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Nancy Apple stays "Outside the Lines"

By Clarissa Sansone, March 2001

When Nancy Apple isn't busy being a countrified Memphis musician, the erstwhile navy brat who spent her high school years in Japan is a Memphis DJ spinning Americana at WEVL.

Or she's trying out as a movie extra or practicing accordion or tending to her pets, which include a cat, a pig and a bird named Conway Tweety.

"If it's something good," Apple says of opportunity's knock, "I can make the time for it."

Last year, she made the time to enlist neighbor Keith Sykes as a producer and to release "Outside the Lines," an album of 14 songs, 11 of which Apple had a hand in penning. Its title describes the singer's varied, unconventional life. The songs run the county gamut from clever to lonely to bluesy to honky-tonk.

The title track is sparse and introspective, with Apple on vocals and accordion and George Bradfute on guitar. Apple also plays accordion on "Small Town Blues," an equally wistful, quietly angry tune.

On the other hand, Apple offers up the playful, Loretta-Lynn-like "Bears in Them Woods" and "Shiri Shiri Naka Naka Jo To Ne (I Like Your Ass)," a "part-Japanese track" that is catchy enough to spew from a malt-shoppe jukebox. (Apple sums up her band's opinion of the latter: "They think it sucks, and they hate playing it." Her audiences, however, have a different take: when she plays it in concert, "people sing along.")

"Outside the Lines" is filled with tight, lively arrangements whose tracks were laid down over a two-day period.

Apple's assertive vocals and the undeniable twang in her voice - even "the alphabet would sound country" with her reciting it, says Apple - make comparisons with Wanda Jackson come to mind, even though the similarities are completely unintentional.

"I am ashamed to say that I don't have any Wanda Jackson records," Apple admits. "I need to put that on my list of things to do...and check out her records."

Apple has also been told her voice has some Rose Maddox qualities, "but after about the fourth person that said that, I dug out her records, and I didn't hear it."

Those musicians she lists as direct influences are Buck Owens, Lucinda Williams, Phil Lee and Duane Jarvis (who co-wrote "Why'd You Get So Gone" on "Outside the Lines").

Apple's introduction to music-making came early; she has two older sisters who liked to sing, although neither pursued it professionally. In high school in Japan, "I had a boyfriend who played drums," Apple recalls. She gave them a try, and thought, "Hey, I ain't half bad."

Eventually, "I thought I was pop drum queen," says Apple, whose early influences included Alice Cooper and David Bowie. When she was 23 and living in Eudora, Miss. - "but it's still considered Memphis" - she did some artwork for a music store and decided to get paid in drums.

Because she "didn't know any guys that would play with us," she formed her "first all-girl garage band," "a short-lived thing called the Ex-Wives," in the mid-eighties. This was followed by a stint as drummer in Tino and the Teetotalers; although the group got gigs in Memphis consistently, and Apple remembers the gigs fondly, she concludes, "I just don't think we were very good."

In the late eighties, Apple toured as drummer with blues musician Willie Cobbs, "and one day he fired all of us," she says.

That's when she decided to concentrate on performing her own songs. She was singing as she played drums, and people told she "ought to be out front," so she traded in her drumsticks for a guitar.

In 1994, she released the "Tijuana Tapes," with her and her band billed as "The Cadillac Cowgirl and Her Back Door Men." A year later, under the same billing, she released "High on the Hog." It was her mixed experience recording this album that influenced the amount of control she wanted over "Outside the Lines." "High on the Hog" was a project of a "Memphis A team" of musicians who backed Apple "out of love," as she puts it.

"I didn't know anything about recording an album," Apple says; "I just didn't have as much control."

The band was made up of "pros and hotshots," who, due to their comparative ease in the studio, "dictated the sound" of the album, she says. The result was quite unlike her latest release, generic where the new one is individual, and rehearsed where "Outside the Lines" is spontaneous. In Apple's opinion, "High on the Hog" "was just too slicktified if you ask me."

"Outside the Lines" is all Apple, right down to its album art and its promotion. From her work as a DJ, Apple amassed a list of contacts, and she's plugging her album however possible. She acknowledges that to some self-promoting a record "might be pretty stupid," but for her "so far it's been effective."She'll perform in Texas in March, tour the South in April and return to Memphis in May.

And there's always the chance to get into a movie being shot on location in Memphis - a feat at which Apple seems to excel. Apple has supplied "local color" as an extra in the movie "Great Balls of Fire" and in the television program "Elvis, the Early Years." In the 1999 movie "Finding Graceland," she actually got to be a guitar player who backed Harvey Keitel and Bridget Fonda.

For now, however, Hollywood will just have to wait until Apple realizes her musical ambitions. She would someday like to collaborate with Bradfute, who has worked with Duane Jarvis and Phil Lee. She also thinks about doing a duets album. Is anything specific in the works right now? "Hell no." Apple says. "It's just all in the dreaming stage."