The roots of Granddaughters: An Americana Opera, a song cycle written by Maggie Longmire and her brother John, go back to just after World War I, when their maternal grandparents got divorced and their mother went to live with her grandmother in Campbell County. But the origin of the album featuring those songs is much more recent; it started in 2006 when John Longmire was facing his 50th high-school reunion.
"He was reminiscing and started writing some things down, memories of his youth," Maggie Longmire says. "He sent them over to me and said, ‘I wrote this, it'd be cool if you could put some music to it.' It was just a little experiment, and we recorded it. We just had two songs, but it opened a floodgate, really, for remembering the favorite stories we'd heard our whole lives."
Over the next two years, as the collaboration kept going back and forth, the project developed into something much bigger. Maggie and John worked up a dozen original songs based on their mother's early life in East Tennessee before she got married. Their personal family memorial turned into something they wanted to share, so they recruited some of Knoxville's best musicians (Maggie, as a singer for the pioneering Knoxville Western swing/country-rock band the Lonesome Coyotes, has relationships stretching back to the 1970s and lured in fellow Coyotes Doug Klein and Hector Qirko, as well as R.B. Morris, Don Cassell, Marcus Shirley, Stan Turner, Brian Sward, and more) to record the songs at Jay Manneschmidt's studio in Knoxville. Then Maggie prepared a multimedia live performance featuring a dozen musicians, lengthy spoken background on the songs, and, for the second performance this weekend, a slide show of family photos. (The show was performed at the Laurel Theater in 2008, when the album was first released.)
But Granddaughters is more than one family's history; in telling the story of their mother's life, the Longmires present an intimate portrait of East Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century, and offer a universal lesson about the importance of stories and memory.
"The stories about my mother—her grandmother was her hero, and she saw her over and over and over again being her champion," Maggie says. "That was the piece I somehow wanted to capture and present in some way that that story could continue to be told, because it was important to my mother. In the fabric of my life, for us, when your parents are gone and you're remembering, and you're maybe appreciating them in a different way, you start to think about aspects of your own history and your roots. Part of what we want to do with this in the sharing of it is to remind folks that if you still have access to some of those people, check in with them, go talk to them. For those who have children, make sure they have a chance to get to know their grandparents and aunts and uncles. Get those stories. I believe you'll enjoy having them later."
Maggie even found that her and her brother's stories crossed over with their friends. R.B. Morris, who sings on three tracks on Granddaughters, found particular resonance in a song about the romance and mystery of trains.
"He understood it," she says. "There's a song called ‘L&N Lullabye,' and he said, ‘You know, my daddy worked for the L&N his whole life.' He was as connected to the material, a lot of it, as much as I was."
Manneschmidt, whose family is from Virginia and Nashville, didn't find any direct parallels to his own life. But he found himself pulled to the project as much by Maggie's musical accompaniments as by the stories she told.
"I was fascinated by the glimpses of her family, and what life was like in those days," says Manneschmidt, who played guitar, bass, accordion, piano, banjo, and mandolin on the album, in addition to his technical duties as co-producer and engineer. "But I listened with a musical ear; I like her compositions. She and I share a sensibility for a particular style. When I play something in that particular zone, she lights up. We have a musical overlap."
The music on Granddaughters reflects the album's narrative, starting off with a new arrangement of the traditional song "Spanish Fandango" and running through elegiac ballads ("Old Tipple Road," sung by Morris), old-timey dance numbers ("Cove Lake Moon"), dark country anthems ("Me and the Jones Boys"), and even a jazzy torch song ("Harlow Hips") and a novelty ukulele number ("Nell"). The songs demonstrate the variety of music East Tennesseans might have heard through the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.
"It's more a melting pot of the music I've sung throughout my life," Maggie says. "The first music I chose was folk music, when I was 14 or 15. But I was listening to pop singers before that. When you start to write, all that cellular history of that music comes out. A lot of people think it's going to be more bluegrassy or country, but it's not at all. I don't know what it is—it's a hybrid."
For both Maggie and John, writing for Granddaughters brought into focus skills that they had only recently mastered. The words that eventually became lyrics were among John's first efforts at creative writing, and Maggie, though a veteran performer, had just finished her first album of original songs, Teachers and Travelers, in 2003 after a long hiatus from music.
"It's something he came to very late in life, realizing he had a love of writing," Maggie says. "I've sung my whole life, but songwriting was something I attempted when I was performing back in the '70s, but it was a struggle. I didn't sing for, like, 14 years. I ran a business here in town, and it just didn't work to have early hours at a business and late hours at a nightclub. I just had to put it aside. Then I took a course, and it opened me up to some possibilities. It was like the beginning of the songwriting, and suddenly songs would be complete; it wasn't just a fragment here and a fragment there. Then it became such a fun thing, and an important thing, too."