Life’s a series of journeys, so why not sing about them?
That’s the philosophy of the members of Turkey Tracks Trio. One song at a time, the trio’s members are doing their part to preserve some of the stories of the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.
Jennifer Gillenwater wrote all 18 songs on the group’s just-released debut CD, “Real Live Dolls.”
“I combine music with my storytelling,” said Jennifer. “I like to tell what lives were like here years ago.”
She comes by her storytelling ability naturally. Her mother, Fran Vanlandingham, has written several books about her life in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee, including “Back on Nowhere Road,” an account of her life growing up in the Poga community and how she came back to the area after her retirement.
Gillenwater and her fellow band members, Mary Mays and Linda Miller, held a CD release party for their new recording last month at Dry Hill General Store and Deli on Dry Hill Road in Butler.
“It’s our favorite place to play,” said Linda. “It’s like playing in your living room.”
The band members said store owners Richard and Carolyn Dugger moved away from the region years ago but then moved back. The Duggers have transformed Dry Hill into a social hangout as much as a place to eat.
Mary plays guitar, banjo and autoharp. Linda plays the upright, or doghouse, bass. Both women also sing harmony with Mary providing some lead vocals as well.
Mary and Linda, both natives of Johnson County and employees of Johnson County High School, played together for about 20 years before they formed Turkey Tracks Trio with Jennifer.
Mary and Linda first met Jennifer about 10 years ago when they were playing with the late E.C. Miller.
“I begged them to let me play with them,” Jennifer said.
Before forming Turkey Tracks Trio, Jennifer used to play with her cousin, Roger Norris, in a group called Family Ties.
The women came up with the name Turkey Tracks Trio after finding some turkey tracks left in the snow. The tracks consisted of three “toe prints” visible in the snow, which seemed a perfect symbol for a group consisting of three members.
The Turkey Tracks Trio made its performance debut three years ago at Carolina BBQ in Newland, N.C.
Although she is admittedly biased, Fran is a big fan of Turkey Tracks Trio.
“I think they’re wonderful,” she said. “I love music that tells a story, and that’s what they do.”
For Jennifer, writing the songs featured on the album was a pleasure.
“Mary and Linda encouraged me to put these songs on CD to preserve these stories about how people lived in these mountains,” Jennifer said.
When writing songs, Jennifer plays on a dulci-jo to help inspire her. She explained that a dulci-jo is a combination of a dulcimer and a banjo. Her personal instrument was crafted by Bill Neely of Damascus, Va.
“A dulci-jo has a resonator in it that just gives it more sound,” explained Linda.
Jennifer also played the bowed psaltery for one of the songs on the recording. The instrument was made by Morgan Wright, a Butler craftsman.
After Jennifer had written the songs, the three women got together and started practicing them in October. By November, they were ready to go into Matheson Sound-Tech in Elizabethton to record the CD.
Jennifer said the theme that unifies the CD is the fact that all the songs tell a story about journeys in life.
The track “Back on Nowhere Road” is a story about her mother’s life.
“It’s all about her growing up in Poga, then leaving home and then returning years later, finally coming full circle,” Jennifer said.
The story of “Uncle Nick Grindstaff” is told in another of the album’s songs.
“I wrote this one while hiking on the Appalachian Trail,” Jennifer said.
She explained that Uncle Nick, the title character of the track, lived as a hermit with his dog on Iron Mountain.
“It’s sort of a sad story,” she said.
It starts out with Nick heading west to look for gold, but he runs afoul of people who beat and rob him. Returning home, he isolates himself on the mountain with only a faithful canine as a companion.
She also devotes a song to the tale of “Old Butler Town,” focusing on the story of a fictional couple by the names of Harriett and Henry.
“The song’s set around 1940,” she said. “It’s really a love story.”
Henry dies while serving in World War II and Harriett buries him beneath an old oak tree in Old Butler. Then the Tennessee Valley Authority comes along and wants to construct Watauga Dam at the cost of flooding the town of Butler.
