Jeri Howell ’16 sings and strums her way into the spotlight
May 30, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger
release set for this summer. (Photo by Joa Brance McDaniel.)
Howell and members of the Kentucky Music Ensemble perform
on Centre's Festival Lawn during the Vice Presidential Debate.
She's opened for Dailey & Vincent. She's recorded music with such musicians as Jeff Ellis, Carla Glover and Molly Rogers. She has already recorded several singles and released one feature CD, with her second coming out this summer. And she's also a member of the Class of 2016 at Centre College. Soon enough, everyone will know her name: Jeri Howell.
Howell's upcoming CD, featuring all original songs she wrote, follows her 2008 debut, "Branch to Branch." The CD features long-time friend and Centre alumna Daphne Fields ’01 on bass. As Howell explains, "She's been with me since the beginning. Her husband taught me how to play guitar, and she's been playing and singing harmonies with me ever since.
"This CD is a highly anticipated project that I've been working on for about a year with incredible Kentucky musicians, recorded and co-produced by Brandon Bowlds of Lexington," Howell adds. "It will be available at all of my shows, through iTunes and to order through my website."
Singing and songwriting have long been part of Howell's life.
"I remember my sister and I writing songs while we played on the swing set when I was six years old," she says. "I really got into 'old-time/mountain' music after attending Cowan Creek Mountain Music School— an amazing, weeklong music school in Whitesburg, Ky.—when I was ten years old. That's where I met the majority of the musicians that I play with today and who are on my new CD."
Howell recorded her first single, "Change Our Ways," in 2007 at 13 years old. Jeff Ellis, of Frankfort band Stirfry Mussette, was inspired to write the song for Howell after hearing her perform. Several years later, Howell and musician Carla Glover received a Master and Apprenticeship Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Carla, the 'master,' taught me, the 'apprentice,' about old-time singing, harmony, songwriting and stage performance—including clogging!" Howell says. "This was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot from Carla. She has taught me so much."
Recording her first album in 2008 took Howell to Nashville's Sunrise Studio, where she collaborated with a variety of artists. The record gained more traction than she had originally anticipated.
"Much to my surprise, the CD began selling throughout the U.S. and in seven European countries within its first year of release, thanks to online distributing sites such as CD Baby and iTunes," says Howell. "You can still purchase the album today on iTunes and at my shows—or if you run into me on campus!"
Earlier this year, Howell was featured on Stirfry Mussette's new album, "No String Unturned," along with Ben Sollee and Molly Rogers. The track "Love at Play" was co-written by Howell and guitar player Jeff Ellis.
Howell has already performed alongside some legends, but that doesn't stop her from dreaming big.
"I hope to keep performing, writing and recording my whole life, but I don't have the desire to get any 'bigger' than or even near as 'big' as, say, Gillian Welch. That being said, I'd love to just have a picnic with her and work through her songwriting brain and sing a couple harmonies together," Howell says. "I would probably faint from sheer happiness if I got to open for and sing with Brandi Carlile or Patty Griffin."
Songwriting comes naturally to Howell—in some ways, she feels that it's a gift.
"Singing and writing music have always seemed to be a part of me. When I write, it is usually because some experience in the past has dug deep into me, I've nurtured it every now and then with contemplation and recognition, and one day it just bursts to the surface and I get the immediate urge to write," she says. "That is almost always how my lyrics come about—it's as if I'm not really thinking about the words I'm writing, but that I'm the medium through which this feeling is recording its poetry. It's a very cool experience."
Living in the Bluegrass State has been beneficial and important to Howell's musical career.
"Kentucky is jam-packed full of incredible musicians. It blows my mind that I've had multiple opportunities to hang with Ben Sollee, and that Jordon Ellis is playing on this new CD of mine and continues to be an amazing friend in my life," Howell says. "We all seem to take care of each other. I know I can call up Carla or John Harrod ’67 and chat with them for hours or ask them at the last minute to play a gig. We are really blessed here."
Howell specifically says the vibrant cultural scene of Frankfort, her hometown, has enriched her love of music.
"I have been incredibly blessed to grow up in a town that has a rich folk music community and has always fostered my development as a musical performer," she says, particularly crediting "the Folk Club of Frankfort, the Grand Theatre, the Kentucky Coffeetree Café and individual community members I have been able to open for—Ben Sollee, Sam Bush, Sara Watkins, Patrick Dethlefs, Robinella and Daryll Scott. I assume that it was partly because of these accomplishments that I got to open for Dailey & Vincent in Louisville."
With her first year at Centre drawing to a close, Howell greatly appreciates the musical opportunities offered at the College and what she has learned this year.
"The musical community at Centre is amazing, and they have nurtured me so much. Nathan Link and Dr. Conrad Shiba have made a huge impact on my positive experience at Centre, encouraging me musically and leading the Kentucky Music Ensemble," Howell says. "I've been fortunate to enter into a band with amazing student musicians and vocalists who are excited to learn new styles, create their own 'sound,' work out wicked cool harmonies, perform multiple shows and just goof around and have a good time. Also, music shows at the Norton Center and Club Weisiger knock my socks off.
"For me, music is about creation and community," Howell adds. "Centre really fosters this."
With her new CD on the horizon, Howell's plans for the future are big—yet easily attainable for someone with so much success to her name.
"My realistic aspirations right now are to eventually allot the time and accrue the resources to do a tour," she says. "Maybe it will be just one summer and maybe it will only be in Kentucky and the surrounding states, but I'll do it someday."
For more about Howell's music, click here.
Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.