Most folksingers and purveyors of roots music view the human voice as little more than a vehicle for the stories they’ve set to melody. But not Tomi Lunsford. On her beguiling debut, High Ground, recently released on the German label Veracity, Lunsford uses her liquid soprano to convey meanings beyond the ones contained in her lyrics. When she draws the first syllable of the word “Alabama” out over several measures, she ghosts a fiddle run. When she wails the word “well” to open “Wind Blew Cold,” she conjures the freight train whistle that lured the song’s jilted lover on his drunken spree. More than just singing in service of the lyrics, Lunsford exults in the musical possibilities inherent in the human voice.
“When you’re singing a song with words, the words are crucial, of course,” the North Carolina-transplant observes. “But I’m also trying to express the words as music. Some of the poet songwriters neglect that element; they leave the music to the instrumentalists. But to me, the voice is the total packageit’s that expressive.”
Lunsford attributes much of her vocal technique to having grown up around pickers. Her late father, Jim Lunsford, played fiddle with such country and bluegrass legends as Bob Wills, Reno & Smiley, and Roy Acuff. Her great-uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” wrote the standards “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” and “Old Mountain Dew”; he was a repository of some 300 ballads, songs, and fiddle and banjo tunes. Mandolin great Red Rector and the old-timey duo Wiley and Zeke Morris were also regulars at the Lunsford house.
“Bluegrass was everywhere,” the singer explains. “But lots of other stuff too.” Lunsford expresses a particular fondness for the sound of the steel guitar, and for jazz and instrumental music. “I’m really into the flow of melody,” she says, “you know, the counterpoint, the interaction among players.”
Lunsford adds that singing harmonysomething she has done with madrigal groups and with the Lunsfords, a family ensemble that included her father and two of her sistershas also shaped her vocal style. “You sing lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when you sing harmony,” she says. “You don’t always have words to express a particular feeling. You sing more like an instrument accompanies, or fills in around, the lead vocalist.” Lunsford likens her style to expressionism; it’s a deeply personal response to the words and music of the song she’s singing. “I used to rely more on technique,” she admits. “But I’m now to a point where I center myself from inside and make it come out as my expression.”
Which isn’t to say that certain lead vocalists haven’t influenced Lunsford. Shades of Wilma Lee Cooper, Hazel Dickens, and Emmylou Harris are evident on her debut’s more bluegrass and old-timey material. The record’s jazzier moments invoke former Joy of Cooking singer Terry Garthwaiteand even, at times, the legato phrasing of Billie Holiday. And yet, clichéd as it might be to say so, Lunsford rarely sounds like anyone but herself. “I don’t feel like I’m a certain category of music,” she says, “and it never bothered me. I like all kinds of music. I like what music isdynamics and flow. And that’s the easiest way to get to it, especially for a vocalist.”
The songs on High Groundall of them cowritten by Lunsford and her sisters, Nancy and Teresa, or by Lunsford and her husband, Warren Dennylikewise defy easy classification. “Jimmy Teel,” “Redbird,” and several others draw heavily on the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition and sound like they could even be Carter Family originals; with nothing to date them, they emanate as if from a moment outside time. It’s on the contemporary love songs, though, that Lunsford really tears listeners’ hearts out. “Did I Just Fool Myself” and “The Green River Below” are both compelling odes to longing and loss, but “Bryson City” is especially rending. A duet with Tommy Goldsmith, the song portrays a bittersweet reunion between two childhood friends who might have spent their lives together, had their dreams been more in sync.
Lunsford says that she wanted High Ground to reflect her various musical influenceseverything from her Appalachian roots to her love of jazz singer Betty Carter. “This being my first record,” she explains, “I wanted the songs to be representative of my life, both past and present, and so I chose a combination of things I’d been saving and those that I’d recently written.” What puts the album’s material across, regardless of vintage, is Lunsford’s magnificently understated vocalsparticularly her gift for expressing musical ideas beyond those contained in her lyrics. Doubters need only hear how she stretches the word “deep” on “The Green River Below”; it’s as if she’s recreating the current that carried her lover to his watery grave. In other places, her mournful soprano invokes the song of Hank Williams’ lonesome whippoorwill.
WSM deejay and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs has referred to Nashville honky-tonker Darrell McCall as a “picker’s singer,” in this case meaning that McCall sings to the steel guitar. But Lunsford deserves a similar praise for how her vocals play off the musicians who accompany her, for how she celebrates the human voice as a musical instrument, and for how she listens to the sound of her heart.
“When I listen to someone sing,” Lunsford says, “I like to hear them express themselves. That seems to be the root of whether someone’s good or not. It’s a trick, and yet some people don’t even think about it. The trick is making something come out right by singing what’s inside, by getting to the heart of it instead of avoiding it.”
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