Three incessantly busy interstate highways wrap around the foot of Lookout Mountain, a high ridge straddling Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. But tucked into the coves, bluffs and hollers above the freeways are hairpin roads, dirt paths, hidden waterfalls and stunning valley views. Mountain native Jennifer Daniels claims this territory as her own, despite traversing the interstates to make a living. As she puts it, “I sometimes think of my songs as vertical.”
For 10 years now, the singer/songwriter has chosen a narrow, winding, mountain road less traveled than the broad highway frequented by homogenized pop superstars, cluttering the radio with disposable hooks and disingenuous, secondhand sentiment. For her, “part of the music is figuring life out. I can’t help but feel I have some Bohemian blood in me, searching for truth and beauty and love. You can’t serve the master of fame and fortune and the master of truth and beauty—no path exists for following both.”
Alongside husband Jeff Neal, who contributes tasteful guitar and mandolin support, Daniels first caught the attention of music fans in live settings—beginning in 1999—with her supple, dynamic voice and physical, absorbing delivery. It began in time-honored, grassroots fashion, with gigs in Chattanooga, Tennessee—just down the mountain from home—then short forays around the southeastern U.S. and then regular hauls up and down the East Coast and, finally, jaunts across the country, with as many as 200 dates each year.
On the road for long stretches, Daniels made Decatur, Ga’s legendary Eddie’s Attic—an acoustic-music listening room known for launching the careers of everyone from the Indigo Girls to Shawn Mullins—her home away from home. During this period Daniels was a regular contestant at the venue’s “Open Mic Shoot-Out” contests. On one particular night, she made it to the final, but fell just short of the top prize, edged out by a young upstart named John Mayer. Daniels won the contest later, topping another notable singer/songwriter, Zac Brown (whose Zac Brown Band now is blowing the doors off country radio) to do it.
Her stage reputation established, Daniels began establishing herself as a recording artist, independently releasing her 2000 debut, Fists of Flood, to raves in Performing Songwriter, which named it a Top 12 DIY Release for the year and said, “This is music that seems to have grown slowly from some rich, dark soil.”
Despite the occasional conversation with label execs, Daniels has chosen to remain independent, drawing upon her own resources for touring and recording. For Daniels and Neal, a sustainable, fulfilling life creating meaningful music and connecting personally with listeners holds far more reward than chart positions, heavy-rotation singles or SoundScan numbers.
Now, four studio albums and one live album later, Daniels has recorded her most ambitious effort, Come Undone, a song cycle in three acts. The album’s recording was fraught with more than just artistic significance, with Daniels and Neal spending sessions in wonder and anticipation at the pending birth of twins, their first children (if you don’t count songs and beloved dog Bob Marley). As Daniels notes, rather than heavy literature, “during tracking I was obsessively reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting!”
Significantly, for an artist who began her recording career with stripped-down arrangements—featuring guitars, mandolin, a little bass and not much else—on Come Undone producer Scott Smith goes for a fuller approach, with strings, electronics, a choir and a pipe organ at various moments, depending on what seemed appropriate.
“There was a whole new level of artistry, so we felt the production’s depth should fit the project,” Smith says. “The orchestration and sonic choices were a natural fit not only for the songs, but for framing Jennifer's voice in a way it hasn’t yet been heard. The complexity of her voice—both lyrically and melodically —works amazingly well stripped down, with two guitars. So the challenge was to add to this while still retaining the intimacy of her message. There's plenty of ear candy for anyone who wants to listen for it, yet those in love with Jen’s voice and the songs won't be distracted.”
Just as ambitious as the sounds—and owing, in no small part, to the significant life-changes afoot—are the themes, both epic in scope and more personal than ever. To name one example, few artists this side of Bono would have the guts to tackle an argument with God in song, but in “You Slay Me,” Daniels pulls it off. “That song practically wrote itself,” she observes, “during a night when I was grief stricken, angry and exhausted by months of sorrow, unable to understand why God would allow such heartache. Honestly, I’m afraid to perform it—it’s personal, it’s revealing and it leaves me vulnerable to misinterpretation and judgment.”
At the same time, she says, that song and one other close-to-the-bone confession, “Every Single Day,” are absolutely indispensable to the story Come Undone tells, one of hopes and dreams, then disillusion and darkness and, finally, joy that survives all the more for having been tested and scarred by life. “The title is an invitation to allow the weight of disappointment to strip you of things that can be taken away in order to find the stabilizing force of what cannot,” Daniels concludes.
That said, even Daniels’ most serious album to date doesn’t forsake her well-known humor, particularly on “You Should Love Me,” a tongue-in-cheek strut before a would-be beau. It’s a side of her that shows up even more forcefully onstage. “If the audience laughs at my jokes, I’m liable to try a whole stand-up routine,” she notes. “Then Jeff will quietly remind me that we’re here to play music and we all laugh some more.”
With a new album in hand and new twins to raise, Daniels and Neal still will be making their way down from their home sweet mountain home to hit the roaring interstates and play to their loyal audience. “Quite honestly, we’re not sure how it’s going to work,” Daniels admits. “But we’ve never been sure how it would work, even in the earliest days when it was just the two of us, or when we got our now-five-year-old puppy.”
Long after the highways need to be rebuilt, and all the fast-food drive-throughs dotting their exits have been boarded up, ancient Lookout Mountain will still tower over the landscape. In the same way, Daniels hopes to keep writing, playing and recording long after today’s chart-toppers have been relegated to the “where are they now?” file.
“We saw Gordon Lightfoot play last year,” Daniels recalls, “and came away thinking how awesome it would be to be able to continue writing and performing well into old age. The audience didn’t care that his voice wasn’t what it used to be. They loved the stories and they loved the storyteller. What a great life!”