Melonie Cannon’s new CD, And The Wheels Turn – her first with Rural Rhythm Records – isn’t due until October 7, but there is a good bit of buzz building up already. A single, I Call It Gone, has been circulated to bluegrass radio and word of a duet video with Willie Nelson has just slipped out.
I had a chance recently to discuss all this with Melonie, and her excitement about the new project was evident throughout our conversation.
“We just wanted to make a record as good or better as the last one. I found a place for my voice that feels like home in acoustic music, and I don’t want to change it. This is the most natural and organic I’ve ever felt about my singing in my life.”
She had one previous self-titled release on Skaggs Family Records in 2004, and my impression of her was based solely on the glamour photos that had been associated with that project. I had expected an urbane, sophisticated woman-of-the-world, but when we first spoke, the voice I heard was as country as they come.
“Lord no… I’m the furthest thing from that glamour image! Shoot, I’m the biggest redneck there is.”
Melonie comes by her music chops naturally. Her dad is Nashville songwriting and producing legend, Buddy Cannon, whose credits include work with Shania Twain, Vern Gosdin and Mel Tillis. She grew up around country music and top country singers, but discovered bluegrass on her own as a girl.
“I was raised in the country world, and that was the music I heard. My dad worked for Mel Tillis when we were young, and I grew up with his kids – Pam Tillis was our baby sitter.
Still, my family had connections to bluegrass from way back. Daddy played in bluegrass bands in Lexington before he started playing country. My great uncle Dalton Tate gave my dad his first guitar, and he was a bluegrasser. He and his friends – all in their 80s – still get together every week to pick and sing.
I went to school with Deanie Richardson [New Coon Creek Girls/Patty Loveless] since first grade, and later married her brother. She started teaching me songs from the bluegrass and folk world when we were teenagers.
One day her brother took me to The Station Inn and Alison Krauss was playing. She was 16 and I was 15, and from that moment on, the music forever changed my life. Every time they started a song, it sounded like a record. I thought, ‘how do they do that?’
It was like I had walked into the twilight zone. I went and got her records and for the rest of my high school, this was the music I connected with.
Then I started finding artists like Dale Ann Bradley, and she is now one of my favorite singers. I found Del McCoury, and I got into him and Ricky Skaggs’ band. After a while I started digging, and found The Stanley Brothers and the first generation artists. The old Lonesome River Band was another huge influence.”
And The Wheels Turn shows how well she has merged the country and bluegrass influences into her own distinctive sound. Many of the songs are ones that could be cut by country artists, but the arrangements here are acoustic, using the traditional bluegrass instruments.
“The sound of these instruments is soothing to my ears – it’s like heaven to me. I don’t care what they call it – bluegrass, acoustic, country – people can just listen to what they like.”
The star of the show, of course, is Cannon’s voice. She sings with a unaffected purity that is right at home in a bluegrass setting, and blends beautifully with Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman and Sonya Isaacs who sing with her on the new album.
Bowman also contributed three songs to the project. Send A Little Love, Mary Magdalene and I’ve Seen Enough Of What’s Behind Me were all co-written by him. Melonie is credited as a co-writer on three as well, and her dad on two.
One of Buddy’s song which she covers here is the honky tonk classic, Set ‘Em Up Joe, originally recorded by Vern Gosdin in 1988. It fits just fine with banjo, dobro, mandolin and fiddle – just like it was written that way.
It’s a special song for Melonie, and may have been instrumental in her becoming a singer.
“I started out doing this one in the live show a couple years ago. The band loved it on stage and they kept saying that I should record it – as a tip of the hat to my Daddy. I had the chance to sing it on the Opry, and the house came down. Then, I got to tell them that my dad wrote it.
I used to sing this all the time when I was a kid (13-14), but my dad used to drink back then and never really took note. I would plug a mic into an amp and sing along with the record down in the basement.
One day Vern was at the house and said to Daddy, ‘Do you know that kid can sing down there?’ Daddy brought me up and we sang together for the next few hours. They taught me how to sing harmony, what it meant, how it felt.
If it wasn’t for Vern, I don’t know if Daddy would ever have pulled me up from that basement.”
A couple of the songs are flat-out bluegrass where the talents of Adam Steffey, Randy Kohrs, Tim Stafford, Wyatt Rice, Aubrey Haynie, Jody King, Barry Bales and Deanie Richardson really shine.
Melonie shows her vocal chops on the aforementioned Mary Magdalene (Why You Cryin’), which captures an old time Gospel feel – complete with improvised shouts in the background. The chorus was composed of Sonya Isaacs, Tim Stafford, Ronnie and Garnet Bowman, Buddy Cannon, Melonie and Dan Tyminski.
“That session was so much fun. We were sitting around reading the Bible, writing, laughing and having a big Hoohaw.
Sonya and Ronnie had the idea for the arrangement. We set a microphone in the middle of the room, and the two of them got in the corners of the room and just ad libbed those hollers.
I always wanted a to have a Gospel tune about the strong women of The Bible, and a lot of people don’t think much about Mary Magdalene.”
Picking up on that theme, I had noticed that half of the songs on And The Wheels Turn were written or co-written by female composers, and that the themes of the songs were told from a woman’s perspective.
“I’m attracted to strong women songs – guess that’s the tom boy in me. I’m the mother of two boys and I have a husband, a male dog and a male bird. I have to stand up for me, and I respect women who do that.
I end up choosing songs with a great message that speak to me.”
We’ll have more tomorrow from this conversation with Melonie Cannon, including details about her duet – and video shoot – with Willie Nelson.