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Channeling Granny Launches Literary Music Event on Women’s History Month

Literally Music! celebrates the intersection of books and songs at VisArt

Channeling Granny performing
Channeling Granny performing (Photo by Bob Smithwick)

The mandolin-driven filigree transforms from delicate madrigal to folk-inflected psychedelia, while entwined voices spin a yarn about preparations for war and shadowy riders:

The drums will shake the castle wall/ The ringwraiths ride in black/ Ride on…

Guitars tangle, spinning a spidery web around a tale of chaotic monkeys thrown in cages as hard-liners crack down:

They’re numbering the monkeys … They’ve gathered up the cages, the cages and courageous/ The followers of chaos out of control…

Stately violin gives way to pensive coiling guitar as a quavering vocal praises a renowned writer’s self-discovery, resilience and legacy:

And so it was for you/ When the river eclipsed your life/ And sent your soul like a message in a bottle to me…

Each of these storytelling songs share a common literary thread, linking music with the captivating worlds imbued in books. Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” references characters and incidents depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s medievalist fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, particularly the third and climactic volume in the trilogy, The Return of the King. R.E.M.’s “Disturbance at the Heron House” draws inspiration from George Orwell’s powerful political allegory Animal Farm.

In Indigo Girls’ “Virginia Woolf,” the vocalist/protagonist details how she draws strength from the pioneering novelist’s persistence in the face of misogyny, misunderstanding and crippling depression.

These three songs are also just a sampling of the music featured in Literally Music!, the literary-themed concert series, set amid a broader celebration of reading, kicked off on March 4, with shows scheduled for every Tuesday in March at VisArt, the nonprofit community arts/performance hub and video store in east Charlotte.

Fittingly for March, Women’s History Month, the band taking the stage at the listening room at 3102 VisArt is Channeling Granny, an all-woman group launched by VisArt executive director Gina Stewart and Brenda Gambill, both of whom perform in groundbreaking feminist and LGBTQ-supporting alternative Americana band Doubting Thomas.

“We’re [playing] songs in reference to books or writers,” Gambill says of the band assembled for Literally Music!

She adds that the group’s name, Channeling Granny, refers to the membership of the combo, which takes a vigorous swipe against the ageism prevalent in the local and national music business.

“We just loved the idea of women of a certain age coming together to play music,” Gambill offers.

To achieve that goal, Stewart and Gambill assembled a sextet including guitarist and vocalist Liz Howell, bassist Laurie Smithwick, percussionist Rochelle Coatney and multi-instrumentalist Lenore Prisco on keyboards, banjo, mandolin and vocals.

Violinist and harmonica player Gambill also sings, while Stewart serves as the combo’s vocalist and lead guitarist.

The title of the recurring event is a good clue to what the band’s set list will look like, says Smithwick, best known for her day job as an illustrious abstract artist, printmaker and muralist.

band member Laurie Smithwick playing bass
Laurie Smithwick playing bass in Channeling Granny. (Photo by Bob Smithwick)

“Literally Music [means] our entire playlist is songs about books or authors,“ Smithwick says. “So, we’re playing ‘Virginia Woolf’ by The Indigo Girls, ‘1984’ by David Bowie, ‘Paperback Writer’ by the Beatles, ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ by R.E.M., ‘Sylvia Plath’ by Ryan Adams and more.”

There are original songs on the bill as well, Smithwick says, including tunes like “Bruise Across the Sky” that were written previously by Stewart and Gambill for Doubting Thomas, and “Shine,” a song written Howell and inspired by “This is How It Always Is,” a novel by Laurie Frankel that depicts how a family strives to understand and support a transgendered child.

The program also features immersive art by Kellee Stall.

“Kellee is set design,” Gambill says. “She’s coming into the theater to dress it up and give a look to the whole scenario.”

While the cornerstone of Literally Music! is Channeling Granny’s spirited set, the program offers a broader celebration of reading. To that end, VisArt has partnered with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Queens University and Park Road Books.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s partnership signifies ongoing support from the library, which has already teamed with VisArt on an event series called Who Told it Best: Book vs. Film. The book club/film series screens and compares cinematic adaptations of books like The Shining and The Wizard of Oz with their counterparts on the printed page.

Queens University’s partnership links Literally Music! with the university’s celebration of Women’s History Month, Gambill says.

