There’s an old man who lives by himself after the suspicious disappearance of his wife. Enjoying his life without her he began throwing parties that were attended by people from all over. One night a group of young men were sitting on the porch recalling some of those parties when a lilac bush growing nearby began beating on the window pane as though it was calling them towards it. This would’ve been nothing out of the ordinary except for the fact that there was no wind to blow the bush.
“Paying no attention to the old man’s protest the young men dug up the lilac bush. They were stunned when the roots were found to be growing from the palm of a woman’s hand. The old man screamed and ran down the hill towards the river, never to be seen again.”
The Telltale Lilac Bush is a story known throughout the state of West Virginia. It is a right of passage that all of the state’s youth experience if you attended middle school here. Ruth Ann Musick’s collection of ghost tales from across the state is a required introduction to state myths. It is against that folklore backdrop that Grafton native and award winning vocalist, Stephanie Adlington developed her love of brooding storytelling. According to her, growing up in West Virginia created a passion for the type of stories that are passed around in the hills of Appalachia. She sat down with Born And Bred to talk about her approach to music and how she weaves her own folklore into the songs of A Tale Of Two.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
BB: I want to talk about what makes you tick. How did you get from Grafton to where you are now?
SA: I was actually born in Philippi at Alderson Broadest Hospital, but obviously born and raised in Grafton. Oh, God, where do we start? The summer before my senior year of high school, I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for their summer pre-college program and I loved it. I graduated high school the following spring and ended up in Rochester, New York for my freshman and sophomore year. I was at the Eastman School of Music for classical voice performance and didn’t really gel with what they were doing there. It was strictly classical. I didn’t really care for the winters in Rochester, New York and didn’t find it to be as artsy as I had hoped it would be. I ended up transferring, for my junior year, to the Royal Academy of Music in London, England where I remained for the next five years and I finished up my classical vocal performance undergrad. Then I did a musical theater performance post grad.
BB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you spent a little bit of time at Fairmont State University as a voice instructor.
SA: No, you’re absolutely right. So, around 2004, I moved back for a minute just to figure out what I wanted to do next. In that phase of figuring things out, I started teaching voice that summer in Grafton. Actually, I started giving voice lessons out of my parents’ house because I needed a job. From there I went to Fairmont State.
They had a community music program that Anne Schooley was heading up at the time and she was wonderful. She brought me in and we worked with 20 to 30 kids that summer in vocal groups. And then out of that Fairmont State asked me to vocal coach, their musical that summer, I believe it was The Sound of Music. Fran Kirk, who was one of the professors in the fine arts program, asked if I’d wanna teach for the fall. So it kind of just really one door just kind of opens the next, and then the next. It was one of the best things I ever did because then through teaching there, I ended up at West Virginia University and started in their community program and then Fairmont State had another campus downtown Clarksburg. So I was teaching, depending on what day of the week, in a different location daily, Monday through Friday. It literally was just out of the blue.
BB: So when and how did you end up in Nashville?
SA: The first time or the second time?
BB: Well, let’s just go through it all.
SA: Um, so let’s see, the first time I moved to Nashville was right out of college. When I left England, I moved to New York and I was there for probably a year and just decided that that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. I wanted to start writing. I wanted to get into some other genres of music besides theater. And so I moved to Nashville in the late nineties and I was there for about five years. I started writing and kind of getting more into the commercial scene. I started taking voice lessons that really changed my voice from more of a classical theater sound and to more of a commercial sound and then started teaching others through my teacher there.
Then I went out west for a while. I was in Los Angeles for a minute. And then that’s when I came back to West Virginia. And after being home for two years, I decided to see if Belmont University in Nashville was hiring. I thought it might be good to get back to Nashville. And they were so I ended up going down the fall semester of 2006. I actually had to audition in front of the entire Belmont music school, the dean and all of the decision makers. I had to go in, sing some songs and then they gave me a random student to teach. I had to teach them in front of everyone on the spot. And I got the job, I believe, because of the university experience I have in West Virginia. So I’m so grateful to Fran Kirk for getting me into Fairmont State and for those couple of years to work my resume. I ended up moving back to Nashville in January of 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.
BB: Sixteen years in Nashville and in that time, you have recorded as a solo artist and you have also recorded lately as the Americana Folk group Tale of Two featuring accomplished jazz musician, Aaron Lessard. So let’s start with Stephanie the jazz vocalist. How did that transition from classical vocalist to jazz vocalist happen?
