Faced with losing her sight, a Bloomington singer learns to slow down and pay attention to her environment, and urges everyone to do the same.
IT'S A FRIDAY NIGHT in the Corn Crib Lounge at the Brown County Inn. Rustic wood-paneled walls surround candlelit tables, all of them full. Sharlee Davis and Will Devitt are gearing up for their second set, and Will begins strumming his guitar. A few chords in, Sharlee stops him.
“I’m asking Willie to tune up here,” Sharlee tells the audience. Often, she can hear when his guitar is out of tune better than he can. He tunes his guitar, and they break into a cover of “Purple Rain.” Before long, a table of seven women put their arms around each other’s shoulders and sing along with Sharlee’s warm, soulful voice.
Sharlee has short spiky hair and wears wire-rimmed sunglasses. She plays the guitar, the melodica, the tambourine and even a few instruments on her iPad as they move through a mix of blues, country, pop and torch songs. Her voice growls on Bessie Smith’s “My Man’s an Undertaker” and soars on Adele’s “Someone Like You.” She’s never off-pitch. Between sets, she reaches down to grab her water bottle. She taps the floor a few times before her hand finds it. At the end of the set, Sharlee and Will chat with the Nashville regulars who came out to hear them. But most people in the audience have no idea Sharlee is blind.
Sharlee, now 61, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease of the retinas, at 21. The disease slowly took her vision away, but that didn’t stop her from singing. She and Will have produced nine CDs and performed all over the country. They’ve opened for k.d. lang, John Prine and Carrie Newcomer, among others. The self-proclaimed “reluctant introverts” are busiest in the summer and have no plans of stopping anytime soon. “For me, the time that I feel most in my element is when we’re playing,” Sharlee says.
They perform more than a hundred shows a year, and it can be hard work. But she feels lucky to be paid to do what she loves. When you’re blind, you find comfort in places you are familiar with, she says. On stage there are fewer walls to get acquainted with, less mystery. It’s where she feels most at home.Sharlee wears sunglasses when she performs to keep her eyes on the audience instead of trailing off. Her eyes are drawn to the brightness of the spotlights the way moths are charmed by a porch light. Sometimes she’ll hear a crowd’s applause only to realize she’s been looking at the lights instead of the people.
For years she thought her vision was normal, and then she noticed she couldn’t see anything that wasn’t close to the center of her field of vision. Eventually she could only see shadows, and now she only sees light. If there’s a big window near her she can see something waving in front of it, but that’s it.
In Sharlee’s house in Bloomington on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Will and Sharlee are rehearsing. Microphones are set up in her living room and wires zigzag on the floor as Sharlee begins singing harmonies for Davis and Devitt’s cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” Sharlee wears leggings, a long black shirt and faded cowboy boots. Her left foot taps along to the song. Will adjusts sound levels on the computer.
As they play, Sharlee’s voice echoes those of the singers whose records she has tacked up on the wall: Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Between songs, Will turns and says, “See, isn’t she talented?”
PERFORMING WAS A CONSTANT in Sharlee’s life growing up in Frankfurt. Her grandpa played piano professionally, and her dad had a beautiful bass voice. Her three brothers sang and played guitar as well. Music was always in her home.
Sharlee knew she wanted to be a performer since her days at Riley Elementary School. “We were the Riley Poets, quite fierce. I’m sure everyone feared us,” she says. “The poets. But now, looking back, I think it’s so cool.” Her first time on stage was as Cinderella in Mrs. Caldwell’s third-grade room.
In fourth grade, the high school band director came into her choir class. He sat down at the piano and asked Sharlee to listen to him play a melody a few times to see if she could play it back. She had been taking piano lessons since second grade. When she heard the melody, she played it correctly the first time. He stopped her. “OK, that’s enough. You’re in the school band.”
