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Louis Branscomb: Her First Language



From childhood, Louisa Branscomb lived in a world of songs. "I remember sitting on Grandmother's living room rug singing my favorite song, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Fun-tear,” when I was about fourGrandmother told me I asked what a 'fun tear' was, and she said, 'It's like the rug is what is familiar, and the frontier is everything beyond the rug - it is where no one has gone before, where pioneers go.' I asked why they say fun and tears together," and she said, playing along, 'It's not always easy to be a pioneer, and that's the tears. But it's fun too.'"

 

That exchange began a lifetime devoted to pioneering the territory of songwriting, the role of women in bluegrass, and new ways to use songs to unite people.

"I was very shy," Louisa relates. "Songwriting was my 'first language.' Talking was my second."

As a child, songwriting came naturally and gave her a way to make meaning out of things by telling their stories. She wrote her first song at age six and received her first significant honor as a composer at age 11 when she won a regional contest and the distinction of being the youngest person to perform an original composition with the Birmingham Symphony in front of an audience of 2,500 people. 


Louisa's skills as a songwriter caught the eye of country songwriter/singer greats like Mel Tillis and Tom T Hall before she was 22. The song synonymous with Louisa is “Steel Rails,” written at age 21. As recorded by Alison Krauss, it is one of the longest-running chart hits in bluegrass, a hit in country and folk, and considered a bluegrass classic that brought a new generation into the field. YouTube reflects some 350 performances of the song by different musicians and bands.

Mel Tillis heard “Steel Rails” in 1971 and invited Louisa to move to Nashville to write country songs, saying they needed another female songwriter. He saw Louisa as potentially the "next Cindy Walker." Louisa turned him down.

"Looking back, I had no idea what kind of opportunity that was for a 21-year-old, but I told him I really loved the banjo and performing around the country with my band. He was very gracious and helped me record demos of the first five I recorded in Nashville." 

Louisa formed what may have been the first modern all-female bluegrass band with a friend in 1971. She continued as likely the first woman to front a band on banjo while also writing most of the band's material and taking a major role in producing the band's albums (Boot Hill). In 1991, Louisa happened by the Station Inn in Nashville, where she heard Alison Krauss for the first time. Without knowing Alison had recorded “Steel Rails,” she found herself greeted by Alison in the green room, who picked her up, swung her around, and exclaimed, "We've been looking for you for two years!" 


Like the "never-ending double line" in the song, Steel Rails has a seemingly endless life of its own and has paved the way for Louisa's catalog of train songs. Legendary singer Dale Ann Bradley said, "Louisa is the master of train songs. She is the best friend a train ever had!" Explains Louisa, "My heartbeat was literally forming during a two-day long train ride from Nashville to Saranac, New York, when Mom was pregnant with me. She was going up to join my father, who had TB and was in the Sanitarium. I was born there, and we lived three doors from the tracks, where we heard the trains bring TB patients in three times a day." Louisa rode the train from Birmingham to Nashville's Union Station throughout her childhood to visit her grandparents.

 

" ‘Steel Rails’ has been my greatest teacher," she says. "So many stories over the years of how it has joined people to each other and to music. Last night, in a bar, a woman introduced herself to me and showed me her Spotify playlist with “Steel Rails.” She said, "When I learned my sister was dying of cancer, I drove as fast as I could from North Carolina all the way to Pennsylvania. It was “Steel Rails” that kept me going. I played it for hours and arrived an hour before she died. “Steel Rails” got me there." 

 

About songwriting, Louisa says, "Books can teach craft, but it's the soul of the song that I am most interested in. The magic that lifts some songs above others and makes them resonate with listeners. I think when you go through life with the heart of an artist, it is like intentionally lifting the veils of your own soul to find the truest message in the moment. That's the song." 


Fascinated by how people use creativity to overcome hardship, Louisa continued as a full-time musician while earning a Ph.D. in Psychology, where she studied the power of songwriting to transform trauma. Now, both paths have joined in her work, evolving an original model for understanding and teaching the art of songwriting. Her retreat program is in its 33rd year and has seen over 800 participants, many of whom return year after year.

 

Asked why she has spent so much time mentoring instead of promoting her career, Louisa answered, "In the 70s, when I came along, I didn't have teachers or mentors. There were no bluegrass organizations, and the number of songwriters was few, and the number of women players and songwriters even less. So, when Alison recorded “Steel Rails,” I wasn't 40 yet, but I felt I had the good fortune songwriters dream of all their lives. I decided I wanted to pay it forward and dedicated myself to mentoring as much as performing from then on."

 

Louisa blazed trails in advocating for songwriters and the songwriting community beginning in 1996, spearheading the forming of the organized songwriter community in IBMA and the Songwriter Award. She then founded the non-profit ScreenDoor Songwriter Alliance to build community through songwriting and songwriting events, especially with children and veterans. "The most powerful tool we have is to move people and bring people together in music. Songwriting is where music begins. In a world so fragmented, it is where I see hope."

 

Louisa has penned over 350 recorded songs, many holding top chart positions in folk, bluegrass, and roots music for an extended time. She is believed to be the only person to have ever contributed a song to a legendary artist's first Grammy album (Alison Krauss) and the same song to another legendary artist's last album (John Denver). She earned a second Song of the Year with “Dear Sister” co-written and recorded with Claire Lynch Distinguished Achievement Award for "furthering the genre of bluegrass music with her pioneering for songwriters, musicians, and communities." She was recently honored with her third nomination for Mentor of the Year. Louisa is a member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Honor and the Alabama Bluegrass Hall of Fame. 

 

One awarded songwriter peer relates, "It's simple. Louisa IS songwriting." Writer David McGee explains, "No other writer captures the full rainbow of human emotions, in all their flawed glory, as does Louisa."

 

She continues to perform, mentor, and record and is authoring a book about her unique approach to songwriting. A 13th album of originals is also underway. "I see songwriting as the doorway to the soul. We might not like what we find when we open it, but whatever it is, it is something universal that everyone feels across oceans and across all our differences. It's the rails I'll always ride wherever they take me."

 

 

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