The Sweet Grass Angels: Harmonies from the Heart
By Cindy Reid | They are called the Sweetgrass Angels because, well they sound like what angels would sound like if they appeared in the form of three lovely ladies who just happen to harmonize together beautifully.
Elaine O’Connell Lake, Velma Polk and Penney Lynn Smith met at the audition for the University of South Carolina at Beaufort (USCB) production of “Honky Tonk Angels” in 2012 and very soon they knew they had something exceptional. The funny part was, none of the singers really wanted to be in the show, which follows the lives of three aspiring female singers. Penney had no intention of performing, preferring to remain behind the scenes as Musical Director. She had encouraged Velma, who had performed as a singer extensively throughout the last fifteen years but had never been in a musical theater production, to try out. And then there was Elaine, perhaps the most reluctant of the three ladies.
Elaine would never have even auditioned for the show without her husband Jason’s urging. Jason was designing sets for the musical and he wanted Elaine to try out. Elaine says “I wasn’t going to go and Jason said ‘when are you ever going to do it?’ and so finally I went, arriving late.” She went and sang a solo, as did Velma. Then Penney had a hunch and got onstage to try a song with all three of them harmonizing, just like they would if they were in the show.
The first song they ever sang together was “Amazing Grace.” Was it the hymn? Was it fate? All three ladies agree that separately they may have been fine, but when they sang together for the first time something new and wonderful was created. Velma says “We are all women of faith. The Lord brought us together, and our harmonies just clicked.”
Penney says, “I knew when we were at “Honky Tonk Angels,” that Elaine’s’ sweet pure angel voice and the power, strength and tenacity in Velma’s voice combined with my versatility and range was a beautiful combination.”
Velma says, “After the show people kept asking us ‘are you going to keep singing?,’ and we said we would if we had a place to sing.” Penney says, “Bonnie Hargrove, the Director of the Center for the Arts at USCB, kept telling Fran Tuttle of Lowcountry Produce how good we were and Fran offered their space for our first gig.” Elaine says “Penney came up with a bunch of songs and we did it!” And so the Sweetgrass Angels were born. A year later they celebrated their first anniversary by playing appropriately, at Lowcountry Produce.
The group is known for their classic three part harmonies on songs from the 40’s to today. They cover many genres, from beach music, shag, country, gospel, to disco which they are able to do this due to their lengthy musical resumes. As Penney says, “There are no prescripted roles for our harmonies, we are all true musicians, and in fact we all play instruments. We are so much more than karaoke!”
Although they came together at the “Honky Tonk Angels” audition, their music roots go back much farther. A native Beaufortonian, Velma has sung professionally for over fifteen years. She has had the pleasure of entertaining for several highly ranked public servants, including South Carolina Lt. Governor Brantley Harvey, as well as members of the U.S. Secret Service. She has also performed at several events hosted by acclaimed actor and Low Country resident Tom Berenger. One of her most treasured performances was singing back-up vocals on her son Donnie Polk’s CD. Both her sons, Donnie and Ben, are well known musicians as is her brother Doug Garvin. Velma credits her loving Granny for teaching her to harmonize and instilling her deep love of music, especially gospel. Velma especially loves, “Singing praises for my Lord most of all because He has blessed me so.” Since her musical theater debut in “Honky Tonk Angels” Velma has appeared as a lead cast member in both “8-Track, The Sounds of the 70’s” and “Honky Tonk Angels Christmas Holiday Spectacular” at USCB. An accomplished musician, Velma also plays the piano. Married to Donald Polk, they make their home in Beaufort.
Elaine is originally from Pennsylvania and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music with a focus on performance. She was the recipient of the Mary Landon Russell Award for Outstanding Musical Achievement and was a four year member of the Lycoming College Chamber Choir and Tour Choir with performances in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some of her previous lead roles in numerous plays, musicals and reviews, including “She Loves Me,” “The Boyfriend,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “The Perfect Wife.” After spending eighteen years raising her two beautiful daughters Misti and Bayli she appeared in “Honky Tonk Angels,” and followed that up with roles in “8-Track, The Sounds of the 70’s” and the “Honky Tonk Angels Christmas Holiday Spectacular.” Elaine wrote and performed two professionally recorded CDs for children, “My Room” and “Rockaby Moon.” (www.cdbaby. com/cd/elaineoconnelllake) She says, “They were originally written for my girls, but I was encouraged by a lot of ‘mom’ friends to share them.” (Daughter Misti did the cover artwork) In addition to her vocal talents, Elaine plays the mountain dulcimer. Elaine, Jason and their daughters reside in Port Royal.
Although she hails from Ohio, Penney has spent the past 25 years in the Lowcountry. She holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Eastern Kentucky University and a Masters’ degree in Education from Lesley University. Until her recent retirement after 28 years of teaching, she taught band, general music, and string orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky, Savannah, Georgia, and Beaufort County. With the Savannah Theater Company her credits include performances in “Anything Goes,” “Nunsense,” “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and “Chicago.” She has made numerous radio voice-over and television commercial appearances. Penney is the vocalist for the Stardust Orchestra from Sun City, and she is also the vocalist for The Swingtime Orchestra, and sings with local professional jazz pianist Norm Gagne. She has also been a featured vocalist with the Savannah Jazz Orchestra and the Hilton Head Orchestra Big Band Bash. She has recorded several jazz/big band projects, including her solo CD “As It Should Be” with the legendary bassist Ben Tucker. Penney was the Music Director for the USCB production of “Always, Patsy Cline” and was of course, in “Honky Tonk Angels.” She plays “all the string instruments, violin, and cello, bass” but says she never sang in college, stating “I was intimidated!” (causing this writer and the other angels to look on incredulously!) Penney and her husband Lain Smith, and their pets Bogey and Divot, live in Beaufort.
