"Jennifer Niceley has sometimes called her music country, just to have something to call it.
“But it’s not accurate,” she says. “I wish I could just say, ‘I sing country music.’”
But it doesn’t really fit any commercial genre. Acoustic guitar with original lyrics often gets lumped in the folk category, but Niceley’s singing voice has urbane jazz inflections, and the structure of most of her songs don’t follow familiar patterns, no verse-chorus-bridge-chorus expectations. “I still see it as poetry put to music,” she says.
If she did call it country, she’d have a more authentic claim to the word than most of Nashville’s broad-brimmed cowboys. On her last album, Birdlight, she sings the old Jimmie Rodgers blues tune, “No Hard Times,” a rare cover on a mostly original album, conveyed with an easy Western swing. When she sings, “Ain’t got no blues, got chickens in my backyard,” it’s no fib. Indeed she does have chickens in her backyard, and cows and horses and corn, like the guy in the song.
Niceley lives in an old tenant’s cottage on a 400-acre spread along the Holston River, where her family has farmed for generations. “It’s a magical place, split between rolling hills, used for pastureland, and fertile river-bottomland,” she says.
It keeps her grounded, adding an interesting complexity to her music, which otherwise sounds ethereal, impressionistic, dreamy, elusive, like something far from the ground..." --- (Jack Neely)
Of Birdlight, music writer Dave Curtis (Direct Current Music) notes:
"Producer and instrumentalist John Estes captures the vulnerability in Niceley's whisper-close voice, the faint sensual traces of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone melding with strings, shuffled rhythms and a pedal steel. Few albums sound as personal or as quietly profound as this..."
When you realize that rather than ever belonging to you, the best you can hope for is to belong to -- whatever you love, long for-- you let go of some expectations. Or course a person cannot be owned, nor can a place. I have found over time that the certain place I belong to, a piece of land, a community of air and sky and earth and water and creatures and elders and young ones and all the in-betweens, was worth coming back to and giving certain things up for.
After nearly six years of living and working back on my family's farm, I have started to believe you can have a physically demanding purpose, day to day, as well as nurture the imaginative, unseen worlds of feeling and impression. These worlds often collide or try to eclipse one another, but they shouldn't have to be polarized. In my experience they certainly vie for attention, and that might always be the case, but I have also seen how they can support one another, nurture one another.
The songs on Birdlight (produced by Jon Estes of Nashville), my first full album since living back on the farm, are born of that duality -- a duality made of being grounded to this earthly place and experiencing it physically everyday, yet constantly seeking the other side of that, the pains and pleasures of observing and feeling, of being given gifts, of having things taken away.
Usually, there is no making sense out of loss. The only place you can really come to is acceptance. Yet things are complicated these days, in that often we can trace the causes of certain destructions so plainly to our own human error and excess. We see the reason (usually greed) and the perpetrators and yet then we find we are unwittingly complicit. It is exceedingly difficult to live "on the grid" as it were in this society and not be a part of the problem in some way. So what do we accept then? That there is nothing we can do? Just accept that habitat loss, for instance, is inevitable, that more and more and more of the wild creatures you love to see (fleetingly) will be disappearing because we are stealing all their spaces?
A few days ago I spent some time in the fields by the river with my father and Uncle Bill. I came upon a little grassy ledge that led to the water, hidden from view until you start to descend the riverbank. "I never even knew this was here!" I exclaimed. My father replied, "That's the thing about this farm, every single day you could find something you had never seen before." Which is so true -- of any place. The complex, dynamic dance of the natural elements working in and around and ideally with us, never ceases, and is constantly bringing new things to our attention -- if we look.
Looking, seeing, observing, feeling, learning, remembering, grieving...its all part of what I consider farming, and living with a particular place. Sometimes things get intertwined on the inside, and the only way to free the threads, for me, is to write a song. I have learned to accept this as a gift, and in so doing I am recollecting what a gift music is in general. I don't think I could live without music, just like I don't think I could live without chickens. (---Jennifer Niceley, 2014)