If you are a child of the 1990s, there is a good chance that you grew up hearing the voice of Grey DeLisle. Having portrayed such celebrated characters as Daphne in the Scooby Doo franchise and Azula in Avatar the Last Airbender, DeLisle possesses a knack for conveying personality with her voice, alone. For that reason, it’s not shocking that she is also a Grammy Award winning singer and musician that has released several collections of original music. What is fascinating is that DeLisle’s music taps into and carries forward a tradition that dates back to country music’s first family: The Carter Family from Southwest Virginia. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with DeLisle right before she headed out to tour the one-time home of Johnny Cash in Vetura, which just come up for sale. A full-circle moment in many ways, for I grew up listening to her voice on a tribute record to June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife and member of the Carter Family. Here’s our conversation where we talk about DeLisle’s connection to the Carter Family, their musical impact on her, and the importance of carrying tradition forward.
Americana Highways: I know most people know you from the various characters that you have brought to life throughout your career as a voice actress. Interestingly enough, I also grew up with your voice, but in a different way. For years, I have loved the June Carter Cash tribute album produced by John Carter Cash that featured various artists doing Carter Family songs and Carter Cash originals. The CD featured the likes of Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris, and it also featured a contribution from you. Your own take on June’s “Big Yellow Peaches.”
GD: I’m going to bring that up at the sale at the Johnny Cash house to try and convince them to sell it to me! I just want to go, “nobody else should own this house!” I play the autoharp, I know John Carter, I know Rosanne, kind of, through friends… I’m a comedienne and an autoharp player. Johnny wants me to have this house! I think that is how I got the gig playing “Big Yellow Peaches” for John Carter’s record, because when he was doing the tribute to his mom, he ran into my booking agent at a party and she said, “I have the perfect girl for that, one of my artists, you’ve got to let her do a cover for it.” I think I’m like the only non-famous person on that record. My other friend, Vickie, did the June Carter Cash Press On record. She produced that. She had all these old audio tapes of June telling funny stories about her and Johnny hanging out in New York City running around with actors – about how she knew James Dean. I knew them by heart. I would play the tapes all the time. My booking agent told John Carter that I’m a comedian and play the autoharp like his mom, and that I have long auburn hair. My agent was like, “you have to put her on your record!” I think he listened to some of the stuff I did for Sugar Hill and he agreed to it.
AH: There’s a strong tradition of families passing down mountain music in the Appalachian region and the Piedmont, and it’s my understanding that the music was passed down to you from your dad. That he was the one that turned you on to country music. Is that right?
GD: Yes. Well, my mom sang more Linda Ronstadt, the Beach Boys; that kind of stuff. My dad was into Slim Whitman, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Waylon, and Dolly. My sister was like five and she used to sing, “there ain’t no good in an evil hearted woman.” It was so funny to hear this little tiny girl talking about an evil hearted woman. There were a lot of mountain songs that my grandmother would sing. There was one called “Two Little Boys.” I think it’s a civil war song. My dad would sing songs about kids who died in the woods; murder ballads. I just loved it. The sadder the thing was, the more I loved it, and it made me happy. He would ask me to pull off his cowboy boots after a long day, and I would climb up and get a good song. I would always ask for the saddest one that he could think of.
AH: That reminds me of something Emmylou Harris said about always having an affinity for sad songs.
GD: When I first started singing in clubs, I used to sing with Eddie Perez, who’s now in The Mavericks. We used to do a little duo around town, and I couldn’t get booked very much because I didn’t play anything that they could dance to. I was singing “Black Haired Boy,” and mountain ballads that nobody could dance to. So, now I’ve learned some up-tempo numbers. I still might throw some murder in there, but they’re up-tempo!
AH: What were some of the songs that particularly stood out to you from your childhood?
GD: My dad used to sing “Cold, Cold Heart” and “The Wildwood Flower.” When I’m scared, I still sing this one to my kids; one called, “Lord, I’m In Your Care.” It’s just so comforting, and I sing it to my kids when they’re scared or sick. I sing it to myself when I’m worried. I think it’s the writing. I know the Carter’s would collect songs from other sources and they didn’t write everything that they did, but the simplicity of the music that they brought to the public, it’s such a great lesson in songwriting. It doesn’t have to be super flowery; it doesn’t have to be extremely clever – just things that come straight to your heart from your heart and then to someone else’s heart. It’s so powerful.
AH: I completely agree with you. I think the simplicity of a lot of those old songs is what has made them endure. Here we are all these years later, and we are still talking about those songs. And, I think we always will be.
GD: That’s the ultimate goal. That’s how they would keep stories alive. Making sure people remembered. They would sing it to their children who would sing it to their children. It would keep lessons alive, and when something was newsworthy, they would write a song about it so that people would know and that it would get carried around to all the places it needed to go. It’s still getting carried today.
AH: That is so true. When did you start playing the autoharp?
GD: Well, I heard it all my life. I wrote my first song when I was five years old. It was sort of a rip off of “King of the Road.” It was called “Buckled Shoes.” It was only one verse and it kind of meandered and fell off. As I got older into my teens and my early twenties, I was still writing a lot of songs, but I didn’t play guitar. So, I would find someone that could play guitar, and go, “could you help me figure out this song and I’ll give you half the songwriting credit,” and it would turn out to just be three chords. Finally, I met Marvin Etzioni from the band Lone Justice, and he said that I should not be giving away half my songwriting credit because they were really simple songs. He asked me if I knew what an autoharp was. I said, yes, because of Sara Carter and Mother Maybelle. He recommended that I get one and I was like, this is the most amazing thing, of course! So, now I write the song in my head and I figure it out on my autoharp. It’s like having a little pocket translator.
