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Judge for Rebecca Rippy & Co.

Stanley, NC
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Portrait of Rebecca Rippy & Co.

In her song “Trying to Make a Living,” Rebecca Rippy coyly sings, “Is this specific enough?” The line addresses songwriting in general, but for Rebecca and her fans, the question is an inside joke. Anyone listening to Rebecca knows she writes very specifically—and provocatively— about her experiences, her relationships, and what matters most in her life.

On Telling Stories, her second album, Rebecca opens her heart in the most intimate ways, spinning tales built around those who mean the most to her. The emotional connection to her songs are obvious, but just as importantly is how she uses personal revelations to explore universal truths. Writing acoustic music that elevates souls with uplifting rhythms or hushes a crowd with quiet power, Rebecca proves just how entertaining and inspiring music can be in the hands of a talented singer-songwriter who has lived every word she sings.

“I wrote these songs initially for my family members, and when my co-producer/engineer, Jamie Hoover, heard them, he strongly encouraged me to record them. I was hesitant at first, because they reveal so much of me. But now that they’re out there, I’m finding that people are relating to them more than anything I have written to date. In our live performances, the audience seems to respond in a very deep, emotional way. I think these songs hit home with some of their own family life experiences and people really connect with them because of that.”

The inspiration originated with “It’s October,” the first song written for the album, and its opening cut. As the lyrics make obvious, it’s an open-hearted tribute to her father, who died too young at age 49. The CD booklet includes a note that looks pinned to it that reads “Thanks Dad, for everything…,” indicating how important a role Rippy’s father played in her life. Amid photos of her as a young girl, and with her father as a young man, she writes, “He was, to me, an overpowering influence. I’ve spent the last eight years running, hiding, fighting, drinking, working and anything else just to avoid accepting the reality of his absence in my life.”

From that point, instead of avoidance, Rippy’s songs deal directly with trying to accept and embrace what others mean to her: She writes of her husband, her children, her mother, her grandmother, and what is likely one of the most loving and heart-felt songs (“O Brother”) written about her sister and two brothers.

Through it all, Rebecca presents these sentiments with an in-your-face candidness that is reflected in the energetic arrangements of the songs. More acoustic than her first album, Telling Stories nonetheless abounds in movement and rhythm. Rippy attributes that energy to the joy of playing with her outstanding band, a collection of well-regarded musical veterans who have been drawn to Rippy for her fresh perspective and undeniable talent.

At the helm is co-producer Jamie Hoover, who also plays bass and offers background vocals. A legendary figure among power-pop fans for his work in the acclaimed band, the Spongetones, Hoover brings studio smarts and arrangement skills to Rippy’s work. He also introduced her to other high-profile friends, including producer-artist Don Dixon, who sings a duet with Rebecca on Telling Stories. Don has produced such icons as REM, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw and a host of other major label talent.

Joining them is the band Rebecca Rippy & Co., her touring ensemble. It features guitarist Douglas Barnhill, leader of the North Carolina-based band Barnhill and the 12 Tribes, and whose harmonies work so well with Rippy that he invited her to join him when he performed at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café. On drums and percussion, Scott McLaughlin’s work provides the music’s propulsive vigor, his experience as one of North Carolina’s most respected musicians evident in the grooves. Victoria McLaughlin, a classically trained cellist from Colombia, provides the rich bottom and unusual flavor running under Rippy’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, showing the same sensitivity and luxurious tone she’s displayed with the Charlotte Philarmonic Orchestra and the Vivace Quartet. On stage they’re joined by bassist Brian Doell and acoustic guitarist Terry Wheeler, multi-instrumentalists, band leaders and recording artists in their own rights. Terry Wheeler, also adds background vocals.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be playing with such talented musicians so early in my career,” Rippy said. “They’ve added so much to my music. It’s a true collaboration, and we’ve come up with our own sound because of what each member brings to it. It inspires me every time I play with them.”

It’s easy to understand why these valued musicians devote themselves to Rippy’s music: As a vocalist, she has a vulnerable yet strong presence that can race with jazzy glee, whisper with quiet revelation, or soar with stunning spirit and beauty. Her voice brings each tune alive, as if welling up from some deep hidden place then glistening as it hits the light.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much since my first album,” Rippy said, referring to 2008’s Secrets, which she made in collaboration with Hoover, who not only produced, but also played all the instruments except the drums which were tracked by Jim Brock (long-time percussionist/drummer for Kathy Mattea). “With this band, I’ve matured creatively and feel like I’ve found my own voice, my own sound. The response has been incredible live. So I’m eager now for people to hear these new songs, to know where we’ve been headed.”

Releasing a collection of songs that are so personal to her—“it doesn’t leave you much room to hide,” she quipped—has emboldened Rippy on stage as well. “I feel a deeper, stronger connection to the audience,” she said. “They are responding so strongly to these songs and to the sound we have. We’re having a blast.”

So, not only is Rippy being “specific enough”, she’s also happily contradicted another line from “It’s October.” In it, she sings unguardedly, “I’ve gotta be honest with you, I’ve never been honest with me.” But Telling Stories finds its strength in Rippy’s candid words, proving that when she’s honest to herself and her audience, she taps into themes and tales that touch the universal truths in all of us.

“I started writing songs because I wanted to reach out to people,” she said. “To have people now coming to me to tell me how they relate to my songs, that’s one of the greatest rewards that I can ever hope to receive!”