As a youth, Juliana MacDowell sang alone in the dark, dreaming there was an audience on the other side of her bedroom window and hoping that her family members wouldn’t hear her and make fun.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, she’ll be taking the stage at the Barns of Rose Hill backed by a top-notch band of players and unveiling some of her newest songs, just recorded in a storied Nashville studio for her third album.
This is just the latest milestone for the singer-songwriter who has made Loudoun County her home for the past three decades.
It is that community that nudged and nurtured her musical journey.
She was first pulled on stage after Joey Bauer caught her humming along to his songs while he was performing at the newly opened MacDowell Brew Kitchen in downtown Leesburg. “He said you sing, and I was like no, really, I think your mistaken.”
Soon she was a regular on the county’s bourgeoning winery circuit, performing with Bauer in the band Joey and the Waitress.
“I got started by accident,” she recalled.
After a few years, fans, venue owners and even fellow band members were encouraging her to stretch out on her own. Her first CD, 2015’s “Take Me Away,” was recorded in DC with Marco Delmar.
While building a strong fan following in Loudoun, MacDowell also became a familiar voice in the Key West music scene, where her community connections led to hear second CD, “Leaving Home,” created with British producer Ian Shaw, who records from his houseboat docked on the edge of Old Town.
That recording was unveiled in April during a dual CD release concert with Bill Blue, a Virginia native who is an elder statesmen of Key West’s music scene. That got her noticed, too.
Her introduction to Nashville came from another community connection.
Two years ago, Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel, the developer behind Lansdowne on the Potomac, Crescent Place and Crescent Park, heard MacDowell sing.
“The first time I met Hobie, he said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re a singer. I’ve got this friend in Nashville.’”
Mitchel sent some of MacDowell’s recordings to his friend Bill Vorndick—the producer behind works by Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Ralph Stanley and many others. Vorndick called MacDowell the next day, asking her to set up a show so he could hear her sing live.
“He came in Labor Day weekend and said, ‘yes, let’s make an album.’ That was two years ago,” MacDowell said. At that time, she was still finishing up her second album in Key West and needed to start writing another batch of songs. “I had to be ready. Nashville is a whole other level.”
Last fall, she was in Ocean Way studio on Nashville’s music row laying down tracks. Working with top session veterans, they knocked out six songs in seven hours.
“You’re looking at the platinum albums on the wall. Your heroes have been sitting in the same seat that you’re sitting in, the same vocal booth, and you’re singing into the same microphone,” she said.
Her other recordings featured accomplished musicians, including bassist Freebo, British guitarist Matt Backer and drummer Jason Hann of the String Cheese Incident, but many of those contributions were made remotely and assembled by the engineer. Nashville offered a decidedly different experience, with all the musicians in the studio together. “You’re making magic all at the same time,” she said. “It’s kind of a magical experience that doesn’t happen when your piecemealing it.”
She’ll be heading back to Nashville in a few weeks to complete the final vocals and record some new songs.
Most of the new songs are pieces she’s written, but she’ll be tapping into Music City’s songwriting talents as well. “Bill’s idea is that it’s all about the song—it doesn’t matter who wrote it as long as you connect with the song,” she said.
During the Rose Hill show, MacDowell expects to play four of the new songs.
A Higher Calling
“I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid for myself,” MacDowell said. “Nobody ever heard me because I was so shy.”
“I dreamed about it. I used to sing in the dark at night. I would sing after my siblings went to bed so they wouldn’t make fun of me,” MacDowell said. “I used to dream that somewhere out of that darkened window there was an audience—that someone was listening.”
“Clearly, I always wanted to be on the stage, but I just didn’t have the courage,” she said, recalling the often-debilitating anxiety that left her homebound.
Today, her stage keeps getting bigger.
“I would never have done it if I hadn’t met Joey,” MacDowell said. “The band pulled me kicking and screaming the whole way.”
She doesn’t have expectations of stardom, but believes her music can make a difference for others. She and her band are among those in Loudoun most likely to say yes when asked to play a charity fundraiser or support a community cause.
“I’m just going to be really lucky to play gigs for things that are important to this community or to my community in Key West,” she said. “When you’re playing music at my stage in life, you’ve got to know there is a higher calling.”
“I had terrible, debilitating anxiety as a younger person most of my life that prevented me from doing a lot of things that normal people did,” MacDowell said. “So, for me now I have to think that doing music is in some way to help other people somehow, even if it is indirectly.”
While MacDowell attributes her musical journey to
“a combination of luck, hard work, diligence and staying at it,” she also acknowledges the growth of Loudoun’s music scene.
“This community of musicians is very special,” MacDowell said.
“They all support and help each other. There is a neat network of musicians in Loudoun that if downtown Leesburg wasn’t growing the way it has been, we just wouldn’t be seeing them.”
That didn’t exist when she first visited the town in 1989. Then, there was only a small handful of venues offering stages for live music; the county’s largest music venue, the Tally Ho Theater, was still a movie house and the Franklin Park Arts Center was still a dream of art advocates.
“The wineries have opened up a whole new world for most of us,” she said. And the music scene has grown beyond those tiny stages to breweries, coffee houses and restaurants. “It’s the right time to be a musician in Loudoun County. That’s been the launchpad for the other stuff. There are so many opportunities here—a huge network of musicians and fans and venue owners.”
Around the Next Corner
MacDowell’s Nashville has been impactful.
“When somebody who has worked with those kind of people says, ‘Hey, I want to work with you,’ it doesn’t make you think you’re going to go off an be a mega star, especially at my stage in life but it is a real honor. It’s a real honor, if that makes any sense,” she said. “All you have to do is just try and keep your mind open to it. That’s why it is exciting you never know what is coming around the corner next.”
She talks of listening to the first playback of the first song they recorded at Ocean Way.
“I had this thing just wash over me—you know how they say when you die our life flashes before your eyes—I had this moment when my entire life just washed over me,” she recalled. “I kinda welled up and said thank you, thank you God. Thank you everybody who has been helping me out to get here.”
Barns of Rose Hill, Berryville
Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.
$15 in advance/$20 at the door
12 and under free