Grey DeLisle has a dream: She is performing with Loretta Lynn when Wanda Jackson comes onto the stage. Somehow a plastic “Roy Rogers type guitar from the ’50s” materializes in DeLisle’s hands and her first thought is to find a marker so Jackson can autograph it. When she does, the ink won’t stick to the plastic, and Grey becomes panicked. “I’m scrambling around everywhere, looking for a Sharpie,” DeLisle says. “But all we can find is regular markers, and they won’t write on the guitar.”
A week after awaking from this nightmare, DeLisle was asked to open for Wanda Jackson in Hollywood, and she’s stoked. “I mean. I’m. Playing. With. Wanda Jackson!”
DeLisle’s voice is often filled with such emotion, even if she’s not talking about two legends of country and rockabilly music. She chatters, rambles, goes off on tangents involving the evil of digitized music, drops in many references to the Carter Family, mentions her husband Murry Hammond (of the Old 97′s) every other moment, and all the while manages not only to charm the interviewer, but to make him care more about music. She’s one of those rare people who is incredibly positive, yet not at all annoying. On the contrary, her optimistic excitement is contagious.
DeLisle is particularly excited about her new album, The Graceful Ghost, due out March 16 on Sugar Hill Records. The album is a collection of tender, bittersweet ballads that explore the arc of love, whether it is the first attraction pursued against a parents’ will, separation caused by war and work, or even divorce.
It’s also a meditation on the past. “I wanted to evoke the atmosphere of pre-Civil War…to climb across all eras, be universal and relevant,” she says. “There’s something that happens when you hear that old-time music — you feel like you’re somehow remembering something you haven’t experienced. There’s a sense of…longing.”
The album begins with the sound of a music box being wound up, which instantly conjures up a sense of nostalgia, love, and heartbreak. “I wanted the listener to feel as if they had wandered into an antique shop, found a music box and opened it up to find personal little things that capture an entire life experience. All the jewels of a life.”
In fact, the first song is entitled “The Jewel Of Abilene”, a song that sounds ancient despite its very modern conception. “I was shopping in this hippie health-food store and it just came to me,” she says. “I finished it in the car.” It’s sung from the point of view of a man whose heart has been broken by the beauty — “with a heart as black as coal” — who haunts the streets of Abilene, Texas.
It’s appropriate that the album opens with a song set in Texas, because DeLisle feels a strong connection to the state. Though she was raised in San Diego, she says she was always reminded she was a Texan at heart. “And my family are not only Texans; we feel as if we’re old-time Texans,” she adds. “You know, from the Republic of Texas.”
DeLisle’s mother was a divorced 19-year-old rock ‘n’ roller when Grey was born, and she “couldn’t handle the responsibility of having a child that young,” her daughter says. DeLisle was “pretty much” raised by her maternal grandmother, Eva Flores Ruth, a singer who performed with salsa legend Tito Puente. Her mother was still a strong presence, often taking her along to practice in her many rock bands. “If I was good while they practiced, they’d let me sing ‘Delta Dawn’,” DeLisle remembers.
When Grey was 11, her mother was saved and joined the Pentecostal church, and Grey went back to live with her. “I wasn’t allowed to wear pants or makeup; couldn’t cut my hair,” she says. Besides the recollection of demons being cast out in her living room, her most vivid memory concerns the burning of all her rock records.
At the time, DeLisle was sure that this had ruined her life completely, but now she thinks it was a positive experience. “Basically, I was saved from the music of the ’80s,” she laughs. She was allowed to keep her country albums — “despite the fact that they were full of adultery and drinking” — and was also permitted to listen to her Beatles albums, which became a major influence on her own music.
Her biggest influence, however, was classic country, including Marty Robbins and George Jones, who was her father’s favorite singer. “I really owe my love for country to my father,” she says. DeLisle saw her father every month and lived with him for a short time in El Paso, and he kept music on the stereo constantly. As a child, her father had a crystal radio set that would only pick up a local hillbilly music show. “He’d stay up way past bedtime with that thing to his ear and often fall asleep to it,” DeLisle says. “I guess those songs just got into his brain somehow and got passed on to me.”
By the time DeLisle was 17, she had rebelled against the church. She left home and painted portraits in San Diego parks to survive while living “here and there.” Despite her talent (one of her many paintings is the cover art for Jim Lauderdale’s album The Hummingbirds), painting didn’t supply a great income, so she moved to Los Angeles and took on jobs waiting tables, delivering singing telegrams, and cleaning houses, all to finance acting school. She was never unemployed: “Everyone in L.A. needs a cleaning lady,” she says. “It’s an epidemic.”
Through her struggles, her Pentecostal upbringing stuck with her. She has never so much as had a drink of alcohol or smoked a cigarette, and she says that to this day, “anyone would be hard-pressed to find a pair of pants in my closet. I love dresses, and still wear my hair long.” She still respects the Pentecostal church but has now found a home in her local Christian church, which she cites as one of the “last bastions of old-time worship music in Los Angeles.”