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Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl: Tragic tale of what might have been

Ian Malin


In a recent Guardian feature a number of musicians were asked about their hometown acts who, for one reason or another, failed to hit the big time. Songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, a native of Arizona, chose the intriguingly named duo Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl.


‘They were an eccentric duo from Arizona and they travelled around in a beat-up station wagon. I ended up playing shows with them a lot in my teens. I was about 15 when I first saw them. Amy Ross could hear a song on the radio when they drove to the show, and play it that night. She had an incredible ear for songs. They were spontaneous and playful and serious, and there was a real humanity to them that resonated with me.’


So who were the best band you’ve never heard of? Derrick and Amy Ross, who settled in Bisbee, Arizona, were married for 13 years, Amy playing keyboards and singing and Derrick on guitars. The pair built up a loyal following and toured constantly with their brand of Americana that had clearly been a big influence on Courtney Marie. There are also shades of Gillian Welch, the roots artist whose song Whiskey Girl inspired their name (Nowhere man and the whiskey girl/ They loaded up for a weekend in the underworld).


Note the past tense. In October 2013 Amy Ross died aged 40 at Tucson Medical Centre following a blood infection brought on by dialysis. She had been suffering from Lupus, a condition when the immune system attacks the body’s tissue and organs, and the endless touring took its toll. On the same day a grief-stricken Derrick, 39, took his own life.


What happens to a musician who dies young is that he or she often finds fame after death. The lives of Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley have been constantly scrutinised after their deaths and they have sold a lot more records than when they were alive. In the case of Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl, their deaths were a big local story but fame had largely eluded them until last year when a documentary maker, Chris Charles Scott III, heard the story and discovered that Amy and Derrick provided masses of material as they constantly filmed each other at work and play.


‘The story of Derrick and Amy was given to me by a stranger on a golf course,’ said Chris Charles Scott. ‘Amazing as the story was, I have no connection to this duo’s culture. I was raised poor and black on the Texas-Louisiana border. I wasn’t aware of them or a fan of their music. I would have nothing in common with these people or connect with their story. Four days before shooting began, my nephew killed himself. I directed this story under the same haze and fog in which their family was telling it.’


The tale is a tragic one but Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl left behind some high-quality songs on their album Children Of Fortune. Sure, there is plenty of hokum in tales of daddies who had different women in their hearts and glasses of whiskey in their hands but that album does contain one particularly memorable song. Tumbleweed evokes the landscape of the Arizona desert, the big skies, the cactus and agave plants and the rail tracks heading north.


Bound to a plan, not to a man

Tumbleweed whistles to the wind

His eyes at night, big and bright

Deep in the heart of tumbleweed


The song is underpinned by a lovely slow-building piano-based intro and is a showcase for Amy’s honeyed vocal. A terrific liquid guitar break from Derrick follows and it ends on a chorus that sounds like a voice fading away into the desert air.


Another track, the ballad If Only I, is an unbearably poignant listen now when thinking about the cruel fate of the pair – If only I could stop one heart from breaking/ I would not have lived in vain – and is drenched in emotion. I’ll try to say goodbye to ‘If only I’. Goodbye.


Everyone has a favourite artist or artists that failed to make that big breakthrough. Mine are a folky band Trees. Trees produced two albums, both in 1970. The first, The Garden of Jane Delawney, contains a copper-bottom classic in the title track. A harpsichord gives a gothic tale a macabre atmosphere and the vocals of Celia Humphris evoke an English country garden and some grisly lyrics tell of a river stained crimson with Jane’s lover’s blood. It was written by the band’s bassist Tobias Boshell while he was still at school in 1965. Tobias, or Bis as he was called in 1970, said he had no idea what it was about or who Jane was. ‘It just appeared as if from nowhere,’ he said.


Trees also headed for nowhere, never flourishing or reaching their full height. The cut-glass vocals of Celia, who became Celia Drummond, were never heard on Top Of The Pops. She died two years ago. That voice, though, was heard by millions even if they never knew it. It warned rail and London tube travellers to ‘mind the gap’.

 


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Sam Russell
Sam Russell
Apr 16

Great article on this otherwise obscure duo, especially now as we all fall in love with Amy’s daughter, McKenna Faith Brienholt, who sang a mesmerizing rendition of Tumbleweed on American Idol last night.

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