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Real Live Dolls captures heart of Appalachia

By Lacy Hilliard
Tomahawk Writer/Photographer

Turkey Tracks, an old-time/bluegrass/gospel trio comprised of Jennifer Gillenwater, Mary Mays and Linda Miller, played at Dry Hill General Store in celebration of the release of their original album titled Real Live Dolls. The performance took place on December 21 and the country feel of Dry Hill General Store served as a perfect backdrop for the trio.
Turkey Tracks opened with “Uncle Nick Grindstaff.” Written by Gillenwater, as are all of Turkey Tracks songs, Uncle Nick Grindstaff tells the story of a man from Johnson County that lived as a hermit for over 40 years. Found dead in his cabin in 1923, Grindstaff is often referred to as “The South’s Most Famous Hermit.” Paying homage to Appalachian heritage is what Turkey Tracks is all about. Not only does Gillenwater write about local heritage, both Gillenwater and Mays keep Appalachian tradition alive by playing various folk crafted instruments that are scarcely seen in modern times like the dulcijo (Gillenwater’s was locally crafted by Bill Neely of Damascus, VA) – a cross between a dulcimer and a banjo and the psaltery – an extremely challenging instrument that is played with a bow and requires exceptional accuracy.
Gillenwater’s lyrics are steeped in both Appalachian history and her personal family history. The title track is the story of two sets of twin girls born unto two brothers and their wives, Pearlie and Ida Mann. The women dressed their babies up like ‘Real Live Dolls,’ always combing their hair and dressing them in frills and lace bonnets. The story takes place in the late 1930’s when sickness was rampant in the hills and hollers of East Tennessee and only one of the ‘Real Live Dolls’ lived to see old age. The cover of the Real Live Dolls album displays a photo of the four ‘dolls.’
Gillenwater’s talent for songwriting was recently recognized at the Smoky Mountain Songwriters Competition in Gatlinburg, Tennessee where she was awarded the “Bluegrass Top of the Line” prize for her song “Hummingbird” as well as the “Folk Finalist” prize for her song “Hemlock Tree.” Gillenwater also wrote a song that she originally performed with students at Johnson County High School in honor of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The song, titled “Twenty Bright Stars,” is track number 17 on the Real Live Dolls album.
Each member of the trio brings something unique to the group. Mary Mays is often the source of comedy relief and Linda Miller is seemingly the strength and the foundation, which compliments the steady rhythm of her upright bass. Turkey Tracks can boast impressive harmonies, combining their voices flawlessly to produce a warm yet haunting tone.
The trio plays all throughout East Tennessee including the Dry Hill General Store in Butler where the owners Richard and Carolyn Dugger will greet you with a warm smile and serve you some of the best home cooking money can buy. The group also performs at Carolina BBQ, the Acoustic Coffeehouse, the ‘Ole’ Barn, Mast General Store, the Crooked Road Café, and various churches and nursing homes. Turkey Tracks will also be featured locally on WMCT Radio on Lester Morely’s Bluegrass Show on January 25.
The joy of the audience at the Dry Hill General Store performance was palpable. Many audience members sang along, including five-year-old Drake Teague who was ecstatic when the trio played his favorite song “Wagon Wheel.”
“This is what it’s all about,” said Gillenwater. “My inspiration is God and I’m so blessed that I’m able to use my talent make others happy and to bring glory to Him.” If you’d like to purchase a copy of the Real Live Dolls album, you may contact Jennifer Gillenwater at 768-0530 or pick up a copy at Dry Hill General Store, 1535 Dry Hill Rd, Butler, TN.