Melanie Safka has a brand-new key. But unlike her number one hit by the same name five decades ago, it won’t unlock a pair of roller skates.
It will, however, allow her to enter her new abode in Hendersonville – a place she’s finally calling home after visiting her daughter here for several years.
Known the world over by just her first name, the singer-songwriter first gained popularity in folk music circles after performing during the first night of the Woodstock music festival. Along with Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, the then little-known 22-year-old was just one of three solo female acts to play the now historic three-day event in August of 1969.
The New York native had become a part of the folk music scene playing clubs in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s. By the summer of 1969 she had scored a hit in France called “Bobo’s Party,” and her song “Beautiful People” was getting a lot of play on underground radio in the U.S., she recalls.
“So one percent of the audience at Woodstock had heard of me,” the 73-year-old laughs now.
Melanie was in Europe recording a movie soundtrack when her producer and husband, Peter Schekeryk, learned of a music festival being planned by some of his friends in upstate New York.
The budding songstress had second thoughts about leaving her husband in London when he suggested that she go.
“I had no clue that it was going to be as big as it was,” she says.
She recalls boarding a helicopter to the venue with her mother in tow.
“Who’s this?” asked an organizer. When she identified the woman as her mother, the man said that only artists and managers were allowed to board. So off she flew on her first helicopter ride, leaving her mother behind.
“I was in total terror. I looked below me and thought it was some sort of crop covering the ground. It turned out to be just an insane amount of people,” she said.
She was ushered into a tent and was told to wait.
“All day people would come in and say ‘you’re on next and then they’d leave,” she said. “I never saw anybody.”
At one point a girl with flowers around her head brought her a jar of honey. The girl said that Baez, who was staying in a larger tent nearby, heard her coughing and thought it would help. “That was my Woodstock moment,” she says. “Of course, she had been my idol.”
Melanie ended up playing a 25-minute set at 1 a.m. when another band refused to go onstage in the rain. She received two encores and a place in rock and roll history.
After Woodstock, where fans struck matches during her performance – an act that would be repeated at concerts for decades with lighters and then cell phones – Melanie wrote about the experience in “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” The breakthrough record hit number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a global success.
In 1971, Melanie left her record label to start her own, Neighborhood Records, with Schekeryk. Later that year she released “Brand New Key,” also known as “The Roller Skate Song.” The pop song hit number one in the U.S., Australia and Canada, and was ranked the number nine song of 1972 by Billboard. Melanie was also named Billboard’s top female vocalist for 1972.
Throughout the years, Melanie continued to write, record and tour with Schekeryk. The two also raised three children together.
Music city beckons
The couple quietly moved to the Nashville area 15 years ago by purchasing a condo on Old Hickory Lake with the intention of buying a house in Nashville.
“Peter decided Nashville is the new music city,” she said. “For so many years if you wanted to go where the music was, you needed to go to L. A or New York. I didn’t want to live in either of those places anymore.”
Los Angeles, in particular.
“I hate L. A. I despise it,” she said. “There is an incredible insincerity that glosses over everything.”
Melanie had been to Nashville a few times over the years, most memorably appearing twice on “The Johnny Cash Show” that taped at the Ryman Auditorium from 1969-1971.
Her 1969 performance with Cash of the song, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” has had thousands of views on YouTube.
“Johnny Cash was an absolute highlight,” she says. “I instantly loved him. He was just such a renegade.”
The condo was supposed to be temporary until Melanie and her husband found a house. However, Schekeryk died suddenly in 2010 while the two were shopping together in Framington, Mass.
“We were together for 45 years. He was my partner, my friend, someone I would run songs by,” she said.
Devastated, the only thing Melanie knew to do was to move forward.
“I just kept breathing and creating,” she said.
Recently nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by Folk Alliance International, she continues to write and connect with her music in the ways that she can during a global pandemic.
“I feel like I’m needed and should be touring,” she said. “It’s an energy. It’s communication. I miss that.”
In the meantime, she’s holding a livestream concert through Facebook (she has more than 45,000 followers) on Jan. 30 where she’ll play some of her classic songs as well as some new material for an upcoming album.
While spending more time at home, she says she began to feel hemmed in and needed more space and a yard to call her own.
A home in Sumner County
“We realized we don’t like shared walls,” she said. She and her son started looking for a house in Hendersonville where her daughter has lived for the last 10 years.
As she takes a break from settling in, she jokes about this stage in her life.
“I’m at an age when most people are downsizing,” she laughs. “And here I am upsizing.”
So, is Hendersonville “hip” enough for this preeminent “hippie?”
She laughs again.
“When you’re in your own universe and music, you seem to fit in anywhere, and you learn that people are people,” she says. “There’s kind of a vibe on the peninsula. I just really like it.”
One of her neighbors even brought her an apple pie.
“It was like moving to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” she said.
Another neighbor brought her cookies before politely asking what she does with her time.
Again, she finds humor in her response.
“Oh, I told her I sing a bit,” she replies with a smile.