Song of the mountain lark: Cassidy Joy rises with a stirring soundtrack of determination 

Cassidy Joy performs at the Women Making Music Singer-songwriter Showcase in Grass Valley on Aug. 17. (Photograph by Charlotte Peterson)

By Scott Thomas Anderson

Garden lights are drifting on a pale dream of the evening, their orbs crossing in lines to glow like mountain honey against a shaggy wall of fir and alder trees: A crowd waits at picnic tables under their luminous reach. For a moment there’s silence. Stepping by Victorian-era lamps that gleam below the curtain of long vines, singer Cassidy Joy lifts a blond acoustic guitar and gradually brings it over her shoulder. 

Before her fingers get to its strings, she notices shades of twilight radiating across all these music-lovers with their eyes fixed on her. For a girl who grew up playing barefoot in the Sierra forests, and imagining the far-off Highlands of those Celtic healers she descends from, this rustic venue at sunset — with its outer-worldly loom — couldn’t be more suited to her creative instincts.  

Everyone at Grass Valley’s Women Making Music Singer-songwriter Showcase listens for her first notes. 

Joy’s right hand starts a little dance of strumming, slowly bringing silver chords into the air — a gentle, drawn-out ring that melts into the sun’s last rays bending through pine branches. Her voice — which is strong and soft at once — intones the words, “Pretty lady in the picture frame, silk white dress, wreath of baby’s breath.” 

After years of playing in bands, this song “Picture Frame” is one of the few original compositions that Joy has put out as a solo artist. Up to this point, the 35-year-old has been known from Nevada City to Pleasanton as a vocalist who can throw an eye-opening amount of soul into the hits of Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. But with the debut of “Picture Frame,” audiences are seeing another side of Joy, one which she’s mainly kept hidden. 

That all changes tonight. 

Everyone sitting in the courtyard of Wild Eye Pub seems hooked by the mesmerizing serenity of “Picture Frame.” The song has surprises. too: When Joy gets to the B-verse, its chord-progression makes an introspective, ethereal lift that’s totally unexpected, just as her voice builds to the reflection, “And if I didn’t know better, I’d say you had it all together / And If I couldn’t see through you, I’d almost swear that I knew you.” She draws that last utterance out before her chorus comes. Joy’s lyrics get more imagistic from there: “Baby boy drank his way through school, little girl moving far away / Husband’s sippin’ rye in an airport in Duluth, cause she couldn’t make him stay.” 

All afternoon, Joy was experiencing a kind of tunnel vision around unveiling her original songs with the right presentation tonight. Then, as she was grabbing her guitar — despite having performed on stages since she was 9 — Joy was hit by a wave of genuine nerves. 

“It was primarily because that was a very new format for me,” she says after the show. “It’s baring your own soul. It’s the first time I’ve put myself in such a vulnerable position. So, it’s something I was just trying to stay calm about all day, but when I got up and plugged that guitar in, that’s when my heart started beating out of my chest.”

Joy wrote “Picture Frame” about the facades some people work so hard to maintain. It’s a meditation on how life is often messier behind the scenes than anyone guesses, and she knows it’s relatable. After all, most people in the audience tonight won’t have a clue how hard it is for someone like Joy, a young, single mother of three, ages 3, 12 and 14, to make evenings like this a reality. Getting a music career off the ground in the Sacramento region necessitates major time and money commitments up front for most artists. 

And reimbursement is tough: A recent survey by the City of Sacramento found that its live music ecosystem is “out of balance,” causing performers who are extremely committed to the area to struggle for venue and payment opportunities. Joy is no stranger to the struggle. She’d just put some of her finances into the production of “Picture Frame” and, no sooner was the track mastered, then her car broke down. It took $500 to get it going again. Then some pipes in her house started having problems. 

Joy wondered if the universe had dished out punishment for investing in herself.   

“It is really hard being both an artist and a single parent, because you feel in your soul the call to devote your time and energy to your craft,” she observes. “But the frustrating thing is you can’t just spend all day writing songs, or recording in the studio, or practicing with bandmates — or even just listening to music. Parents are restricted in time, and budgets, and resources and the ability to tour.”

She adds, “So, for someone like me, you have to take risks and just believe that it’s going to be worth it.” 

