Saying that Jennie Lowry leads a multi-faceted existence would be a gross understatement, but music is a single hub around which the many other parts of her life revolve.
That includes growing up with musician parents, owning a music store in downtown Mount Airy, hosting a weekly live radio program highlighting the traditional sounds of the Blue Ridge and working as a DJ at a station that does the same. Even the origins of her husband and children are rooted in music and are involved in it today.
Not surprisingly, Lowry spent her formative years in what is billed as “Music City,” after she was born in Mount Airy in 1977 and her family relocated there when she was about 2.
“I actually grew up in Nashville, Tennessee,” Lowry said, which was due to her father, Jimmy Lowry, playing in the band of country music star Donna Fargo, also a local native.
Being that the Lowrys formed a close-knit clan, the Nashville contingent would make frequent visits back to Mount Airy, which Jennie says didn’t really provide the same feeling of being at home as living here.
It took a tragedy to change that dynamic: her grandfather, James Lowry Sr., being diagnosed with cancer.
“And we decided over a weekend to move back,” recalled Lowry, who then was about 20.
“And I don’t like to say ‘start over’ — but it was kind of like starting over,” she said, with her dad — who was an only child — also driving tour buses around that time along with maintaining his career as a musician.
The young lady moved in with her grandparents, and within a short time her grandfather died, but Lowry is thankful for being around him for as long as she could.
“It was such a blessing to be able to reunite with my family.”
Lowry also said this event was life-changing in a particularly special way, crediting her late grandmother, Madeline, with instilling a love of music within her that lives on to this day.
“I can’t even imagine what would have happened (otherwise),” she added of being able to enjoy such quality time and learn valuable skills in addition to the music exposure. “I like to cook, I like to can — those are things that my grandma taught me that I like to do every year.”
What little spare time Lowry has also is filled with hobbies such as genealogy and reading, with the list including historical works and how-to books such as the “Foxfire” series as opposed to novels.
Among her ancestors are T.J. Lowry, a long-ago editor of The Mount Airy News.
Business career launched
However, Jennie Lowry’s musical path took a bit of a detour when she began waitressing at local restaurants including Snappy Lunch, Ray’s Starlight and Goober’s.
She had dabbled with the idea of continuing her formal education after graduating from Hillsboro High School in Nashville, which included one semester at Belmont University. Yet college was just not for her, similar to many youths who desire a more-direct route into the job market.
“I wanted to go to work.”
Eventually there was a breakthrough that allowed Lowry to fully explore her talents in the business world, which also was the catalyst for her marriage and becoming the mother of three children.
“Bob Meinecke is who I have to thank,” she said of a local retiree who is a former business broker.
While still living with her grandmother, Lowry was approached by Meinecke about the possibility of her parents buying the Olde Mill music store, given their background as musicians, although her mother Sylvia had started teaching at that time.
This instead led to Jennie obtaining a loan to buy the business, then located on West Pine Street beside Worth Honda.
Rick Caudill sort of came with the deal, due to having worked at the music store since about 1995. The former owner advised Lowry that she should do whatever she could to keep Caudill on board “because customers like him.”
Not only did Caudill remain there, he and Lowry got married in 2006 and the rest, as they say, is history, including Olde Mill music moving to its present location on North Main Street. It specializes in a wide array of acoustic and electric instruments, sound systems, sheet music, books, supplies and other products in addition to offering music lessons.
“He is very musical and does not come from a family of musicians,” Lowry said of her husband, suggesting a bit of irony compared to her immediate family. They play together in a prayer band at their church, among other performances.
“I love my job here,” she said of Olde Mill Music, a family operation that goes beyond just being a husband-and-wife team. That’s because the couple’s three children — James, Madeline and Ricky, who are named for other family members — are home-schooled there.
And, yes, they all have learned to play musical instruments due to the access provided by the store.
“I’m so lucky to be able to work with my family,” Lowry said, expressing pride for her children. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Oddly, 2020 has been one of Olde Mill Music’s better years, despite the COVID-19 crisis.