SA: When I moved back to Nashville, there was a jazz club in town called F. Scott’s and it had been in town for quite a while. A lot of the professors that I knew at Belmont were gigging there and it was five minutes from my house. It was a lovely little location that is unfortunately closed now. It was safe. You could go by yourself and sit at the bar. You knew the staff. You knew the players. I would go and listen to jazz and watch my friends, and eventually they would have me join them on stage every once in a while. For about three years I sat in with everyone else until they finally came to me and said, “Hey, you should, you know, have your own night.”
But before that, there were a couple other hotel lobby and lounge type gigs. I was doing piano bar stuff around town and just trying to gig and start to get a name for myself a little bit. And then through that I started writing. What I found was that a lot of jazz didn’t really relate to stories which I loved storytelling. What I was writing was storytelling with the jazzy beat if that makes any sense. So it just kind of merged into this thing uh that I called Jazzicana. Some people thought it was great, some people thought it was awful. They didn’t get it.
I just started doing that and hiring my friends to play for me and they would hire me to play with them. It just kept growing from there and my gigs took off. I’ve been gigging jazz in Nashville ever since. I was lucky to record some of my original stuff with some great players on the album. And I’ve won a couple awards with Nashville Industry Music Award. I won that two years. I received a Josie Music Award and won best jazz vocalist for two years. So I’ve been very blessed in all of this. And jazz has been great for me. It is great because it’s everything I always used to sing, even as a classical singer. Now I just sing it down an octave and a half and in a jazz voice. So I, I just feel like I’ve been singing these songs forever just in a completely different way.
BB: You are otherwise known as the Siren of The South. How did that come to be?
SA: There was so much that was going on and the scene was crowded. I was trying to separate myself from that. I thought what do I wanna sound like? What do I wanna look like? What do I wanna do? I had this vision in my head. I wanted that Savannah old Gothic Southern Darkness to be a part of the music I was writing and it wasn’t necessarily like Mississippi Delta, but it wasn’t all New Orleans either. It kind of had a flavor of all that to me. It was a little more Savannah and Charleston kind of low country, you know, Spanish moth from the trees type of thing. And then you add that in with the West Virginia folklore.
That’s where so many of my songs I feel like take a turn in the writing. I say this all the time when I gig either jazz or Tale of Two, Ruth Ann Musick’s Telltale Lilac Bush and Coffin Hollow completely formed my life. I loved reading those books and I loved reading about the folklore in the area. I also always loved the civil war stories in the area. The history and the darkness of the mountains and, and all of that combined with more of a Southern twist was exactly what I wanted to do. And that’s why I started calling it The Siren Of The South to kind of separate myself from other jazz artists in town that were just doing mainly jazz. I’m not that type of jazz artist. I don’t do fusion. I’m not into that. I wanted to tell stories in a jazzy way.
BB: You’re out performing as a solo artist and you start gigging in a side project that has now become the main project. How did you and Aaron meet and start A Tale of Two?
SA: Ok, well I had an opportunity to go to Memphis to play a cool little music room called South Main Sounds. And I needed to take an accompanist with me and South Main Sounds was all about original music. I wasn’t getting paid for the gig. I had friends to stay with, so it wasn’t like I was out of pocket. I needed a player and I just didn’t have any money to pay anybody. And I said to Aaron, if you go do this thing with me, because it’s all about songwriters, I’ll sing some of my songs if you will accompany me and then you can sing some of your songs, and if you want me to, I’ll do some harmony or whatever with you. So we were just really going as a one off to do this gig.
After we performed people kept saying how our harmony blended so well and, and it was great and, and so we thought, well, this is fun. Maybe we should do more of this. But then our names ended up being on the marquee, Stephanie Adlington and Aaron Lessard and it was just too much of a name and too confusing. So we thought, well, if we’re gonna keep doing some harmony stuff and performing together we might as well start writing songs. And then we came up with A Tale of Two because we wanted to tell tales and there were two of us, it is as simple as that.
BB: What’s next for you guys and what are you working on? Where are you at?
SA: We’re very excited to come back home to play The Born & Bred Concert Series in November. It’s going to be awesome to play the Robinson Grand Stage. I’ve been by that venue many times and seen what’s on the outside, but never on the inside. So I’m excited to see what that is. We’re actually going to be writing and recording a new album this summer that we hope to have out probably by spring of 2024. So we’re hoping that when we come down in November, we’re gonna have some new songs to play that haven’t been released yet. So that’s pretty exciting. People will hear it for the first time at home. We’re touring around the US and next summer we’re hoping to go over to Ireland and maybe the UK and start branching out a little bit. So we’ll, we’ll see where that takes us.
You can check out A Tale of Two online at www.taleoftwomusic.com and catch them when they come to Clarksburg in November.
Musick, Ruth Ann. The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia GHOST TALES. The University Press of Kentucky, 1965