This is a repost of a blog I wrote back in January 2009, but it was in a different blog and I wanted to include it in my new permanent blog here. Enjoy…it’s a heavy one!
I lost my mother on New Year’s Day 2009. She was and will always be the single most important influence in my musical life. As I deal with the excruciating pain that comes with this event, I find myself pensive and introspective about where music fits into my life and why I continue to pursue it.
I thought instead of yet another verbose email about where I am headed with my music, that I would let this email be about where the music came from. If your curious…read on.
Jennie Walker's Amazing Mom
I remember that music was always in my home. My mother, who studied opera in college, was always playing piano, or singing or listening to operas or musicals at home. She was the second generation Jennie
Louise who was musical (her mother, also named Jennie Louise, was a recongnized soprano in her day and yes, my name is Jennie Louise). She would be humming tunes from Madame Butterfly and then ask me…what opera the song came from or something harder like…what is the name of that song and what is it from? She was tricky like that. Madam Butterfly was the first opera I saw as a child…it was in Dallas, Texas. I remember those vivid costumes and the color red. We watched musicals at the theater or on TV and always bought the albums…The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, and Man of La Mancha were all household favorites and the entire family had all the lyrics memorized to the most popular songs.
My mother exposed me to many hobbies as a child…tennis, water skiing, ballet, horseback riding, ….but it was the music that really clicked with me. I started taking piano lessons at a very young age and entering competitions, and then she registered me with the Central Texas Girls Choir, which was part of the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton, Texas when I was still a pre teen. Those years in choir I learned a lot about singing in a group..realizing I preferred to be solo…and learning the politics of music even then..I got in real trouble for telling a fellow choir girl she was off key…she had to tell her mother and her mother had to tell the choir director, who had to tell my mother..who had to make me apologize to the girl….which I did….but between you and me..she was still off key! And, since I sing and perform by ear, it was hard to keep my pitch standing next to this girl. Morning Has Broken was a favorite song of the choir and Sharon Wilson, our choir director, was serious about her work.
I also remember my mom taking me to see the show “Up With People” in Temple, TX and I all but dreamed about being one of those performers on stage. My pre teen mind could not think of any thing more exciting than to be in the stage production and go on tour around the world. It was even more appealing than meeting Donny Osmond, if you can imagine that.
In 1977, I moved to Georgia from Texas, when my parents decided to go forward in life without each other. My mother started writing songs, while I was still in high school and she was curious about what
to do with her songs. Writing was an outlet for her emotions as she found herself a divorced women in the 1970s. She found out about the Atlanta Songwriters Association, which had recently formed. She joined. And, that began a process which has never ended for me…the pursuit of information to push our music forward. While working on our original music, I was busy in high school drama class and the Madrigal choir, where I was part of several competitions. I played Eve in musical The Apple Tree in high school and was also busy at our church in the plays there and later in college. (I had a drama scholarship at one point and played the female lead in What The Butler Saw.) I have photos to prove it! And, I dabbled in community theater with the musical Finian’s Rainbow (I missed out on the lead to a very tall woman who died her hair red!) I was understudy, dancer and part of the chorus.
I remember those early music industry panels in Atlanta on how to copyright a song, learning the role of a publisher, singing at an open mike night and making our first song demos. It was a very exciting time. We met many people like Tom Long (ASCAP), Harry Warner (BMI), Bill and Butch Lowery (Lowery Music Publishing Company), Steve Weaver, and even John and JoAnn Braheny. We still have Johns first songwriting book, complete with notes in the margins, dog earred pages and lost of underlines. I can still remember one of the first of many music meetings in Nashville with then ASCAP rep, Tom Long. My mother played him several songs including the famous with her friends “Male Menopause” and living room hit with the over 50 crowd, neighbors and their children “I’m Gonna Shoot You A Bird.” I still remember Tom’s face, which was straight, as he asked my mother who she could envision singing those particular songs..which artist? That was a trick question and came to the issue of what song is appropriate for which artist. And these songs were not going to fit anybody. Tom spent a long time with us and since he was one of the founders of the Atlanta Songwriters Association, I think he really wanted us to understand the process. So..we pushed on…..
My mother encouraged me to enter just about every competition she learned about. I performed in The Kiwanis Club Talent Show (I sang “New York New York” complete with top hat, tux and cane! I
entered the Miss Georgia Teen Pageant (that’s right…I won Miss Congeneality) and also sang as my talent. I would have probably won, but I had tried to highlight my hair the night before and ended up with bleached blond hair so light, that I could have been mistaken for something other than a lady. And, did not look the clean cut teenager the Pageant longed to have as their symbol. It’s one of the few pictures I keep hidden. It’s…that…bad.
My mother and I actually had some early success with a song called Many Times , which we entered in the Budweiser Rock to Riches Contest, put on by Starstream Records in 1984 and it got on the album and received regional air play. I was in college. I just about wrecked my car the day the top 40 station played the song on the radio and I heard it. I remember buying copies of the album in the local Turtles Record Store in Columbus, Georgia. I still have copies of that album…one even unopened. I auditioned for Nashville Star in the very early days and remember missing an audition for Star Search when I was torn between calling in sick for work to go, when I had literally started a new job that week. I missed the audition and I still remember it! My advice..take every opportunity no matter what! I was too green to realize that these competitions were not what was going to move me forward with my music. But they do serve a great purpose in stage time and being able to perform under pressure.
