Greensboro-based writer and musician Molly McGinn invited sin and swamplands, preachers and thieves to Joymongers on Tuesday, through songs ranging from thigh-slapping, toe-tapping, playful twangs like the classic “Tennessee Waltz” to foreboding, bluesy tracks of her own conjuring.
Every Tuesday evening McGinn hosts Represent NC, a new live-music series at Joymongers Brewery that amplifies women and LGBTQ musicians in North Carolina. She kicked off the residency with Triad musicians Emily Stewart and Kasey Horton in early February.
“A female mentor of mine in music is Laurelyn Dossett,” McGinn said. “She started booking at Lucky 32 [restaurant] years ago and she intentionally booked women only for that series because she realized we need to look harder, find each other and reach out to each other. If you go around and look at the music scene, it’s a lot of white dudes. That’s bulls***.”
When Joymongers co-owner Mike Rollinson approached McGinn about filling the Tuesday night slot with artists, she knew she didn’t want the music residency to be a cliché “ladies’ night.”
“I want to be very intentional about opening up these nights to artists you don’t typically see in the music scene,” McGinn said. “And I think it’s important for women to see other women playing music. I think it’s important for there to be a healthy music scene… and hear original music by all sorts of local artists.”
On a typical night, McGinn performs original songs and covers before turning the night over to the guest artist, who covers material from a featured performer. This week’s guest artist, Jasmé Kelly, a soulful singer-songwriter from Durham, proposed featuring her longtime friend, Shelby J, an R&B artist who grew up in Greensboro and toured as a back-up singer with Prince for 10 years before his passing last year. She is currently on tour promoting her 2017 album, 10. Kelly herself has worked with musicians from rapper Wyclef Jean and jazz legend B.B. King. At the moment, both women are focused on solo careers.
“As far as my musical experience goes [Shelby’s] one of the people here that I most closely identify with as far as what it’s like to be at an international level and putting out quality music,” Kelly said, “but also being from North Carolina and you have all the artistry in the world but not necessarily the industry infrastructure.”
A radiant photograph of Shelby J in leather, her gloriously bald head decorated with jewels, on a flat-screen television adorned the wall behind the performers. Kelly brought her soul, jazz and folk sensibilities to covers Shelby J’s “Run,” closing her set with a poignant rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
While Kelly focused on stories that brought her friend to the audience, McGinn focused on fictions.
“There’s a story about the lake in the middle of the Great Dismal Swamp and it has this haunting myth that there’s this woman who sails around in this canoe at night with a lantern of fireflies and she’s looking for the lover that killed and drowned her there,” McGinn explained. “Every freakin’ fairy tale the woman dies, or she gets married, and those are basically their fates. I wanted to rewrite her story and pretend that she was the keeper of the swamp and looking over inhabitants there, making sure they were safe.”
The song “Glass Heels in Steel Heels” is the second on Postcards from the Swamp, McGinn’s 2014 album based on months of research into the history of the Great Dismal Swamp, a wilderness region in northeastern North Carolina once home to a maroon community of indigenous people and runaway slaves.
The spare setup cultivated intimacy been artist and audience. Easygoing and playful, McGinn stirred some in the audience to sing complementary parts of songs. Later in the night, her friend and a future guest artist Lyn Koonce joined in spontaneously.
The series already spans genres and generations. Previous featured artists included Sarah Shook and Tift Merritt. In coming weeks, former Dark Water Rising lead guitarist Emily Musolino, soul singer Anne-Claire and Greensboro’s Kelcey Ledbetter (aka Kelcey SunQueen) will share the spotlight with McGinn.
“I can’t say enough about the space Joymonger’s has provided,” McGinn said. “They pay a really good wage and that is what will make a music community grow. I really applaud them for doing that. They came into the community and said, ‘We’re going to make this a place where live music is happening,’ and they’re totally doing it. I’m getting women coming up to me saying, ‘Thank you, we needed this.’”
In the future, McGinn imagines displaying visual artwork from artists working in North Carolina, too.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily be awesome every time,” McGinn said. “It just needs to be authentic — that is the artist’s role in the community.”