Nancy Brennan Strange is still a diamond, but more polished

Saul Young/News Sentinel
Nancy Brennan Strange is one of Knoxville music's longtime greats and has begun performing jazz shows again.

Photo by Saul Young, 2012 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo

Saul Young/News Sentinel Nancy Brennan Strange is one of Knoxville music's longtime greats and has begun performing jazz shows again.

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Nancy Brennan Strange has been an important part of the Knoxville Music Scene since the late 1970s.

"I played right over there the first night they opened," says Strange, nodding to the corner of the Sunspot resturant where we sit having lunch. "Maybe it was when they remodeled," she adds. "I can't really remember."

If her memory fails, you'd have to forgive her. Her voice has been heard in the clubs that are long gone and restaurants, clubs and venues that endure — so many that it would be hard to keep track.

In the 1970s she was half of folk duo Diamonds In the Rough (with Rebecca Bryant). In the '80s she was part of the folk and acoustic swing groups Past Times and Strange Company (with guitar hero Steve Kaufman, multi-instrumentalist Don Cassell and bassist Will Byers). Later, there was Stranger Than Paradise, a long turn as a jazz standards vocalist (often performing with jazz great Donald Brown), the Gemtones (which reunited with Bryant) and the Tennessee Sheiks, with which she still performs, and her new jazz group Strangefellows, which includes guitarist Phil Hardison and saxophonist Bruce Fogelman.

Raised in a military family, Strange says the first music that made a deep impression on her was when she was living in Pakistan where her dad was stationed.

"President Eisenhower was coming and there was a choir of kids from Karachi. It wasn't in English, but just hearing that choir was so beautiful."

While she heard rock 'n' roll and music that most of her generation listened to, Strange was more drawn to her parents' albums of jazz vocalists and Broadway shows. While her friends might have been listening to the Rolling Stones or James Taylor, Strange was digging Rosemary Clooney.

Strange says a few years ago she and her daughter, Stella, were taking a trip and were listening to CDs.

"Stella put on a Pink Floyd album and asked me if I knew who it was. I didn't. Then she said I was a disgrace to my generation!"

Strange smiles.

Her first regular performances were with a guitar, sometimes as music therapy for mental patients (an early job was at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute) and later traveling with Diamonds In the Rough. But jazz vocals always figured into her style. When Donald Brown arrived in Knoxville in the late 1980s, Strange was one of the first people he collaborated with.

"Donald and I opened for Ray Charles, and I was so nervous I didn't know if I could sing," says Strange. "I was backstage just trying to breathe!"

She hit her stride during the period that the jazz club Lucille's operated in the then just-reviving Old City.

"It was the best place to play, ever," she says.

Visiting artists would regularly stop by the club, including Wynton and Branford Marsalis on separate occasions and the horn section of the Count Basie Band.

In the early 2000s, though, Strange began to drop from the scene. Friends and fans wondered where she was.

"I kind of had a really bad burn-out," she says. "It even hurt me to hear music. I just couldn't deal with being out there. I felt like people weren't listening. I wasn't making any money. I really just felt like a failure."

The one music job she did keep up was playing at services at John XXIII on the UT campus on Sundays.

"That's really sort of what saved me in a weird way," says Strange.

Probably, she says, it wasn't such a bad time to burn out. She needed to spend more time with her daughter, Stella, who was then becoming a teenager.

It wasn't until Stella started college that old friend Cassell coaxed Strange to perform again with acoustic swing act the Tennessee Sheiks.

Earlier this year Strange began performing jazz standards with Hardison and Fogelman at the Sequoyah Grill and the Orangery.

"I started getting a lot of gigs," she says. "People just kept calling."

Strange hopes to record a new album.

"Definitely. I'm not done. There's a lot of songs that I love to sing that I haven't recorded."

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Nancy Brennan Strange & the Strangefellows Holiday Concert

With: Yu'ns Bande

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Grove Theatre, 123 Randolph St., Oak Ridge

Admission: $10

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