Making song demos was tons of fun in the 1980s. We used to travel to Atlanta to work with Danny and Mike at The Sound Shop. It’s funny to look back in that time and think about how green we were and how much
money we spent on those demos. Today you could get the same work for literally a fraction of the price and much better quality. I can remember listening to those cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes) of
our studio work after those sessions, driving back to Columbus from Atlanta and being just thrilled. I thought I had arrived. I had no idea just how bad those demos were! We eventually made a cassette
tape which we sold to friends and family back in the very early 1990s. I still have copies! The cassette has no bar code.
One of the songs my mother and I wrote got some attention from Lowery Music Publishing in Atlanta, GA called “Loving You” which the late Cotton Carrier really liked. He passed shortly after singing our song and not much came of it and we were so green we were not sure what we were supposed to do after we signed that agreement…like remind them about the song, see if there were any nibbles..we were terrified to dial the number! But that single song agreement gave my mother and I the courage to keep pushing forward with our music. These days, I know more about the relationships one needs with the publishers they are signed with. My new motto….let’s do lunch!
When I moved to Atlanta in 1985 I started my volunteer work with the Atlanta Songwriters Assocation. I showed up twice to meetings and was suddenly asked to be on the board. For the entire 15 years in Atlanta I worked to service and help emerging artists and songwriters learn about the business through panels, showcases, critiques and more. My mother would attend as many of these events with me as possible and volunteer her time as she could, living so far away. I eventually became Vice President and later President of the orgnaization. A labor of love and my way of giving back, which was so much a part of what my mother was all about…being from the south “service to others” was a way of life.
Years passed and I kept writing songs with my mother and then…I met someone and married a fellow musician. Those years my writing ground to a halt and it was more about performing. I was back up singer to my husband’s band and we performed his songs rather than any of mine. At some point, I started writing a few songs with him and we would perform some of those. I was background singer and took a backseat. I did not like the musical role I found myself in and neither did my mother.
When I became single again in 1998 I started writing for the first time on my own. I tried a few songs with some friends, but really wanted to see what I had to say..My own voice, so to speak. My early songs were demoed by my good friend Chip Martin, who now lives in Nashville with his amazing wife and close friend of mine Loretta Peters. They made the big leap from Atlanta to Nashville, which so many people did that I knew from that time.
I actually tried to perform country music back in the day. But for me, it just did not ring true. I did not lead a country life style, I did not identify with country music..not at this phase of my life. That’s not to say Waylon Willie and the Boys weren’t influences in my early life in Texas…they were..it’s all we listened to on the radio. But, my life in Georgia was far from Texas and Nashville and I felt like a fake when I tried to do the country songs. Besides, I wanted to be Barbra Streisand, not Dolly Parton. I remember clearly a showcase at SESAC offices where I performed a song in a showcase, sponsored by the Atlanta Songwriters Association (now, Georgia Music Industry Association). I can remember how I spent more time thinking about what to wear then on voice preparation and song choice.
I made my obligatory Bluebird Cafe debut. I have to say the hype was pretty exciting. But, you get there and realize that one songwriters night in Nashville is not going to make or break your career. It’s just another milestone and set point to cross over as you move forward. My mom was in the audience. Beeming and cheering me on. I can stil remember our drive to Nashille from Columbus, Georgia for that show…we were filled with talk of all of our musical potential….and our glass was always more than half full. I did not get discovered after that showcase…we pushed on.
Over the years our songs won songwriting awards through the Georgia Music Industry Association (formerly the Atlanta Songwriters Association) and Billboard song competitions. My mom once attended a songwriting seminar in Austin, TX where a song of hers was picked out of a panel screening for songwriting and made an example for the group of what a good song demo sounds like. It was a song we wrote called Bad News Blues and we found a singer who sounded just like Cher. The man in charge said he was going to get the song to Cher and see if their was interest. My mom was a mini celebrity for the rest of the conference and we enjoyed dreaming about our fist cut….which, did not come. We pushed on…….
We basically had just enough forward motion to keep the faith and keep trying. For me, however, it was more than that. The entire process was fullfilling and rewarding. It was not work in my eyes. It was pure joy. And, I always enjoyed a challenge and getting a song cut or and artist deal was the ultimate challenge in my mind.
Skipping forward, when I moved to New York City in 2000 I jumped into the music scene here as best I could. I attended events, met songwriters and artists and attorneys (lots of those!) and the years passed and eventually I met my producer, Tommy Faragher. We actually met at a Learning Annex panel on the music business. Meeting Tommy and working with him took my music to a completely different place. I had been mistakingly making song demos for years and realy not understanding the role of the producer and how important it was for me to begin making proper finished recordings that could be sold and eventually make an album. With as many panels as I had attended on the music business, the information on the role of the producer must have gone over my head. Its was a real missing piece to my musical puzzel in those early days. I did not know I needed a producer if I was going to sing, rather than just write songs.
