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WHERE THE DESERT MEETS THE MOUNTAINS: Sisters of the Silver Sage bring the West to Townsend
By Steve Wildsmith
of The Daily Times
|It's 7:30 p.m.,
and the women of Silver Sage have brought a desert oasis to the edge of
the Little River, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Waitresses scurry around crowded tables, carrying off whistle-clean plates and loading up the just-seated with baskets of nachos and salsa. The evening sun dips low behind a nearby peak, and overhead, bare bulbs hanging from the rough-hewn rafters come on, spilling yellow light.
A breeze rustles through the trees, bringing with it the smell of the cool river that rushes by, down the bank on the other side of the deck's rails. A flashbulb pops. In between bites or after filling up on a plate of Deadbeat Pete's tasty Southwestern cuisine, adults nod and tap feet along to the music. Children clap hands in rhythm, gazing at the women in wide-eyed wonder.
On stage, the Whiting sisters evoke images of the American West, clad in cowboy hats, fringed dresses, vests and jeans. The music they make is rollicking and melancholy, funny and fast, high and lonesome and sweet and all of the sounds of the range rolled into a three-hour span, a night spent around the campfire on the open prairie beneath a blazing field of stars.
It's music from their past, nurtured in love, carried through pain and delivered with warmth and humor. It's Saturday night at Deadbeat Pete's, and Silver Sage has brought the West to the mountains.
The girls of Silver Sage -- and despite their matronly appearances, they're girls at heart, playful and teasing the audiences and each other -- inherited a musical legacy from their father, John Whiting. Whiting is still known well throughout East Tennessee as Smoky White, a performer on the popular Midday Merry-Go Round, a variety show broadcast by WNOX-AM from the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville back in the 1940s.
Whiting played fiddle for Archie Campbell and made music with a number of early country legends, including Chet Atkins and Fred Smith, but when the program up and moved to Nashville, family obligations kept Whiting in East Tennessee.
"Daddy had four little girls, so he couldn't afford to take that chance, and he didn't go with them," said Donna Whiting Guffey, the oldest Whiting sister and the first to take up her father's musical mantle. "He was an extraordinary musician. He would listen to the masters and then duplicate their runs and apply it to his music."
Though he died in 1993, Whiting continued to play music all his life, and he lives on today in the opening montage of WBIR-TV's "The Heartland Series," as the flannel-clad fiddle player who turns briefly to face the camera. Although he never followed fame to Nashville, he still paid his old friends on the Opry stage a visit and even performed there himself -- albeit reluctantly, recalled Rhonda Whiting McDowell, Silver Sage's lead singer.
"He was well-know for going to the Opry and jamming out back with the guys," says McDowell, who still remembers the time her father broke his fiddle strings during an encore of "Orange Blossom Special" on the Opry stage. "They'd come out and say, 'Smoky, you're on,' and he'd be busy playing and say, 'Go on without me.'"
|As they grew older, Guffey,
McDowell (the fourth-oldest) and fifth sister Janet Whiting Giles all
inherited some of their father's skills.
Guffey, who attended the old Porter High School in Maryville, began taking formal piano lessons when she was 7, but had been taught to sing harmony and plunk out "Theme from Wagon Train" even earlier than that. As a teen, she picked up the guitar and went on to front a folk band, playing Peter, Paul and Mary songs. Guffey was also responsible for encouraging her younger sisters, including Judy and Doris Ann, how to sing.
The sisters always talked of forming a band together, Guffey said, but their individual lives often took precedence. After Judy married, Guffey recruited 12-year-old McDowell into the group, but a few years later "about the time we were ready to go, Rhonda went off and got married," Guffey said.
Janet joined Doris Ann Whiting and Guffey at the age of 13, and while the Whiting sisters never took their act on the road or performed in public, their family gatherings were merriment-filled, boisterous affairs.
Giles, who married in 1980, lived close to home, as did Guffey, who married in 1973. But tragedy struck the family when sister Doris Ann died in 1989 when she was 36. The music ended abruptly, and the close-knit family was so bereaved, they didn't sing again for 10 years.
In 1998, however, Jon Scott came calling. He remembered the sweet harmonies of the Whiting sisters from his days as John Whiting's student, and as a performer on Marshal Andy's Knoxville-based "Riders of the Silver Screen" television show, he went looking for a group to appear on the show. He called Guffey, who hadn't seen Scott in 30 years.
"He came out to the old home place to find us and asked us to appear on the show," Guffey said. "The problem is, we knew all the choruses to all the songs, but we didn't know all the words to even one song!"
Scott collaborated with the three women and came up with a simple song called "Montana," which the three learned quickly. Petrified, they appeared on Marshal Andy's show and were a hit. From that point forward, the girls went from the kitchen table to area stages.
"once we did a taping, I guess the bug hit us," Guffey said.
The girls stuck with the Western music that entertained and inspired them from their childhoods, drawing on Bob Wills' Western swing, the Riders of the Purple Sage and the Sons of the Pioneers for cover songs and inspiration for their own original music. It's a love they're passing on to another set of sisters from Dandridge, the Wallace sisters, whom Silver Sage hopes to perform with soon.
"They do with fiddles what we do with our voices," Guffey said, referring to the sweet combinations of their voices that makes listening to Silver Sage so enjoyable. "They all have a classical background, and I'm showing them how to improvise and be spontaneous. Western music is so good for that. You can feel that sweetness and just be spontaneous with it."
|The sisters know 300 songs
easily, and if they didn't take a break during their three-hour sets at
Pete's, they could run through 100 different songs without playing the
same one twice, backed up on guitar by Scott and rhythm guitarist "Cactus"
Even though the sisters are the heart of Silver Sage, they're quick to add they couldn't accomplish what they do without Scott and Davidson -- even though it may have taken a bit for both to work their way into the family. Donna recalls a practice where the girls began chattering to each other in sister-speak, finishing sentences and reading each other's thoughts to the point of inarticulation.
"Bob looked over at Jon and asked, 'What the hell did they just say?'" Guffey laughed. "Jon just said, 'Take a little more time. You'll understand it.'"
Saturday night live
The dining room clears slowly, those at Pete's for the entertainment pushing away plates and leaning back to enjoy the music. The sisters laugh and cut up on stage, their distinctive personalities -- Giles is the quiet one with a quick wit; Guffey is the boisterous one, laughing heartily at herself and her sisters; McDowell is the flashy one, lights glinting off rhinestones, rings and her long blonde hair -- putting everyone at ease.
But when Scott and Davidson cue up the music, their voices melt into one. From the sounds of the Old West to more contemporary songs -- "Mr. Sandman," done a capella style, or a mournful Celtic ballad titled "When I Left Ireland Behind Me" -- they play off each other, eyes filled with happiness and love for each other.
"We love what we do," Donna says, her arms sweeping across the majestic mountain vista to the horizon and the bubbling river below. "Who could ask for more?"
As the clock pushed towards 10, the waitresses finally slow, able to relax. Cigarette smoke wafts lazily through the dim glow of the lights, and the wind rustles a big American flag hung from the rafters. The sisters sing low and sweet, capturing the flavor of a lonely life on the range, filled with beauty beheld and comforts missed. A couple slow-dances off to one side.
Beyond the deck, the darkness hides the hills and valleys of Townsend. With closed eyes and a little imagination, listeners can almost feel the desert in their place, the voices of the women of Silver Sage turning back time for just a few hours on a near-perfect Saturday night.
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