Mining the soul

All radiant, blonde good looks and youthful exuberance (they’re both 23), it’s hard to believe, at first glance, that Jennifer Nettles and Cory Jones (a.k.a. Soul Miner’s Daughter) possess any real, well, soul.

But the minute Nettles opens her mouth to belt out one of the duo’s original tunes — or a seductive, hopped-up version of, say, the Dusty Springfield classic “Son of a Preacher Man” — backed by Jones’ hot, spare, edgy-but-melodic guitar work, the secret is out: With a voice that falls somewhere between Tina Turner, Melissa Etheridge and a Southern-fried, red-hot mama with just a hint of a too-many-late-nights, too-many-cigarettes rasp, Nettles startlingly channels the raw power of singers twice her age. She also plays a mean guitar.

Soul Miner’s Daughter fuses folk, rock and soul into a sound that’s by turns hard and soft, and a style that’s tough to come by, these days: original. The band’s gloriously distinctive music is the offspring of Nettles’ and Jones’ decidedly divergent musical backgrounds.

“I was raised a good Southern Baptist,” the Georgia born-and-raised Nettles says in her honey-coated drawl, in a phone call from Nickel and Dime Studios in Atlanta, where Soul Miner’s Daughter is recording its new CD. “So I sang in church, in every sense … in the choir, doing solos, all that. I had a big background in gospel music through that, and kind of got myself accustomed to being in front of people through doing that first. … I started when I was around 7.”

Nettle’s parents weren’t particularly musical, although her mother did have a penchant for Rita Coolidge, Juice Newton and Crystal Gayle. But the sounds of these impassioned female vocalists wafted through Nettles’ childhood, putting their stamp on her musical development.

Jones’ musical roots also stretch back to an early age. “I started playing guitar — like everyone else, it seemed — back in junior high,” he remembers, “doing rock and punk stuff on electric.” But when it came time for college, he settled on something a bit more refined: classical guitar. Jones eventually received his bachelor’s degree in classical-guitar performance.

Nettles and Jones met in high school and were part of the same performance-arts group, sponsored by a youth organization. The troupe played Georgia schools and festivals, doing show tunes, pop classics and a mishmash of other music. The first time the two ever performed as a duo was on a version of Nanci Griffith’s country-folk classic, “Trouble in the Fields,” during one of the troupe’s concerts. Magic happened, and by the time both were sophomores in college — she at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, he at the University of Georgia at Athens — they were writing songs together, trying out the tunes when Nettles visited a close friend in Athens. Jones says the music he found himself doing with Nettles soon overshadowed his original intent to stick with classical guitar. That influence is still evident, however, in his elegantly executed chords and the string pieces he composed and arranged for Soul Miner’s Daughter’s debut CD, The Sacred and Profane (Blue Dot Music, 1996).

“We’d always sit around and play stuff when I went to visit,” remembers Nettles, “and we’d both always be, like, ‘I have this original stuff I’ve been working on. Listen to it, and tell me what you think.’ And we’d both be all nervous, because we respected each other’s opinions so much, and especially because, when you’re first writing, you don’t want someone to tell you, ‘Well, that’s real crap.'”

Not to worry. After some appearances at colleges and small clubs around Athens and Atlanta, the two burst onto the highly competitive Atlanta music scene in 1995 after winning the coveted bi-annual, open-mike shoot-out at Decatur, Ga.’s legendary Eddie’s Attic — performing pretty much all the original songs they’d perfected to date (a grand total of three or four).

My, what changes a year can bring. By 1996, Nettles and Jones boasted enough tunes to record The Sacred and Profane. The disc — now in its fifth pressing and getting airplay far beyond the South — features both lovely acoustic duets and full-tilt, rocked out numbers (Soul Miner’s Daughter now performs roughly half-time as an acoustic duo, half-time with full band). The multitalented group features Michael Cebulski on percussion, Wesley Lupoid on bass, Scott Nicholson on keyboards, and Brad Sikes on drums.

In a world of insipid lyrics, the songs from The Sacred and Profane offer a rich, welcome respite: “In the rumors sung by brokenhearted jesters yesterday/they say your voice can carry ‘cross the seven seas/And the people to the east/they say you bring good magic strong enough/to force a man of power to his knees/So, I been digging through my mind/to find some kind of creature comfort/different from the ones I always seem to feed/Cause I’ve been filling empty rooms with nothing but my breath/for far too long before you came to harmonize your notes with me/and breathe your life into my poetry, the reason for my rhapsody,” they write in “Rhapsody.”

Both Jones and Nettles stress that the songwriting process, for them, is all about collaboration. “There’s nothing on [The Sacred and Profane], or any song we have, that wasn’t ‘touched’ by both of us,” Jones reports.

“The way it usually happens is that one of us will come to the other with the nucleus of a song and say, ‘Now, let’s make it Soul Miner’s Daughter music,'” adds Nettles. “We’re always trying out different means of songwriting, and it’s still evolving.” Both report that most of their songs are highly autobiographical.

Has Soul Miner’s Daughter gotten any national attention to date? “We’ve gotten a few nibbles here and there [including an MTV interview] … and, from our fan base, we know people are hearing our songs [on the radio], even out in California,” Nettles explains. “But right now, we want to build our career the best we can on our own and get this independent thing right before we go any further.” Jones agrees, saying that a big record deal is definitely not the goal, at this point.

Besides, Soul Miner’s Daughter has already achieved what countless young bands can only dream of: They don’t have to work day jobs. In fact, they’ve been making their living playing music since they graduated from college in 1996.

As for that new CD (due out in October), Jones and Nettles promise something a little different from their debut. “It’s more of a full-band sound, with only a couple of more spare acoustic numbers,” explains Nettles, “and it’ll include four songs we’ve never played out anywhere before. The last four or five songs we’ve written are going in a really cool new direction, and the disc will reflect that.”

“There’ll definitely be some surprises,” adds Jones, with a downright gleeful hint of mystery.

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2 thoughts on “Mining the soul

  1. Steve Tracy

    Where can I have copies of Soul Miner’s Daughter and The Jennifer Nettles Band CDs? I’m having a hard time over the years.

    Thanks, ST

  2. Lauren Zito

    Where can I find the lyrics to Soul Miner’s Daughter songs? I feel like I’ve searched the entire internet and I can’t find them anywhere!

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