If you are following the trend in my writing, you will realize that the information my mother and I needed to move our music forward was not only hard to come by, but still..without proper guidance…we wasted time and resources by having to find our way on our own, This is one of the biggest reasons I starated the Connective Series..becasue I am haunted by the fact that I did not understand what I needed to do when I was so much younger. This music business is so self taught..and we were not on a proper track like say..Berkeley or Juilliard or even the music business program of NYU or another school. We did not think in those terms.
Going through my mothers things, I found an old letter sent to us by Billy Strange. Billy’s claim to fame was as producer fo Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking.” A friend of his had a daughter who knew my sister and she got us the meeting. I was in my early 20s. I read this old letter and he actually said at the time, I had a voice that could be commercial with the right songs and the right producer. However, he did not have time to produce me at that point. I about fainted. We have this letter that was pages and pages long, where he had taken the time to critique me as a singer and my mothers songs. I remember getting the letter years ago. I don’t remember reading it with the eyes I have today. Seems to me I should have found another producer or asked for a referral from him or asked to work with him when he freed up. This did not occur to us..or me…and the opportunity to get to some real help in the industry when I was young was lost.
These days I am more focused on completing my album, and finally getting it out there. I used to say to my close friends that until each and every publisher and record label that works with popular music has turned me down twice..I had not really tried. I still believe that.
I had just taken an all night flight with my brother from Santa Barbara, California to Austin, Texas and when we came out of the airport, the New Year’s fireworks were going off in the sky. A friend came to pick us up and loan us their car, so we could rush to Temple, Texas to Scott and White Hospital. In the last moments with my mother I was alone with her in the hospital room. She was still all wired up. The unwiring comes at the very very end. The thing about life support, is you actually have to decided when the support stops. My family let me make that decision..and I waited a long time…….I told her how much I loved her and that I would work to keep the music we started alive. I was hysterical. She was not conscious. It’s hard for me to even type that out for you and not tear up. The reality has not really hit me, that my best friend, unconditional love provider and mentor in music has moved on to another phase of existence. My safe haven. My safety net. I was with her for literally the last breath and the last heart beat. They came a different times. I am on the second song inspired by her life and her love and inspiration. Most of my writing comes when something big happens to me or someone close to me. This is a big as it gets. Few things in life a final…save death.
I was unable to sing or speak at my mother’s funeral. It’s ironic that as much as I seek to be noticed or be in the spotlight that in that moment, I realized, it was not about me. As much as I was hurting, I literally did not have the strength to speak or even read lyrics to a song or in anyway talk about her music. One of my brothers, Mark Walker, was the person who spoke for the family. He too is musical and lives in Santa Barbara. He spoke beautifly about her love and read the lyrics to a song he had written about her. It was perfect. It was nice, because everyone expected me to be up there. And, I enjoy surprising people.
I learned about the memory drawer set inside the top of the casket. I put inside the first cassette tape my mother and I made in the early 1990s as well as the CD of all the songs I had written so far for my current album. It best represented what she was to me. If I could have ripped my heart out and stuffed it inside also I would have done so.
A memorial service was held in Texas for my mother a week after her funeral in Georgia In a true sign of God’s ability to heal, I was able to speak to this group and talk of my mothers love of music and our time together and her musical. She wrote a musical about the life of Martin Luther King that she never did anything with. I remember the copyright office sending special notices to be clear on what rights she was claiming since her treatment was based on the life and words of MLK, and we all know how protective the King family is of their legacy and rightly so. But, there was one song from the musical that always stood out to me. You see…my mother’s mother died two days after she was born. She was put into the arms of her Aunt and raised by her father’s sister mostly…and their was a black nanny named IDA that helped out. I have the photo. It’s amazing to see it. Here we are on the edge of history with our new African American President and it’s interesting to me to think about the musical she wrote and
that one special song..called Mamma Don’t Leave Me Now. It’s really special because its about the love of a white woman who was raised by her black nanny in the time of MLK. That’s the angle in the musical.
My mom had another black woman, named Marion, who used to care for me and my siblings over the years. Marion was a life long family friend and even cared for my mother at different times in her life when she had health issues. Other great songs she wrote…one about Rosa Parks and her famous bus ride, one about the famous march, several love songs between Coretta and Martin Luther King. One day I hope to do something with this for her. I suppose I have those 70 years everyone talks about.
A mothers love is color blind. But I have to tell you, for me, my mother was as vivid as the sunset and as glorious as the stars on a crisp clear night. She was full of life with her red hair and engaging blue eyes. She was unforgetable. Everyone who met her just loved her. Especially my friends. I am not sure I will ever live up to her expectations of me..but in 2009 I have decided to try. I am going to honor her memory by living the life she taught me and becoming the woman I know she wanted me to be..one of grace and service and humility, morals, and of course, manners. The debutant’s of 1954 knew a lot about what matters. I am very sure I was too young to understand what she wanted for me as I was growing up. But, I have a rare clarity of vision right now. My service has always been through music. But, I’m changing the tone.