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VOL. 39 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 28, 2015

Zonn takes spotlight with new album

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Fiddler Andrea Zonn is glad to spend some time at home – and at several scheduled local performances – before hitting the road with James Taylor.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

A violin prodigy at age 5 – “I’m still waiting to get better at it” – fiddler Andrea Zonn attacks life with an upbeat bow during a a slow build to what surely soon will qualify as “near-stardom.” At the very least.

And while she professes deep passion for her life’s trade, her No. 1 role is that of being a single mother to a second-grader. Oh yeah, she’s also a closet cat lady.

I’ve known and loved Andrea Zonn for a long time. Everybody does. From James Taylor – in whose band she’s been playing for a dozen years – to Vince Gill, who decided to give the kid who cold-called him a shot 25 years ago.

And her fans already are learning on Americana radio that her new album – “Rise” – is a potential breakthrough, a potent dose of beauty and grace that could have her at least part of the time fiddling and raising her powerfully sweet voice beneath the stage center spotlight.

When I called Andrea a week or two ago, I wanted to talk to her about the business of being a musician, as purely an entrepreneurial endeavor as one can find here in Nashville. And one with which many, many of my friends and countless readers (we hope) can relate.

Of course we would talk about the album, a golden force of nature that reflects her own trials, tribulations and triumphs. After all, this could perhaps be the most-talked-about Americana release of the year. At least it will be for the next month or so.

As we spoke over a thick wooden dining table, she was preparing for a special PBS-taped edition of Music City Roots, the Alt-Ole Opry that occurs Wednesday nights at the Cannery in Franklin.

And then comes her month-long Tuesday night residency at The Station Inn – the place where she’d go to escape from The Blair School and the classical mindset of her prestigious, conservatory-style musical training at Vanderbilt University.

“I would go down there to see Bill Monroe and others. Wasn’t it amazing how people used to just drop in and play back then? It really isn’t that way so much anymore.”

That last comment is a bit of a lamentation. Not much in Nashville is the way it was back when she hit what she recalls as “my sleepy little town” to pursue her musical career – with the encouragement of her father and mother, as well as brother, all of whom moved to Nashville.

Her father, Paul Martin Zonn, an avant-garde composer and university educator, is deceased. Mom Wilma lives a few blocks away from Andrea’s East Nashville home. Brother Brian lives right next door to Andrea, helps keep watch and is ever ready to lend a hand.

There is some relief that she feels now that her glorious recording will keep her at home, at least for a minute or a month, celebrating her own music while making sure she’s ready whenever the call comes.

“It’s getting more and more that we are going out for two and three months at a time,” she says of her association with Sweet Baby James, who is among the many Zonn friends and fanatics who sing accompaniment or otherwise contribute to this album.

As an accompanist – she’s played and sung with countless poets and pickers, both in Nashville and, especially in her years on the road with James Taylor – she relishes the rewards of her lifestyle, her profession.

“I love every aspect of my life,” she says, as 11-year-old cat McGee crosses the tabletop from her to brush against me.

“McGee is just starved for attention,” Andrea deadpans. “No one ever gives him any love.”

As McGee pushes against his owner before retreating elsewhere in the classic East Nashville home – which, of course, includes a music room/miniature studio – Andrea talks wistfully about him.

“He’s some kind of a mix. Part Maine Coon and part American Rag Doll. He’s the sweetest little boy that ever was.”

The last phase is directed face-to-face with the longhaired feline, who has returned to his owner and pushes his head against the woman who qualifies among the greats to hit this town, her town.

McGee is the last one left of a menagerie Andrea has rescued and kept in her home. There was Molly, a collie-shepherd mix who lived until she was 18, and RuthiePurrcasoFrankenPusscatDumbass. ”That’s all one word,” she says of the late black-and-white tuxedo feline. “We called him Petey.” (Yes, I did ask her to carefully spell out the cat’s proper name.)

And she wishes she could have another dog or a cat. Or more. But at this point in her life, as she balances a taxing touring career with a beloved artist like Taylor as well as prepares to push her own solo work to the point of traveling with band members in support of her. “It’s just impossible,” she says.

Andrea Zonn playing with Trace Atkins in 2013 during his Christmas tour.

-- Rick Diamond/Getty Images North America

In other words, another animal might show up one of these days. Especially if Leonard, the second-grader who is the love of Andrea’s life, has anything to do with it.

Anyone who knows her or is a “digital friend” on social media is keenly aware of her love for the almost 8-year-old. Her longing for her son while playing in Belgium or Denmark often is reflected in her Facebook status updates.

“He was born with what they call ‘cavernous malformation,’” a benign growth near his brain that required “numerous corrective surgeries. And he had meningitis two times. And that’s all before he got to be 4 years old.”

Now, although there remains health scares and some hospital visits, Leonard is well. The day after our visit, he and his mom were going to go to the hospital for an MRI and to confer with the neurosurgeon.

“That’s just to make sure he’s OK,” says Andrea. (He was and is, she reports after that visit).

In about an hour, she says, she’ll have to leave her home – filled with paint cans (“I like to decorate”), music of all types, instruments, a piano and recipes (“I also love to cook when I have time”) – to get to the nearby public school where that very special second-grader’s day will come to an end.

While this entrepreneur with fiddle and bow is amazed at every aspect of her life, she is not shy about admitting how important it is to pick Leonard up at school when she can.

It’s a routine she too-often misses, particularly when Sweet Baby James – a great singer with impeccable taste in fiddlers and accompanists – tells her it’s time to get back on the road for another long stint of playing “Fire and Rain,” “Mud Slide Slim,” “Steamroller” (you pick them from the songbook).

