Glenna Bell seems to have stepped out of another time. Her resonant voice and thoughtful, nuanced words lend her music a refreshing, yet timeless quality that few alt country performers can boast these days. With her roots planted firmly in the rural Texas locale that gave us George Jones and Janis Joplin, she told us how she connects with some classic American folk songs while trying to write a few of her own.
This former rodeo gal turned academic, studying at Texas A&M University, and at the University of Houston, where Edward Albee taught her to write plays. Her 2010 album is called Perfectly Legal: Songs of Sex, Love and Murder.
This former rodeo gal turned academic, studying at Texas A&M University, and at the University of Houston, where Edward Albee taught her to write plays. Her 2010 album is called Perfectly Legal: Songs of Sex, Love and Murder.
Maggie Grimason (Songfacts): So many of your songs — both originals and covers — are about women jilted by their men. Do you feel a kinship with these women? Are any of these songs autobiographical?
Glenna Bell: This is a thought-provoking question. The idea of a woman being jilted by her man first brings to mind the introductory track of Perfectly Legal, "Frankie And Johnny," which is a classic American folk song that, arguably, dates all the way back to Civil War days. I suppose I've always been drawn to that which is classic, which is perhaps why I've written and recorded a number of songs about lost love. There is perhaps nothing more basic or archetypal than such a theme; it is universal. I remember the first song that ever inspired me to want to write. I was about fourteen, and it was Buddy Holly's "Raining in My Heart." Wow. The lyrics really moved me, and awakened something very deep within me — a most primal sense of sadness, of longing and loss. It made my heart literally ache. I don't know if my songs are so much about women being jilted by men, but let's say that some of them are within the tradition of the lover's lament, which has been a well spring for countless great songs by both male and female artists because they speak to everyone. We all know how it feels to love and lose.
Songfacts: Are there any other laments that have inspired you?
Glenna: Many. However, my two favorites at the moment are a Justin Townes Earle song that I believe is called "Someday I'll be Forgiven" and L. Cohen's "Hallelujah" (Jeff Buckley's version).
Songfacts: As a playwright, you must be skilled with creating fictions. How does your background in theater influence your writing and recording process?
Glenna: Yes, it is true — playwrights must be skilled that way. I believe that my playwriting background has made me better at defining a character through a song's lyrics and through my live and studio performances of the song, as well. Examples that come to mind are the two murder songs on the album: "Frankie and Johnny" and "The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz," which is an original that I wrote in a small kitchen at the edge of NYC on a bitterly cold day in January of 2009. As I developed the character of the first-person narrator, who was influenced by a television episode I'd seen about a preacher's wife who was the victim of domestic abuse, I found myself drawing on my playwriting background as I fleshed out the context. I wrote the song in about a half an hour or so but then spent some time refining her persona and situation. I've noticed that the more I perform a song live, the more I begin to become the character, perhaps because I begin to feel that I know her better, having spent more time together. In "Frankie and Johnny," I identify with the narrator's suspicion that something is amiss with her dear Johnny: "He's my man—I know he's doing me wrong," she says to the officious bartender. I can relate to the moment of trepidation she experiences when she "look[s] up over the transom," to have her suspicions confirmed as she sees her beloved one with another, and to the resolve that she summons as she pulls the trigger three times, shooting her lover "rooty toot toot" right through the hardwood door. I can understand the heightening frenzy that consumes her as she expresses the kind of self-destructive grief that could only be experienced by one who's been betrayed by someone closest and dearest, a King Lear sort of outcry of utter despair: "Call out a thousand policemen, bring 'em around today, lock me down in the dungeon cell and throw the key away." And I am with her all the way at the denouement, where her frenzy subsides as the reality of her predicament sets in and she is struck by the acute recognition that her fate is sealed, which is confirmed by the unsympathetic warden. I've noticed that the narrators of both "The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz" and "Frankie and Johnny" have something in common, which is that they are motivated by a strong emotional impulse that momentarily overpowers reason — it is very human, thus very easy to deliver convincingly. Jeff Eyrich, who accompanied me on upright bass at the Living Room CD release show in NYC, remarked that when I perform the songs it seems as if I really "am" these characters, as if I actually experienced those things. Well, of course, I've never committed homicide, but as I've performed the songs again and again, I have come to empathize with the plight of each song's tragic hero. They've taken on a life of their own for me, and when I sing their songs, I feel that I am breathing life into these women's stories.
Songfacts: Do you have experience in acting, as well? Or is it just in your storyteller's nature to assume these rolls?
(Glenna playing "Cougar Anthem")
Glenna: No, I have no formal acting experience. I like the way you put it — it must be my "storyteller's nature" that causes me to act this way! Hah!
Songfacts: How does the process of writing a song differ from writing a play for you?
