Pianist, percussionist, seamstress, world traveler, antique collector, art framer, wife, mother, Elvis enthusiast – just a few of the many roles balanced with grace by Jeania Stewart of The American Rogues – for whom the journey is the destination. Since joining The American Rogues officially in 2006, Stewart has become a secret ingredient to the award-winning Celtic rock collective’s successes credited with helping to expand and refine its sound and image.
Join contributing writer Cynthia Gross as she connects with Jeania Stewart to discuss the creative’s earliest memories of art, how her Irish and Native American heritage inform her perspective, her favorite song to perform as part of The American Rogues, and why the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area left an indelible impression on the globetrotter.
Jeania Stewart was born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, specifically, Sylvan Shores, a small beach community. “My parents divorced, and I was introduced to a man who would become my dad and shape my life like no other,” she shared. “His dad was a Navy man, and so he (Daniel) and his identical twin brother (Samuel) would serve as Gunner and Gunner’s Mate on the same ship.” Stewart noted that her new blended family, “each and every one, would accept myself, my siblings, and my mom as theirs always.”
As a child, Stewart remembers enjoying fresh seafood from the Chesapeake Bay and catching bushels of crabs at the Naval Academy, “anticipating how good the feast would soon be.”
Her earliest creative memories center around her grandfather who was a master carpenter for Washington Woodworking Company that built various parts of the Smithsonian Institution. “We were always welcome in his workshop,” said Stewart. “We learned to crochet, and my first sewing machine was gifted to me by my grandmother at the age of 10. She never used patterns, and I started sewing gauzy wrap shirts inspired by my best friend Tammy’s closet.”
Weekends spent with her grandparents found Stewart immersed in Lawrence Welk marathons led by her great grandmother. Accordionist Myron Florene was a close runner-up within the household. Stewart found herself drawn to costuming and pondered how she could “improve a hemline, remove a ruffle, or add a bit more sparkle.” “When others asked for Barbies, I asked for art supplies,” she added.
Jeania Stewart and her best friend built forts decorated with furniture that they salvaged from the local landfill – and even pieces they claimed from their homes. “We had no fear, and I believe we carried that into our adult lives,” said Stewart.
With such a full, adventurous childhood, Stewart realized that what her family lacked in material possessions, they were abundant in their care for each other. Stewart’s grandmother gathered the harvest from the garden to nourish the family each week.
“I remember how the sun shone through the windows into the pantry where she had lovingly prepared the garden’s bounty to feed the family into the winter months,” recalled Stewart. “My grandmother collected depression glass, colorful plates, which lined the kitchen walls. We grew up with very little, but the grandparents, the uncles, and my mother gave so much from so little.”
But perhaps no person was as influential to Jeania Stewart beyond childhood into adulthood than the King of Rock and Roll himself. “Elvis ruled” the household “over all other entertainment.” “The TV Guide was scoured by my grandmother or my Elvis-look-a-like Uncle David, who often sang, gyrated, and curled his lips while playing guitar,” said Stewart. “He became Elvis, and we adored him.”
Elvis was also instrumental to Jeania Stewart (née Robinson) falling for her husband, Nelson Stewart, leader of The American Rogues. “When I met my husband Nelson, he sported large chunky sideburns, and he often got the name of Nelvis on stage, gyrating and curling his lips with a gold cape and a kilt while playing the accordion,” said Stewart. “It was love at first sight, and I was destined to be with a man who would love Elvis as much as I do and the accordion.”
During the COVID shutdown, Jeania Stewart and her husband converted their front porch into an outdoor movie theatre for two, where they “enjoyed horror movies by candlelight while ravens perched amongst macabre decor” throughout the fall season. “As winter approached, we planned Elvis movie night,” she said. “Blue Hawaii, Roustabout, G.I. Blues…the fun was dressing the part and indulging in homemade food pertaining to the movie.”
The couple’s children quickly became Stewart’s greatest muses. She would create matching outfits, sketches of their young faces, and photograph them in black and white to display within their home, which was “decorated with antiques and walls adorned with nudes.” Stewart notes that their style choices likely seemed “weird” to her children’s friends, but all the same, her daughters became “highly creative, strong women.”
As an individual of Irish heritage, joining forces with The American Rogues was indeed a natural progression for Jeania Stewart, who began selling merchandise for the band while traveling with her husband. It was Nelson who later encouraged her to become a part of the collective’s epic live show containing an eclectic mix of instrumentation, including bagpipes, fiddle, accordion, bodhran, piano, guitar, bass, and “lots of drums.”
“While we often play traditional music, we’re also known for performing movie and TV soundtracks, and even songs by Guns N’ Roses and Leonard Cohen,” said Stewart. When The American Rogues introduced “Suo Gân,” a Welsh lullaby, Jeania Stewart learned the phonetic pronunciation and picked up the bodhran, an Irish frame drum, with the help of Nelson.
Stewart describes her stye of playing percussion as “a bit traditional to loud, using a very large tipper,” referring to a wooden instrument used to strike the skin that typically has bulbous ends. And indeed, it is the percussion that informs her favorite song to perform with The American Rogues: “The Gael.”
“Our talented pipers took the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans and arranged it into an 8-minute masterpiece,” said Stewart. “Being of Native American descent, the tribal drumming gets me every time.”
The American Rogues has allowed Jeania and Nelson Stewart to connect with individuals from diverse cultures, and create a vibrant life that they could only have imagined. “I still can’t fully wrap my head around the fact that we get to do what we do,” she said.
“Traveling the world with my band family, enjoying the food and diverse culture, I am often struck by how much alike we all are. Our greatest joys come from our families and friends. We all love, wonder, and ponder life as we wish upon the same moon and stars.”
Referring to the group’s live shows, which continue to captivate audiences nationally and internationally, Stewart added, “There is this energy and connectivity that happens with the audience and with our fellow bandmates. We are family, and I love and respect this family not only for the amazing musicians they are but the quality of human beings they are.”
In addition to performing with The American Rogues, Stewart designs and creates handmade kilts for the band. She and her husband also design the majority of the group’s merchandise and album covers.
Nelson Stewart, whom Jeania describes as “the heart of the band,” is the consummate frontman. “He is funny, super intelligent, and tells a story of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. I think the audience leaves us feeling like we are friends. We laugh a lot, we cry, and leave it all on the table like old friends do.”
During Irish American Heritage Month and throughout the year, Jeania Stewart is mindful of how the past informs both the present and the future. “I often think of my forefathers, their struggles having to leave their lives in search of hope in a new land,” she reflected. “It makes me proud to know where I come from, and I have found that most Irish people have great personal charm, warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity.”
In the coming months, The American Rogues have a growing lineup of shows planned. They will make appearance at a U.S. Air Force Allied Base in Southeast Asia for St. Patrick’s Day, as well as a DMV-area show on April 29 for the Southern Maryland Celtic Festival. See tour details here.
Jeania and Nelson Stewart also have exciting plans to open their 1873 department store in Still Pond, Maryland. “Shelter & Company LLC will be a mix of antiques, salvage, books, and linen – old and new,” shared Stewart. “A collected life for your home handpicked by us to you.” The store will also feature a coffee shop, live music, radio shows, books, and art “with your beloved pet resting at your feet.”
Cynthia Gross is a freelance writer and award-winning spiritual pop artist based in Maryland. With more than a decade of experience as an executive ghostwriter, she understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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