In sixth grade, she chose the French horn because she loved its deep, rich tone. She and her best friend would walk to school together, Sharlee lugging her gawky case and her friend carrying her compact clarinet. Once Davis realized she was only playing the down beats on the French horn, though, it got boring.
She left the Riley Poets in 1970 and moved on to the Frankfurt High School Hotdogs. Later, when she was an Indiana University freshman, she had to pull out her yearbook to prove she wasn’t lying about her high school mascot.
Throughout high school she was always on stage. She was in “Godspell” and played Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific.” The summer before her junior year, she joined the Red Barn Summer Theatre in Frankfurt and spent five summers performing there.
But performing wasn’t the only constant in her life growing up. She was, she says bluntly, clumsy. She always had stubbed toes in summer, because she never wore shoes. At Halloween, she straggled behind her brothers while trick-or-treating because she’d stumble over curbs in the dark. In movie theaters, she’d trip on the dark stairs, and she often ran into walls when she turned corners. Bruises and scrapes were the norm.
Sharlee went to IU to major in theater. One day near the beginning of her sophomore year, her roommate tried to hand her something. Sharlee doesn’t remember now what it was, but she remembers what her roommate said.
“Sharlee, do you not see this?” she asked.
It was right next to her face, and she had no idea what it was. Her roommate tried waving her hand around Sharlee’s head and said it wasn’t right that she couldn’t see out of the corners of her eyes. No wonder she had been so clumsy. Her peripheral vision was gone. She had lived most of her life with tunnel vision.
At 21, she saw a specialist at Methodist Hospital and learned her diagnosis. The doctor coldly said she would be blind within five years. Luckily, the disease was slower than he thought.
Dr. Jane Ann Grogg is a clinical professor at the IU School of Optometry and has worked in a retinitis pigmentosa clinic. “In the retina, you have cones and rods. So your rods are in your peripheral retina and cones are in the central retina,” Dr. Grogg says. “So this is essentially a disease of the rods.” Patients with RP initially describe night-vision problems, falling over and not seeing curbs, tripping over the dog – all things you need your night vision and peripheral vision for.
Go outside the next time it’s a starry night, look at a star and then look off to the side of that star. You’ll notice the star looks brighter when you’re looking to the side of it. That’s because you’re using the rods that are responsible for your night and peripheral vision.
Dr. Grogg says that the central vision in patients is typically reserved until late in the disease. Then, degeneration of the macula, responsible for detailed central vision, ultimately reduces a patient’s ability to see clearly.
"ONCE I WAS DIAGNOSED, everything made more sense. OK, I’m not clumsy. I’m going blind. What a relief!” Sharlee says with a laugh.
She wasn’t clumsy; she just couldn’t see in the dark. She didn’t run into walls because she wasn’t paying attention; it was because she could only see things that were right in front of her.
Sharlee’s family was supportive, but she says they aren’t the kind of people who dwell on problems. Instead, they simply figured out what to do next. Because the disease is hereditary, she called her brothers to let them know they should get their eyes checked, too. Her oldest brother and youngest brother discovered they had RP as well. Each of them would have to adapt to eventual blindness. The slow progression of her disease gave her 11 years to adjust, physically and mentally.
At the time, Sharlee was working with the Bloomington Playwrights Project as an actress and director. She also served on the board of directors and found time to sing on occasion. In total, Sharlee was in about 25 plays and 15 musicals before her vision really started to fade. She realized there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for blind actresses, so she put more effort into singing.
Into the ‘90s, Sharlee still had her central vision and was singing casually. Will was living in Greene County with his wife, Nell, a potter whose work is displayed in galleries around the country. He played with a country-dance band called the Neon Ramblers, and they needed a singer. Will’s brother had heard Sharlee at the Bluebird and said the band needed to audition her. So they brought her in. Sharlee sang “Different Drum” by the Stone Poneys, a band that featured Linda Ronstadt, an artist who influenced her style.
“Yeah, this’ll work,” Will said. It was the beginning of Sharlee’s professional singing career.