‘As she tucks away her heartache and puts her face on for the crowd’ — from Jackie 

Cassidy Joy grew up between Grass Valley and Nevada City and has become one of the area’s best-known performers in recent years. (Photograph by Tony Finnerty)

The cafe’s bricks bear smoky stains like oxblood from the passing of 600 seasons in the hills. The place has had many lives since getting built on Nevada City’s Main Street in 1856: It’s been a saloon, a bank club, a council chamber. These days it’s known as Communal Cafe, a third-wave indie coffeehouse for the region’s bountiful collection of artists. Alasdair Fraser, a world-renowned Scottish fiddler, sometimes hangs out here. The eclectic DJs from KVMR FM, a community radio station around the corner, also come in for their morning espresso. Today, the creative luminary sauntering through is J.B. Eckl, a guitarist and songwriter known for touring with the likes of War and Santana. 

Before Eckl gets too settled in, the cafe door creaks open, and he sees what everyone glancing up from their laptops sees — that Cassidy Joy knows how to rock a hat. The singer sweeps in toward the espresso bar, looking stylish in her beaded, wide-brimmed sun hat, then immediately stops to chat with Eckl before grabbing some Kombucha. Joy considers herself friends with most of the veteran artists who have made Nevada County their home. She admires their talent. She values their advice. When it comes to the musicians, she’s always down for a duet.

But, as a young mother, Joy also faces challenging moments her more mature compatriots might not notice. She’s the primary captain at the helm of her children’s lives. That means navigating co-parenting issues while trying to set up shows, rehearsals and recording sessions. It also means facing a lot of judgment and assumptions from certain people about how well she’s even doing that. Joy remembers performing down the street at the Crazy Horse Saloon and Grill, and after finishing her set, overhearing an older woman in the crowd remark that Joy should have been at home taking care of her kids rather than “singing in a bar.”   

“I’m sure millions of other single parents will tell you the same thing — it comes along with a lot of guilt trips or judgment or shaming,” Joy says of building a career. “It’s just openly shaming. And it’s also hard not to have your own guilt infused into that.”

What the scolder in the audience that day didn’t know is that Joy’s moments away from her children are actually few and far between. To appear at a gig takes a lot of planning; and even songwriting itself usually revolves around the kids’ sleep schedule. Joy remembers penning one of her original pieces, “Jackie,” that way. She had gotten up at 6 a.m. while the little ones were still lost in dreams, then slipped onto her porch with her guitar. She started strumming a few chords in the morning air, until the rhythm gradually found its pulse. At the time, Joy was contemplating a biography she had read called “These Few Precious Days” about the last year of John F. Kennedy’s marriage to his wife, Jaqueline. For Joy, Jackie Kennedy is an icon of perseverance, one who put her children’s wellbeing and broader duties ahead of her own happiness, all while defining “feminine power” through strength, class and a certain fearlessness. The melody that Joy found inside herself through this rare American muse has a sweetly searing feel to it. The sparkling guitarwork that she conjured to carry its verses keeps pushing with a steady resolve. When Joy finally recorded the song, the depths of her voice managed to pull hope through the timbre of its heartbreak. 

One person who’s been struck by the ardor of Joy’s songwriting is Diane McIntire, a broadcaster who hosts “The Women’s Show” on KVMR. McIntire was in charge of organizing the Women Songwriters’ Showcase that Joy just performed at. Tickets for the sold-out event went directly to raising funds for KVMR’s programming, meaning that its four featured artists played for tips and to raise their profiles. McIntire thought that Joy was a perfect fit for the occasion. 

“I love her heartfelt and vulnerable lyrics — she writes music from the heart,” notes McIntire. “She’s also an incredible performer. She really is out there as much as she possibly can be. I’ve been playing what music I can find of hers on the station.”

The broadcaster acknowledges that Joy was the youngest artist that she put on the bill that night, bringing a creative contrast to the trio journeywoman songwriters who’ve been developing their craft for years. McIntire thought that the evening’s experience would have a broader dimension if it included someone still developing their voice.

“To me, Cassidy is refreshing; and one of the things that KVMR really talks about is the future direction of the station and the area’s music, and Cassidy is a big part of that,” McIntire observes. “It’s very important that we have that younger thinking to keep the community vibrant. Cassidy has always been such a willing person to give of herself to this community, whether it’s a fundraiser or whatever. I don’t think that’s just self-promotion. I think that’s who she is.”   

