Two-Step Switcheroo

Kim Richey has shelved her country sound for straight-ahead pop.

Kim Richey is calling from the road, from somewhere inside the D.C. Beltway, trying her best to escape the confines of her hotel room even while on the phone. "I can't open my window. I'm going to try to get my Swiss Army knife. I think if I can take these screws out, I can open it."

Sure, whatever.

"I checked it out already," she insists.

Not everyone gets to boss around Nashville record-label types the way  Kim Richey does.
Not everyone gets to boss around Nashville record-label types the way Kim Richey does.

Perhaps you might consider bringing along the Keith Moon hotel-room-wrecking kit?

"I just need the Swiss Army knife, because then if you take some of the screws out, you can open the window."

Such subtly rebellious actions fit Richey's musical profile to a tee: She's someone who subverts the dominant culture. That's certainly the story behind her third album, Glimmer. An Ohio native whose recording career began in Nashville, Richey had already been anointed an alternative-country goddess, thanks to her first two sessions, Kim Richey (1995) and Bitter Sweet (1997). Blessed with a cheeky honesty and blunt emotion, she made the sort of pop rock with a twang that could have earned Music Row kudos -- that is, if mainstream country radio had room for such an outstanding approach. She had even conquered the keenly competitive Nashvegas songwriting game, co-authoring two No. 1 hits: Radney Foster's "Nobody Wins" and Trisha Yearwood's Grammy-nominated single, "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)."

Not bad achievements at all, quite frankly. Yet Richey was still restless when it came time to make her third record.

"The only thing I knew was that the songs that I'd been writing, they didn't strike me as wanting to be produced as country songs, or rootsy songs," says the striking blond with a voice as sweet yet dark as sugared tea. "I guess I could have done, like, more folky versions of them or something, but that's not what I wanted to do."

Nashville artists rarely work anywhere or with anyone from outside the Davidson County line. But quite by accident, or maybe fortuity, Richey's focus landed elsewhere when she first started exploring her options for what would turn out to be Glimmer. A friend in publicity at Richey's label, Mercury Records, once worked with Hootie & the Blowfish and wrangled the band's manager to help with some suggestions. Among them was Hugh Padgham, the premier English rock producer whose credits include The Police, Genesis, Paul McCartney, XTC, David Bowie and Melissa Etheridge. Padgham's manager happened to split time between England and Nashville.

The Midwesterner and the Brit decided to collaborate on Glimmer, which turned out to be anything but a country album, or even a country-rock record. It's a modern pop-rock production in which the music is sympathetically crafted around the hardwood beams of Richey's songwriting. Glimmer boasts a different setting from Richey's past releases, yet it feels like a natural progression, even if some fans and critics have found the shift a bit jarring.

The fact that Time magazine named Glimmer one of last year's ten best pop records certainly validates Richey's instincts. Besides, change is usually good. "It's what I am about now," she says. "Hopefully everybody changes, and you have new experiences, and you are influenced by those experiences, and you change and do different stuff."

But that can be hard in a business that encourages acts to do one type of thing, over and over. "Yeah, but then you do that, and you get slagged for being the same," she says.

Richey's free-thinking attitude -- a no-no at most Nashville record labels -- probably reflects her lifestyle: She is not a single-minded careerist. She stumbled into singing the summer after graduating from high school in Dayton, when she and two pals auditioned for a restaurant gig on a goof and landed a five-nights-a-week job. In college she played in a band with future Nashville pop rebel Bill Lloyd. But music was merely a sideline. "I did it some to earn some money, and for the fun of it, while I was in college."

After earning her degree in environmental education, Richey worked some in the field. But she says her best preparation for the music business was the many years she spent bartending. "I was really shy when I was in college," says the now-loquacious, wisecracking singer. "I was afraid to go and eat in the dining hall because someone might talk to me, so I just stayed in my room all the time. Later, music kinda helped me to overcome that. But when I was bartending, that was the closest thing I've ever done to the music business, because you are just talking to all these people you don't know, and a vast majority of them you don't have a lot in common with, and you try to find something you have in common. So that was my best training."

She all but fell into music as a career. For a good decade or so, Richey says, she moved around, never living anywhere longer than two years. "I moved to Nashville mostly on a lark, and then it all started falling into place. [Lloyd] sent me a tape of the first Steve Earle record, and that was part of the reason I thought Nashville might be an all right place to come to. I was driving my Bellingham, Washington, hippie friends crazy with this music. Because they didn't get it at all. And I thought it was the most brilliant thing I'd heard in ages."

The emergence on Nashville labels of acts like Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith (note: all Texans) in the mid-1980s gave many aspiring roots artists -- pardon the pun -- a glimmer of hope for something cool out of Nashville. Says Richey: "Then it was like, 'Sucker!'"

In truth, Music City has been good to Richey in many ways, especially in the success she has had with covers of her songs. "That's what I live on. If I had to count on me, I'd really be in trouble," she scoffs. But then she belies her self-deprecating comment with another ode to the benefits of change, and of doing something new, as she is currently attempting with her first tour as a solo act, opening for Yearwood.

"It's good, because sometimes you can get really dependent on a single person or a band or something and think, 'I can't do it without those people.' Then the rug gets pulled out from under you, and it's really horrible for a while. And then it turns into a good thing," she says. "Because you realize, in the end, that you can only rely on yourself."

And perhaps your Swiss Army blade.

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