Course it’s not just like any artist who is on the other end of the phone line telling her that it’s time to pack the fiddle, loosen up the voice a bit and catch an eastbound plane. It’s one of America’s most-beloved Baby Boomer acts.

“He’s so nice. He’s amazing. I love it out there with him,” she says, adding that with her boss’s ongoing popularity and bookings, J.T. keeps his crew on the road for long stretches.

Everyone wants to hear him sing about how much he wants “to see you, baby, one more time again,” etc.

“We go out for an indeterminate amount of time,” Andrea says.

Andrea Zonn, left, accompanies James Taylor at Tanglewood on July 4, 2015.

-- Photo By Michael Lutch / Jamestaylor.Com

For a self-employed musician, that’s pretty much the ideal situation. She has to take care of none of the logistics, tickets, rooms and other necessities while touring the world with one of the greatest pop-rock-folk singers of all time.

“I’ve been very lucky to have road gigs that are structured,” she explains, adding how much pleasure it gives her to see new people and go to the world’s great locales.

But it also has its big drawbacks, particularly to a single mom whose son is pretty much her best friend, although she does admit nowadays to have “a sweetie” who lives in another town. I decided not to push her to reveal any more on the latter.

“The last year and a half has been busier than I can remember,” she says, noting that means more and more time away from Leonard (and McGee, of course) and away from the place she likes to call “home,” even though the gentrification construction across the street of “houses right out of Dr. Seuss” tears at the fabric of her neighborhood.

“It’s an inherent dilemma,” she says. “I love every part of my life, but it is difficult being away from Leonard.”

If she feels the separation is too long, she figures out ways to make sure to stay in touch with her son, who spends his mom’s tour time with Mima Wilma, a former Metro music teacher who still gives private piano lessons at her Inglewood home and DOES NOT like the title of grandmother.

“They come by to check on McGee,” the fiddler adds. “And, of course, my brother is right next door. We call this the ‘Zonn-pound.’”

“But the tradeoff is huge,” she adds. Working with Taylor is what allows her to afford doing the most important piece of her life as well as possible.

“The big part of this is being a mommy,” she says. “I can make sure there’s a home for Leonard, a roof over his head. Food on the table.

“But I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for my mother.”

She pauses briefly to mention her big break in the music business. Straight out of the Blair School – “where you were expected to have the violin in your hands 12 hours a day” – for classical training, she had a hankering to participate in the kind of music she heard when dropping in at The Station Inn.

Rise will be available in stores Sept. 25.

-- Submitted

She’ll have something of a homecoming there in September when she holds a Tuesday night residency series. While making fresh music there, she’ll be celebrating in the shrine of all things acoustic and bluegrass in Nashville.

The old blockhouse where beer, water, popcorn and handmade razor-thin pizza dominate the menu, somehow keeps the surrounding neighborhood of urban uglies – condo towers, designer coffee joints and the like – grounded to its Music City heritage.

If it can only outlive the big-dollar temptations of “It City” land speculators. (Get there while you can folks, so you’ll be able to talk about “the good old days” if someday it is replaced by a six-story spa and sushi joint.)

It’s fitting to have her residency there, since she’s a part of the group of musicians who find comfort in the club where Zonn family friend (and my own as well), the late, great Vassar Clements used to drop in to fiddle in the most gentlemanly of fashions, producing music as worshiped by Deadheads as by acoustic Nashville Cats.

lt was Andrea’s classroom for learning the real-life world of music.

“They didn’t teach you how to make a living out of being a musician back in school,” she says. She pretty much figured it out on her own.

“I wanted to be in a country band. I got my first job by calling Vince,” she says, noting that was 1990 and a hat-less Gill was moving toward the peak of stardom even as Garth and “The Hat Acts” occupied the “creative” minds of Music Row.

To be fair, calling an artist directly really wasn’t that difficult a quarter-century ago, before the layers of trainers, managers and like keep “everybody protected like they’re Fort Knox,” she recalls.

Gill, an affable fellow, responded in buoyant Vinny fashion. “You ever hear Vince’s giggle? Well, he giggled and wondered who it was who was calling him.”

Gill visited The Station Inn, where she impressed him enough to become a part of his touring outfit for a while. Gill is right up there with Lyle Lovett, Sweet Baby James and so many other musical geniuses that love working with Andrea. Oh, and the calls keep coming even when she’s home, as she’s a top “get” for artists recording new studio music.

Now that “Rise” has arisen – the album officially comes out Sept. 25, but already is drawing airplay and rave reviews – she knows that there will be another aspect of her already busy career. She’ll be the drawing card, the one who is employing other musicians, planning logistics, the one whose name is on the marquees from Manhattan to Monte Carlo.

She says she is ready for these new challenges, thanks to the “Fire and Rain” guy.

“One of the things I’ve been able to do while being on the road is sock away money,” so she can be more selective on session work and devote most of her time, when she is home, to Leonard.

She has had a solo album out before, but “Rise” is a clear indication that it’s time for her to give that solo career her best shot.

“It’s something I always wanted to do…. I feel like if you want something you go out and get it. Standing passively by to try to get someone’s attention is not going to work here in Nashville” she says.

Much of “Rise” was flavored by Andrea’s personal thoughts when she watched her dad die of Gullian-Barre syndrome about 15 years ago. Other fuel came from her personal distress when waiting in the hospital during Leonard’s many surgeries.

“I had some things I wanted to say,” she explains.

Another thing that came out of her time spent in hospitals is she began studying pastoral counseling while watching her father’s decline.

But the Rev. Andrea Zonn doesn’t want to talk much about that. “You talk about politics and religion and people get mad.”

Even so, on “Rise,” the reverend ministers to the hearts of listeners.

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