Leslie Woods – Regional Velvet
The first time Leslie Woods went to an old-time music jam at a South Knoxville hardware store, she was too nervous to even take her Gibson J-45 acoustic out of the trunk. One of the regulars in the store’s Thursday morning music circle eventually convinced Woods to bring in the guitar, but then she just sat with her hands folded and listened to the older men and women pick and sing.
“I didn’t play that time,” says Woods, sitting in the living room of the high-ceilinged farmhouse she shares with her husband, Jeff, and two young sons. “But there was one I got invited to after that. There was this guy Paul who had a jam out at his barn. I sang my first song out at Paul’s barn.”
Soon the former punk rocker, who sported a purple mohawk for a few years in the 1980s, was a regular in traditional music circles around Knoxville. At first, she stuck to the songs she’d heard her parents play growing up — the Carter Family canon, murder ballads, laments for lost loves — and classic country numbers that suited the husky strains of her crackling Tennessee timbre. Patsy Cline was a particular favorite.
After a while, as she puzzled out guitar chords, Woods found herself almost accidentally writing her own songs. “I’ve always written short stories and poetry, just anything that comes to mind,” she says. “I started messing around one night and playing something, and I thought, ‘Wow, I just made that up.'”
Over time, with the urging of her husband (who had played in a succession of popular regional bands), she accumulated enough material to start thinking about doing something with it. The result is Velvet Sky, a self-produced CD she released in April. Its eight songs are haunted and moody, full of jealousy and doubt and hard lessons (and hints of much darker things). Some, especially the chilling “Baby Mine”, could almost be lost English ballads. It’s reminiscent of a range of artists, including the Cowboy Junkies, Tarnation and Neko Case, but with a distinctly Southern voice. Call it Appalachian Gothic.
“I’m no darker than any other person on earth, probably,” Woods says, as her 4-year-old son Benjamin clambers up onto her lap. “But I’m a pretty open book. Whatever I’m feeling comes out of my mouth. I’ve lived these songs, you know?”
So has her husband, who plays standup bass in the group and sometimes has to translate her musical ideas for the rest of the band.
“She does all kinds of amazing stuff that she does naturally, and she doesn’t even know she does it,” he says. “It’s what’s so exciting about her songs. It’s talent, and it’s creativity, and it’s pure. It’s like she’s channeling something.”