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News and Observer (US)
Raleigh, NC, newspaper
Sunday, August 11, 1996

The Tori Story

The town of Newton could claim Tori Amos.
If anybody there had heard of her.

Tori Amos was born in Newton and writes songs about God, religion and spiritual matters. All the same, it's a lead-pipe cinch you'll never hear her on WPAR, Newton's Christian radio station -- unless she were to be cited as an example of blasphemy. "There is not ONE good THING in this CARnal FLESH, NO ONE in this ROOM is GOOD, only GOD is GOOD..." That's the sort of thing you hear on WPAR, which plays traditional gospel and taped broadcasts of sermons from local churches. It's also the sort of thing Amos has said she heard a lot of growing up as the daughter of a Methodist minister, and later rebelled against with her music.

Playing piano and singing in a highly emotive shudder, Amos pushes a lot of the same hot buttons as Madonna or Prince in merging the sexual and the sacred. While her work has earned her a devoted following (her three solo albums have sold millions of copies), it's also sure to offend most conservative evangelicals. There's the song about the girl masturbating in her room while the rest of her family sings hymns downstairs, or the song that posits God as a cranky old malcontent in need of someone to look after him. Or the picture on her latest album in which Amos holds a piglet to her bare chest, as if to breast-feed it.

All of which seems literally foreign to Newton -- a quiet and conservative Catawba County town of about 10,000 that has more churches than restaurants, and where the biggest exports are textiles, furniture and patriotism.

Figuratively, however, those are exactly the sort of thoughts, ideas and fantasies of someone who would want to leave.

Amos gets called "a preacher's kid from north Carolina," probably because that sounds more dramatic or oppressive than calling her "a preacher's kid from the Baltimore/D.C. area." She never actually lived here and it was almost an accident that she was born in Newton, a mill town best known as the hometown of actor Denzel Washington's wife (Pauletta Pearson, a former Miss north Carolina first runner-up) and the car-racing family of Jarretts (Dale, Ned and Glenn).

Amos' mother, Mary Ellen, grew up in Newton, the daughter of Calvin Clinton "C.C." Copeland, who worked in a hosiery mill, and her homemaker mother, Bertie. Mary Ellen went away to Brevard College, where she met Edison Amos, a native of rural Virginia who was studying to be a Methodist minister. The couple married and moved to Washington, where Edison preached. They also started a family and had a son and a daughter when Mary Ellen became pregnant with their third child.

While she was pregnant in the summer of 1963, Mary Ellen fell ill on a visit home to Newton and the doctor forbade any travel until after the baby was born. Myra Ellen Amos was born at the old Catawba Hospital on Aug. 22, 1963 (she changed her name to Tori in late adolescence).

Mother and daughter returned to Washington not long after that. But young Ellen came back to Newton frequently during her formative years to visit her grandparents, Poppa and Nannie. They were part Cherokee, and Poppa's stories and singing were a profound influence.

"Tori really was the apple of my grandfather's eye," says her older brother, Mike Amos, who lives in Southern Pines. "She was his last grandchild and came along after he had retired, so he spent a lot of time with her. i think she does get some of her musical ability from him."

It definitely came from somewhere, because Ellen Amos was a child prodigy who could play piano at age 2 1/2. She entered Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory at the ripe old age of 5. But she wanted to play her own music rather than the standard classical repertoire and left at age 11.

Amos spent a few years playing in piano lounges and gay bars around Washington before heading for California and a stint leading an awful pop-metal band that released one forgettable album, 1988's "Y Kant Tori Read." After that album's humiliating failure, she returned to solo piano and hit it big five years ago with such confrontational ballads as "Me and a Gun," a first-person account of being raped, and "Silent All These Years."

"She was always real musically inclined," remembers Tori's cousin, Edwin A. Copeland Jr., who still lives in Newton. "She'd hear a song one time and play it on the piano. Every year she came down, you could see how much she'd progressed. She could really play, I'll tell you that, and we all knew that was what she wanted to do."

Amos stopped coming to Newton after her grandparents died, Calvin Copeland in 1973 and Bertie Copeland in 1980. The house they lived in near First United Methodist Church, where the family worshipped, was torn down a few years ago to make way for a parking lot. About the only sign left of them is their grave marker in Eastview Cemetery. They would both be pushing 100 if they were still alive, and not many locals remember them. But the ones who do speak well of them.

"As I remember they were all short," says Sylvia Ray, a former editor and columnist at the Newton Observer News Enterprise, which her family owned for 105 years. "They were very quiet, serious, well-respected people. Kept to themselves. They weren't the type to join civic clubs. It's an overused word, but they had class. They emphasized education and had very conservative habits and lifestyle."

