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Hope Nunnery & Steve Tarshis: Press

A Top-shelf Discovery: Hope Nunnery
-- Grant Alden No Depression The top shelf of the cabinet in which I house all the music I don't know anything at all about, but which has arrived here regardless, can be a sad place. So many foolish dreams. So much stultifying mediocrity. It makes one deaf, drowns hope and joy.

And then, blinding, a glimpse at what is possible. What is hoped for. The reason I do try to listen to pieces of almost everything which comes my way.

So let me, somewhat belatedly (the album arrived in early September), introduce you to the magnificent Hope Nunnery. Though a Google search suggests she's had a bit part in a King Kong movie and now lives somewhere in New York, a clipping reproduced within her album Wilderness Lounge argues Hope Nunnery is not a stage name and that she comes from South Carolina. She is partnered with dobro player Steve Tarsshis, who produced this...debut? Is it possible that this is a debut?

Judging from the photo inside, Nunnery and Tarshis are of middle age. It seems improbable that anyone this accomplished, this assured both as a writer and a singer should only now be recording her first album. But life takes strange turns, and it is not for me to say.

Her voice has a wild, keening quality. It is astringent (an over-used, but apt word), and reminds on occasion of a somewhat mellower -- and substantially more powerful -- Catherine Irwin, from Freakwater. Her songs are bone-shaking. From the opening lamentation "All My People" through the brilliant story (something I imagine from one of Silas House's novels) within "Little Pink Radio" and "Wilderness Lounge" she offers a loose and powerful voice. More than that, the woman can flat write. And swing (see the gospel "Spare Me A Set Of Wings"). These are ancient, timeless tones. Desperate and free. Not blues, not country, not folk: All of those. Something primal and hand-shaped, and thoroughly sophisticated.

Deadline pressure make this brief, so I will finish here. I have not been so struck by a singular and original talent since the Diana Jones debut ended up on that same top shelf. And Nunnery is better.

Posted by grant on January 31, 2008 11:46 AM
Hope Nunnery
Holler of the mountains
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

Hope Nunnery has a name, a voice and a story that all seem in their own ways too good to be true. At least until you hear her talk about them. Then, like the songs on her first album, Wilderness Lounge, they just seem natural, and inhabited.

First, that name. “I got Hope, because my parents were told they couldn’t have children,” she says, waiting on a decaf coffee in an Irish bar off Times Square. “But sixteen years being married, here I come. And the nurse in the hospital said, ‘You’ve hoped for a child so long, you should name her Hope.’ So I got Judith Hope, but they always called me Hope.”

Nunnery is a not-uncommon family name in the part of South Carolina where she grew up, near Sumter. (Her mother’s people were Hatfields, she says, “which carries its own baggage.”) This was in the 1950s and ’60s, and Nunnery, who is 52, recounts a childhood drawn from a pastoral America of cotton fields and mules and church singing. And her grandmother sitting on the porch, which is where the voice comes in.

“We’d get on the porch and sing unaccompanied,” Nunnery says. “And of course we’re not Appalachian by any stretch, but when you think of those voices that you can almost hear mountain in them, she had that sort of voice. She could holler.

“I mean, I’m alive because she could holler. I got into her medicine one time and almost killed myself, I was like 3 years old. She hollered and got the nearest neighbor to come and take us to the hospital. So you can imagine it was a pretty powerful voice.”

Nunnery’s own voice is deep and wild, rich, sometimes ghostly (but in an assertive, chain-rattling way). The songs are spare and melodic, with strains of gospel, country-blues and honky-tonk. The lyrics are haunted by loss, but uplifted by glimpses of redemption, however fleeting.

On her album’s title track, Nunnery happily declares herself “an old gal singer in the Wilderness Lounge/Where seeking souls all come around.” It’s not the kind of sentiment you expect to find on a debut album, but most people don’t wait until after their 50th birthday to make a debut.

“You know what,” she says, “I don’t think my heart was big enough to write these songs twenty years ago.”

