mill and a waterfall of writing led to the idea of finally recording my songs,” she reflects. Linda connected with Billy Kemp, a versatile and well-schooled Baltimore musician, who agreed to produce her first album. 2 1/2 years later, in 1998, she released Waterdance. “That first record was like a college education,” she said. “I was so green. This one got recorded because I wanted to have good versions of a few songs I had written about a friend that had passed away, to give to his brother.” The Waterdance project was also healing therapy for Linda herself, an opportunity to move forward personally and musically, and a chance to work with some of the city’s finest musicians. Along with Billy Kemp, Linda was joined in the studio by drummer Jack Odell (Bill Kirchen), and the inseparable Barry Sless and Mookie Siegel (David Nelson Band, Phil and Friends).
In 2002, another door opened for Linda Nelson when she met Baltimore engineer/producer John Grant, owner of the storied Secret Sound Studios. The pair went on to record Linda’s second release, Molasses, completed in 2002, self produced by Linda with Grant as co-producer. “John Grant has been around along time, she offers. “He’s got such a great reputation. On top of that he’s got seven children, which is amazing. John always has this ad in Music Monthly, a just ‘ask around’ kind of thing, and that’s him in a nutshell. He’s a pretty humble guy. John is easy to work with. He’s one of those guys that are good to have in your camp when you’re making a record. He’s a good spirit.”
All of the best musicians look to other instruments for inspiration and opportunities to expand their musical vision. Linda Nelson set out in search of the lost riddem. “I love sounds and percussion so I went exploring,” she recalls. She studied drums and percussion with John Thomakos, and attended an eye-opening, life-changing workshop at the Omega Institute in Upstate New York led by the legendary Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, famous for his seminal Drums of Passion.
By 2005 it was time again for Linda to return to the studio, again with John Grant, armed with a new set of songs. Along with Grant, the sessions included a new guitar player and vocalist named Rob Thorworth. The Wilderness project took off. “Rob Thorworth is from Alabama and he moved up here maybe five years ago, I guess,” said Linda. “My dad’s from Athens, Alabama, so we’re sort of soul brother and sister. There are just so many things about him that are familiar. His style just feels extremely comfortable, really easy. We think alike and we’re kind of from the same hill of clay,” she exclaimed. “I think he has a lot of the same musical ideas that I do. Often times he would be saying something and it would be the exact same thought I would have about a song. Those are people you want around you when you’re recording. He was game, so I lucked out.”
Wilderness is a collection of stories with the common theme of “wilderness” of the heart and soul, “…the spirited kind that gets you out into the open air.” Protecting the natural environment, the other wilderness, also played a big part on this project, reflected by Linda’s decision to donate a portion of the album proceeds to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The title track from Wilderness is culled from a Sebastian Junger story about a whale hunter who lived in Bequa. Another big influence was the movie Jeremiah Johnson (Linda’s favorite), which led to the tunes “Hatchet Jack” and “Hollerin’ Out.”
Linda Nelson’s latest project, Might, is her most ambitious yet, both musically and thematically. Rock songwriters Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have professed a fascination with the Civil War. Linda Nelson also took to reading history books. She dove in dark and deep with severely challenging fare such as Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, and Night by Elie Wiesel. “I could not finish this book,” she readily admits. “I tried but it was too difficult. So this is when I started writing prayers, I guess.” The first song on Might, called “Night” is a result of this reading. “Night is a common thread which means many things to someone looking to escape,” she reveals.
The guiding light for Linda Nelson in the making of this album, Might, is a book called Harriet Tubman, Imagining a Life by Beverly Lowry which harkens back to the slavery years and the Underground Railroad. “That book about Harriet really started the engine on the project,” Linda confesses. “I had no idea Harriet was such rounded person. She made pies and root beer, and did a one-woman show to fund her escapes. Harriet was savvy in addition to having incredible bravery and intuition, and unshakeable faith,” declares Linda. “All this all on top of being such a bad ass!!”
The song “Might” is about strength and about the spirituals. Spirituals are prayer songs from that pre-Civil War era, written during the climax of the American slavery years, at the point of no return when the national situation had to change. Linda culled a deeper understanding about the songs known far and wide as “spirituals” from a website created by Arthur Jones called Sweet Chariot, the Story of the Spirituals. “The spirituals were an amazing part of what grew out of slavery,” she says. “It was a way for (slaves and free negros, as they called them) to communicate and to heal through the process of singing. They were able to encode, or just sing, where they were going to be, or sing if there was danger. It was a way for them to connect to God to give them strength,” she continues. “It’s pretty powerful stuff. It grew out of slavery, and gospel came after that. …they kind of outsmarted (slave owners); they found a window that they could go through with the spirituals and it was extremely smart…and beautiful. Music is so healing, and for this piece of their history to be such a huge part of their freedom I think is amazing.”
