Singer/songwriter 'rediscovered herself' in her music career

AS A child, Owen Brown resident Sue Trainor imagined herself as a singer and guitar player. "But it was a fantasy," she said. Art seemed too much like a leisure-time activity.

On Feb. 6, Trainor received her third Washington Area Music Association (WAMMIE) Award at the Washington Hilton. Her 1999 CD "Under Tables, Out Back Doors" was named Best Album for Children.


A full-time musician for the past two years, Trainor first turned her daydreams into part-time work in high school, playing guitar and singing at a restaurant in Washington. Then the Bethesda resident went to college, studying anthropology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

The concept of Columbia intrigued her and she moved to the new town in 1976. After a stint selling advertising for Columbia Magazine and a term as Town Center village manager, she took a job scheduling classes and events for The Other Barn in Oakland Mills.


She became community liaison for Wilde Lake's Slayton House, she said.

Then she "rediscovered herself," she said, in the mid-1980s. She began to attend the Howard County Folk Society's open mike nights, took a chance and sang.

The first time back in front of a microphone after about 15 years, she was terrified.

"There really was a big part of me wrapped up in it," she said. "And I didn't know whether I could still do it. But you know, it was a great success."

She began performing folk music at bars and at Lake Kittamaqundi with the local group Cornucopia. The group has since disbanded.

Trainor and her husband, Jim Simpson, began producing the Folk Society's open mike nights at the then-PJ's in Ellicott City.

Now Trainor performs folk music with the vocal trio Hot Soup, which she co-founded with Sue Ribaudo and Christina Muir. Jennifer Agner replaced Ribaudo in November. The group released its second compact disc, "Soup Happens," last week.

Much of Trainor's work is parody. A favorite number from her 1993 solo album, "In a Close Up," is the title song -- a tongue-in-cheek version of Bette Midler's "From a Distance."


Midler's song was used as an anthem in support of U.S. participation in the Persian Gulf war, Trainor said.

"Ants are watching us from a distance," Trainor's version goes. "In a close-up, ants are monstrous/ Marching boldly o'er the sand/ Looking for a snack/ Those great jaws they smack/ Dreaming of a piece of man."

Influenced by the Smothers Brothers, a 1960s television folk and comedy team with political overtones, Trainor began writing her own parodies in high school. A self-taught musician, she said she learned about good structure and flow in music by writing parodies.

"In order to do a good parody," she said, "you have to be doing a song that other people recognize or it's not funny. And the songs that the whole world recognizes are almost always really well-written songs."

As a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education for the past two years, Trainor teaches songwriting to grade school students throughout the state.

Trainor said she performs, for children and adults, to create connections between people.


"People are focused, like when you're engaged in a conversation that's working, interesting and exciting," Trainor said. "The performer is the conversation-starter, to create that satisfying engagement."

In addition to her WAMMIE Award, Trainor was nominated this year for Best Female Vocalist, Best Duo/Group and Best Instrumentalist in the children's music category by the Washington Area Music Association. She has received 20 to 25 such nominations since the early 1990s, she says.

"Under Tables, Out Back Doors" was a finalist in the Children's Music Web Awards, an Internet competition judged by children, and was granted a "Recommended" seal from Parents' Choice, a nonprofit group that evaluates learning materials.

"Folk music is what people do to entertain themselves," Trainor said, "sittin' around on the porch, sittin' out in the back yard, singing camp songs. I like to play small venues. I like to play places where I can see you in the eyeball. You and I can communicate so that it feels accessible to us both."

The joy in drumming

What musical instrument relieves stress, builds self-esteem and erases language and age barriers?


Staff members at the Columbia Art Center say it's the drum.

Workshop leader Valerie Levin will lead a drumming seminar, "The Joy in Drumming," from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 22 at the art center. For $10, participants will learn the basics of drumming and hear Levin talk about how drumming has enhanced her life.

"Drumming makes me feel connected with people," Levin said. "And when you combine song and drumming, it creates a feeling of community."

At least one of her students agrees. "When I drum for a long period of time, I become relaxed, almost meditative," said Loki, who goes by one name.

"When I feel stressed, I just look out into the open space in back of my house and drum, and the stress just melts away," she said.

Workshop participants can bring any percussion instrument: drum, rhythm sticks, bells -- even rattles are acceptable. Participants can also clap and use their voices as instruments.


Djembe drums -- 3-foot-tall West African traditional drums -- are available for a $10 rental fee. They must be reserved by noon Monday.

The Columbia Art Center is at 6100 Foreland Garth in Long Reach Village Center.

Information: 410-730-0075.