Humble beginnings don't get much humbler than where Nina Simone grew up.
It's in east Tryon, a neighborhood of low rolling hills and hollers, where the homes look like they're being swallowed by the landscape. The modest three-room structure is more cabin than house, a 660-square-foot structure that looks much the same as it must have when Simone was born here as Eunice Waymon in 1933.
But it's still where a musical legacy began, one that has belatedly landed the late Tryon native in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 15 years after her death.
Simone was known as the "High Priestess of Soul," one of the most unique voices of 20th century music — and also a major voice of the civil-rights era with songs like "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free."
Her influence lives on in artists like Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul, who will celebrate Simone April 14 at the induction ceremony in Cleveland. This year's class features Bon Jovi, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Moody Blues, The Cars and Dire Straits.
In Tryon, a small town of 1,600 about 90 miles west of Charlotte, Crys Armbrust has been keeping the flame of Simone's memory alive for years. He treats Simone's old homestead, now owned by a group of New York artists, as hallowed ground.
On a recent visit to the house, he pointed out nearby landmarks — the family garden, the church where she first sang as a child — and picked up fragments of boards that had recently blown off the house.
"We've had cyclonic winds around here," he said. "A lot of things have come loose."
At his home later, Armbrust carefully added the new pieces to his stash of Simone artifacts. Armbrust isn't one to let anything go to waste when it comes to Simone, whose legacy he has been caretaking with her family's approval for years for the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project. Armbrust's obsession with Simone began about 20 years ago when his father told him she was born in Tryon, where he grew up.
"I was incredulous," he said. "I basically called him a liar, then did some digging and found out in point of fact that that was true. I was stupefied. Any other town in America — in the world — would be envious to have a figure of Nina's caliber as birthplace. There was nothing about that here, but I knew I could change that."
Center of an effort
Nowadays, Tryon does have a few markers of its famous native daughter. In 2010, an elegant statue of Simone was dedicated in a small park on the Trade Street main drag.
A Simone-inspired arts center and music festival also are in the works. And last year, four artists paid $95,000 to buy Simone's birth house at 30 E. Livingston St., although future plans are unclear. They declined to be interviewed for this story.
"My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn't go away," Adam Pendleton, one of the buyers, told The New York Times last year.
Armbrust has been at the center of efforts in Tryon to memorialize Simone. He also maintains a collection of memorabilia he's happy to show off, pulling out vintage photos of Simone at different ages, contracts from throughout her career and the framed original copy of a Langston Hughes essay that the great African-American poet wrote about Simone in 1960.
"That's about all of the most interesting things," Armbrust said, then paused. "Well, there is one other thing."
He pulled out a small vial holding a portion of Simone's ashes, which her daughter Lisa Kelly gave him some years ago. A quantity wound up in the heart of the downtown Simone sculpture. The rest, Armbrust keeps here.
"I had asked for a smidgen, because I knew that even one crumb would make that sculpture all the more unique and a dynamic interactive object," he said. "Next time I saw Lisa, she pulled out a package and put it in my hand. I opened it up and there was — Nina. I could not speak. Overwhelmed. It was pretty amazing."
Simone's induction comes years after she died in France on April 21, 2003 at the age of 70, an expatriate who had grown disillusioned with America. In her daughter's eyes, the accolade is too little, too late.
"I've always felt like my mother was not honored properly while she was alive," said Kelly. "She died 15 years ago, so it's hard to get excited after so long. But the fact that people are honoring her now, uplifting her name and her journey and what she stood for, better late than never."
Simone began playing piano and singing in church as a child. And while the Jim Crow South was a difficult place for African-Americans, a bit of generosity prevailed in Tryon. As Simone's reputation spread, both whites and blacks contributed to a fund for her musical education.
Her first teacher was Muriel Mazzanovich, who young Eunice called "Miss Mazzy." Mazzanovich's house was more than a mile away from Simone home in east Tryon, uphill and across the train tracks. Eunice would walk or ride her bike there.
