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Pop Goes the Country

Who's changed more -- Trisha Yearwood or country music?

More specifically, Yearwood is the child of a banker and a third-grade teacher from Monticello, Georgia, and the music she grew up loving wasn't always created by country deities. "At five or six years old, I remember watching the Sonny and Cher show, and I wanted to be Cher soooo bad. I even wanted her belly button. I would wear a towel over my head so I'd look like I had really long hair. And I knew all the words to 'Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.'" She began playing guitar at age fourteen and concentrated on music-business courses while attending Belmont College in Nashville. An internship she landed through Belmont soon led to gigs as a demo singer, and as her reputation grew, the jobs got better. She sang backup on Garth Brooks's 1990 blockbuster No Fences, and after she got a chance to make her own long-player, a self-titled offering, the following year, Brooks selected her to open his concert tour.

Unsurprisingly, success followed, and Yearwood took advantage of it by pushing into musical areas that were frequently off the country path. On 1992's "Walkaway Joe" (from the album Hearts in Armor), she duetted with ex-Eagle Don Henley, another girlhood fave, and won a Grammy two years later for a version of "I Fall to Pieces" that paired her with R&B specialist Aaron Neville. (Her other Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration honored the goopy "In Another's Eyes," sung with Brooks.) In 1998 she even appeared in concert opposite opera icon Luciano Pavarotti, and her contribution to the Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence film Life was produced by R. Kelly, who believes he can fly.

These excursions never alienated Yearwood's country audience, who rewarded her with ten number-one C&W singles during the '90s. But she still saw Woman as a risk -- which was precisely the way she wanted it. As co-producer, she chose Garth Fundis, with whom she's worked in the past, but only after assuring herself that the two of them wouldn't "get stuck in old routines." Then she lined up a new group of musicians, including a couple of guys from her road band who'd never appeared on any of her records, and "a kind of greasy drummer" (Greg Morrow) capable of creating a groove "that was more rugged, not as slick as some of the things I've done." Then, to cap things off, she arranged for cameo appearances by Browne (he contributes harmony vocals to the Bruce Springsteen cover "Sad Eyes") and Harris (her dulcet tones turn up on "Too Bad You're No Good"), and imported Dan Dugmore, a multi-instrumentalist who appeared on discs by Ronstadt and Taylor back in the day. "Whenever we'd be ready to do a session, the first thing we'd do is ask, 'Is Dan available?'" she says.

Still country after all these years: Trisha Yearwood.
Still country after all these years: Trisha Yearwood.

While she was making Woman, Yearwood kept MCA, her record company, at bay, fearing that executives there would be less than thrilled that radio-friendliness wasn't her first priority. But her worries were misplaced. "They've been really supportive," she says. "I think if I was a brand-new artist, they would have been more nervous. But since I've been around a long time and I have a track record, they thought, 'We can market this as something really special, and people will be interested.' Because I do have a fan base that's interested in what I do."

Of course, the MCA suits knew they had another factor working in their favor: curiosity. You see, Yearwood had just gotten a divorce from her husband of nearly seven years, Robert Reynolds, a bass player for the Mavericks who was interviewed previously in these pages ("The Mavericks Ride Again," August 31, 1994). Hence, odds were good that Yearwood's fans would pick up the disc in the hope that the songs she'd chosen would open a window onto this shattered relationship. In this regard, Yearwood doesn't disappoint. "Some Days" sports the couplet "If you see dark skies in my green eyes/It's just that I can't find no cover/These ghosts that haunt me/They get me when they want me," while the aforementioned "Too Bad You're No Good" declares, "You smile like an angel, lie like a rug/You wouldn't change if you could 'cause it's in your blood." And that's not to mention the defiant "I'm Still Alive," a Matraca Berg-Al Anderson composition that finds Yearwood crooning, "Guess I fooled everybody/Said I'd love you 'til the day that I die/Even if you didn't love me/Sorry, baby, I guess I lied."

Yearwood is good-humored about the speculation over such sentiments. "I knew when I made this album and chose these songs that people would probably read more into the lyrics than was really there -- like 'Is this line about her?' And that's fine; I didn't shy away from anything because of that. And to be honest with you, I always choose songs that I have a strong gut reaction to. That doesn't mean that they're all autobiographical, but they do have to somehow move me. And these did.

"At the same time, though, if you listen back to my albums, they're all pretty much depressing," she adds, chuckling. "I don't really gravitate toward the really light and happy and fluffy songs. I've always drifted toward the dramatic, even when I'm blissfully happy. Music is the place to express yourself, and it's a great place, too, because you don't have to explain anything. I don't have to say, 'This song is about me and this song isn't.' It's up to individual interpretation."

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