The "Southern Songbirds" showcase at Tybee Post Theater on Jan. 26 will feature two veteran singer-songwriters and Georgia natives returning to their old stomping grounds.
Caroline Aiken and Jill Knight both got their start busking on River Street in Savannah, along with clubs all around the Lowcountry and Georgia. Over their three decades of songwriting, the two have shared stages, and individually played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Doc Watson, Bonnie Raitt, The Indigo Girls, John Prine and India Arie.
Sea Islands influence
Aiken was born in Atlanta, but grew up on St. Simons Island. She was heavily influenced at an early age by her mother, who sang in the church choir, and Emma Lee Ramsey, a Gullah singer and member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, who helped raised her.
"I remember when Alan Lomax came through," Aiken recalled. "I was 9 or 10. Lomax came through and recorded them and took them to California. I remember watching the transformation. Of course, we were going through the Civil Rights Movement. St. Simons was slow to hop on the Civil Rights train. I knew what was happening in the country, even though I was a little girl. I never liked the treatment and the separation.
"Emma loved me when nobody was looking. She was so good to me. She was my blues connection, if I have one at all. The experience of being a child, a girl child especially, in a very patriarch family - it shot me out of the cannon pretty early."
In her teenage years, Aiken traveled extensively, settling in California for a while and then the Southwest. She began playing music professionally in 1968 in New York City. In the late 1970s, while at an open mic in Atlanta, she came across Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, more widely known as the Grammy Award-winning Indigo Girls. She developed a friendship with them that has led to years of work together, including on Aiken's latest album, 2015's "Broken Wings Heal."
"It was an open mic,"Aiken recalled. "They were practicing a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune and I came back there and put a third-part harmony on it. We were friends after that. I invited them to come play on my stages. I got to see them early, early on, honing in. They'd already spent years in school singing together, so at 16 and 17, they were tuned in."
Over her 30-plus year career, Aiken has released nine studio albums, toured extensively and taught workshops on songwriting. She's had undeniable influence on a host of singer-songwriters, including Knight. Now a resident of Athens, Aiken hosts a regular show on the local NPR affiliate, "New South Showcase," where she features singer-songwriters in front of a live audience.
"I've been following her since I was about 17," Knight said about Aiken. "When I was in Atlanta, playing the clubs there, she was always doing something. Opening for Bonnie Raitt. I've always admired her. She's a powerhouse performer. Very excited to do another show with her. We've done some shows together out on the West Coast. I was just here a couple of years ago and did her 'New South Showcase.'"
Knight was born and raised on Wilmington Island. Like Aiken, Knight's musical journey also began in a church choir. Her first gig was at a seafood restaurant in Thunderbolt. After a short stint at Georgia Southern University, she moved to Atlanta and began playing at the clubs there.
"I first met Jill at Five Points Pub in the '80s," Aiken recalled. "She blew me away back then."
"I hope I am getting better at songwriting," Knight said. "I feel like I want to write less about me and more about things that are more important globally. Try to raise the vibration of everybody. I think, right now, music is very important. It's a place where people can go to forget about things, but also remember who they are. Just a safe place to be. It's truly the universal language. There's no boundaries."
A resident of California now, Knight is taking some time off from West Coast life to return to her Georgia roots. While working on her latest album in California, she found herself longing for the South, and returned to play in her native state as well as record.
"I've got some new stuff that I am proud of," Knight said. "I haven't been happy with the way they were turning out in the studio in California. I think I was a little rushed. I didn't know the songs very well. Once you write a song, it takes a while for your body to become friends with it.
"You can do these different nuances and get more familiar with it, the arrangement and such. I thought I would take the time while I was back here and feel my Southern roots. The tune is actually written about this area; it's called 'Lowcountry.' I get very homesick when I am in California. One of those afternoons where I was pining for home, I wrote this song and wanted to get that southern feel in it."
For her ninth album, Aiken revisited older tunes she had only played live, or were lost in a record label dispute. For the new record, she again teamed up with Saliers, but also worked with Grammy Award-winning producer John Keane and legendary Motown Hammond B3 player (and Savannah Music Festival alum) Ike Stubblefield.
"I tax my songwriting a lot," Aiken said. "I'd rather not put a song out that doesn't go the whole nine yards for me. I like to give people a lot of ear space. I am a lot more careful about what I put out. I've only got nine records. Some of the songs I've put out multiple times."
Aiken and Knight will be bringing some guest players with them for the show, with perhaps a special appearance by Charleston singer-songwriter Danielle Howle.
Knight played the first show at Tybee Post Theater, back when it still had dirt floors.
"I am excited to play there again, now that the room is finished," Knight said. "It's just beautiful."
IF YOU GO
What: "Southern Songbirds: An Evening with Jill Knight and Caroline Aiken"
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 26
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.