Patchwork was one of the very first bands I saw after moving to Gainesville from California. They were playing at a gallery opening at The Thomas Center, something to do with the St. John’s River as I recall. I remember leaving the event thinking that if half of Gainesville music was as good as Patchwork, then I’d hit a musical goldmine.
It turned out that Gainesville was full of the exemplary, no matter the genre. I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to figure out why this is and I still have no answer; after all, Gainesville is a small Southern city defined mostly by a football team and it has no nationally famous recording studios or landmark clubs. Concert tours pass us by and although we have some famous legacy musicians, there is nothing on the map that would explain the phenomenon.
It must be something in the water, or in the air, or in the tradition of regional music. It’s probably the last; the South in general has spawned any number of well-known bands and musicians whose sound derives from the musical melting pot that simmers south of the Mason Dixon and in particular in and around the Deep South. This is what I first noticed about Patchwork when I saw them that day in 2008: They, like many other local bands, draw heavily from regional roots. That means bluegrass, folk, R & B, country, what I will inelegantly refer to as swamp music, and, in the case of Patchwork, uptown swing.
The second thing I noticed was some incredible voices that soared and shimmered with gorgeously arranged harmonies. Jolene Stone Jones’s voice has the clarity and sparkle of a top-grade diamond, while Cathy DeWitt’s sound and phrasing alternate rootsy and sophisticated; listen to her on the Duke Ellington classic “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”) and you could swear you were in a Hollywood cabaret in the 1930s. Here, Cathy’s all urbane polish, but then you hear her on the celebratory (and self-penned) “My Heart Belongs to Florida” and she’s back to the native sound, with a voice as golden as a Florida summer sunrise. Janet Rucker sounds like one of those actresses who can really sing (she has, in fact, acted professionally) and who make you wish you were half as well-piped, and Tammy Murray is not just the “Intergalactic Banjo Goddess” but a person of such astounding talents that you just stare, slack-jawed. Tammy is an award-winning musician–a virtuouso really–whose abilities make you think that a higher authority must have ensured that Tammy was born with a banjo in her hand.
Rounding out the band is “relative newcomer” Annie McPherson, a smallish woman who plays a big stand-up bass and whose instrument is the anchor of the band’s sound. She makes that bossy-looking instrument look easy to play, almost as if you could pick it up and play it yourself, which you know is utterly impossible.
You might get the idea that Patchwork comprises superb singers with excellent musical skills (interpretation is also a skill) and this would be as true as statement as you could make. But what truly sets Patchwork apart is the rapport among its members and a very visceral and infectious joie de vivre and sense of humor. They’re polished without being slick, which is very hard to pull off without looking contrived. They are all stars in their own firmament, which is also hard to pull off in a band with so many supremely talented members.
Patchwork calls what it does “Girl Grass,” which just about covers it. This is a description whose simplicity is mirrored in the simplicity of Patchwork’s music. It’s my opinion that much of modern music is overwritten and overperformed and otherwise treated about as lightly as a boulder. Patchwork’s ease and gentle treatments remind me of the work of Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), a singer-songwriter who knew how to resist the furbelow and let the music and voice speak for themselves. The music is personal and the easy rapport between members draws the listener right in. You feel as if you are in their living room, listening to them tell tales of rivers and streams and wildlife and parks that just happen to be set to music. Each member is a superlative storyteller and their collective love for the region is very apparent.
It was my pleasure to photograph Patchwork as they played Friday at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza in Gainesville; what follows are a series of pictures I intended as portraits. It’s too easy to just do a group shot and call it a day; most of the time such work tells you nothing. Before heading to the concert, I decided to try to create close-up portraits of the girls that capture their personalities and spirits. It was the most analytical work I’d done yet, and I think I succeeded. My other goal was to let you listen to the music through my photography.
You can visit Patchwork at their Web site (where you can also buy a CD and check out their schedule). The site seems to be down at the time of this writing, but I am hoping it is back up shortly.
Tammy Ann Murray in front of the Plaza sign.