RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Hear the music when it speaks with fire and humor

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Gina Forsyth is a tall, striking woman with Rita Coolidge hair and regal bearing. She strums and sings for a crowd of six the same as if it were 6,000.
We are sitting in a little hamburger joint and bar on the shady street called Esplanade, having arrived early by New Orleans standards. Gina speaks to everyone in the place, which doesn’t take long. She’s friendly that way.
I thought I knew a little something about Gina Forsyth, having heard her country fiddle at least half a dozen times at the annual Hank Williams tribute show in little Eunice, La. While I had a second home in Louisiana, in Henderson, I never missed the Hank show. Most years the backup band, besides Gina, included Don Helms, Hank’s old steel player, and the best accordionist I ever heard, Reggie Mott. Who in their right mind would miss all that?
I knew Gina lived in New Orleans and was a classically trained violinist. I knew she sometimes toured with a Cajun band. I even knew that she could sing. At one Hank show, she put down the fiddle and did an amazing duet in her distinctive deep alto.
But I had no idea how versatile she was, or that her song-writing might rank even above her fiddling and singing. In the little club with the invisible crowd, I am about to find out.
She’s pushing her first album in a decade, something with an ironic title and cover called “Promised Land.” In the CD photo, Gina sits with her guitar in front of a slice of vanishing Americana, a big white barn, presumably on a family farm.
And the album’s lyrics pretty much deliver on the promise of the photo. “Christmas in China,” for example, is a love story and political commentary all tied up together with biting wit: “Our Christmas was made in China, human-rights issues and all. From my brand-new socks to my old gym shoes, to the decorations on my wall. … They don’t have Christmas in China, not like in the U.S.A. There they work for chicken feed, making things we think we need.”
In a song called “4th of July,” she compares her relationship with this country to a troubled romantic one and wonders aloud if anyone else feels this way. “Will everything be all right in the morning?” she asks.
She gets even more specific in “Sweet and Sunny South.” That’s a constantly evolving song, and tonight she works in quips about the recent Chick-fil-A controversy. “In the sweet and sunny South where I was born, moss on the magnolia, it’s grits and not granola, where we know it from Shinola, in the sweet and sunny South where I was born. … Where we love our musicians and our fascist politicians …. I love it and I hate it, every now and then berate it …. Where Washington and Lee can’t get married legally….”
She can say those kinds of things because she was born in Florida, grew up Baptist in Alabama, moved to New Orleans in 1983 to study at Loyola. Not only is she blessed with the brains to examine and question things, she knows how to put it all to music.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the gutsy folk singers who used to roam the earth with their instrument and protest, check out Gina Forsyth. In the tradition of Guthrie, Dylan and Prine she is writing and singing, not just fiddling while America burns.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.