If Camp Wig had opened my heart to nature, it was Chanticleer that opened my soul to music. It was during this time that I discovered the guitar. Someone had given one to Mom as a going-away gift when she left California. Dad had already shown me a few chords on his guitar, so that was enough to inspire me. I started singing and playing around the house. I'd sit on the porch and practice for hours. And so my life as an artist began.
Dad's love of music and my desire to play was one of the first true connections I felt with him. He often brought his leatherwork to Berea's art fairs, and I'd stay with him in a tent while he sold his wares. We'd sell by day, play and listen to music by night. It's one of my happiest memories! The big tents, the lights, the people singing and playing – it was there that I discovered jamming with other musicians. I began to play by ear. The guitar became an appendage. It was the first time I remember feeling as though I had a purpose in life.
Mrs. Allen started giving me piano lessons that summer. The lessons taught me discipline, but while I liked the piano, I was more drawn to the guitar. Still, Mrs. Allen had faith in me and even allowed me to attend her music camp free of charge. It is one of the most magical memories of my life. Mrs. Allen was so gifted. She taught us about the passion of music, the rise and fall of notes. She was the first person to show me the difference between playing technically and playing from the heart. She had such a musical style, and such a big heart. (The camp took in children from all walks of life.) At the end of music camp, the students always put on a show on her elaborate patio. That year it was "Porgy & Bess." It was my first performance. A milestone!
I was starting to get really excited. Music was becoming more than an interest – it became my passion. By the end of the summer it was just that guitar and me. I'm glad I wasn't a Top 40 kid. It was because we shopped in used record stores that I discovered Rounder Records, and the label's great collection of authentic music. I also discovered Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton and Hazel and Alice – the Boswell Sisters. I got hooked on hillbilly music – bluegrass and the old mountain folk songs. By the end of summer I was addicted to the way that Doc Watson played the guitar. I started to learn the autoharp, and when my Uncle Mark, Mom's brother, brought me a banjo, I started learning to finger pick.
Mom loved the way Hazel and Alice harmonized and started trying to work up harmonies to my lead. Even though she had never done that before, it somehow felt natural there in the mountains, with so many singers, writers and musicians around.
One of my great influences was the Yancey family, Minnie and her four children. Minnie is the one who taught Mom to make lye soap, which would later cause television host Ralph Emery to start calling us the Soap Sisters. The Yanceys were like family to us. Minnie's daughter Sonja Bird sang and played dulcimer as well as guitar. Sonja Bird was very important in my own musical journey, since she was my first real guitar and vocal teacher.