Local singer attracts attention with her uncanny, made-up songs
By Jim Ridley
FEBRUARY 14, 2000: "I'll show you something, all right?" Tywanna Jo Baskette asks in an abashed voice just this side of a whisper. She pulls a folded Xerox sheet from a pile of notebooks beside her bed. On it is a mug shot of a mustached man with stringy black hair. He's serving five years in prison, she says. He'd been hired to fix the air conditioning in her apartment. Instead, he came in through the skylight and stole her dead parents' jewelry.
"I got one ring back from a pawn shop in Manchester, and the rest he said he traded on the street for crack," says Baskette, slender and waif-like in a peasant skirt and long, braided pigtails. With a rueful laugh, she delivers the final insult: "[He] didn't even fix the air conditioner."
Like many of the events in Tywanna Jo Baskette's life, big and small, the experience ended up in a song: a fierce little rock 'n' roll tune called "Air Conditioner Man From Manchester." But for every song of Baskette's that survives, there's no way to tell how many others were conjured on the spot, sung into the air, and promptly forgotten. Unless someone happens to be standing nearby with a tape recorder, they're gone.
"All my life, I've written these songs," says Baskette, who's playing her second live date ever Thursday night at Douglas Corner as part of the Next Fest. "I called them 'pass-alongs,' 'cause they just pass on through and I never recorded them in any way." She made up her first song at age 12; of all the tunes she's lost over the years, she remembers this one:
"I don't understand the universe/I don't understand the people," she sings in a breathy, childlike voice that makes everything else in the room insignificant. "I don't understand heaven above or why Jesus died for me/I don't understand why He loves me/I don't understand why He cares/My feelings so often confuse me/My heart is in such despair."
A singing career is a new development for Baskette, although she's been a presence on the Nashville music scene for nearly 15 years--as a stylist, as a model, as a whirling dervish in videos for Steve Winwood, Alan Jackson, and countless others. Until her boyfriend started following her last year with a microcassette recorder, she would sing a song once and forget it.
The songs that survive, however, seem to evoke something different in everyone who hears them. Swan Dive's Bill DeMain, a fan, says she reminds him of Claudine Longet. Her recent co-producer, Robin Eaton, compares her to Nico, the enigmatic Velvet Underground chanteuse. Both her other co-producer, Brad Jones, and her attorney, Trip Aldredge, liken her winding, extemporaneous tunes to Brian Wilson's experimental efforts. All of them seem to regard her songs with a mix of awe and puzzlement.
"So much writing is contrived to get a hit," says Pete Cummings, a veteran session musician and bandleader who performs with Baskette. "[Hers] just comes straight from her head. If she sees the cat doing something, she'll make up a song about it right there."
Baskette says up front she's not a musician. She can't play an instrument, except for plunking out "I'm a Little Teapot" on her Fisher-Price xylophone. Yet musicians who've recorded with her say she's utterly exact--and demanding--about what she wants. "She can only sing her melodies to you," says Cummings, "but they have very definite, sophisticated chord progressions."
There are other tantalizing contradictions about her. Ask her why she uses 35mm Charlton Heston filmstrips as vertical blinds, and she says it's because she hates his arms-bearing activism. An eye-blink later, she asks if you want to see her shotgun. Her dress may seem almost Appalachian, but her modeling portfolio for the area's biggest names fills a notebook 3 inches thick. Folk art and kitschy knickknacks vie for shelf space with copies of Interview and CDs by Serge Gainsbourg. Small wonder she's the subject of much discussion on the local music scene.
Right now, though, most of the talk concerns two sets of recordings. One is a 20-song cassette of Baskette singing over Cummings' spare but unerring accompaniment: an acoustic guitar here, a harmonica there. It has already attracted publishing interest. The other is a set of six songs recorded with Jones and Eaton, who enhanced her work-songs-to-nursery-rhymes melodies with steel guitar and Jew's harp.
The constant is the plaintive beauty of Baskette's voice and the unsettling directness of her writing. Whether it's set off in stark relief by Cummings' strumming, or recast as a sultry rhumba by Jones and Eaton, a song as startling as "Maw Always Wanted to Go to the Country" retains its punch. Especially when Baskette interrupts the lilting, almost Caribbean melody with devastating offhand details of family life, such as her mother's stroke at a Piggly Wiggly while vacationing in Florida.
These songs hint at a past Baskette says she hates to talk about. "I think if people pay attention to the lyrics, that's all they really need to know," she says. But the details spill out of her, often at unexpected times. She grew up in Nashville with her adoptive parents, a Presbyterian minister father and a mother who worked as a nurse in Vanderbilt's ER. Her mother died in 1985; her father died last year. A snuffbox-sized container on her dresser holds some of his ashes, beside a dead rose.
She also has a brother and sister with whom she rarely speaks, and she alludes to the ill fates of different relatives. As a girl, she says, she was watching TV with her mom when the faces of her cousins, John and Doug Brown, suddenly appeared onscreen. The brothers had been charged with the notorious 1973 murder of Grand Ole Opry star David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife Estelle. "I used to have a crush on Doug, way before," she says, finding a wild-eyed photo of him in a book about the case. "He didn't look like that."
Her father didn't like much music besides gospel; it was her mother who passed on a love of Dean Martin records and old country. Nevertheless, it wasn't until her father's death last year, she says, that she finally began to write down lyrics. Now she writes all the time. She wonders how her parents would feel about her singing, then corrects herself. "I know they'd be proud of me," she whispers, clicking together her Doc Martens three times for emphasis.
"It's crazy! I feel so happy!" she exults. "I feel like I've finally discovered the thing I'm supposed to do." Then, in the next moment, she confesses she's so scared of playing live that she gets diarrhea. Maybe that volatility is part of what makes Tywanna Jo Baskette's music so affecting. The moment can switch from joy to terror in a heartbeat. But at least you're always right there in the moment with her.
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