Nunnery was the first person in her family to attend college — neither of her parents finished high school — and she majored in theater almost accidentally. In the 1980s she found her way to New York, where she auditioned and worked day jobs, including as a child abuse investigator. (She currently works as a secretary.)

Her early love of music stayed with her, and along the way she began honing her craft, taking lessons in voice and music. The latter led her to Steve Tarshis, a local pro who started as her slide-guitar teacher and ended up as her bandmate.

“Once I heard her sing, my mind was blown,” says Tarshis, a self-described “Jewish guy from Westchester” who had played around town with roots-rock bands. He produced Nunnery’s album, played guitar and contributed vocals.

“I’m kind of a student of American music in general,” Tarshis says. “And the important thing about it to me is not just the preservation of it, which I think is important, but the continuation of it. What I saw in Hope was someone with a very unique ability to do that, because she’s got a foot in both worlds.”

Nunnery is very aware of the eras she spans.

“My grandmother was born in 1894, and I was born in 1955,” she says. “When you think of 1894, and New York City in 2008, I’m a product of her raising. And of the things she’d say to me, and how she’d walk with her snake stick. I’ve seen her, me and her walking up the little dirt road by the church, and her take her toe and just chop that snake in one fell swoop. Things like that you just suck into you, and you get to New York, and years pass, and they become more real than what happened yesterday.

“I think it’s a product of aging,” she continues. “I think it’s also a product of aging well. I like to say I feel like I’m doing that. I’m not afraid of being old. As a matter of fact, I feel like I’m finally coming into my own.”
Hope Nunnery’s “Wilderness Lounge” CD
--Rawson Gordon Real Country Music
Music fans enjoy seemingly infinite variety and choice these days; the connectivity of the Web enables those who wish to dig the ability to find rare jewels. Well, here is a diamond for you: Hope Nunnery. Ms. Nunnery is an awesome performer who, amazingly, seems to have delivered her debut well into her middle-age years. Her record, Wilderness Lounge, is a precious one, and deserving of a place of prominence.

Nunnery must have taken more than her share of licks growing up, for her lyrics reveal a hell of a lot of pain. The damaged child inside her emerges again and again, her longing for comfort from the holy Father irrevocably sewn to the anger and hurt dispensed by her earthly father. Now grown, Nunnery is a changeling, alternately playing the role of a soother and a bringer of wrath to those who have come to hear her play. These songs, taken together, become a vivid gallery of fractured memories and unvarnished self-portraiture, and their power to take the listener through the emotional spectrum is truly remarkable.

The sound of Wilderness Lounge is further distinguished thanks to the presence of her rock-solid sideman Steve Tarshis, who, citing Son House as an major influence, has wed Nunnery’s Appalachian voice to a Delta-blues foundation. The result is a recording that has appeal to disparate audiences, and bridges one type of rural music to another in a manner that is truly one-of-a-kind.

Every genre has its champions: Lead Belly, Roscoe Holcomb, and Hazel Dickens, for example, are held up as artists who best embody the sound of their respective places and times. Perhaps Hope Nunnery, as the years roll, will be similarly embraced, for she clearly has the talent and the presence of these artists who have come before her. Wilderness Lounge is a place where all roots-music fans should want to go.

-Rawson Gordon
Hope Nunnery, Wilderness Lounge
--Jerome Clark Rambles

From the very first cut, there can be no mistake: Hope Nunnery is not just another sweet-voiced singer-songwriter. "All My People" launches Wilderness Lounge with a fierce, androgynous wail, calling up "A sign, a sign, souls beware / Cries from the black swampy darkness... / Flesh is dropping from the bone... / Flesh and bone will be as one." This is the dank, haunted world of "Oh Death," expressed in the doom-laden tones of Dock Boggs and Ralph Stanley, only with the promise of heavenly respite after the suffering of the soul and the rotting of the body.