FROM THE HEART
Some musicians appear to be playing in a world of their own, only barely acknowledging the audience. That would not be the Sweetgrass Angels. Their performances are not only polished and professional, they are warm and welcoming. You can bring everyone from your grandparents to your grandbaby and everyone is guaranteed to have a terrific time. The audiences include all generations, because Velma as says, “I think it is because we sing all types of songs. And we like them and they like us.”
Penney says, “We sincerely love sharing our God-given voices with others and making a personal connection by giving them a few hours to sing, laugh, love, dance and enjoy life. People come out and want to have a good time. And if we laugh at something – , finishes Velma, “They laugh with us! We are ‘people people.'” Elaine, “We love everybody who comes out to see us. It means a lot to us when the audience is moved by one of our songs. We can make each other cry when we sing “I will Always Love You” we all start tearing up!” Penney says, “They see the genuine love and respect we have for each other.”
With their extensive list of material, you would think they have a set list for each engagement, but Penney says, “We never use a set list, because each audience is different. We do it right in the moment.” Elaine says, “At first we had three hours of music, and now we have eleven hours of music we can choose from. When we started our sets seemed like they would be too long but now the time just flies by!”
Nor do the ladies have a rigid division of harmony within each song. Velma says, “It just happens, sometimes I’m ‘high’ and sometimes I’m ‘low.'”Elaine says, “And sometimes we switch halfway through!”
Penney says “Whatever the audience’s favorite is for the night, is our favorite. You see them singing along and it makes them happy!” Elaine thinks a moment and says, “‘Moon Glow,’ which turned out to be beautiful, is a favorite of mine. And also ‘Just One Look’.” Velma adds, “The audience loves ‘Dancing Queen,’ and the girls try to get me to dance!” Penney smiles and says, “And of course the audience loves ‘Boogie Boogie Bugle Boy.” Elaine adds “And then there is “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Velma says, “And the Eagles, “Already Gone!” Elaine, thinking of her husband, says “Jason’s favorite is ‘Blue Bayou.'” Penney says “I like all of them best when we are doing them. We like everything as long as it is done well.” Velma says, “We sing songs we like,” and Penney adds “That sound good!”
For these performers the show is all about their audience. They all agree that the mood of the audience determines the songs they will sing on any given night. They feel they get as much back as they give out. As Velma says “If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t be there.” Penney says, “Even if we’ve had a bad day, one or two songs in and it is all forgotten.”Elaine agrees, ” It lifts the weight.”
Jason Lake, Elaine’s husband, is the fourth angel because he is the wind beneath their wings. He does it all, from designing their fabulous website, to being in charge of their equipment and background music. He is at every event, setting it up and taking it down, ensuring that all goes well. “Jason is the unheralded angel!” says Velma, “Jason is a miracle worker. He takes care of everything and keeps us on the straight and narrow!”Penney adds, “Jason is amazing, we couldn’t do it without him. Not only does he do all the technical work, he finds us the music we need, which can be very detailed and complicated.”
Other ancillary angels warrant mention, namely Brad Ballington and Dusty Connor, who provided the ladies hair and makeup for the “Honky Tonk Angels” show and have continued to be huge supporters. The ladies say “They are part of the team, and they are so good to us.” In fact the ladies will be models for Brad and Dusty at an upcoming hair show in Myrtle Beach. (Their plan is to break out in song on the runway but don’t tell anyone!)
In addition to performing in local venues and private parties, the Sweetgrass Angels have spread their wings and have done shows with the Stardust Orchestra, and also at the Awards Banquet for the Hilton Head Rotary with a big band. Penney says, “Eddie Wilson put it together and it was our first time with a band, and we loved it! At that performance, vocalist Huxsie Scott, a gospel and jazz singer, sang with us and asked if we could come to Dublin, Georgia to perform gospel.” “We love gospel music,” says Elaine. Favorite hymns as a trio include “Wonderful Merciful Savior “and “I Go to the Rock.” They have performed at Grace Hill Baptist Church and anticipate performing gospel music in the future.
The ladies remain grateful and surprised at their success. Penney says, “I knew the good Lord had a plan but I never imagined we would be this successful this quickly!” Velma says “Never in a million years did I expect this to happen. The Lord has led me where to go, and here I am.” Elaine adds, “Singing together just lifts us up.”
If you look closely at the photo of the angels on their website you will see each lady is wearing a necklace with the initial of the character’s name they played in “Honky Tonk Angels.” Just a sweet reminder of where they started, and as they say,”It represents what brought us together.” That may be where they started but its clear their friendship and love for each other keep them together.
That and their dazzling three part harmonies.
Story by Cindy Reid and photos by Susan DeLoach for Beaufort Lifestyle Magazine. Published bi-monthly, Beaufort Lifestyle is a classy, sophisticated publication about the wonderful people, places and events of Beaufort, Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Grab your free copy at any one of 200 area locations or check it out online at http://beaufortlifestyle.com/