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OPENING AN UMBRELLA FOR THE RAIN: RACHEL WAMMACK
7/9/19

by Holly Gleason

Rachel Wammack doesn’t have any college debt. Realizing beauty pageants have talent portions, the Alabaman from the musical hotbed of Muscle Shoals took her experience playing the marimba in her high school percussion ensemble —and a massive voice—all the way to being crowned Miss University of North Alabama. Not that she’s a typical pageant girl. “I couldn’t walk,” she jokes. “I didn’t look super-fit in a swimsuit. I’m a laid-back musician/hippie. But some judge saw I had talent and took a chance.”

Her high school band director, who espoused the hypothesis that “Music is motion,” tailor-made an arrangement of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” for marimba, and Wammack practiced it till she had it down. With her vocal prowess and skill on this unusual instrument, she took both Talent and Miss Congeniality at the Miss Alabama competition.

At 17, while Wammack was playing piano in the local Marriott’s revolving bar, her powerful soprano caught the ear of  Sony Music Nashville’s Jim Catino. In the moment, the A&R head remembers thinking, “Her voice was amazing, but it was her writing. Her originals felt like covers of songs I’d missed.”

Wammack wasn’t sure what to think when he introduced himself. A trip with her father to Nashville to meet the executive didn’t put her on the road to stardom either. “Why would people go in these little houses and just write?” she wondered.

Instead, she got her degree in professional writing at UNA. But while she studied, she kept in touch with Catino, sending demos and voice memos every few months as her writing evolved. She also got her heart smashed, then lived life—including pulling double shifts in a hotel bar—while trying to figure out what she needed to do.

“I’d call Jim every three or four months, asking about sending some more songs. He always said yes,” she remembers. “Everyone needs someone in their life who doesn’t say, ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’ They just say, ‘Keep going.’ He did that for me.”

“Damage,” her first single, is sung from a bartender’s point of view about the pain life inflicts, while “Something People Say” offers the shattering point of heartbreak in staggeringly clear terms. Like Tammy Wynette, Carole King, Grace Potter or Adele, Wammack has the ability to take life by the throat and empathetically deliver the emotional truth in people’s crisis points.

“Music is a healer that way,” she offers. “The core of ‘Something’ was an experience I had to go through to write that song. I don’t like to dwell on stuff like that—such a messy breakup that affected me to the core. But God uses it for others. When I heard the line, ‘Maybe our words are just umbrellas for the rain,’ the co-writers were acting like it was just another line. And I was like, ‘No! That’s so important.”

Knowing from her time as a bartender that “People just want to pour their story out and be understood,” Wammack realized how powerful her current song—one that could have been pulled from Adele’s own highly personal repertoire—could be. “I live in a small town, and everyone knows your crap,” she adds, “So the people back home are gonna know what it’s all about. But for everyone else, it’s a good place to find hope and healing.”

That applies doubly for the gregarious writer/artist. With the single starting to take hold at SiriusXM, Wammack is engaged to be married next year. The groom? The final addition to the bartending team that helped fund her initial year in Nashville.

“I thought he was going to be one more twerpy guy who was just going to flirt with me,” she laughingly admits. “But he was different, respectful and hard-working. He was always asking to be on my shift, but he didn’t know how to tell me he liked me.”

She’s written a song—“The Other Side of the Bar”—about what happened, but it’s not yet recorded. With her literary background, she recognizes the power of juxtaposition. “Usually, the songs are about people falling in love on the side of the bar where the customers are sitting on the barstools. This is about what happens to two people who’re actually taking care of the people ordering the drinks.”

Admitting she’s a lousy bartender, Wammack confesses, “I can remember a million lyrics, but I can’t remember the portions for margaritas or martinis.”

But as long as she can pop a champagne cork, the woman who used to walk out on the train bridge between Muscle Shoals and Florence and write lyrics is probably going to be OK. Though she learned about the rich musical history of where she’s from in a high school elective class, she understands the power and pull of her hometown.

Aretha Franklin and Etta James both came to Muscle Shoals for the music, and everything that’s embedded in me comes from that same place. I didn’t know that they used to say the river’s singing—I found that out later—but I know I’d go out there, sit and write lyrics, because it was so inspiring. You could feel it, and I took it all in.”