Amanda Rigell was born and raised in East Tennessee, steeped in the traditions of Appalachian folk and country.
But it wasn't until she moved to Madison, Wis., that she felt more at ease writing and performing the music of her home region.
"Moving far away from Appalachia made me feel more connected to it as a writer," she says. "I felt freer to write songs that sounded Appalachian. Living here, I make the assumption, ‘Who is going to know?' I'm less self-conscious. I'm more willing to take risks because I'm on an adventure."
With her husband and musical partner, Allen Rigell, the two form the core of Count This Penny. The Rigells—both Oak Ridge natives—moved to Madison for Allen to do his psychiatric medical residency. And since then their musical career has also taken off. They were recently tapped to play on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion when the show broadcasts live at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee on March 31.
The Rigells are now finishing a full-length CD at Madison's legendary Smart Studios, established by Butch Vig and where Nirvana first laid down tracks for Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins recorded Gish.
They also recently recorded a vinyl single for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum—two original songs based on letters from Civil War soldiers the museum has in its archives. Again, the influence of Tennessee loomed large.
"I was trying to avoid writing it under the shadow of Scott Miller," Rigell says, citing Miller as one of her musical heroes.
But the project was fitting for the couple. They're both masters of telling stories through song, taking on the voices of well-crafted characters—a runaway kid, a woman married to a no-good preacher man, the father of a suicide victim, or a couple reuniting after the man gets out of prison—in ways that resonate empathy. The subjects are often bleak, but the melodies and harmonies are cathartic.
Rigell admits that playing on A Prairie Home Companion is a bit intimidating. But perhaps no more than playing in Knoxville. The couple didn't play in Knoxville until after they moved to Madison, when they appeared on WDVX's Blue Plate Special. "Some of my biggest musical heroes are based in Knoxville, so I feel a lot more self-conscious playing there."