The beautiful classical quartet intro on the song “Might” is a nod to the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony. Linda was recording guitar and vocal parts for both “Might” and another song called “Josiah” on that historic inauguration day. “I had been working on the project for over a year and was aware of Obama and his run for President,” she remembers. “But to actually witness his election when I was so steeped in this history… it was a good day in the studio. I even changed a line in one of the songs because for the first time I could see this arc from 1850’s to today.”
Might is an epic record with all the twists and turns of great journey.
Another tune, “Barn Fire” is about the quest for return to terra firma. “Sometimes you just have to start over, have a cleansing. It’s a destructive thing (burning down the barn), but sometimes there’s got to be destruction. You have to uproot in order to start over. That is a pretty powerful thing to do. I related to that, (but) I thought, ‘this one’s not about me.’ It’s about all these books I’ve been reading. But you always put part of your life in these projects and these songs, and being able to empathize.”
“Josiah Bailey,” the subject of another song on the Might album, called out to Linda. “…he would not be denied, she says with a mystified tip of the lip. “I just had read about him and was so touched by his story. He was a man that lived off of Jamaica Point on the Choptank River, she explains. “He was a slave, a $2,000 slave. He was head of the harvest, and, he was head of the timber. He was really strong and smart. He was owned by a man and rented out by a guy who had a shipyard. He’d worked for this man for years and when he bought him the first thing he did was whip him, and he had never done that before. And so (Josiah) decided that that was the last time that was going to happen,” she continues. “He got in a boat and rode six miles north to Poplar Neck and told Harriett Tubman’s parents that when she came he wanted to go with her. And shortly after that she did come, and he was with her with three other people and his brother, a guy named Peter Pennington, and this woman. And it was a really, really tricky escape because he was so valuable and the other guy, Peter, was as well. So they were really after them; there was a big bounty on their heads. So it was a long, long road to get there. (Josiah) was really having a hard time with the whole thing because he knew that it was going to be tough to get up there. But they did. So that’s where that song came from. It’s just in every book I ever read about (Harriett Tubman). She was there at the right time. Most of these escapes took place in late November, pretty much 1850 to about 1861 when the Civil War started. For about eleven years she did that, and always in the winter because the days were shorter and you had a lot of night. They always traveled at night. And the fist half of the record, I’d say, takes place at night.”
“Songs and Messengers” came about from another Sebastian Junger article that was written about Sierra Leone, present day or a couple years back, an experience that he had there. These days, Sebastian Junger writes for Vanity Fair. He’s a good writer and some of the stuff I have a difficult time with, just because of the subject. He was a war correspondent. “His writing really speaks to me, she says. “But some of the subject matter’s pretty intense… Afghanistan and things like that.” For this story Junger had traveled to the West African island of Sierra Leone and encountered a rebel roadblock. “He had gotten stopped at a road stop and there was a big group of rebels,” explains Linda. “And for some reason he thought, ‘this is different from other times I’ve been through this.’ And as it took longer and longer for (the rebels) to let them go through (Junger) realized that this might be it. That this is going to be the day that he dies. He distills it into this article and it really magnifies it. I just thought that it was a powerful little piece that he wrote and I got this song out of it.”
Another literary masterpiece inspired Linda Nelson to look into the dark side of human history and write about the struggles of slavery and oppression. The book is The Slave Ship written by Marcus Rediker. The closing song, called “Boat Out On The Sea,” is a tribute to honor the people of the Middle Passage who lived thru something so difficult to even read about.
“From the beginning this record has felt like a prayer,” says Linda. “I dove into some historical books and came up with the songs that are on this record. I’m humbled with a deeper understanding and respect for freedom and the amount of strength, mental stamina and courage it takes to fight for it. I’m sending this one out to all people that fought and suffered oppression; to those that fought and found freedom, and to those that could not.
When not writing, performing or recording this amazing music, Linda Nelson works with her family’s business as a dessert chef and cook. She also appears as the lead singer for the Jody West Band performing old swing, funky soul, and rock and roll favorites. Linda still travels and performs each year on St. Barths in the Caribbean and likes to trail run, practice yoga, and throw the football around.
— Michael Buckley