She grew up in cornfield country of Mount Pleasant, Mich., immersed in old-time gospel and Methodist revival music. Today, 24-year-old Anna Mae Mitchell is tuning her vocal chords and guitar, as she and her band are in Nashville for the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention and Fan Fest. The annual event runs Sept. 29 through Oct. 5, and Anna Mae Mitchell and Rising Tide gave two After Hours Showcases around midnight Monday.
To look at the wide-eyed brunette with the innocent face, you could never imagine the commanding voice and guitar work this woman offers. Anna Mae Mitchell and Rising Tide is a band described as “bluegrass with a shot of estrogen.” It’s because the leader of the band is a spark plug who jumpstarts the rest of the group, said harmony vocalist and percussionist Karen “Kadee” Reynolds.
“Her energy is incredible. We have a band promise that Anna Mae will keep us young!” Reynolds said. Reynolds, along with fellow musicians Nancy Merrill on bass and vocals; Bill Thibodeau on mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo; and Richard Silver on mandolin and guitar, could be Anna Mae’s parents because of their ages. Instead, they are her colleagues, fellow musicians, and friends who comfortably follow her lead.
The group came together in pieces soon after Anna Mae moved to Winterport with her fiance, Ben Aldridge, who is Hampden Academy’s director of bands.
“I’m an arranger and he’s a composer, so it’s rather nice. However, that doesn’t mean I always take his advice,” Mitchell said with a grin. The eager young musician wanted to spread her wings and make new friends.
“I was at Paddy Murphy’s one night and Richard was playing. I wrote him a note saying, ‘I need to play music!’” said Mitchell, sporting a big smile. “He still has the note.”
Things blossomed from there. She already had hired Thibodeau as her producer, working on a demo out of his Sundown Studios in Clifton. Thibodeau brought his partner, Nancy, into the fold, and a couple of others dabbled with the group before the last connection was solidified, bringing Reynolds on board. Reynolds was working closely with Aldridge through Hampden Academy’s Music Association, and it was clear she was the piece of the puzzle needed to make a cohesive fivesome.
While the group is five, the women are a trio that can’t be beat. Their harmonies are tight as Merrill and Reynolds offer a strong support for Anna Mae to take listeners from the top to the bottom of the vocal scale, all done with the greatest of ease.
“It’s all about the gals, and I’m just thrilled to be in the background. Let’s just hope the folks in Nashville find these women as fresh and exciting as we do and enjoy what Maine has to offer,” said Silver.
Hal Meyers, a friend and musician, recognizes the uniqueness these women bring to the stage. “They have come a long way in such a short time. Nancy is one of the best bluegrass bass players you’ll find. Karen’s harmonies are outstanding. At the Paul Bunyan Bluegrass Festival, these gals were turning some heads.”
Meyers is so confident the journey to Nashville is worthwhile, he has lent the group his Yukon, which is roomy enough for the five, plus photographer Linda Stevenson, to make the journey. The Mueller family, musicians from Maine, are offering a trailer as well.
Going to Nashville is not new to Thibodeau. This will be his 10th trip, so he knows what is ahead for this fresh band and its young leader.
“When I first met Anna, I was blown away at her talent and she’s even come a long way since then,” he said, acknowledging the challenges with an adventure like this. “She needs to gain a lot of knowledge of the music industry quickly, and stamina will be important to keep going from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. the whole time we are there.”
The words reiterated by all band members are that while in Nashville they will “divide and conquer,” as Mitchell has created a “master plan” with jobs for each member, from attending seminars on “Grant Writing for Artists” and “Building a Brand” to “Improving Your Stage Show” and “Sound Exchange.”
Mitchell worked her way through college toward a degree in vocal performance and sang solo and choral repertoire throughout the state of Michigan. Along with playing in coffeehouses at night, she was in a band called The Mountain Town Moonshiners that played festivals, theaters and other venues statewide. This helped her to develop a comfort on stage.
“Getting ready for IBMA is exciting and it’s going to be such a great chance to be heard,” she said.
Merrill feels Anna has conditioned them all along for this journey with a lot of intense practices. “I was a Brewer High School resource room teacher before retiring in June, but I don’t have time to even acknowledge retirement. Some weeks there’s a duet practice with Karen and Anna. Then there’s a trio practice for us gals. Another night is full band rehearsal, if not two nights some weeks,” Merrill said.
The rehearsal and warm-up before the most recent performance at Next Generation Theatre in Brewer are evidence this young woman is in control. With continuous eye contact and smiles of acknowledgment among the five, it’s clear the kinks are constantly being worked out.
“Can we make sure that entrance is strong before we start?” said Mitchell, masking any jitters she may have. When you hear the spin Mitchell puts on “Walk Like an Egyptian,” you can only marvel at the intensity she has created for the entrance and how her backing singers not only keep the pace, but have set the pace for such a rare female trio.
From intense arrangements to revisiting her childhood, Mitchell recognizes she acquired some inspiration from Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street.” She enjoyed her childhood immersed in music. While their repertoire is rooted in traditional bluegrass, folk and gospel, along with fresh arrangements and originals by up-and-coming songwriters (two of whom are Mitchell’s college friends), the band is benefiting from one of its own. Merrill has written dozens of songs, two of which are being sung by the group.
“It was scary at first, which is why I co-wrote, just in case it didn’t go over so well,” she said with laughter. “Now I’m writing on my own and working on a song called ‘Rising Tide.’”
Mitchell has a circumspect attitude about heading south. “A trip of this nature is very competitive,” yet that’s not an issue for her. “I know I’m good at what I do, and I won’t be crushed if we don’t advance after our showcase,” said the confident leader, recognizing that if Rising Tide is asked to share portfolio material, “this festival will take us far.”
Other bits of Maine are being shared at this festival, aside from the musicians’ talents, as Thibodeau’s instruments are made by Tom Knowles of Lee.
The Showcases are being sponsored by the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine and Rising Tide is the only band from Maine attending the Fan Fest. The group is still hopeful for more financial support to make this journey, as anticipated expenses for going to IBMA are $5,000.
Jokingly, Mitchell said, “There will be a table at my June wedding for people to buy our full-length CD that comes out in May.” Meanwhile, “people are welcome to hear our demo on MySpace,” she said, wearing a bright smile that adds the finishing touch to Anna Mae Mitchell and Rising Tide.
Anne Gabbianelli O’Reilly is a freelance writer who lives in Hampden.