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How Emily Nenni Went To Country Music College In Nashville

In a crazy world, I take great comfort in the time-tested logic of cause and effect. For example, it’s supposed to work like this: people fall in love with country music and want to write and sing it for a living, so they move to Nashville. In the case of Emily Nenni, she got it exactly backwards, and I’m still a bit disoriented by finding this out in the conversation we had for Episode 240 of The String.

“I knew I wanted to be a songwriter,” says the Bay Area California native. “But it wasn't until I moved here that I knew I wanted to write and play country music. I started going to Robert’s Western World on Fridays and Saturdays, all by myself. I didn't know anybody when I moved here, and I was 21. I just drank a couple PBRs and watched Brazilbilly and kind of learned more about country (music). And then I met all my friends at Santa's Pub, a double wide trailer with a live Honky Tonk band. And that just felt right to me. That was the kind of music I wanted to make.”

To listen to Nenni’s breakout album, her sophomore project On The Ranch that was released late last year by New West Records, it’s easy to imagine she was raised on ropin’ and ridin’, but actually she’s candid in the title track that “To be true, I really wasn’t much use” during some of the harder jobs on the Colorado ranch where she spent a good deal of the Covid lockdown. She was coaxed out there because the wife of her musical collaborator and producer Mike Eli worked there. And Nenni to be clear did pitch in. “I was serving breakfast and dinner and watching the boss's baby. And I played music for the guests once a week,” she says.

Nenni also asked a lot of questions and did some reporting on ranch life, leading to other songs like “Can Chaser,” with its in-the-know references to “roughies,” “ropers,” and “clover-leafin’ women.” And there are other songs portraying self-assured and saucy women, even if they’re not living the authentic ranch life. The one cover on the album punches up Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know” with shimmering, stacked vocal harmonies multi-tracked by Nenni herself.

Also in the hour, a visit with a very different kind of creative who grappled with the meaning and lore of country music. Author and journalist Stephanie Clifford came through town recently to promote her new novel The Farewell Tour, which tells the life story of a fictional country music singer who makes her way from poverty in Washington state in the 1930s to fame in Nashville in the 60s and 70s. Lillian Waters bumps up against all kinds of historic figures including Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn. And Clifford worked hard to get the details right surrounding those encounters. I know this because I was fortunate to be hired as a historic consultant while the novel was in edits, and we had a good time making the story more realistic. It was quite a cool process to watch unfold.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>