An Incomplete History of Inimitable Female Voices

From Bessie Smith to Sallie Ford.

If the most shocking part of NBC’s Idol competitor, The Voice, is the reveal, then Sallie Ford would throw Xtina, Cee Lo, that country guy and the douchey model-humper from Maroon 5 for a total loop. The Sallie Ford you see and the Sallie Ford you hear are two different beings entirely. The North Carolina transplant—and daughter of a puppeteer—who now calls Portland home, looks like an indie thrift-store pixie who works in a coffeehouse. But Ford sings with an aged, catchy vibrato from another era. And on Dirty Radio, her full-lengh debut with her band The Sound Outside, she melds rockabilly, swing, blues, and roots music to create a vibrant hybrid in an unlikely package. Here she shares some thoughts on herself and a few other ladies who’ve made people stand up and say “Girl! What just came out ya mouth?”:

FEBRUARY 16, 1923 Bessie Smith’s first single “Downhearted Blues” is released. Her voice, with its smoky, deep warble, is among the first to be added to Columbia Records’ “Race Records” series. Smith’s music and career heavily influences fields of theatrical signing, jazz, blues and swing, garnering her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Ford cites Smith as a  “major, major, influence.”

APRIL 20, 1939 Billie Holiday records “Strange Fruit.” Her skills at improvisation and distinctive delivery bring the torch song side of the blues to the forefront of popular music. Holiday’s life, with her Dickensian upbringing and subsequent addictions, lay the blueprint for beautifully tortured artists. “I’ve always admired the romance in her voice and try and convey that in a modern way,” Ford says of Lady Day.

MARCH 25, 1942 Aretha Louise Franklin is born in Memphis. Her controlled, booming vocals make her one of the most . . . umm, “Respected” women in the history of American music. Ford muses: “I’ve always been a wailer, I tend to belt a lot, and Aretha is the inspiration.”

JUNE 17, 1967 Texas refugee Janis Joplin, along with the rest of Big Brother and the Holding Company, drop people’s jaws and open their minds at the Monterey Pop festival. The standard for white girls with crazy-ass voices has been set.

NOVEMBER 1975 Patti Smith melds bends musical genres, confessional poetry, and a never-before-heard vocal style on her debut, Horses.

SEPTEMBER 4, 1987 Sallie Ford is born. She grows up in an artistic household, with siblings who took up tap dancing and musical theater. Sallie tries the violin, but becomes obsessed with the Beatles and Tom Waits. She once reflected,  “I was always overwhelmed by my performing family. I preferred to be the weird one.”

MARCH 17, 1995 Fellow North Carolinians the Squirrel Nut Zippers release The Inevitable, a throwback record with contemporary pizzazz featuring vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Katherine Whalen, a mentor for Ford. “Hers is the first voice I heard that perfectly blended retro and modern in the way that I aspire to.”

JULY 23, 1996 Though her slight frame suggests she struggles to breathe,  Fiona Apple “purges” her soul  with confessional lyrics and a  big, primal vocal style on her debut, Tidal. “The openness of her songwriting was a big influence on me,” Ford shares.

SEPTEMBER 2005 A college-age Ford is impacted by another North Carolina native, Chan Marshall—aka Cat Power—who takes the cerebral, soulfully crazy bar set by Apple up a notch. “My first exposure to her was via the album You Are Free, and I was really intrigued by her style of performing.”

OCTOBER 2006 Seeking a fresh musical start, Ford moves cross-country to Portland. She is soon a busking fixture on Alberta Street, where she meets Ford Tennis, Tyler Tornfelt, and Jeffrey Munger, with whom she goes on to form The Sound Outside.

APRIL 27, 2009 Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside release their EP Not an Animal. Critical reaction and a recommendation by a friend lead to a subsequent adoption by Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers. Opening slots for the band garner them national exposure, and a New Year’s Eve to remember opening for the legendary Mavis Staples.

MAY 24, 2011 Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside release their full-length debut, Dirty Radio. It receives praise from mainstream critics, like USA Today‘s Whitney Matheson, who advises readers “to go to MySpace and put the song “Danger” on repeat.” Add to that a booking at this year’s Bonaroo festival, and it’s safe to say Sallie’s sound will not exist outside the mainstream for long.