by Sheri Boggs, Leah Sottile and Mike Corrigan

With her cell phone cutting in and out somewhere on a lonely rocks 'n' sage highway between the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Boise, Idaho, Mindy Smith is nevertheless a trooper. "Hi, this is Mindy," she says, her lilting voice all friendly approachability. Although she's recently been called everything from "this year's Norah Jones" to "the next big thing," the Long Island-born, now Nashville-based artist just takes it all in stride.

"It's nice to get that kind of attention, but believe me, it's no overnight thing on this end. I've been working very hard. It's taken me 10 years to get to this point and it hasn't been easy... or even particularly successful," she laughs, suddenly veering off into amused self-deprecation. "Whenever you're so used to failing miserably, it's a big deal to be getting audiences like this."

Her sense of humor brings to mind one of her greatest champions and an idol of her childhood -- the irrepressible Dolly Parton. As famous for cracks like "You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap" as for her va-va-va-voom physique and bombshell wigs, Parton built a huge fan base in the '60s, '70s and '80s by singing songs about being a modern woman. When asked to do a song for an upcoming Dolly Parton tribute album Just Because I'm a Woman, Smith covered the classic "Jolene" with its plaintive "please don't take him just because you can" refrain. It turns out that hussy Jolene is just as timeless as ever, the song became the first single from the album, and Parton liked what she heard.

"Dolly heard it and really liked it," Smith says. Although it's easily the 257th time she's told this story, she still sounds slightly amazed. "She's just really gotten behind me, and I can't even tell you how encouraging that's been."

Like Gillian Welch (to whom she is sometimes compared), Smith was adopted at birth by musical parents. With a minister for a father and the church's music director for a mother, it wasn't surprising that Smith was immersed in both the traditional arrangements and the spiritual sentiments of her church hymnal. When her mother died of cancer in 1991, the then-19-year-old singer lost her greatest supporter but not her desire to perform. (Smith's teachers told her she didn't have much talent, but her mother told her she had an incredible gift.) She supported herself with odd jobs -- nannying, waitressing -- all the while working on her music. She taught herself to play the guitar, moved to Nashville and began writing her own songs. Although she eventually got offers from larger record companies, she signed with Vanguard because they were willing to let her do the album exactly as she wanted instead of trying to fit her into a more marketable mold.

"I'm not a country artist. I never sang country songs," she says. "I live in Nashville, but my music is more from the bluegrass/Appalachian tradition. So the kind of music I do and country music might come from similar roots, but I've been very careful not to have anyone pigeonhole my music, period. I want to appeal to as many people as I can."

With the exception of "Jolene" (which, incidentally, includes Dolly Parton's stunning harmonies), every song on One More Time was written by Smith herself. The lyrics are deeply personal; many, in fact, exhibit a disarming vulnerability. The whole album reminds me of something a friend said once about sincerity being "the new cool." The greatest irony of the advice "just be yourself" is that sometimes it not only works, but sometimes it works spectacularly.

"It's strange," she admits. "Every song on this album is straight from the heart. And while it's so great that people are responding to it like this, it also creates so much exposure. I still have a hard time taking criticism..."

Some tour bus chaos ensues in the background, the phone cuts out for a moment and it's enough to derail her train of thought.

"Sorry about that. Where was I? I'm in a really good situation with this record though. I haven't felt a lot of pressure to try to fit a mold, and it's really nice to be able to say to people, when they go 'You need to do this and this and this to succeed...' to be able to say, 'No, I don't feel like it. Stop asking.' I've got a lot of people around me right now who believe in me. It's a real positive experience."

Cribbs Notes -- An expansive musical resume -- it's usually something that will attract my attention to an artist, even if I wouldn't normally listen to their music. Janie Cribbs is one of those artists. She sings vibrant colorful melodies of her life with the people she meets on the road, and spins in long Stevie Nicks-ish robes in her press photos. But then I'm not someone who is too keen on hippies who spend their time tripping in the sunlight, then singing about it.

But on her newest CD, Afterall, it's pretty clear that Cribbs knows a thing or two about making good music, perhaps a thing or two more than I know. And she's hardly a happy hippie high on drugs -- Cribbs is just high on life and on the people she meets.

Often described as a singer/ songwriter, her music comes across as much more than just other girls who bum around the country with their guitars. Cribbs got her start early, performing her very first live show at age 13 in a smoky pub in Dublin, Ireland. She was instantly hooked on performing and life on the stage, and she hasn't stopped performing since. Living like a regular gypsy since that very first performance, she's traveled from Dublin to London, Paris and Corsica, occasionally pausing to work as a sculptor's model by day. After bumming around Europe for most of her life, she decided to settle back in Dublin again and signed a record deal with a band named Midnight Well -- a group that received widespread attention because of their fusion of folk rock with traditional Irish music.

