Jean Dowell is a musician, songwriter, coach, political activist, and an inspiration.
As a youth Jean, however, was more interested in sports and developed a reputation as a star athlete. As a senior at Union Grove High School she led the balloting for North Carolina’s all-state basketball team. She played on Western Carolina University’s first women’s team and started the first intercollegiate team for women at the University of Georgia in 1968 where she was their first coach.
Jean was also a noted amateur basketball and softball player and moved to Cincinnati in 1970 to play both sports for teams in Cincinnati. She was hired as a physical educator and basketball coach at Mount St. Joseph University in 1970 where she won numerous championships during her 24 seasons there. Mount St. Joseph’s gymnasium where Jean’s teams played is now the “Jean Dowell Building.” Jean is in five sports halls of fame including the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
Although an athletic career left little time for music Jean always found time to write and sing songs mostly for her own enjoyment. Upon retirement Jean had more time to devote to her beloved pastime and in 2012 Paula Gray, a regular singing partner, introduced Jean to Mike Oberst, of The Tillers. She recorded her first song with Oberst in 2013, “Little Country Cabin” for the album, Music For The Mountains featuring various artists protesting mountaintop removal coal mining.
Jean Dowell is releasing her debut album, A Place Way Back in Time on Saturday, November 5th at Folk School Coffee Parlor. The album is a wonderful collection of songs written over the past 45 years by Jean. She will be joined by Mike Oberst, who co-recorded and produced the album.
It was quite an honor to speak to a woman of Jean’s caliber.
Tell us about your songwriting. What inspires you to write?
I am originally from Union Grove, NC, which you may know is a hotbed for old time traditional music. It is especially noted for having the oldest and most famous fiddler’s convention in the world. It began in 1924. My dad, Tom, and three of his brothers entered the first convention and won first prize singing the old standard, “Bury Me Beneath The Willow”. We always had music at our house as quite a number of relatives played and sang the old songs.
Although absorbed in athletics I started writing songs in my early 20’s and I always found time to sing. I write about practically everything that is important to me. In the new album I write about growing up in Union Grove, working hard on the farm, the important people in my life, going home to visit and how important those visits have always been, the difficulty saying goodbye and values I learned in my little rural hometown.
What political issues are most important to you?
I would have to say my main issue as an activist is the environment. It is critical we wake up and try to save our planet. An issue I care deeply about is hydraulic fracking. I have sung my original songs at several rallies protesting this harmful practice. I will attend the Solidarity for Standing Rock rally this Wednesday at City Hall at 8:00-9:30 AM. I am proud of the native Americans defending their land and ashamed at how our government has treated indigenous people throughout history.
I have two songs on the album devoted to coal miners. I’ve always thought miners have a hard life and are not appreciated. Of course I wish we didn’t have a dependency on coal. I am all for renewable energy. I have a song on the album, “Our Beautiful Mountains”, protesting mountaintop removal mining. “What Will We Leave Our Children” is a powerful song lamenting global warming and the depletion of our clean air and water. “I’m Leaving You” is a song about domestic abuse. While I am fortunate never to have experienced abuse, it is quite prevalent in our society.
Given your stance on Women’s Rights, I assume you would like to see the first woman elected President?
I am an advocate for women’s rights, and you bet, I would love to see Hillary become our next president. I do not want a misogynistic, xenophobic bully to be my president.
What prompted you to record the album?
Four years ago, a regular singing partner of mine, Paula Gray, began taking banjo lessons from Mike Oberst. I accompanied her to Mike’s house one day and sang him some of my songs. Mike said he thought my songs should be heard, and he encouraged me to sing them publicly. Although I told Mike I could not see myself doing this I accepted his invitation to do some shows with him. We have now done 10 shows in the past two years. The biggest one will be this Saturday night when we have the album release shows at the Folk School Coffee Parlor in Ludlow, KY.
What are you looking forward to coming out of the release of the album?
People tell me my songs touch them emotionally so I am hoping my album will be meaningful to everyone. And I hope they enjoy the music and singing. I am honored to get to play with a musician of the caliber of Mike Oberst. He produced the album and has done a great job promoting it. I can’t thank him enough for making this project happen. I have two regular singing partners, Mary Ann Broderick and Paula Gray. They are also featured on four of the nineteen tracks.