Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed; then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art. How great Thou Art …
Sitting at a dining-room table in her humble home in North Jackson, 18-year-old Elizabeth Rainey sang for her two cats and her dog and me a song I've heard hundreds of times—"How Great Thou Art"—but I've never heard it sung like that.
With all the poise and grace of a seasoned performer, she sang and, I believe, God heard. As I listened, I imagined the brunette singer, a Murrah High School senior, onstage and in front of adoring fans, on the cover of her own CD or winning her first Grammy.
Rainey could do it, I know; this amazing talent, who looks and sings like an angel, could "make it," despite the challenges she undoubtedly will encounter along the way.
A Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T
I have a certain affinity for "chick music." Some of the greats—Norah Jones, Jewel, Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls—speak to me both lyrically and musically, but I have noticed that women are noticeably outnumbered in both local and national music scenes. I can't help but wonder—why? Is it pure old sexism, or is something else at play?
"In the world of music, men are initially hesitant when a woman is added to a mix of men. Instead of an immediate acceptance and rapport as 'one of the guys,' women have to work harder just to be heard," said North Jackson Elementary School teacher Natalie Long, 26, who is the lead singer for local rock cover band Three Long Weeks. She described the path of acceptance within the music industry to be different for men than it is for women—a double standard, of sorts. Of course, with that type of discrepancy status quo in many other industries—think film, literature, theater, corporate America—who's really surprised?
"Men are accepted by other men right off the bat. For women, talent almost always has to be the lead," Long said. "Once they [men] recognize and respect a woman as being someone with talent, they will then get to know her on a personal level, but not before then."
Perhaps it's harder for women to gain a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T in what has been a male-dominated industry.
Local jazz, funk, soul, hiphop, gospel and alternative performer Jennifer Hope, 20, says how a woman looks also plays a part in how she is or is not accepted in the music industry.
"Labels tend to want the whole package," says Hope, commonly known as Genesis. "They look for a pretty face and a decent voice." They also look to sell sex. "It seems that if you are not on the stage half-naked, shaking your hind parts and being all sexual, no matter how much creative content your words have and how solid your sound, your show just doesn't seem to go over the top," she adds. That miffs her: "If you want a Barbie doll, go to the strip club."
Having performed for audiences for seven years, Genesis says she used to feel the pressure to dress provocatively for her audience, but no longer does.
"Instead of being focused on whether my thong is showing because my leather pants are too low and tight, I wear comfy, worn jeans, a button-down and a head wrap," Genesis said. "I choose to be more conscious of the poetry flowing out of my heart and not so much the eyes bulging out of men's heads. I want people to hear me, to hear my words."
Woman's Place Is at the Mic
Toni Otts, 31, is the lead vocalist and only female member of local rock and blues band 7th Day, and she looks and sounds the part. Tall and thin with spiky, platinum hair, she has "the look" of a true-to-life rock 'n' roll diva.
Otts says another obstacle facing aspiring female musicians is the outdated notion that a woman's place is in the home. "Sometime it is difficult for people to understand that you don't want to stay home and take care of a family, or take on a traditional female role," Otts says, adding that her own family has been very supportive of her musical interests.
"I have dated men who thought that I would give music up for them and stay home to raise babies," Otts says. "They told me that I would never make it as a performer and should settle down and do something real. It isn't always easy to move forward when someone else is standing in front of you pushing you back."
Local jazz superstar Lisa Palmer (voted Best Musician by JFP readers) has shown that, while it is a difficult balancing act for women to have both a successful career in music and fulfilling family life, it is possible.
In addition to her career as a jazz vocalist, Palmer is a wife and mother of sons Sam, Max and singer-songwriter Brian Fuente. In her "spare time," she runs a full-time interior-design business.
It's about priorities, she says. "I find time for music," Palmer says. "Music has always been a big part of my life and the life of my family."
Palmer's father was a cellist and an opera singer and her mother a vocalist. Palmer's sister and two brothers play piano, French horn and bass. "I guess you could say I have musical roots."
For Palmer, those musical roots sprouted into a "passion for jazz." "I love the freedom, the creativity, the language, the soul that jazz music can be and brings out in me."
After beginning in the Chastain Junior High Band and growing throughout her adolescence and into adulthood, today Palmer's musical career is flourishing. In October, Lisa Palmer and the Knight Bruce Trio released a CD entitled "Lisa Palmer." She performs locally at Schimmel's and Hal and Mal's, as well as at charity fund-raising events and festivals. She is also looking at taking her act on the road, to larger venues outside Jackson.
Palmer has spent a lifetime slowly but steadily walking the road toward musical success. She has come a long way from the Murrah High School Choir, but it didn't happen overnight. But perhaps she and women like her have paved the way for others like up-and-coming Elizabeth Rainey.
A Spiritual Journey
Rainey is just starting out on her musical journey of singing spirituals as well as country and popular Christian music. Like Palmer, Rainey also has musical roots. She is the niece of Freddy Fletcher of Arlyn-Pendernales Studios in Austin, Texas. His client list includes the Indigo Girls, Ray Charles, Sister Hazel, Neil Young and Bonnie Raitt.
Rainey is also the great-niece of country music singer Willie Nelson.
"I have been around music and musical people all my life," Rainey says. "Before I could walk or talk, I could sing."
After hearing his great-niece sing, Rainey's "Uncle Willie" was enamored and asked her to perform, along with Beck and Dave Matthews, at the nationally televised Farm Aid show in Chicago.
Currently, Rainey sings at churches and is a member of the Sextet, Madrigals and Concert Choir at Murrah. She has recorded two demos and also performs annually at regional festivals and events.
After graduation in May, Rainey plans to spend the summer in Austin recording her own CD. She is scheduled to begin school at the University of Mississippi Honors College in September, but said all that could change.
"I know going in that success in music is harder for women than it is for men," Rainey says. "I have no expectations as to what my musical future holds. I am just going to put it out there and see where it leads me."
To hear the sounds of 7th Day, visit their Web site at http://www.seventhdayband.com or pick up their CD, "Your Soul is Still Alive," at Musiquarium in Banner Hall. See 7th Day live Friday, March 7, at the New Orleans Café, at 8 p.m. or Saturday, March 8, at the Warehouse, at 9 p.m.
Lisa Palmer's self-titled CD featuring the Knight Bruce Trio can be purchased locally at Be-Bop. She will also be featured on the Jackson State Big Band CD coming out soon.
Genesis can be seen Thursday and Saturday nights at *Seven and some Wednesday nights at Martin's. She hopes to release a CD within the next year.