He soon discovered just how well it would work. “We were doing a job as the Neon Ramblers, and she got up to do a solo set,” Will says. “I thought, Wow, she’s really good.”
Sharlee and the Neon Ramblers played all over Illinois, Indiana and parts of Ohio. When she decided to do a solo album in 1992, she asked Will to be a part of it.
“Willie went kicking and screaming into the duo,” she says.
“Yeah, well, who wants to hear a duo?” he recalls thinking. “Of course, now there’s duos everywhere.”
The two booked a couple of gigs together and decided to play more and more as a duo. Eventually they realized they couldn’t do the duo and the band both. They had to pick one, so they started writing more songs together.
As her vision grew worse, she injured herself a lot. She would run into walls, doors and even a cement light post. She got a cane to help her navigate, expecting a quick improvement.
The first day she had the cane, she decided to walk downtown from her home near Bryan Park, a walk that had once taken her just 20 minutes. Will had been at her house earlier that day and couldn’t believe her when she said, “Dammit, I’m going downtown. By myself.” He wasn’t about to stop her, though. Instead, he said he’d meet her at the library when he finished teaching.
It only took her a few blocks to realize she had made a mistake. She hadn’t practiced with her cane, and the trash hadn’t been picked up that morning, so everybody’s trashcans were in the way. When she crossed Second Street, she wasn’t sure about the traffic so she asked a nearby biker to help. He assured her she could go ahead and cross. Seconds later, he yelled, “RUN!” A car was coming after all.
An hour and a half later, she showed up in the library parking lot in a full sweat. She had gotten turned around and had to get someone to help her find the entrance. She realized then that she needed to be more patient with herself. She slowed down and learned how to use her cane, and the injuries stopped.
Sharlee’s determination doesn’t surprise Tom Bewley, who has known her since second grade. They did Red Barn Summer Theatre together, and Davis got to know his wife and kids, as well. Because of her drive and talent, Tom says, Davis would be doing exactly what she is doing now, whether she was blind or not. She has always been talented and a planner. She always had a vision for her life.
“I don’t think she sees her blindness as a disability,” Tom says. “I think she would get pissed if people treated her any differently because of her blindness.” Above all, she wouldn’t want the way people see her talent to be affected by her blindness.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE performing as a blind person has been the logistics of getting set up. When they perform in a new space, Davis and Devitt have to figure out where everything is. But they set up the same way every time. Sharlee stands to the left, Will to the right. Her guitar is to Sharlee’s left, and the microphone is always in front of her, with her melodica and tambourine at her feet.
“I feel like it makes Willie uncomfortable sometimes when I’m trying to find stuff,” she says. “I’m not sure why, but I can tell it makes him uncomfortable.”
“Well, if you see someone groping around onstage,” Will says. “You know.”
“See that’s part of my charm.”
Will says people try to help Sharlee find her water bottle sometimes, but he just waves them off. She’ll be OK.
“Sometimes Willie forgets his glasses and says he can’t see anything, and I’m like, ‘We’re screwed then,’” Sharlee says.
They play at bars, wineries and private events. Sharlee has a sense of humor on stage, Will says. Telling funny stories about her week is her way of connecting with the audience. If she says something and hears a lot of laughter, she’s reassured that people are listening even when she can’t see them.
What really surprises her is when she packs up after a performance and grabs her cane and people come up and say they had no idea she was blind. They say she doesn’t look blind, but Sharlee isn’t sure what that would look like.
Davis and Devitt have recorded in local studios and in Nashville. Then they decided they could do a lot of it themselves. They were always involved in the mixing anyway, so by doing their own recording, they spend less and don’t feel like the clock is ticking. They’ve recorded their last three CD’s on their own.
Sharlee believes that art at its best should be inspiring. She and Will listen to all kinds of music, even rap. That’s where the most relevant poetry is coming from now, she says. She thinks Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is unbelievable. They try to stay current. Not only that, but it’s what they like.