Given that, it's difficult to imagine what Amos' grandparents would make of some of her songs, like "Father Lucifer."

"If they were alive today, her grandparents would probably be shocked at some of her antics," says Mike Sherrill, a distant cousin of Tori's who lives in Newton. "They were just plain ol' country folks, real old timers. I don't know where she got some of her ideas. Those must've come along much later in her life."

If few of Newton's denizens remember Calvin and Bertie Copeland, even fewer are aware of the Copeland's famous granddaughter, who sells out concert halls all over the world. But if Amos was a country singer, she'd probably be the toast of the town.

The jukebox at the Newton Grill is stacked with mostly country music, Garth Brookes and Alabama and Alan Jackson. Ask a young teenager, 14-year-old Andy Woodring, who's climbing a tree in the courthouse square downtown, what music he likes and he answers George Strait.

Country also suits the tastes of the adults having lunch at Callahan's, a cafe with a decor best described as '50s Americana: red-and-white checkerboard patterns on the floor and tablecloths, an American flag and portraits of Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe on the walls.

"If it ain't Reba McEntire, we don't know her," says Charles Wishon, 39, over a plate of barbecue. "You say this woman is from Newton? Never heard of her. Bless her, she'd better get out there and advertise."

Flash a few pictures and it's easy to get a reaction. At the H & W drugstore, waitress Annie Harris has country music playing on the radio behind the soda fountain counter.

"Never heard of her," Harris says, thumbing through the compact disc booklet of Amos' latest album, "Boys for Pele." When she comes to the picture of Amos with the piglet, she cringes. "Lord have mercy, I don't like that weird stuff."

In fact, a day spent asking around town yields only one person who has ever heard of Amos: Heath Sides, 24, a Hickory man who is one of a dozen inmates from Catawba Correctional Center edging sidewalks for 70 cents a day.

"I like the way her rhythm is, and I like the alternative music," says Sides, who is serving a DWI sentence. "She's got some good songs, I think."

Behind Sides, some of his fellow inmates look through the "Boys for Pele" CD booklet. Jaws drop at the sight of the piglet picture. "Looka that," one declares. "She's crazy!"

Amos tends to evoke extreme reactions, positive and negative. At one end she inspires almost cultlike devotion in her fans and sells millions of records despite minimal airplay: "Boys for Pele" reached No. 2 on the Billboard album sales chart this year. Despite her absence on the airwaves, she has a huge presence online. There are more than 70 independently maintained internet web sites dedicated to Amos and her music, some of them frighteningly elaborate (see "A Dent in the Tori Amos Universe" at

At the other end, a lot of people have no idea what to make of her. Between her willingness to say just about anything, her habit of thanking "the faeries" on each album, and some of her ideas on reincarnation (she claims that she and her manager, Arthur Spivak, were married in a previous life 10,000 years ago), Amos has a peculiar image. The British magazine New Music Express dubbed her a "Grade A, Class One, Turbo-Driven Fruitcake."

"Well, if you want her to be flaky, she'll be flaky," says brother Mike. "But a lot of it is typecasting. Tori does have flights of ideas, she thinks really fast and can cover a lot of subjects. Our parents gave us all a good education, and we're well read about a lot of things. Tori does believe in fairies and reincarnation. She's pretty well-versed in all that."

One might expect Tori's 67-year-old father to have mixed feelings about her work, given some of her pointed songs and the even more pointed things she says in interviews about her upbringing. "When I was a kid," she told Spin magazine in 1994, "it was will of iron, no sense of humor, no Richard Pryor videos."

Instead, Edison Amos is surprisingly sanguine and every bit the proud father. Now a retired Methodist minister, he has been to about 20 of his daughter's concerts. He speaks with pride about her accomplishments -- and even their differences of opinion on theological matters.

"Tori's opinions on religion don't necessarily jibe with mine," he allows, speaking on the phone from his home in Florida. "I would hope some wouldn't. We're each on our own faith journey, and I'm 34 years older than Tori. We both have our own belief system. One thing we have really encouraged is we can love each other without having to agree on a closed-type thought system, philosophy, science or religion. I think she's trying to get people to think about who they are, especially institutions and their treatment of women. She feels that the male hierarchy has always been in power and is trying to balance the record so that women will have equal opportunities in all phases of life. She also thinks that religious systems have been pro-male, which is a historical fact. We're very proud of her," Edison concludes. "I never get tired of listening to her; nor does her mother.

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