Ryman show is testimony of Arie's strong Nashville ties

Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:00am

Though she doesn’t have a Music City address, there are strong Nashville ties and influences reflected in the songs of Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and instrumentalist India.Arie, who will perform at the Ryman Auditorium Friday night.

The most prominent link involves the presence and participation of her musical director, as well as compositional and production comrade Shannon Sanders, who is a Nashville resident and has shared in Arie’s commercial and artistic success (15 Grammy nominations and awards for 2003 Best R&B Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance).

“He’s a wise old man, far smarter than his chronological age,” Arie said with a laugh. “But in addition to being a really good friend, he’s one of the smartest people and best musicians that I know. If I gave him the framework of an idea, whether it’s just the melody or some lyrics, he’ll come back to me with something exactly like what I was thinking, only it will be better and more complete.

“He’s the kind of person who knows how to challenge and inspire you musically, and who always wants you to get better and do better. I’m so grateful for the many ways he’s helped me both professionally and personally, and he’s such a critical part of my music.”

Arie’s songs and style don’t fit into any one category, mainly because she “absolutely hates to be pigeonholed.” She’s collaborated with red-hot urban music performers like Akon, yet also teamed with lesser-known types such as Anthony David. She’s done acclaimed duets with rock and soul legends John Mellencamp and Stevie Wonder and both traditional and smooth jazz with performers such as vocalist Cassandra Wilson and saxophonist Dave Koz.

Her velvet, expressive voice was even featured on the 2006 CD Timeless, which marked the return of Brazilian star Sergio Mendes to the pop charts.

Still, it’s her provocative, timely topical tunes that have gotten Arie her greatest publicity, particularly the heartfelt numbers from her two most recent CDs Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship from 2006 and this year’s follow-up Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics.

The former earned Arie her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and was also the first time in 12 years that any disc issued from Motown had achieved that distinction. It was her second R&B chart-topping album, eventually sold 1.3 million copies worldwide, and featured the single “I Am Not My Hair,” one of many numbers she’s done over the years that directly address issues of self-esteem and identity for women and young girls in general, but black girls and women in particular.

“Those things [self-esteem and identity] are very important to me, so of course I’m going to address them in my music,” Arie said. “But while those are certainly very important things for black women, I feel that the messages really apply in how this society tends to label people on the basis of looks. I’ve wrestled with those issues all my life, so it’s not exactly a surprise they would be something that I sing about on a regular basis.”

Arie also got a lot of mileage from her cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter,” as it would end up being used as the accompanying number for the trailer to the film Sex and the City: The Movie.

Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics was released in February, and it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and No. 2 on the R&B charts. It’s done reasonably well thus far, though it hasn’t yielded a blockbuster hit along the lines of “I Am Not My Hair” or past Arie tunes like “Little Thing,” “A Time to Love” or such early anthems as “Brown Skin,” “Purify Me” and “Little Things.”

It also raises another point, though it’s not one that particularly concerns Arie. While there are some urban and R&B stations around the country (including locally WQQK -92.1FM) that do feature her music in regular rotation, she’s never exactly been a staple on the urban airwaves. “Little Things” for example may have won the Grammy for 2003’s Best Urban/Alternative Performance, but it barely cracked the R&B Top 40 (it got as high as 33).

The biggest radio tune she’s ever enjoyed was “Chocolate High,” a duet cut with Musiq Soulchild that’s included on Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics that’s made it to the number 19 position. “I Am Not My Hair” actually did better on the dance charts (14) than the R&B charts (47) despite the presence of Akon.

“[Lack of urban airplay] is something that I really only think about when I have to address the business side…but no, that’s not something that enters into the process [when songwriting],” she said.

Arie’s tunes are also often quite pointed, adult-oriented, intense and intricate in terms of structure, subjects under discussion and performance style. She doesn’t rely on tried-and-true gimmicks designed to generate more attention such as including hooks mid-song with lines delivered by the rap flavor of the month, or trying to fit whatever production trend or catchphrase may be in vogue into the material.

Instead, she focuses on delivering stirring, engaging and meaningful music, hoping that has enough merit to pique interest.

She’s also uninterested in the trappings of celebrity culture, even though that’s been a part of her life since childhood. Her mother Joyce was a teen sensation at Motown and now serves as Arie’s stylist, while her father (Ralph Sampson) was a college basketball superstar and longtime ABA and NBA player.

Arie spends much of her non-performing time involved in social and political issues as a co-founder of the Atlanta-based independent music collective Groovement EarthShare. She has also participated in a number of community functions, most recently cutting songs available as Internet downloads with proceeds going to support child victims of the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Her song “She Is” was part of the soundtrack for the PBS documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia about that nation’s current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state.

What: Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and instrumentalist India.Arie in concert
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Ave. N.
Cost: $29.50, $42.50, $52.50
Info: 889-3060, rymanauditorium.com