‘I would cross a burning bridge to hold you closer, don’t make wait till I’m wiser and I’m older’ — from To Hold You Closer 

Long fascinated by her Scottish roots, Cassidy Joy was a performer at this year’s Celtic Fair in Nevada County. (Photograph by Kim Sayre) 

A great owl sits perched on a stool, aiming his amber eyes at the revelers strolling by with elf ears, pixie wings or flowing druid ensembles. There’s a serpent shape of light forming between the treetops and clouds that roll dramatically over the gathering dusk. Just down the way, Cassidy Joy is clad in a long black dress with a tartan skirt as she sings “Mary and the Soldier.” It’s a song that has rang through Scottish pubs for decades, so there is no mystery why Joy is closing her final set at Nevada County’s Celtic fair with it. As an accompanying guitarist picks at the tune’s folksy, hopping sound of spring, Joy sways a little at the microphone, carefully flexing the full, silky dynamism of her voice. 

Chaos from the pandemic stopped Joy from playing this event the last few years. So, tonight represents a moment that she’s eagerly been waiting for. That is partly because she has been exploring Scottish heritage for nearly seven years. But the event has another perk: It’s showcasing Joy’s talent to new listeners from as far afield as Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Given that she’s working on releasing her first solo EP, she’d like to make plans for some kind of tour across the state or beyond. But Joy is also aware that managing that will be extremely difficult. 

“I have friends who are my age, who are also in the Northern California music business, who are wonderful female singer-songwriters, or musicians, who don’t have children, and they’re out there touring up and down and they’re absolutely killing it,” she remarks. “I love seeing them do that all across the country, but what it also makes me think about is that these people who are finding success in chasing their dreams don’t have the same ties that single parents have.”

She adds, “If I didn’t have certain responsibilities, I’d just be diving in head-first, touring all over the country and spending all my money on making albums. It’s really hard.”

So, spreading the word about the upcoming EP could ultimately take a different strategy. Other local songwriters, particularly ones who are mothers with young kids, such as country-swing sensation Mae McCoy or blues empress Katie Knipp, have sought to counter-balance limitations on touring by making time for interviews with podcasters, Youtubers, internet radio hosts and smaller terrestrial radio hosts. These indie media personalities are spread all over the country and United Kingdom. Typically, they’re diehard lovers of a certain genre of music and have rabid listeners who share that passion. Joy says that she’s paying attention to what others are doing in the space and learning the best ways to move ahead. She knows it’s ultimately about finding the right people to share her songs like “Picture Frame,” “Jackie” or the smooth-rolling fire of “To Hold You Closer.” 

One person who’s rooting for Joy is Phil Missimore, the guitarist who backed her up at the women songwriters’ showcase. A former professional musician who remains active in Nevada County’s performance scene, Missimore has been collaborating with Joy at different gigs, on and off, since 2016. 

“She’s a very interesting songwriter,” Missimore remarks. “What she writes feels real. The emotion comes through really strongly, and in an authentic way. She’s got a knack for lyrics, too. You can visualize the characters coming to light — and that’s a gift.”

Having played alongside Joy more than anyone, Missimore also knows the obstacles she keeps rising above when it comes to being a single parent chasing the dream. 

“She’s flying solo, there’s no doubt about it,” he acknowledges. “It does bleed over, because there’s so much that she has to keep in focus. Right now, she’s just carrying it all on her shoulders.” 

The guitarist adds, “The important thing is that she keeps writing.” 

At the moment, Joy says she plans to do just that. And she feels it’s not just the ambition: It’s also about being a holistic and happy parent for her children. 

“I’ve found over the years — and I would advise this to any independent artist or entrepreneur who’s a single parent — you have to still be your own soul, even as a parent,” she says. “You do have to keep some part of your identity that doesn’t revolve around being mom or dad. Otherwise, the resentment is really going to build — the bitterness, the hardness, they can really build. And the kids don’t deserve that. And I believe that if someone was given a talent, or a gift, or a way to capture peoples’ attention, no matter the art form, they were given that for a reason. They should share it.”   

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

Having released two digital singles, Cassidy Joy is working towards her first EP as a solo performer. (Photograph by Kim Sayre) 

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