Glenna: My songwriting springs from the heart and is refined by the head. My playwriting is about half heart and half head.
Songfacts: Some theatre friends of mine were very interested in your album's dedication to Edward Albee. Can you describe how he has influenced your music?
Glenna: I've described this album as a musical and theatrical journey through a series of stripped-down songs that document the seldom-told stories of a real woman living a real life at the turn of the twenty-first century. I dedicated it to Edward Albee because it reminds me of my days as a student at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program when I studied minimalist theater and playwriting with Mr. Albee, who ultimately directed my dissertation, which is a collection of plays that I wrote, which were performed on different stages here in Houston. Mr. Albee was, is, and always will be one of the greatest inspirations in my life. I will never forget what all he taught me, not so much about playwriting, but about life and art in general. Some of the things he said took me a few years to figure out, and then at unexpected moments I'd remember his words and say something like, "Oh, so that's what Mr. Albee was talking about." He said that music is a combination of sound and silence. And he said that one has to be a playwright because he cannot not be a playwright, which I believe goes for musicians, too, and artists in general. He said so many insightful things through the years. It would be impossible to recount them all here. But lately I've noticed that off and on I seem to recall a line from "The Zoo Story": "Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly." That is the story of my life and my music. And Mr. Albee helped put me on the long, winding path to my dreams by believing in me, and giving me the confidence to set forth on this road less traveled. To me, he's a hero. One of the last truly great American writers.
Songfacts: Have you been actively writing plays lately as well as songs and music? Can storytelling in song ever possibly become a satisfying outlet for both your playwright's and musician's sensibilities?
Glenna: The music is virtually all consuming, so I haven't been writing plays. There's just not enough time to dedicate to doing both; however, I've noticed that the songwriting and performance does fulfill that part of me, and I plan to eventually get back to playwriting.
Songfacts: Your voice is very rich and distinctive; what other singers have you drawn from or have inspired you as you developed your own unique style?
Glenna: Well, that's a good question. I've often wondered who are my influences. I don't remember making any conscious effort to sing like any one, but I do recall trying to sing like everyone, meaning everybody who was being played on mainstream country radio in east Texas in the mid to late seventies when I was a young girl, and of course Elvis. I also tried to sing like everybody at church. We were members of a small congregation in the woods of Lumberton, Texas outside of Beaumont, and at our church there was no instrumentation or choir. Everyone sang together with only a song leader up front. So I would find myself trying to sing along with the soprano behind me or the bass across the way or my mother who sang alto or father who sang tenor. What I remember most about those years of my early childhood on into my teens was just singing — all the time, you would find me singing wherever I might be. An interesting side note is that over the last few years I've been getting a lot of comparisons to Janis Joplin, who is from Port Arthur, which is part of the Golden Triangle, along with Orange and Beaumont, my birthplace and hometown. Sadly, I never heard much Janis growing up because she wasn't embraced in that part of the world at that time due to her lifestyle, so I was somewhat taken aback when I first started hearing these comparisons. After playing to a packed house at the original Threadgill's in Austin, where Janis got her start before moving to San Francisco, I was amazed and flattered when long-time patrons in their sixties and seventies began approaching me after my set to meet me and to let me know that, as one woman remarked, I was the closest thing to Janis Joplin that she had seen on that stage since the last time Janis herself had performed there forty some odd years ago. I was inspired to learn more about Janis, so I bought a greatest hits CD, along with the insightful biography, Buried Alive by Myra Friedman. Most incredibly, I discovered that there are many uncanny similarities between the circumstances and progression of her life and mine.
Songfacts: How did growing up in East Texas help to mold you into an artist? Some people would not see it as a breeding ground for creativity.
Glenna: It's true some might not see it as a breeding ground for creativity, yet in fact it is very much so, and that's what makes it such an interesting question to ponder. I've been increasingly intrigued by the notion that so much great talent has come out of the small enclave that is the Golden Triangle in east Texas (Beaumont, Orange, Port Arthur). Janis Joplin, George Jones, The Big Bopper, Barbara Lynn, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and many more... even the visual artist, Robert Rauschenberg hails from Port Arthur. In fact, in the first chapter of Buried Alive the biographer addresses this very question in an insightful way, examining the social circumstances that contributed to the phenomenon that was Janis Joplin, and I believe we could extrapolate to many of the others, including myself, as well. She examines the diverse musical influences, with the Golden Triangle situated in Texas but located in very close proximity to Louisiana, and she explores the intense familial and social pressures faced by aspiring artists growing up in that area where the arts, especially music, are discouraged, even squelched, due to the deeply-ingrained fear that such pursuits are bound to lead down the age-old wayward path to the clubs, the bars, the honkytonks, juke joints, speakeasies, and eventually to hellfire, brimstone, and immortal damnation. It seems to me that what compels us must be the endless push and pull — the ever-tempting, ever-forbidden fruit that is self expression through song, through art.
