Country music’s relationship with Nashville is but a recent dalliance compared to Music City’s gospel roots. That story extends back into the 19th century, with the establishment of The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the inspiration for the Ryman Auditorium. Nashville’s first music publishers and some of its first radio stations were gospel-based. And in 1921 came the founding of the Fairfield Four, probably Nashville’s most famous gospel vocal group. The lineage of the Fairfield Four thrives and resonates in Odessa Settles, this week’s guest on The String.
The daughter of singer Walter J. Settles (1928-1999), Odessa is an in-demand ensemble singer who values the full spectrum of sacred to secular music, especially the roots/Americana world where she’s amassed a long resume. She’s been a guest vocalist on projects by Darrell Scott, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien and last year’s Rifles & Rosary Beads by Mary Gauthier. She works solo and in combination with her surviving brothers (she was the only girl of eight kids growing up) in the vocal group The Settles Connection. And she’s pulled all this off while maintaining an intense career as a nurse for premature babies at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
LISTEN TO THE FULL STRING INTERVIEW WITH ODESSA SETTLES HERE.
She got into the Americana space gradually, as her deep history in Nashville’s community made her something of a talent broker for producers and artists. She was even a consultant for T-Bone Burnett on O Brother, Where Art Thou? The developing scene appealed to her for several reasons, she says:
“It’s collaboration first. Of course, I love the music and the idea of where the music comes from – that it is definitely roots. And that’s what I’m all about. Working with these artists I get a glimpse of their lives. It’s a purpose – trying to learn about different cultures and where people come from.”
Also in the interview, it becomes clear that Odessa is also passionate about knowing where she comes from, and how that relates to music, which we spoke of in terms of an heirloom.
As I was growing up as an African American in this country, and I grew up during the height of the Civil Rights movement, the more I learned about the music we were doing and the connection to actually slavery and how this music was passed down, generation to generation, and then finally to my grandmother to my father to us, that was eye opening. There lies my interest as well – that connection to where this music came from and why. By people of oppression. And growing up and still having to deal with inequalities based on who I am. That music plays an important role in how to get over, how to deal with life itself. We learned to use the music to that purpose.
An early and important manifestation of that purpose – one that continues to this day – came through the Princely Players:
As I grew up I became more politically active. The Princely Players was formed at the old Cameron High School in 1967 by our drama and English instructor, H. German Wilson. What we did was to teach African American history through drama and music. So the majority of the members of the group have been knowing each other since the third or fourth grade. During the height of the Civil Rights movement we traveled around the country to perform – universities, colleges, churches, civic places with some of the activists. Today we’re still together.
One aspect of Odessa’s life in music that didn’t make it into the audio interview is her central role in Tokens, a show that’s been around for more than a decade now. Billed as a “philosophical and theological variety show,” it was created by Lipscomb University professor Lee Camp as a forum blending thoughtful dialogue with radio comedy and eclectic live music. It’s traveled widely and played the Ryman Auditorium numerous times, becoming one of Nashville’s less heralded hits. Settles said this about it:
Lee Camp is a brilliant man. He is all about social justice and civil rights. But also about serious Christians who don’t take themselves seriously. Imagining a world of graciousness and mercy and social justice - that’s what it’s all about. It brings in people from all different religious and non-religious backgrounds and creates this venue for people to come together and feel comfortable enough to share their lives with each other.
Here is Odessa singing at a Tokens performance in 2012.