“Sometimes Sharlee and I get lumped into folk, and we’re really not folk music,” Will says. “I think we’re much more edgy than that when we can be.”
Sharlee was a good songwriter when she first met Will but has only gotten better, he says.
“The process of writing a song is the interesting part for me and the part that I get lost in and kind of obsessed with,” Sharlee says. “If I’m working on something, I can’t focus on anything else until I get a breakthrough.”
She can’t just grab a pen and some paper to write now, though. She used to be able to do what she calls “deep dive” and write down whatever came to her mind, filling a drawer full of notebooks. Now she uses a handheld recorder and works out the first verse of a song with her guitar. Once she has that down, she can go to her computer to write the verses.
Since she can’t see individual notes anymore, she visualizes a graph when she writes. She sees pictures of where her vocals are supposed to go, like highs and lows on a graph.
The song “Only” on Davis and Devitt’s latest CD “nine” was the first song she wrote about her vision loss.
I don’t miss the lightning or the white bright snow. I don’t miss discovering a brand new way to go, Sharlee sings.
It’s hard for her to say why she writes songs, but she never wanted to place an importance on her blindness. People should see her talent regardless of her blindness, not despite it. They might not realize the song is even about blindness.
Today, “talking computers” allow Davis to do everything she used to except drive. She uses the screen reader on her iPad to read, search the internet and even play music on an app called ThumbJam. Tap the screen once to hear what’s under your finger, twice to select it. Her desktop computer uses a similar screen-reading technology called Job Access with Speech, or JAWS.
She makes notes to herself on an audio recorder and has a scale and thermometer that read out numbers. She never learned Braille because the callouses from playing guitar make it hard for her to feel the tiny bumps with her fingers. But she still untangles cords and opens things for Will when he can’t. She relies on touch since she lost her vision and can feel where things are wrapped and how to undo them.
Kids are always curious about her blindness and surprisingly insightful, Sharlee says. A boy who lives around the block used to see her at the park and walk home with her. He wondered whether she knew Stevie Wonder (never met him) and what her eyes looked like (not black smudgy holes like in the comics). He would ask what her dreams are like. Sharlee told him she still dreams in full color, just as when she could see.
“Wow, I bet you like to take a lot of naps,” the boy said.
Sharlee feels thankful she had time to adjust to her blindness. She didn’t wake up one day without sight, and she remembers the concept of the color red or of green grass. People who were blind from birth will never know what that is like.
“One thing you learn being blind is patience,” she says. “You just have to have patience, or you’ll drive yourself nuts and everybody around you.”
Even now, though, being blind gets frustrating sometimes. Davis has days where she thinks, OK, this was fun for a while. Or she’ll look up to the sky and ask, Did I pass? On those days she just waits for the next day to come or distracts herself by playing music. Her disease makes some things more time-consuming, but it’s not fatal.
“Just slow down and pay attention to your environment a little bit,” Davis says. “Even if you can see, it would do people good to do that.”
DAVIS AND DEVITT are on their last set at the Brown County Inn. People walking past the bar peer into the window by the stage and come in to watch them play. It’s a little after eleven, and the duo is playing “Hound Dog.” Couples take the dance floor and urge others to join. The floor fills with people tapping their feet and singing along. Everyone winds down and leaves the dance floor as they start playing Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.”
“Now I can’t see, but I can tell there’s nobody slow dancing anymore,” Sharlee says between verses. “Come on everyone take advantage of this.”
A group at one table gets up, and couples begin to sway together to the music. When the set ends, some people still linger.
“She can do anything,” a woman in the audience says as Davis and Devitt are packing up. She wasn’t just talking about Davis’s voice.
Davis and Devitt can often be seen at the following places:
Thomas Family Winery
208 E. Second St.
Mallow Run Winery
6964 W. Whiteland Road
Brown County Inn
51 Interstate 46
Go to davisanddevitt.com