While in-store group lessons were curtailed, as was Rick’s specialty of setting up sound systems for events such as concerts, and store hours were cut back one hour per day during the height of the pandemic, there have been pluses.
“We’ve been able to maintain,” Lowry said.
This included churches buying equipment to accommodate outdoor services, and the store owners have noticed more people using the COVID-19 down time to learn to play a musical instrument such as the piano or guitar.
“Maybe even an elderly person,” Lowry said of folks who might have put off doing that for years pre-coronavirus.
“I just think that’s maybe one of the good things that’s going to come of this.”
Jennie Lowry tends to downplay her musical abilities, admitting that she is more of a listener than a performer, and when she does pick up a guitar, for example, it’s mainly for her own enjoyment.
This is reflected in Lowry’s other two gigs. These include hosting the Merry-Go-Round music show broadcast live from the historic Earle Theater downtown on Saturdays, and working as a DJ one day per week at the local radio station that airs the show, WPAQ.
“I really love hosting the Merry-Go-Round — it’s such an honor to me, it’s such a big deal,” Lowry said of a program that’s been around almost as long as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She further appreciates the fact that the Merry-Go-Round is helping keep alive the music of this region.
Lowry replaced Travis Frye as Merry-Go-Round host, who in turn took over for the late Clyde Johnson.
“Most Saturday mornings I can be found there,” she said, with the program resuming this month after a pandemic-related hiatus.
Lowry’s work with the Merry-Go-Round goes hand in hand with her part-time job as a DJ, as she possesses a rich, pleasing voice quality and knowledge of the old-time and bluegrass music WPAQ offers which are prerequisites for both.
“You’ve got to be able to talk,” she said of the need to avoid the dreaded “dead-air” periods of radio broadcasting.
“And I don’t have a problem with that,” Lowry added with a laugh.
“I love the DJ aspect more than I actually like to play (music), and I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.”
Lowry likes old-time/bluegrass sounds and is an even bigger fan of Big Band music popularized by such performers as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.
“But I really like any kind of music,” she said, stressing that the Merry-Go-Round and DJ duties provide her the luxury of just being a fan.
Although Lowry relishes time around her family, she admits that working for WPAQ does supply an outlet of her own and “allows me to be me.”
While Jennie Lowry has much on her plate, she still finds time for volunteerism, most notably her longtime leadership involvement with the Downtown Business Association (DBA).
That group works for the betterment of retailers and other entities in Mount Airy’s central business district, including promotional activities and events to draw people downtown such as Christmas and July 4 parades, cruise-ins and others.
“I can see in my own kids the enjoyment they get out of community activities like cruise-ins and parades — and somebody has to help with those,” she said of the meticulous planning and logistical organization required for each.
Assisting with this, along with DBA President Phil Marsh, gives Lowry a sense of satisfaction. “I like to volunteer, because I see the enjoyment people get out of it,” she said of various downtown events that largely have been sidelined this year.
“I don’t have a business background,” Lowry said, yet at the same time she fully understands the challenges smaller stores such as those downtown face in an era of competition from online, big-box and shopping center retailers. “I just really believe in buying local when people can and staying small.”
Being a small business owner also allows the flexibility of assisting community organizations such as the Surry Arts Council which usually isn’t the case with national chain operations, Lowry observed.
Her business philosophies are accompanied by guiding principles of life which she tries to practice and instill in her children.
“Just try to do as good a job as you can, whatever that is,” Lowry tells them.
The fact that her father toured a lot has influenced the way the local mom deals with her children.
“He was gone so much in my childhood,” Lowry recalled, which was somewhat compensated for by later getting to perform with Jimmy.
“And I will always cherish that time — it was so important to me and developed me as a person,” Lowry said, although his demanding travel schedule earlier in her life certainly left a mark.
“At the end of the day, it made me realize that I always want to be there for my kids.”
It’s part of the simple philosophy Jennie Lowry endeavors to live by overall:
“I just think trying to take one day at a time and just get through this day,” which she was quick to point out doesn’t mean overlooking tomorrow.
“But think about what I need to do to get through this day,” Lowry explained, including treating people right.
“And if I screw up today, try to do better tomorrow.”