May 2024 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase

Our May VOCAL Songwriter’s Showcase was again live at O’Toole’s with performances from long-time members Steve Nuckolls and Rona Sullivan.

Steve opened the showcase with a great tune reminiscing about his childhood home in southwest Virginia, a town that was “Two Hours From Everywhere.” Then his solid tenor took us to “The Gossen Mines”, a place he knew in his childhood near Galax where you would get “iron your clothes” just by walking through. His song spoke of the risky thrills of exploring the old mine that his dad warned him about. The minor key infused the memories with a tension and longing well suited to his range.

Steve introduced us to a song “rewritten a hundred times” concerning “you know when you toil Monday and it seems you’ve already worked the whole week.” Despite the “workplace bull”, the singer is still headed for “Destination Party Time.” Next, he gave us a new song about a lesson from his dad on the subject of appreciating life and understanding rather than “things I have to do,” “You Get To” participate. “There’s a Future in Us” called on Steve’s high register and expressed the singer’s longing for relationship and the opportunity he felt was eluding him with someone who was once part of his life.

Another new tune was a stellar story about “my favorite waitress” who might not know the narrator yet but at least “She Remembered My Beer.” There was a nice sense of anticipation in the lyric that paid off at the bridge when they “finally got to know one another” and the lady “knows my beer by heart and now remembers my name.”

The song “Married to the Same Person” was based on acquaintances whose first marriages had been unsuccessful because of the similarities of each other’s spouses. The good news in the song is their new relationship represented “a just reward for our painful past…now that we’re married to the right person.” Steve closed with “Praying for a Rocky Top” where the singer hoped to find in his new home a place that recalled his fond childhood memories of a hometown “Rocky Top” establishment. The tune was another that rested in Steve’s higher register and you could hear the yearning for the security and sense of belonging from an earlier time. Well done.

Rona Sullivan’s set reintroduced VOCAL to her powerful alto and muscular songwriting after a couple of decades absence “because I lived on a farm.” She brought “Just Gimme the Truck” alive as the narrator told off her ex and dismissed the settlement for the mode of transportation most desirable at that time. Using an off-meter line to highlight the titled refrain made the message even more clear.

Next, she softened the delivery for a finger-picked “Beside the River,” an ode to her current home and the charms of waterside living. This used several augmented and ninth chords to accentuate the poignancy and allowed the nice vibrato in her voice to be accentuated in the longer notes during the mournful melody. Next, Rona took us to “a scary place in Virginia” to tell us the story of Three Forks, where “the snakes they handled” and the “secrets held by folks in the grave” spooked her so much, she was glad she “got out alive.”

The next song performed (she said it was out of her “angry” period) matched the stronger female narrator against a less skilled guy to whom “For the Cowboy at the Bar” was dedicated. The singer asserts, “I’m a gypsy [and] you think you are a cowboy.” However, the storyteller could see right through the bluster and wouldn’t be put on the “chain around your neck.” Similarly, “Expert” took issue with a narrow-minded fellow who claimed Rona wasn’t the right person to sing the blues, so she immortalized his appraisal by writing a blues tune to give him “your 15 minutes like Warhol said you would” while dismissing his “expert” opinion and proclaiming “I’ll sing whatever I want to.”

Woman in Black” was the tale of a self-described confident woman who is “a little bit weird” but sees herself in demi-god terms with “wings on my back” and later “flames on my back.” This was followed by a newer song about relationships where she admitted “Wherever I Am” she was always the person making the choices. She had some regret that “I follow me wherever I am” and she “can’t get far enough away from me.”

Songs can come from the weirdest places, Rona explained, introducing “I Don’t Need You” as an example, taking that phrase as a title when a friend asked her to stop looking over his shoulder in a project. The lyric confirmed her goal of making her own way as a singer/songwriter and not be silenced.

A lightly picked “Words” featured Rona’s compelling vocals in a folky ballad reminding listeners that she’s “got stories to tell.” The creativity will be in lifting the stories from her own life says the lyric. The final “Boggie Man” was a raw blues number about a character who “curse[d] the day he was born.” With “friends in high places” there’s a threat that he’ll “put you down” if you don’t steer clear. Glad you’re back in the fold, Rona. Let’s hear some more.



Showcase Photos

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Photo Credits: Matthew Costello and John Ellis

October 2023 VOCAL Songwriters Showcase


The October 2023 showcase had an intimate and attentive audience who gathered at O’Toole’s to hear three fine VOCAL talents, Rona Sullivan and Gene and Gayla Mills. Rona was a member several years ago and is back in the area performing her original tunes. Gene and Gayla have been members for several years and are back following the Covid/Plague hiatus. Welcome back to the fold!

Rona Sullivan

Rona opened the show with a few of her bluesy/folky heartfelt tunes. You Could Have Had Me asks why he would go to California or other places when he could be here with her in Virginia with all the beauty it has to offer (Blue Ridge Parkway, Chesapeake Bay, etc.) Her “short-marriage divorce song” described the give-and-take relationship they endured, but she finally just told him to keep the house and give her the truck! Three Forks is a tale about a really scary place in rural Virginia that involves snake handlers and other creepy things – don’t even think of taking me there again! Beside This River conjures up some very picturesque images along a peaceful river as we trod the mossy ground taking in beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Wild Weed describes a fast-growing child who’s “got the fever and hears the thunder”. Expert is an attitudinal song about a former attorney client who tried to tell her how to sing (e.g “you can’t sing the blues because you don’t have enough wrinkles on your face”). She tells him she’ll sing anything she wants and may even sing a song about him! Wherever I Am won’t let her get far enough away from her! Great job, Rona!

Gene and Gayla Mills

Gene and Gayla then took the stage with Gayla on upright bass and Gene on his vintage Martin. They brought us several homey/folky heartfelt songs with awesome harmonies and great cross-picking. Don’t Wait ‘Til You’re Talking to Stone conveys a great message about living in the moment, telling folks how you feel about them while you/they are here to do it. Waiting for Rain describes the plight of many in the same boat (pun intended) who really need the rain (farmers, fisherman, etc.) Gene delivered some fancy guitar picking in New Used Heart, the tale about two lovers-to-be on their second time around, tired of experiencing that “shade of blue”. Earl Thomas Johnson was inspired by a homeless man who lived under a bridge near their house. They befriended him, helped him out a bit, and learned about his past, including that he had to move out of his family home because of rising rents. Here We Are (where we said we’d be) is an autobiographical tune about the two of them, married for 37 years (congrats!) Gayla sang lead on this one with Gene joining on backup vocal and guitar. The Last Lullaby is a sad but beautiful song they wrote about a dog that was near death, but the song has apparently taken on a life of its own with other people requesting it be played for someone special in their lives. The next tune was inspired by people having great eyesight, wanting to see stars in the daytime sky and crows in the darkest night. They ended the evening with a really cool song called Fiddle in the Wall, a story about old-timers in the Blue Ridge Mountains who had to hide their fiddle in the wall because it was thought the instrument only played the Devil’s music. When the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built in the 1930’s a lot of old cabins were torn down and the fiddles were discovered. Great set, Gene and Gayla!

Showcase Photos

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