MUSIC BOX: Never Sweat at Songwriter’s Alley

By on May 13, 2015
O’Neal performs with the NeverSweat Players, featuring acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. PHOTO: ARNICA SPRING

O’Neal performs with the NeverSweat Players, featuring acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. PHOTO: ARNICA SPRING

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Born and raised on a dude ranch in Moran while performing in plays at the family-operated Jackson Hole Playhouse, Jess Camilla O’Neal now lives in Dubois where she performs with her band, The NeverSweat Players. O’Neal will be the first featured songwriter of the summer season at Songwriter’s Alley, performing with her quartet tonight at the weekly, songwriter-focused open stage. Songwriter’s Alley is 8 to 11 p.m. every Wednesday at Hayden’s Post. The event is open to all musicians and small ensembles interested in signing up to perform a two- or three-song set. Original music is encouraged, though not mandatory. (Aaron Davis is the founder/organizer of Songwriter’s Alley — Eds.)

PJH: How did your upbringing and theatre experience at the Jackson Hole Playhouse contribute to your current musical output?

Jess Camilla O’Neal: My first summer stock performance — 90 days of shows, nightly — began when I was 5 years old as Marta in The Sound of Music, so I really did grow up on the stage. I’m accustomed to life there — rehearsals, late nights, large crowds, cast, and community, all very similar. There is, however, a huge difference between performing a musical theater play and doing an intimate singer-songwriter set. That was a transition for me to not be a character but to be my authentic vulnerable self. I began playing piano at age 4, which gave me the foundation to be able to call myself a real musician. I sang professionally with my three sisters from the time I was 10 until I was 24, and had seen many realms of the music business having record deals in London and Nashville. Those all made it easy for me to transition to a solo career. Life in the arts is the best.

PJH: How many albums have you recorded and released?

O’Neal: My first solo album, Eyes to the Skyline, came out in 2009 under the name Camilla O’Neal. I released that under my middle name and married name trying to have a career that wasn’t hinged upon my career as “The Garnick Girls.” Awaken to the Wind was released Feb. 2014. Our newest single, “I Love Anne,” was released Feb. 14, 2015. I have other albums under Saddle Rock Sisters (the group with my sisters) that were all early 2000s, but I think I blocked them out (laughs).

PJH: How long have the NeverSweat Players been together and how did this ensemble come about? 

O’Neal: We’ve been playing together as a group since 2010. I have played with Steve Glenn (mandolin and guitar) since 2008 in a different band that I played bass in. Norman Winter (upright bass) and I were in the Wyoming all-state and honor choir together all four years of high school. I knew Chris Sabatka (fiddler/violinist) from around town and that he had been a fiddler and toured with Dean Dillon — a big songwriter/performer in Nashville. I love the camaraderie of being in a band, cast, or group as I have done all my life. We chose the name NeverSweat Players as it was the original town name of Dubois, and also its real meaning to me is akin to “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

PJH: Is there a primary theme in the writing for the album, Awaken the Wind?

O’Neal: This album was an awesome experience from day one. There are 12 tracks on the album; six are originals. We knew we wanted a folk/western feel. Some of my songs fit that bill and the cover songs really supported the vibe we were going for. Living in Dubois, wind is a theme in your life and as we started to gather songs for the album, unbeknownst to us, almost every song we had picked had the word “wind” in it, original or not. As a singer-songwriter, I don’t always love just playing my stuff. There are so many beautiful songs out there that are interpreted so differently by each listener, or artist, like “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song we covered. I think it’s a great road trip album, maybe an emotional road trip. Especially a Wyoming road trip.

PJH: What is your background with songwriting?

O’Neal: I had been performing solo for a year in Nashville and landed a publishing contract, but my father had just passed away and I came home to help out with the family businesses. I actually wasn’t very inspired in the Nashville songwriting circle — getting together with four or five other people in an office building or apartment to “crank out” the next hit. I was excited to be home writing from the banks of the Wind River or under the shadow of the Tetons.

PJH: Who are some of your greatest influences and why?

O’Neal: Sheesh. I have so many influences on a very broad spectrum. As a Western songwriter, I love the stories of Marty Robbins, Dolly Parton Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash. I love the complexity of Stephen Sondheim, James Taylor and Carol King. I’m enamored by Reba McIntyre’s career — her ability to own all genres of theatre, film, music. I’m not that up on recent artists, not sure why.

Upcoming featured songwriters at Songwriter’s Alley also include Isaac Hayden, Beth McIntosh, Michael Batdorf, Wendy Colonna, Alysia Kraft, Victor Pokorny and more. More info at Facebook.com/SongwritersAlley.


About Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis is a decade-long writer of Music Box, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley, and co-founder of The WYOmericana Caravan.

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