East Of Normal
Shades of Gray
I was sitting in a fan’s truck in St. Augustine, Fla., maybe seven or eight years ago, indulging in some after-show merriment. He was a strapping, bearded fellow whose name escapes me. He had my There, I Said It! record on. People do that sometimes; they put my own record on thinking I’m going to enjoy listening to it.
“What song’s the one with Emmylou on it?” he asked. And I told him there wasn’t one. “Like hell, there isn’t!” he exclaimed, and began skipping through the tracks in search of the elusive Emmylou Harris/Tommy Womack duet. At last he found it, my song “25 Years Ago,” which features the masterful gilt harmonies of Lisa Oliver Gray. Not Emmylou. But that’s a fair indicator of Lisa’s talent.
She’s a born and bred Kentuckian, just like me, and we met at college in Bowling Green. It was 1983, and one night we flirted at an off-campus disco called the Alibi. God stepped in and put the kibosh on that, because we were destined to be brother and sister, and sing together at hundreds of gigs later in our lives, and that’s what’s happened.
For a while in Bowling Green, she would always be singing in one band and I’d be in another, with varying degrees of rivalry, and then one night at a Government Cheese gig, she sat in with me as I did “Like A Rolling Stone” solo to kick off the second set. It was a sweet thing to hear our voices together. It worked. Not long after, she moved to Chicago with her new husband, Michael, and she sang there, too, eventually moving back down south again to Nashville, singing whenever there was a chance to. She listened, too. She listened to Linda Ronstadt and Chrissie Hynde and Albertina Walker, and Jonell Mosser and Etta Britt.
She formed a band that played the music of her youth, hard rock, and it didn’t quite work. Sure, we were both KISS fans as kids, but that doesn’t mean you should be singing “I Stole Your Love” in your 30s. She had a cover band gig in Bowling Green every Sunday night for years, and I would come see her sometimes, becoming much more amazed at the voice that was broadening in scope and improving all the time.
One night in Nashville at 12th & Porter, she was recruited out of the crowd to sit in with Wayne Kramer (of all people) to riff and sing with him on a song called “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me?” There was a lot of call-and-response, and comedy. Lisa was hilarious. Any smart comment Wayne made, she batted it right back like a tennis ball. She had it going on. It made me think I could use somebody like that.
I’d moved to Nashville, too, by this point, and in the summer of ’97, I invited her to join my band. We had sung together on enough occasions that I knew it was time to make a move. She made me sound much better. It’s much easier to stay on key if you’ve got somebody with you who knows what the note is and knows how to sing it, which is not my strongest suit.
Twenty years it’s been, and I like to think that to a degree I helped bring her in front of enough people that things eventually took off for her. She sings backup in several acts now, and does studio work. She’s made her own record, the excellent Dedicated to Love, and people have learned who she is. On top of her singing skills, she’s a wonderful person, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs, and only cusses in appropriate private moments. Her higher profile nowadays has occasionally made me afraid she’d leave me for a more handsome guy. So far, I’ve been lucky.
She’s clairvoyant, too. When she’s singing backup, she watches my mouth and has actually sung right along with me at times when I sang the wrong verse. She already knew I was going to screw up and sang along with my mistake like it was planned in advance. I don’t know how she does it, but she does.
We’ve made a record with a group of ours we call Another Mother (as in, she’s my sister from another mother) and it’s good, but it’s stalled out so far as finishing it because of that old “who’s going to pay for it?” gag. Nevertheless, we’ll keep singing together, I hope, another 20 years. I hope she makes another record, I hope she keeps getting more and more noticed. I hope she sings until the day she dies — and then sings even more. ☕