Closer Look 

Ann Tiley is making the music of her life

Ann Tiley is making the music of her life

Freeze Frames

Some people send out newsletters every Christmas for a quick update on their lives. Ann Tiley does something similar—only she makes tapes, and they’re a lot more fun. But she doesn’t send them out like newsletters or sell them at stores; you have to corner her at one of her gigs around town—at Springwater, at the Bluebird or Bluegrass Inn, or at Guido’s, where she’ll be playing this coming Wednesday night. If you start receiving the tapes, as her ardent admirers have for nearly the past decade, you’ll be able to chart a talent and a life in perpetual motion.

On 1990’s The House on Music Row, for example, Tiley reports fondly on her new digs in a dilapidated apartment house. Almost instantly, she senses she’s only the latest in a long line of residents: “Once some children probably lay/In the shadows of the streetlight there.” At the same time, she’s aware that she too will leave someday, and when she does, she’ll leave only the same vestigial traces as the previous tenants. “A few more stains are on the wall,” she sings of her legacy, “and cracks in the windows.”

Three years later, on her 1993 cassette Ann’s Nashville, she indeed trades the neighborhood of “the Koinonia and the Idle Hour” (“Leavin’ Music Row”) for a new little house near ritzy West Nashville (“Livin’ in Belle Meade”). “There’s a lady out for a jog in pink pastel with a little white dog,” Tiley exults, tongue in cheek. In between those songs she commemorates occasions as fleeting as “The First Full Moon in May” and as momentous as the sprinkling of her father’s ashes.

With her live-in partner, the dexterous multi-instrumentalist Ricky Lee Roberts, Ann Tiley has issued more than eight such homemade tapes in the past seven years. She hasn’t even bothered sending them to Music Row offices because she figures they’d wind up in somebody’s trash. Which is too bad, because the disarmingly spry, eclectic music, bolstered by Ricky Lee’s nimble fiddling and picking on a variety of string instruments—mandolin, sitar, gourd-shaped banjo—incorporates folk balladry, jug-band zaniness, Celtic and Central European musics, even Buddy Holly’s ebullient pop. To reinforce their homey, what-I-did-this-summer feel, the cassettes are often credited to “The Lee Family.” Some are illustrated with Xeroxes of Tiley’s oil paintings, which have earned their own local following.

“[Playing music] is a relief from self-awareness,” says Tiley, a dryly funny, red-haired woman who holds a Master’s in psychology from TSU. On this weekday afternoon, she sits sipping iced tea on her lunch break and gazing out the window of the Tin Angel. “A friend of mine said his only relief from self-awareness was changing a tire. You and the song have to be one thing, not two separate entities.”

Tiley’s songs, like the paintings she exhibited recently at the Margaret Cuningghim Women’s Center, are immediate and impressionistic. They pretty much have to be. The subjects she sings about—her friends, her life, current events, the crumbling buildings where history and progress collide in Nashville—are always changing. On her latest tape with Ricky Lee, Alternative-Lee, the subject matter ranges from “Bicycling in Belle Meade” to the Hale-Bopp comet, with time out for a melodramatic ode to Bullwinkle archvillain Boris Badenov.

One of the most striking pieces in Tiley’s exhibit was a small, weathered square of wood on which were painted throngs of tiny mourners. The only brightness in the painting was a single slash of light at its center. It came from the coffin bearing the body of Bill Monroe. “I loved Bill Monroe,” Tiley says. For years a devotee of the Father of Bluegrass, she snuck backstage one night to meet him at the Station Inn. Instead of having her escorted out, Monroe walked up and started to dance with her. “His death had almost the same impact on me as when my father died,” she says. “I couldn’t sing an uptempo song for three months. Losing Bill Monroe and Townes Van Zandt in one year—I’ll never quite get over it.”

The two musicians were part of the reason Tiley, a West Virginia native, wanted to move to Nashville. She started coming here in 1978 with her boyfriend. One night, he’d passed out drunk in a local bar, and a stranger gently woke him up to buy him a drink. The stranger introduced himself as Townes Van Zandt. Pretty soon afterward, Tiley and her boyfriend were hanging out regularly at Norman’s, the tiny 27th Avenue dive that became Springwater. You could find Guy Clark there, or sometimes Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, but mostly there was Townes Van Zandt. Tiley was dazzled. “I wasn’t sophisticated; I thought Townes was the best guitar player on earth,” she says. “His power, his conviction, the tone of his voice...he could always take me outside myself.”

By 1980, Tiley had moved into an apartment near Belmont. Soon she was drawn into the “bohemian existence” of the residents and hangers-on of a Cedar Street dwelling known as “the hippie house.” It was here that she met songwriters John Allingham and Tom House, and characters like Duffy Young, who lived in a closet before finding a bed on Springwater’s pool table.

By that time, the outlaw movement had waned in Nashville. But the Cedar Street mob made up for it with an iconoclastic, folkie-literary bent that made Waylon & Willie sound like Ferrante & Teicher. Tiley had never written songs before, let alone played in public. In her apartment, though, she strummed an acoustic guitar, sang, and penned a few fragile tunes. Her earliest champion was Allingham, a prickly and unusually gifted songwriter who convinced her she had talent. “He’s maybe my favorite songwriter of all time,” Tiley says of her friend, whom she depicted in a Van Gogh-like portrait soberly playing guitar. “He’s one of the first people who ever showed any interest in my music.”

In the early ’80s, Tiley’s friends Allingham, House, Rob Stanley, and Alison Mork—the last of whom achieved immortality of sorts playing the talking chair on the TV series Pee Wee’s Playhouse—started performing periodically at Springwater, their weekend hangout. They called the gigs “Working Stiff Jamborees.” While local session players and singers worked all week making music, the Jamboree’s participants made music to forget about their week at work. For Tiley, it was loose, it was fun, and it was a cheap night out with her best buddies. One Saturday night she took her guitar and joined in.

Fourteen years later, the Working Stiff Jamboree still convenes at Springwater, and Ann Tiley is usually there. Sometimes she plays with the Cherry Blossoms, a sprawling folk band that includes Allingham, Peggy Snow, Anna Ring, Laura Matter, Allen Lowrey, Chris Davis, and other Springwater regulars. She’s played virtually every club and writer’s night in town; last year she made $15 a day playing songs for four hours nonstop at the Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broadway. But she always winds up back at Springwater. “Tom House calls it the last uncensored stage in Nashville,” Tiley says. “It’s totally democratic—it’s like our night, as opposed to a more formal show.”

Until recently, she performed regularly with Ricky Lee, a fellow West Virginia native. But they’re not playing together live for a little while. “He tells me I have no rhythm, and I tell him he drags my songs,” Tiley explains bemusedly. “He blames me, and I blame him.” That won’t stop the Lee Family from making tapes. As when she paints, she says, her goal is “to communicate and to entertain,” and the risks and rewards are just as great.

“It’s like riding horses—every jump is a thrill, and you can still fall,” Ann Tiley observes. She sips her tea. “Except if you fall on your ass riding a horse, you end up in the hospital.”

Ann Tiley performs with Carole Edwards and John Allingham at Guido’s Dec. 3; on Dec. 12 she’ll perform with Edwards, Tom House, and Paul Burch at Douglas Corner.

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