But when her mother, who'd been studying in Ireland, decided to make the jump back to the United States, Janie decided to move back as well. She slowly made her way back to the Pacific Northwest, and made her home in Olympia in order to be close to her family members.

It was there in Olympia that Cribbs found her musical niche. She honed her singer/songwriter style while singing for the Hostile Locals and Blue Nectar. She was nominated by the Washington Blues Society as the Best Female Vocalist, and soon encountered famed guitarist Joe Reggiatore.

Janie and Joe found that their styles, when combined, produced the music they'd always been shooting for. The two produced a style that blended blues and folk with pop and rock, and they've been playing ever since.

Now permanently based on Whidbey Island, Cribbs has lately been expanding her boundaries to this side of the state. She opened for Laura Love at the Met in February, and plans to play at Borders before her June 26 show at the Spike Coffeehouse.

Her years of experience and comprehensive knowledge of various musical styles come across from the second she opens her mouth. On her newest record, Afterall, Cribbs weaves stories of abandoning a family, fighting for love and Sleeping Beauty-like fairy tales of princesses awoken after hundreds of years of slumber. In a time when so many female singers sound the same, Cribbs' voice is unique in a husky two-packs-a-day way. Hers is a voice that neatly wraps around her thoughtful lyrics, delivering them in a motherly fashion to her doting listeners.

Cribbs' music clears the cobwebs off of a style of songwriting that is rarely tapped -- one that tells stories and seeps with the imagination and passion of the performer. It's music that isn't about getting famous or signing a record deal, but instead aims to free listeners from their everyday shackles and challenge them with real human emotion.

Gzzzzzt! -- Sparks are flying in the Tesla lab once again. After sitting out a big chunk of the last decade, this hard-rocking Sacramento quintet has found new life in the new millennium, with a resurgence of old fan appreciation and a forward-looking new album called Into the Now, the band's first new studio project in nearly a decade.

Tesla initially formed in 1986, aligned in time but not in space with the explosion of the pop metal scene in Los Angeles. Though it possessed all the thunder, swagger and six-strung pyrotechnics of many of its hard-rock-with-a-pop-twist contemporaries, Tesla was a world away, both stylistically and philosophically, from the pandering and gory excesses of Poison and Motley Crue. They may not have sold as many albums as those bands back in the day, but Tesla's lack of pretense and glitz now affords them the opportunity to return years after their initial demise as something more than a mere carnival freakshow. As part of the band's 20-stop summer tour, Tesla will headline a Hoopfest weekend concert at the Big Easy this Friday night at 5 pm with Papa Roach and local acts, Lucid and 10 Minutes Down.

Naming itself after pioneering physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla, the band built its melodic, riff-driven tunes on a solid foundation of gritty blues-rock. It amassed a devoted fanbase by touring heavily and cranking out one solid album after another. After 10 years, six albums and a respectable string of hits (including "Love Song," "Edison's Medicine," "Modern Day Cowboy" and the remake of the Five Man Electrical Band's hippie anthem, "Signs"), the band called it quits. Years of pursuing side projects followed before the original members re-upped in October 2000 to perform a sold-out show in their hometown. Overwhelmed by the positive response they received from fans, Tesla hit the road full-time once again. Every performance on the tour was recorded and the results emerged a year later as the double live set, Replugged Live.

March 2004 marked the full return of the band and a contemporary rock entity. The original lineup of vocalist Jeff Keith, guitarists Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Troy Luccketta spent more than two years writing, recording and co-producing Into the Now. What should fans expect from the new material? That gritty, emotional and melodic rock Tesla fans all know and love, says Keith. With a modern spin.

"To try to get away from a Tesla feel just wouldn't be natural," he says. "But we still tried new things. The songwriting process was exciting and rewarding but was, at times, very hard and aggravating. I was a little scared. 'Can I still write?' thoughts were poisoning my mind. But our songs have to have heart. We must believe in them and feel it."

While the band reveled in the creative freedom and flexibility that modern recording technology can provide, it was important to all of them that the songs could be easily translated into the arena. That is, after all, where they have always shone the brightest. Tesla is, and always has been, a live band.

"We did use overdubs," says Keith. "But we have to be able to play our songs live. We don't want to have a keyboard player behind the scenes or anything like that. If people aren't believing it's you on stage playing the music, then it loses the magic."

Publication date: 06/24/04

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