Later, the Eunice Waymon Fund paid for her to study at the famed Juilliard School in New York City. Still, she encountered discrimination in the South.
When Simone played her first public recital in 1944 at the Lanier Library (a building that still stands, midway between the Waymon and Mazzanovich households), her parents were forced to give up their front-row seats to some white attendees.
Then 11 years old, Eunice refused to play until they were allowed back.
"There's just so much emotion there"
Simone was a brilliant musician from the start, and she wanted to be a classical pianist. After high school, she went off to Juilliard with plans to go to the Curtis Institute of Music for graduate school. Unexpectedly, she did not get into Curtis; she was convinced it was because of her race.
Unsure about what to do, Simone went to work playing nightclubs in Atlantic City, N.J., which took her away from gospel as well as classical. Knowing that her mother would not approve, she adopted Nina Simone as a performing name: "Nina" from "little one" in Spanish, and "Simone" after the French actress Simone Signoret.
"Her mother was a minister, so she didn't like that jazz," said James Payne, now 90 years old and a friend of the Waymon family in Tryon. "But Nina's dad did like it. So she'd get on the piano and jazz it up when her mom was gone, then cut that off when she came back. She was very, very talented. Temperamental, too, you know. She wrote a song her mom really did not like, that 'Mississippi' (Goddam) song.'"
Playing clubs meant that Simone was forced to start singing, too, even though she didn't want to.
Simone occupied a middle ground between classical, jazz, blues and pop, often covering hits of the day by the likes of the Beatles or Jerry Jeff Walker in her own distinctive style. (Her 1971 version of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" served as inspiration last fall for Polish-born crochet artist Olek, who constructed a huge pink and orange yarn mural on an outside wall of the Raleigh Convention Center.)
Simone's raw, emotional voice proved to be as striking as any in popular music.
"She's not technically a 'great' singer," said Mark Anthony Neal, African-American studies professor at Duke University. "She's more of an acquired taste, like (Bob) Dylan. The first time anybody hears her, very few people go, 'I like that' right away. I have a colleague who once said she sounds like someone's killing her cat. But despite the fact that she doesn't have a 'pure' voice, there's just so much emotion there. I think that's why people are still drawn to her, the way she resonates."
Simone's career track, however, was not an easy one. The music industry could never quite figure out where to pigeonhole her, especially after she took a hard turn into activism with songs like 1964's "Mississippi Goddam" and 1966's "Four Women." By 1967, she was singing about the "Backlash Blues."
Life behind the scenes was hard, too. As seen in the 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?," she suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her manager/husband while also battling bipolar depression.
Disenchanted with America in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Simone moved abroad in 1970 and lived the rest of her life overseas. But she returned to the United States for performances, occasionally slipping into Tryon to see family.
Simone's final visit to Tryon came in 2001 for her mother's funeral. On her own deathbed in 2003, Simone asked her daughter to see that she wasn't forgotten.
"It's a grave, in a sense"
Various people in Tryon have done what they can toward that end. In 2005, Kevin "Kipp" McIntyre bought Simone's childhood home, which had been modernized and was in use as a rental house. He restored the house to its 1930s-vintage state with the intention of opening it as a museum before he ran out of money. After the house went on the market, the New York artists bought it in March 2017.
For now, Tryon's most visible tribute to Simone remains the bronze sculpture on Trade Street. The $105,000 piece is the work of Philadelphia artist Zenos Frudakis, who also made the iconic statue at Pinehurst Resort of the late golfer Payne Stewart, captured at his moment of triumph at the 1999 U.S. Open.
The Simone statue was unveiled on Feb. 20, 2010, which would have been Simone's 77th birthday. It stands right in front of the railroad tracks Simone used to cross on her way to piano lessons at Miss Mazzy's house. It was the sculptor's idea to embed a bit of her ashes deep inside.
"This was about bringing her back to her original home, as healing," Frudakis said. "It's a grave, in a sense, a bronze casket. So if anybody ever says they want to move it, you can say, 'If you move it, you're moving her grave.'"