Pop Goes the Country

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

When she first stepped onto the national stage almost a decade ago, Trisha Yearwood was seen as a representative of country's new breed. An interpretive artist whose personality shone through the songs she decided to perform, she was blessed with a rich, robust voice combining technical mastery with an emotional delivery that called to mind the chanteuses who'd preceded her to Grand Ol' Opry fame. But much of her material didn't twang like the tunes of Patsy, Tammy and the others. Her initial single, "She's in Love With the Boy," which topped the country charts for two weeks back in 1991, was, for better or worse, a pop song decorated with a scrap or two of country calico, and "How Do I Live," an Oscar-nominated ditty from the brain-dead 1997 action flick Con Air (no doubt one of Nicolas Cage's proudest moments), didn't have even that much of a connection to her chosen genre; it was written by shlockmistress Diane Warren, for God's sake. So even Yearwood is amused by reviews of Real Live Woman, the fine disc she's just released, that describe her as one of the last holdouts against a swelling pop tide threatening to finally drown country music once and for all.

"It's really interesting," she says, laughing, "that I'm all of a sudden going to be the savior of traditional country."

Whether that's true or not is another question. Compared to Yearwood platters such as Where Your Road Leads, from 1998, Woman is more subtly produced, with considerably less studio clutter placed between her pipes and your ears; when she bellows the words "Where are you now" on the song of the same name (co-written by Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter), the raw majesty of her gifts is downright jaw-dropping. In addition, the instrumentation is simpler and rootsier than is the norm in Nashville these days, and when she pulls out the strings for the Linda Ronstadt/Andrew Gold chestnut "Try Me Again," she uses them in relatively austere fashion. But the overall sound of the disc is less a throwback to the days when Hank Williams Sr. still trod the earth than a return to the country-tinged rock of the early '70s that was roundly rejected by country purists of the time. In other words, what many contemporary country scribes are touting as a straight shot of uncut C&W more closely resembles what the music's gatekeepers once regarded as the stuff of Southern California pretenders who wouldn't know gen-u-ine country music if it knocked the cocaine right out of their spoons.

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

This reaction says oodles about the current state of country music, as Yearwood readily acknowledges. "What was considered progressive when I started is now considered pretty traditional. Because country music has gone in such a pop direction, far beyond what I've done."

Damn straight -- but considering the substantial slump in which country is presently mired, the music's willingness to incorporate pop may have reached the point of diminishing returns. Sure, singer/makeup spokesmodel Shania Twain is enjoying unprecedented mega-sales (her Come on Over has moved more than 17 million units) thanks to tracks that have stretched the definition of country further than Merle Haggard could ever have imagined. But Garth Brooks, the man most responsible for the country explosion of the '90s (and for launching Yearwood's career), has seemingly gone off the deep end; his recent rock project, in which he portrayed a singer named Chris Gaines, has been the subject of unremitting scorn among his country peers. Other big-name performers have watched their sales plummet as well, dragging the numbers generated by the style to levels well below the peaks of just a few years ago.

"Everyone's kind of panicking," Yearwood concedes. "They're like, 'What do we do now? What's going to sell? What's going to be a hit?'"

Given this atmosphere of uncertainty, Yearwood opted to alter her approach -- but not in the ways most observers anticipated. "Everyone assumed that I'd go more and more pop and that every album would be more and more pop, because that's what the trend is and because 'How Do I Live' and some of the albums I've made over the past few years have been slicker and more pop- oriented. But that wasn't what I wanted to do. I don't want to be one of those artists who thinks, 'Well, my last album sold a million copies and we've got to sell a million albums this time, so what kind of album do we make so we can sell those records?' I don't want to play that game. So I decided to take a breath and take some time off the road for the first time in nine years of touring and go, 'Okay, if you could make any album you wanted, what would it sound like?'"

Her answer was to step into the wayback machine. "I wanted to do an album that would hark back to the kind of music that made me want to be a singer in the first place. So I dug out the stuff I used to listen to in junior high and high school -- my Ronstadt records and my Emmylou Harris records and my James Taylor and my Jackson Browne. And when I listened to those songs, which were very lyric-driven, more acoustic, more organic, more earthy sounding, I thought, 'Why don't I make this record? Why don't we find out what this album would sound like twenty years later?' So I guess it makes sense that I came up with something like this. After all, I am a child of the '70s."

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.

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."

Such coyness certainly hasn't hurt Real Live Woman commercially: It bowed at number four on the April 15 Billboard country album chart and had the second-highest debut on its pop counterpart, finishing behind the soundtrack to Romeo Must Die. Yearwood's also benefited from a couple of splashy TV showcases over the past several weeks -- namely a headlining spot on A&E's Live by Request and a country salute on The Nashville Network to, of all people, recent Westword profile subject Barry Manilow ("Looks Like He Made It," September 2, 1999).

Even Yearwood's representatives were dumbfounded by her interest in the latter; according to her, "The copy of the request they faxed to me had an 'I assume we're passing on this' kind of note on the side of it. They couldn't believe it when I called them back and said, 'Actually, we're going to do this one.' Because when I was in the second or third grade, my best friend and I were just crazy about him. She had the T-shirt and everything, and I went out and bought his double live album and learned every lyric. I was just fascinated. I think the reason he gets such a bad rap is that sometimes your biggest hit can sometimes become your nightmare -- and when you say 'Barry Manilow,' people go, 'Oh, "Copacabana" -- oh, my God.' But there are some amazing songs you're forgetting that are really great pop songwriting. It's like Burt Bacharach, where you're just kind of swept away.

"When I said I'd do the show," she goes on, "I said, 'I'll do it on two conditions -- that I get to choose the song I want to do, and that Barry plays piano for me.' And it was great. I picked 'Lay Me Down' from that live album, and as I was standing next to the piano, there were all these women the same age I am -- I'm 35 -- screaming their heads off because they were in the front row of a Barry Manilow concert. And I just looked at them and said, 'I am you. I am representing all of you, because we were all children of that era.'"

That says a lot about today's country music, too.

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