Songfacts: When you first started singing (outside of church, of course) did you meet any opposition?
Glenna: At first my mother was skeptical and dad was his usual silent self, but my parents have never adamantly opposed my music — it's just something that we didn't talk about for years until I decided to "come out of the closet," figuratively speaking. I'll admit that it was (and still is) somewhat hurtful to me that they don't attend my shows, but they have been enjoying my recordings, especially my version of Willie Nelson's "The Family Bible" and the duets with John Evans. Now that they see I'm not on the road to spiritual and physical destruction, I believe they're more comfortable with it. There's even a picture of my family and me on my Web site, which was taken at the Capitol in Austin when I received the House Resolution for my music in 2007.
Songfacts: Your album was recorded in four acts and four locations. How did the different places influence your sound?
Glenna: I like this question. Through the years, I've noticed that the energy of each different space affects every performance in a visceral way. I recorded the first three tracks of Perfectly Legal at my friend Jimmy Pizzitola's 1940's era family ranch in Stafford, Texas, which served as a dance hall and gathering place for locals in days of old when the walls resonated with the tunes of the great Western Swing bands that graced its stage. As I belted out the Civil War era American folk classic, "Frankie and Johnny," crooned away on Sam Cook's "Lost and Lookin'" (by J.W. Alexander), and recorded a magical first-take of my song, "These Days," surrounded by decades of Texas history and memorabilia, I acutely sensed the distinct presence of those bygone, kindred souls who traveled the back roads of rural Texas when the world was a much different place. I'll never forget that. Jimmy produced and engineered the session on home recording equipment, and it came off with all of the raw energy and the unproduced feel that executive producer, Kevin "Big Kev" Ploghoft, had envisioned for this album. Similarly, Sugar Hill Studios in Houston (where I recorded track 8, "The Cougar Anthem," as well as my previous two albums) has a lot of history behind it and an almost tangible energy that really came through whenever I used to record, standing atop the gold star that was painted on the floor, which represented the studio's original name back in the forties. Unfortunately, the studio recently made the decision to update, and they carpeted over this important historical feature. The Big Bopper recorded "Chantilly Lace" there, George Jones laid down some of his first vocal performances and Freddie Fender recorded "Before the Next Tear Drop Falls" in that studio. The great thing about Sugar Hill, besides the history, is the incredible sound, especially the vocal takes, which can only be captured in a professional studio with high-caliber equipment, such as Sugar Hill's vintage mic's from Germany. (Of course, this kind of studio recording is almost a thing of the past these days.) We traveled to the Congress House Studio, a few hours west of Houston to record Tracks 4-6 during SXSW 2010. Congress House is situated in a humble, old wood frame house on South Congress Avenue at the outskirts of Austin. Ani DiFranco, along with a slew of music-scene insiders, have made their mark behind the mic's of this unassuming studio. What I remember most about the place was a basic, homey quality, which was enhanced by the presence of John Evans, my long-time musical collaborator who produced the Congress House tracks, as well as "The Cougar Anthem" at Sugar Hill. John brought members of his band and Hayes Carll's band, and we just kicked back for a couple of days and had a lot of fun hanging out, cutting up, and eating pizza, which is a tradition whenever I record with John. It was so good to see John Evans who's been on the road a lot lately, and I believe the sense of "re-union" must have come through most clearly on "Honky Tonk Man," by Dewayne Blackwell, which we sang as a duet — that was Big Kev's idea. (I also had the opportunity to use my playwriting background as I worked on a rewrite of the title song to the Clint Eastwood movie from the early eighties.) "Big Kev" was recorded live at about midnight, capping off our session. We were all giddy by then, and really let loose and had some fun with it. The whole recording experience was very real; it reminded me of the times my extended family, the Reeses, in east Texas would all get together and sing and play in the living room or church gathering room when I was quite young. And that was the best part about Congress House. It felt like home—natural, real and unadorned, which was apparent on the recording. Track 7, "The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz," was recorded at the WXLV radio studios in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. I wrote the song in a small kitchen at the edge of NYC on a bitterly cold day in January, and I believe the experience of recording it at a radio studio accentuated the feeling of claustrophobia, confinement and entrapment that suits the song's setting, mood and theme.
Songfacts: Where was your favorite place to record?
Glenna: Jimmy Pizzitola's 1940's era family ranch in Stafford, Texas, near my home in downtown Houston
Songfacts: Is the rollicking, flirty tune "Big Kev" really about act three producer Kevin Ploghoft?
Glenna: Yes! Big Kev was an ever-constant presence on this album.