Southern Gothic is almost a genre in itself. Hope Nunnery's music falls roughly within the same noirish rural landscape as the Earl Brothers, a San Francisco-based oldtime/bluegrass band that also operates on the sunless side of the mountain -- except that if the Earls are about sin, Nunnery adds "and salvation" to the equation. Her music, I need to stress, is not bluegrass even by the ignorant definition often applied to white Southern roots sounds, nor is this a gospel record in any ordinary understanding of the phrase. It's more in the vein of Hazel Dickens and Olabelle Reed, like them coating no sugar over emotional truth, speaking in a language that permits no lies.

Not all of the material is self-composed, but the atmospheric distance between her astounding "Watch Man" and the venerable 19th-century hymn "Sweet Bye and Bye" (with our mutual friend Jim Watson singing harmony) is slight. Some of Nunnery's songs could have been written decades ago, some a century or more ago. Some have the resonance of 1930s country music, and other songs feel like mountain ballads or downhome blues. Nearly all are imbued with all-consuming guilt and prayed-for redemption. And yet they feel timeless, not like period pieces at all. The emotion they deliver -- in composition, voice, arrangement -- will knock you off your feet as surely as a bolt from the blue aimed straight to the heart.

Perhaps this is the sort of art no younger woman could create and carry. In one of her songs, Nunnery, who lives in Manhattan but grew up in rural South Carolina, refers to herself good-humoredly as an "old gal singer" -- she was 52 when Lounge was recorded -- and she draws from a deeper well of experience than most other, less-seasoned writers and performers do. This, rather incredibly, is her first album. It's as good as (and, perhaps because of her greater years, more consistently realized than) John Prine's legendary first album from nearly four decades ago.

A good part of the album's success owes to Steve Tarshis's production. Though a photograph shows the two of them posed in front of upright flattops, Nunnery provides only vocals, with Tarshis playing acoustic and resonator guitars, with some tasteful percussion and background singing here and there. Tarshis, whose deep schooling in traditional American music is manifest, assembles like-minded players to handle fiddle, banjo, accordion, mandolin and bass duties. The production could not be improved upon; Tarshis is almost psychically attuned to Nunnery's vision. He steps forward once to handle lead singing on his own splendid "Trouble is My Rider," inspired in more ways than one -- as anyone who has heard it will instantly recognize -- by Harry and Jeanie West's long-ago version of the traditional "Rake & Rambling Boy."

Wilderness Lounge is an exceptional, even extraordinary, recording, more than just another successful effort by a talented artist. It's no impressively accomplished approximation of the real thing, either. It is the real thing, and you should not miss it.
Hope Nunnery - Wilderness Lounge
--Patrick Donders

Hope Nunnery lives in New York but she sings like she is from a place where even the future is covered with dust.

As I listen to Wilderness Lounge I constantly have a "what is happening over here"-feeling. Sometimes it scares me, sometimes it drives me crazy, I am
amazed all the time.
--Patrick Donders

Hope Nunnery – Wilderness Lounge
Hope Nunnery. Als je zo’n naam in het telefoonboek tegenkomt dan ga je direct bellen voor geestelijke bijstand. Je zult in het telefoonboek van New York moeten kijken en dan zul je haar waarschijnlijk gewoon kunnen vinden. Ze is er niet geboren en dat is te horen. Ze groeide op waar kinderen de gospel en de countyblues met de paplepel krijgen binnengegoten. Daar waar zelfs de toekomst onder een dikke laag stof ligt. Nunnery gaat op Wilderness Lounge terug naar daar waar ze vandaan komt. Haar zang is opvallend. Laag bij de grond, door die stoflaag heen. Ze heeft geen getrainde zangstem, althans zo lijkt het. Ze gebruikt de randen van de noot en haar woorden worden regelmatig ongecontroleerd de lucht in gegooid, als 3 jongleerballen door iemand die maar met twee ballen in de lucht kan houden. Het “wat zijn we hier aan het meemaken”- gehalte is daardoor erg hoog. Het ene moment gil ik van afschuw, het volgende moment lopen de rillingen me over de rug. Nunnery is echt en de productie van Steve Tarshis is gortdroog. Het gaat dwars door al wat merg en been is.
--(Patrick Donders)