“And Harriett insists that she’s not leaving, even after the TVA created the lake,” Jennifer said.
“I’ll be Seeing You,” another song about one of Jennifer’s relatives, focuses on her grandmother, Corinne Brown Vanlandingham.
“She died when she was 103 years old,” her granddaughter said.
The inspiration for the song came from the phrase, “I’ll be Seeing You,” which her grandmother always liked to use to end a conversation. She added that part of her grandmother’s life story also involved being the wife of an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The song, “Stony Mountain Mystery,” revolves around the fate of her great-uncle, the late Charles Henson.
“Back in the 1930s, he was working in a logging camp on Stony Mountain,” Jennifer said. “At Christmas, he wanted to get back home to his family.”
He set out on a cold, snowy night, intending to walk down the mountain. That’s where the mystery comes into the story.
Perhaps he got lost. Authorities did find his body, but not everyone bought the story that he simply met with a tragic accident.
Jennifer said most people, including her mother, feel Henson was murdered.
Not all the songs are about local events.
Jennifer was moved by the tragic school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., to write the song, “Twenty Bright Stars,” which remembers the 20 students killed on Dec. 14, 2012.
“I’m also inspired by nature to write songs,” she said.
For example, she wrote the song, “Hemlock Tree,” about this important component of local forests.
“Hemlock trees are disappearing, and there are so many birds and animals that depend on them,” Jennifer said. “There’s also the beauty of the tree itself.”
“Hemlock” and another of her nature-inspired songs, “Hummingbird,” also earned Jennifer some acclaim at the Smoky Mountain Songwriters Competition in Gatlinburg this past June.
“I won two prizes for those two songs,” she said.
“That’s out of 400 entries,” Linda pointed out.
Along with seeking inspiration from nature, Jennifer said her faith in God also shows through in her songwriting.
“I focus a lot on how people need God in their lives,” she said.
Of course, one of the tracks, “Mountain Heart,” is all about her own personal journey.
“It’s a journey that took me from Georgia to Spain, from North Carolina to Colorado and all the way to Chile, then back here again to home on Nowhere Road,” Jennifer said.
The song also recounts her meeting her husband, Michael Gillenwater, who is also known affectionately as “Sweetie Pie.”
The album’s title track, “Real Live Dolls,” tells the story of two sets of twins born during the Depression.
The twins were born to an aunt and niece, Ida Mann and Pearlie Mann, who lived side by side with each other.
“They were married to brothers,” Fran said.
Some of the young girls in the family adopted the twins as their own dolls.
“It helped make a hard life more bearable,” Fran explained. “We dressed them in beautiful ruffles and bows.”
Jennifer said the song tells the stories of Lexie and Texie and Stella and Della, including what it was like growing up poor in the mountains.
“It was a novelty that four little girls happened to be born in the same family,” Fran said.
A lot of the songs have more than their share of tragedy, and “Real Live Dolls” is no exception.
One of the twins (Stella) died before she turned 2.
Lexie died at age 38, and Della died shortly afterward in an accident.
Of the four, only Texie, or Aunt Tex, is still living. “She’s the last of the real live dolls,” Jennifer said.
The cover of the album featured a black-and-white photo of the four girls as babies on a blanket spread over the grass.
Turkey Tracks Trio will perform at various other venues in the coming months to promote the group’s new CD.
The band will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City.
Turkey Tracks Trio is also scheduled for two performances — Saturday, Feb. 1, and Saturday, March 1 — at Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, N.C. Both these shows will begin at noon.
The group will also be back at Dry Hill General Store and Deli in Butler at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25.
The new album is available for $15 (or two for $25) by writing to: Jennifer Gillenwater, 810 Poga Road, Butler, TN 37640. Shipping and handling for mailing a CD is $1.
The group will also be recorded on Monday, Jan. 6, for a future episode of “Mountain Music Showcase” with host Jim Edwards.
For more information about booking the group, call 768-0530.