“[Queens] said, ‘Yes, we’d love to be involved and support VisArt in any way we can,’” Gambill says. “We’re lucky to have them on board as well.”

“Park Road Books is going to let us pick up some books and sell them [at VisArt] and square them directly to the company,” Gambill says. “[From Park Road Books] we’ve got Jill McCorkle’s book Old Crimes that just came out. It’s a series of short stories [by] a great Southern writer. Over the month we’re going to be getting some more books in. So, we’re encouraging people to crack open a book.”

VIP and general admission tickets for the series’ inaugural event and concert are available here.

Channeling Granny’s renaissance 

An earlier iteration of Channeling Granny formed six years ago and played gigs at venues including The Great Aunt Stella Center and Symphony Park, Gambill says. That lineup eventually drifted apart and the project was shelved.

The band revived in time for the HEARTS Harvest 23 at the Hugh Torance home in Huntersville, featuring local historic farmlands, conservation efforts and artist Elizabeth Bradford as well as Channeling Granny.

Stewart and Gambill currently play with Prisco in Doubting Thomas, so recruiting her for Channeling Granny was a no-brainer. Howell came into the fold because Prisco knew her from a band they both played in called Inside Joke. Gambill met and recruited Coatney when both women played in the all-women eclectic-roots combo Christy Snow Band.

Smithwick had only played bass onstage once when Stewart approached her to join Channeling Granny.

“Out of the blue I got a text from Gina that said, ‘I hear you play bass. True?’” Smithwick says. “I answered that I had taken lessons for about a year. She said, ‘Want to play sometime?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”

Smithwick says she has always had two primary loves — music and art. Although she followed a career in art, music was never far away. Smithwick learned guitar well enough to play “American Pie” in her dorm while everybody sang along, she remembers. Then, 30 years later, Smithwick was an empty nester with her twin daughters off to college.

a portrait of laurie smithwick
Laurie Smithwick is also a abstract artist, printmaker and muralist. (Photo by Karen Waldron)

She began taking lessons with Krystle Baller at We Rock Charlotte. A year and a half into those, Smithwick switched to bass. In November 2023, she performed her onstage “graduation project” with We Rock, an exhilarating two-song set with fellow graduates at Starlight on 22nd in Optimist Park. That was the extent of Smithwick’s onstage experience when she joined Channeling Granny.

“The clock is ticking for me to be able to try new things, so I may as well try them all,” Smithwick says.

The gig at the Hugh Torance house in Huntersville went well; all the players agreed they had a lot of fun, so they all agreed when Stewart suggested they get together to play some more.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Smithwick says, “being literary rock stars.”

She notes the difference in the band’s repertoire since the Huntersville show.

“For the gig that we played at the Torance House,  it was all old time music — ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken,’ ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and that type of music,” Smithwick says. “For [Literally Music!] there is honestly no genre.”

Smithwick says Channeling Granny’s literary approach to music has actually changed how she hears it. She points to a song in the band’s set, “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, as an example.

“How many times when you hear that song, do you actually think about the book?” she says. “It’s such a crazy song vocally that you don’t really think about the fact that she’s actually singing, ‘Heathcliff.’”

Gambill says that people attending Literally Music! will find that Channeling Granny has an eclectic, unique and even experimental sound. Although the band boasts some classic roots-music instrumentation, including Prisco’s banjo and mandolin, Stewart switches it up sonically by shifting between acoustic and electric guitars.

brenda gambill singing
Brenda Gambill plays violin, harmonica and sings in Channeling Granny. (Photo by Bob Smithwick)

Similarly, Coatney eschews a standard drum kit. Instead she will pay hand drums, a mix of congas, bongos and cajone, a box-shaped percussion instrument originally played in 18th-century Peru.

“I call Channeling Granny Americana with blood harmonies and a soul feel,” Gambill says. “We’ve got a bit of an edge.”

For Smithwick, Literally Music! and Channeling Granny’s set encourage listening to music in a more holistic way.

“It’s saying that music is part of writing, which is part of a broader world,” she says. “What if our music can pay homage to all these books that we all know so well, and find some synchronicity or symmetry? [Literally Music] is really saying, ‘Yes, we’re musicians, but we also love to read, and books are worth celebrating.’”

At the end of the day, Gambill says both band and the concert program at VisArt are there to entertain people with music that gives a shoutout to books.

“The idea is to get people back on the page,” she says. “It’s a challenge but we’re having a blast.”

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