AH: That’s really cool. The autoharp is a perfect tool for doing just that.
GD: It’s so funny. I had been playing it for probably six or seven years, and I thought that I should take a class to get better. Sometimes I tell people that I’ve been playing the autoharp for over half my life and I’m just as good as when I started. But, I did go try to take a class once and the guy was like, “well, for one thing, you’re playing it completely upside down, but that seems to be working out for you!”
AH: As a creator across various mediums and platforms, how does music allow you to exercise your creativity in a different way? I think that we as people have various pools of creativity within us. So, I am curious, does one give you something that the others do not? Or, how does music in particular serve you as an outlet for expression in the midst of other creative projects?
GD: Comedy is something that just comes to me naturally. I always think of funny jokes and try to write them down. I still do stand-up. The cartoons are so fun because they are such an energy outlet, and I’ve always been naturally good at doing different kinds of voices. I enjoy letting out that energy that’s always bubbling beneath the surface, and it’s like I get to go out and play for a bit during the day. When I was little, I was hyperactive. It feels so satisfying to do all the voices. The songwriting and the singing is really where my true love is. I’ve been writing songs since I was five years old. I wrote nonstop from my teenage years into my twenties. I stopped when I got pregnant with my now fifteen-year-old. I didn’t write a song until the lockdown happened and my brother moved in with me. We used to play music together and he asked me to play during lockdown. It kicked something loose in my brain and in my heart. After the first few nights of playing, I would go to sleep, and it was like how it used to be, I would wake up with a song in my head. Around three in the morning, I would wake up with these songs, and I’d write them down and record them. I’ve written over fifty songs since we got sent home.
AH: So, now you’re back writing songs. That’s wonderful.
GD: Yes! They just come. Sometimes it’s inconvenient cause I’m driving or something. It may sound funny, but I just call out into the universe and ask if there’s any songwriters out there that needs a mouthpiece to get their song in the world, I’m here. Little songs just find me. If I don’t write it down or I don’t sing it, I think, oh, it blew through me and now it’s going to go to someone else because I didn’t catch it in time.
AH: It sounds like you are a very spiritual person. I have a friend down in Texas that I met through our mutual love of the Carter Family. We’ve talked about this idea that the Carter Family continues to connect people even though they are no longer with us. They were such a big part of the community, especially in Southwest Virginia. This idea that they spiritually congregate people from beyond the grave.
GD: If you’re on that track, I’m going to tell you something that you are going to think is so weird. I have a record called The Graceful Ghost, and I went to this psychic that said that in a past life that I was this woman who traveled a lot with her family and she played music. She said that she played the same instrument as me and that her name was Sara. She said that Sara had been waking me up at night and writing songs through me around three in the morning. I couldn’t believe it. I almost fell over, because every night at three in the morning I would write down songs until that record was done.
AH: Wow, that’s amazing. I can hear Sara and the Carter’s in those songs off of that record. You were also featured on the Grammy Award winning album, Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, and of course, Stephen wrote so many songs that are stitched into the fabric of American Roots music. How was that opportunity presented to you?
GD: I had been on Sugar Hill records for a short time when the concept for that tribute to Stephen Foster was being put together and my A&R guy, Steve Fishell and manager, Marc Dottore, finagled me onto it! Ha! I know I was definitely the smallest potato involved with that project! But it can’t all be fancy cuts of meat! You need a few small potatoes to balance things out!
AH: One thing that I want to mention is just how important this work is – recording the old songs. In some ways you are an educator like many of the artists I know around home, passing traditions forward. I’m sure there are many people who have discovered the Carter Family and the old traditional music through you. Have you ever had fans from your other works tell you that they’ve been listening to the music and discovered something new?
GD: Well, that’s always how the truly great stuff is discovered isn’t it? You hear stuff you like and then go back and find out who influenced THAT and so on! A lot of folks mention June when they see me with the autoharp, but they think of her only with Johnny and don’t realize that she was Country Music Royalty when Mr. Cash was still picking cotton. It’s always such an honor to lead people further back to the really good stuff!
AH: I also want to mention that you have some great videos on Instagram of you performing original songs. That one you sent me in a voice memo is now up there – the “What Am I Gonna Do About You?” Tell me about that song. Is that going to be on an upcoming project? What’s next?
GD: Isn’t it fun to see a song go from a hastily recorded voice memo to a fully realized song? I think I was driving when I sent you that…and I only had the first few lines written, right? Even the one that’s up on my Instagram is pretty bare-bones! I can’t wait for you to hear what the band and I did with it in North Carolina! David Childers is such a pro and I was so honored to be playing with him! We recorded 14 songs in Dolph Ramseur’s cabin studio built in 1802. 12 of the songs were my originals and David kept asking, “Did you write that one???” after every one! That’s always a great feeling! I’m definitely going to record more with them! We’ve just got to come up with a name! I love that Sundrop soda you all have out there! Grey DeLisle and The Sundrops might be nice!
Grey Delisle’s latest single with her band for kids, The Roughhousers, is out now! Check it out and all her other music projects at the following links: