One of Arkansas’ newest female voices to command the attention of music fans is also one of the state’s most dynamic, unique, and stunning female voices we’ve heard in years.
Opal Agafia, a native of the Russellville/Dover area, has been singing in public for a mere two years. But she sounds as though she’s trained her entire 24 years for her new role as a gifted and powerful singer, prolific songwriter and capable bandleader.
Agafia, who grew up singing with her mom and calls herself a “lifelong serious shower singer,” is humble. She knows she is an infant in the music industry, relatively speaking. But her performances and the 50 originals she’s already written or co-written would convince even the most experienced music fan that she’s been preparing for a music career for a long, long time.
Agafia writes songs that are spunky, honest, and moving. The upbeat tracks make you wanna get up and move, celebrate your strength, or figure out how to find said strength; the slower-tempo tunes are likely to make the listener wanna love harder, live better, or laugh louder.
Her voice oozes soul – she has a helluva lot of it, particularly for a white girl from the Arkansas backwoods. She also has a lot of country twang. While these attributes seem like they might not jive, Agafia combines them and many other unique qualities to create a stew of outstanding musicianship and showmanship that doesn’t simply “work” – it works wonderfully.
Her voice and her songs have lots of soul and twang, but they also bring to mind great jazz singers, favorite old gospel tunes, classic country (think Patsy Cline with some sass and joy), and bluegrass a la Patty Loveless.
Agafia rarely, if ever, fails to thoroughly nail every note; her enunciation is outstanding; and her lyrics are the kind that not only make sense to the average listener, they’re relatable and employ the kind of word play that allows for multiple meanings, depending on the listener’s own situation and interpretation.
Her musical influences vary greatly, thanks in large part to her mom, DeAnna Smith, who is a professional historian and lifelong creative writer. Smith inherited an ear for music, and she routinely sang with Agafia and her younger brother on a daily basis – in the car, around the house, and especially at bedtime.
The songs ranged from James Taylor and Lyle Lovett ballads to Tina Turner power numbers, as well as hits by Elton John, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and John Prine. They all remain favorites for Agafia, who says she is “still discovering and learning new music every day,” and she names Gillian Welch as a new favorite; Agafia was one of several regional female vocalists invited to participate in a Gillian Welch tribute concert during last weekend’s Fayetteville Roots Festival.
Smith now co-writes many of Agafia’s songs; it usually begins with Smith penning some lyrics, and then her daughter putting it to music, aided by a smaller-size acoustic Martin that Smith bought for the short-statured Agafai in 2014. She immediately asked some musician friends to show her some chords, and she was off the races, teaching herself by ear the basics of guitar.
But neither she nor her mother had ever really written a whole song until about four years ago. Agafia says she dabbled in songwriting since around the age of 18. As she approached the end of her four years in college, she began attending non-mainstream music shows and festivals.
The music that is popular on the radio had never appealed to her, she explains. “I knew my songs were too deep for mainstream pop radio; I don’t fit into pop culture – I’m an old soul.”
Her songs are frequently, indeed, deep. Agafia and her mom have been through plenty of difficult times, including a traumatic, abusive relationship that Smith ended not long after Agafia graduated college. That horrific experience – and its harmful effects on her entire family, as well as the healing and recovery Smith has enjoyed since then – is reflected in several of Agafia’s finished songs, and in a number of the unfinished ones, too.
One such song Agafia is currently working on recording; it’s called “Handprint,” and it leaves an impact, especially if the listener has ever experienced any kind of abusive relationship.
Maybe there’s a heaven but I’m still in hell.
My daddy don’t know you and that’s just as well.
You reap what you sow though, that much is true;
What goes around comes around, but not just to you…
But don’t be deceived by the hint of tragedy in this mom-and-daughter duo’s story-songs: Neither is a pushover. Both are tough, strong, and, frankly, bad-ass. Smith raised her kids to be strong, independent, and confident; Agafia “came out that way” the day she was born, her mom said, laughing. One of Agafia’s hobbies that many don’t know about is karate and traditional martial arts; she’s trained in that arena regularly since age 6, and she has taught classes in karate for kids and teens.
Agafia is not just an “old soul”; she’s extremely smart and wise for her young age. Part of that comes from having lived through major challenges with a mom who communicated with her openly and never tried to hide the truth from her. Part of it comes from being one who seeks knowledge constantly and enjoys learning; eager to begin working on her college degree at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Agafia began taking college courses while she was still in high school in nearby Dover.
By way of explanation, Agafia says: “I feel old sometimes, like I’m running out of time. I’ve always felt like that, ever since I was a kid. I’m learning how to deal with that. And learning how to relax more.”
The early stages of learning to relax in adulthood included going to see more non-mainstream live music. And, as fate would have it, her first festival experience at 2013’s Yonder Mountain String Bands Harvest Festival at Mulberry Mountain instigated a new dream and a new drive in Agafia, who at the time was within shouting distance of finishing her business degree.
“At Harvest Festival, I saw you didn’t have to be a pop star to have an audience and a career in music; songwriting is still very much alive – just not on mainstream radio,” she said matter-of-factly. “So I started diving into and going to these festivals, and I was like ‘Wow! I really do have a place here!’”
Agafia recounts knowing from a young age that music was a big part of her heart. “My mom would save up money to take us kids to the Grand Ole Opry in summertime,” she recalls. “I always knew there was something there for me – I would get goose bumps the whole time; it hit me a little differently than it than it did other kids, I think.”
Agafia recalls that the only vocal instruction or advice she ever had was from her elementary school choir teacher, Gloria Hardgrave. Hardgrave “let me do my own sound,” Agafia said. “She didn’t discourage me from having my own accents on things; instead, she taught me the basics like everyone else, but she let me run with it, encouraged me to keep developing my own sound.”
In 2015 – the same year she played her first show with a full band, at Creekfest in Dover, and the same year she graduated college with a business/marketing degree and moved to Eureka Springs to pursue a full-time music career – she attended her brother’s graduation in her hometown, and after an impressive choir performance, she went to say hello to her former teacher. Agafia wondered allowed if she should have stuck with the choir program through her own schooling.
“She told me, ‘Opal, if you would have stuck with choir, you would not have ended up sounding like Opal, you would have learned to sound a different way – just like everyone else,” Agafia explained.
Her unique, empowering sound coupled with her songwriting partnership with her mom make for oustanding results. Smith has helped Agafia develop her own writing skills, she adds.
“When I was in school, all my writing teachers loved me, but I was all over the place; my stories wouldn’t be exactly how they wanted them,” Agafia says. “Songwriting with my mom has taught me to say a lot with very little – which is what I used to struggle with. It’s not easy, but it can be so powerful, if you can do it.
“You can reveal multiple meanings with just a few sentences. It’s a lot fewer words than writing a book but it’s also trickier; you’re limited in how much you can say when you write a good song that is open enough in language to have multiple meanings. The trick is to say a lot with very little but still be very descriptive and powerful.”
It’s a “trick” that Agafia and Smith at which already are masterful – whether it’s a heavy song based on past struggles one or the other has faced, or a fun, upbeat song about the attraction between a man and a woman. For example, consider her newest release, a single called “Dem Bones,” recorded live at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville:
He says baby what you crying about when you walk by I want ot scream and shout
I like the way you let your hair down
And you movin’ around
I like it when you sing off-key
Turn your head and your’e smiling at me
I like it when you get real mad
By then I want you so bad
Hey I ain’t ashamed of it
I like to laugh when you’re having a fit
But what I like the most is the way you shake dem bones…
And a song about a more serious topic, called “Oh Promised Land,” which, despite the Biblical insinuations, is really about the serious racial divides and political issues currently facing the United States.
We can build a house, a fort, or a wall
Build a bridge or build them all
But we can’t keep our neighbors out
‘Cause that ain’t what heaven is all about …
The promised land is the eyes of love
Ain’t real estate that it’s made of
It ain’t a land, and it ain’t a place
It’s where you live in a state of grace…
(The above song is scheduled to be on her new album, which she recently began recording. The new record, which will be her sophomore album, will feature a full band including new drummer Derek Russell, Ron Landis on mandolin and lap steel, Michael Hopper on lead guitar, Michael Schembre on fiddle and vocals, and Dave Gesualdo on bass. The as-yet-untitled album doesn’t yet have a set release date, she said.)
Agafia says she hopes that her songs mean different things to different people.
“I like for everybody to paint their own meaning into my songs, make it their own story,” she explains. “It matters to them by what it means to them. That’s what good writing is: It’s not about being the best thing in the world, it’s about bringing people together through words they can all relate to in their own ways. It’s about something bigger than me.
“That’s my goal: to create a movement that’s bigger than myself. My role in this world is to empower others through not just my vocal voice but my voice of storytelling and being a real person, someone they can identify with,” Agafia continues. “Even when it feels like everybody is against you, I want people to know they can rise above.”
She aims to use music to make them believers of that, and by all accounts she’s already making an impact. She attributes her exploding popularity in the Mid-South and her recent successful tour in Colorado to the power of music.
“It’s a powerful thing; music doesn’t expect anything out of you – it’s there for you to relate to and draw strength from,” Agafia theorizes. “Good music – real songs – there’s something about a good song that really speaks to the heart and isn’t just a cliché. A song that is authentic is just priceless. I think that’s what is missing in mainstream music, songs that are raw and original and not cliché – a real experience.
“We don’t all have money,” she added, referring to what is likely the most popular topic for mainstream radio songs over the last decade. “That is really relatable to not the majority of listeners; there is some serious shit going on in the world. Storytelling and songwriting has gone out the window lately, especially the last 10 years. I wanna bring it back.”
She already is, and with the kind of drive, determination, purpose, and talent she possesses, there’s little doubt that she will continue to grow her fan base, her already-rich song repertoire, and her impact on listeners.