Songfacts: You spoke very briefly about "These Days." It is one of my favorite tracks on your album. Can you tell us more about how you wrote this song and what it means to you?
Glenna: Yes. First, I would like to say that I'm so glad you noticed that song. It is very special to me, but it has not drawn as much attention as "The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz," "The Cougar Anthem," and "Honky Tonk Man." The inspiration for "These Days" is my "Auntie" (Cherry Mae Reese) who passed away in August of 2003. Auntie led a dynamic life. She came of age during WWII, and I'll never forget a Christmas Eve about ten years ago when she and I stayed up late after everyone else had gone to sleep, and she recounted the days of her youth for me in the glow of Christmas tree lights. She told me what it was like to be the oldest of five with a mother who was a homemaker and a father who delivered laundry. How it was very important for her to help support the family after high school during those hard times. How she went out looking for work and finally found a place as a stenographer at Sabine River Works, where they made steel for the war ships. She was the light in my life — one of those rare people who is so real with no pretenses, and never a critical word about anyone, always looking for the best in every situation. My younger sister, Susan, and I would stay at Auntie's house in Orange when our parents were traveling, and that's where we discovered Elvis and sang along to songs like "Please Pass the Biscuits," "Sugar Time," and "This Old House." Those were my favorites back then; today, I have her vast record collection that includes everything from Dave Brubeck to Liberace. And she was an amazing storyteller. I'm sure that I acquired that knack at the foot of her easy chair where she regaled us kids with the Cajun jokes that have always been so popular in east Texas, as well as the tales of her youth in the Golden Triangle, not to mention her readings of the local obituaries every morning over Sanka! She was an amazing mental archivist of our family history, recalling all of the important dates and the funny things that each one of us had said when we were little. She bought a camera in the fifties and began recording our history through photography and home movies. (There's even one from the fifties with Robert Mitchum!) Auntie had a lovely smile and a lovely nature. She was gentle, well spoken, and genuine. My mother told me that when Auntie was young she was considered one of the most attractive women in Orange. She went on dates to the USO and had plenty of chances to marry, but Mama said "she was picky." Auntie never opened up to me about whatever problems with which she might have struggled, but a couple of times she mentioned a young man she had known. His name was Fred. When Auntie passed away at the age of 81 after a year-long illness, my uncle discovered a time-worn black and white picture of Fred in her purse, which had been there for more than fifty years. It was only then that I realized just what Fred had meant to her, and I was overcome with grief. My Auntie was a beautiful dreamer. She taught me to pretend. She had a lovely voice and played the piano. Not long after she passed away, I was playing and singing for an old friend on the porch one day, just trying to divert myself from my sadness. My friend remarked that I'd missed my calling. That's the moment that I decided to commit to music. I knew I couldn't go to my grave wondering what could have been. I will always love my Auntie. I will never get over her loss.
Songfacts: When you're not writing plays and playing music, what do you spend your time doing? What inspires you?
Glenna: Well, there isn't much time these days, but when I take a break from it all, I really love to go to a place with history and/or atmosphere — such as a cafe in San Marcos, which is a small, Texas river town outside of Austin, or a certain coffee house in inner city Houston or my favorite place for egg salad in Kearny, New Jersey, Subs Galore — and just sip hot coffee, read for hours, and chat with an occasional stranger who happens my way.
Songfacts: Is there a tour in the works to promote Perfectly Legal?
Glenna: At the moment, we're focusing on the East Coast — that's where I really want to be these days, especially New York — because of the great history, art, and especially the myriad listening rooms across the New England States. I want to become a part of that important cultural scene. I played the Living Room in November, and it was all that I had imagined it would be, and we're setting up another show there in the near future, and more. I would like to encourage people to sign up for my music newsletter on the home page at glennabell.com so that I can keep everybody posted. I send out an email about once or twice a month that I actually write in the form of a friendly letter. It's modeled after the newsletter that I used to get as a child when I showed Welsh ponies and was a proud member of the Gulf Coast Welsh Pony Association. Very old school—they were actually typed on a typewriter and carbon copied, I believe. Hand made. I still have some issues, and they're really precious to me. Not long ago, I discovered that Johnny Cash also had a newsletter like that near the beginning of his career.
Songfacts: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and musicians?
Glenna: The music business is losing more money than ever on all sides. Read the ASCAP Daily Briefs. Every overnight success takes about ten years of commitment and hard work—there are no guarantees. Only do music because you can't not do music. Don't expect anything to come of it. Use music and writing as a way to befriend other likeminded people. Don't be a fake. Don't follow the formula. There is no one way "to make it"—it is a personal journey. At last, you will have a body of work that authentically represents your life experience. And you will have many happy memories to take with you in the end.