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A lost music interview: Trisha Yearwood

Bill DeYoung

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Trisha Yearwood. Photo by Russ Harrington.

In honor of Trisha Yearwood’s appearance tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall, here’s an excerpt from a story written nearly 20 years ago for the music magazine Goldmine. Yearwood and this reporter spent four hours on the phone one evening, talking, and talking, and working out how to tell her phenomenal story.

Space limitations kept the Yearwood profile (written before her marriage to longtime pal Garth Brooks) out of I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews. If there’s ever a Volume II, the whole 12,000-word story will see the light of day again!

In this excerpt, we go through each of the songs on her Songbook – A Collection of Hits album, most of which will undoubtedly receive airings at tonight’s concert.

For every 75 stories about girls who came to Nashville looking for country music stardom, and ended up going home in tears on the Greyhound red-eye, there’s one about a girl who got precisely what she was after.

Business acumen, timing and the manipulation of good contacts helped levitate Trisha Yearwood to her current status as country’s Number One female vocalist. She is, to put it simply, no dummy.

But Trisha Yearwood’s voice – a powerful, emotionally charged instrument with all the hues of a finely-tuned rainbow – would probably have opened doors in Los Angeles, had she set her sights on a career in pop music. She could have just as easily gone to Broadway.

Nashville, however, was where this yellow-haired Georgian wanted to go from the very beginning. A child of the ’70s, her musical appetites had developed around Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and the Eagles, but she knew the old country stuff from her parents’ record collection, and she loved a lot of it, too.

More importantly, Yearwood knew the strengths and weaknesses of her own voice; she knew she wasn’t a rock singer. From the first time she stood with her sister in front of the bedroom mirror back home, singing “I Can’t Help it If I’m Still in Love With You,” she felt good with the emotional language of country music.

She has become a dependable hitmaker, and the strongest argument for belief in the continued health of the country/rock hybrid germinated so long ago in the music of Gram Parsons, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.

Trisha Yearwood may be country music’s saving grace – she combines artistic integrity with an unshakeable commercial sense, and although her music flirts with pop, it’s still wearing country’s letter sweater. So far, and she’s extremely happy about this, she’s remained true to herself and she hasn’t pissed anybody off.

This impressive resume of hits could only belong to a woman who’s comfortable with her muse. “It’s much easier for me to find the gut-wrenching, depressing ballads,” Trisha said after the following Q&A session was completed. “Those are the ones I love. It’s always harder for me to find something uptempo that’s at least intelligent.”

She’s in Love With the Boy. “I still think it’s one of the greatest story-songs ever written. It’s exactly where I was in 1991. I sing it every night, and it strikes a chord with everybody. It’s one of those universal songs. And when you get to that last verse, the payoff verse, it’s a great feeling.

“Songs are like little movies to me, and so you put yourself in the movie. You become a character in the movie. The new ones are exciting because they’re fresh. But if it’s not that, if the story is not what you get into, maybe it’s the crowd response. You hit the first chords of ‘She’s in Love With the Boy’ and 20,000 people start to scream, you’re pretty motivated. You get what you need. And it’s a great story. It works.”

Like We Never Had a Broken Heart. “It was the second single. People were saying ‘This is going to be the career record,’ because Garth was singing on it, and it was a big ballad, and then of course ‘She’s in Love With the Boy’ made history and all that.

“I always thought it had that ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’ kind of vibe; I always loved that song.”

The Woman Before Me. “I thought the song was a great story, because it’s not your usual lyric. Everything that can be said about lost love, romance and jerks, has been written. But I thought the way this song was written was different, and really cool, about how everybody comes to a relationship with whatever’s in their past. We’re all who we are because of what we’ve been through.”

Down on My Knees. “When I first heard it, I thought of my parents, because it’s about ‘I’m always in a hurry, and you think I take you for granted, but I wouldn’t know what to do without you.’ That’s enough to make you bawl when you’re singing it.”

Wrong Side of Memphis. “That song definitely has everything. The groove is incredible. It was a song I’d always wanted to sing; I love that image of just throwing your bag in the back of the car and going to Nashville. Because that’s what I did.”

Walkaway Joe. “No matter what happens now it’s on there, it’s on tape, preserved forever: I got to sing with Don Henley. Having him on there is very special. The images in that song are great. When I heard the demo, I thought of him. I thought it sounded like something he would’ve recorded.”

The Song Remembers When. “When people ask me what my favorite song is that I’ve recorded, I used to say ‘I can’t answer that; I don’t have a favorite.’ But this song always comes to mind. Because it’s the ultimate song about the power of music. We’ve all had that experience.

“I recorded it because it was beautiful; I never dreamed it would get that kind of reaction. We started doing it live before it was released as a single, and the crowd response was incredible. People were going crazy for it early on; I’m really proud I was the one who got hold of it.”

Thinkin’ About You. “I heard that song and immediately loved it. Thought it was a hit. It’s very hard for me to find positive love songs that don’t just make me sick, that aren’t just so sappy that I don’t want to sing them.”

XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl). “That was a song that I don’t know if I would’ve recorded. I got asked to sing it for a TV movie. Wynonna was supposed to sing it – she threw her back out or something and I got asked to do it. And we were between albums, and I didn’t have anything on the radio.”

How Do I Live. “We started putting that at the end of the show even before it was a Number One record, because the response … I cannot explain it. The only thing I can imagine is that it’s so simple. The lyrics are ‘How Do I Live, How Do I Live’ … it’s so simple in what it says. And maybe because there’s some pretty big vocal gymnastics, and having to really go up to that high note, people just respond.

“I can’t explain it, but it has become the song that’s sung at everybody’s wedding. It has taken on a life of its own.”

In Another’s Eyes. “Garth and I had been trying to cut a duet together for years, and we’d gone in the studio; nothing ever worked. It had been so easy to sing harmony on each other’s records that we thought making a duet together would just be easy.

“Even though we sing well together, we’ve got several notes between what’s comfortable for us to sing. So to find something that we could sing in the same key is not easy.”

Perfect Love. It was one of those things that was just meant to be, because we were in the studio the next day, trying to cut a couple extra things to go on the greatest hits record. Tony Brown called and said Stefony Smith and Sunny Russ had just dropped him off a tape that was not even a demo; they had literally written it and sung it into a jam box.

On her friend and singing partner, Garth Brooks: “His music is different from mine, and his performing style and all that is very different, but we grew up on the same music. I’ve always wanted to be Linda Ronstadt, and he’s always wanted to be James Taylor. So it works, it works really well.”

On becoming a success: “If you don’t believe it, you’re not gonna be there. Always, since I was a little kid, I’ve been a visual person. I always saw myself singing onstage. I saw myself at the CMA Awards, winning Female Vocalist. OK, so it took me seven years to win it, but I finally did!”

On demo singing: “Before I moved to town, I was singing along with the radio, like everybody else. So this made me take a song I’ve never heard before and not go ‘Well, how do I imitate Linda Ronstadt singing this?’ but ‘How would I do it?'”

On country radio: “If you ever make a record for country radio, you’re setting yourself up for a failure, because you don’t know what they’re going to play. And if you’re catering to someone else, you’re not an artist any more.”

On country fans: “Part of what makes country music artists different from any other kind of artists is our accessibility. You don’t have to be afraid of your fans, because for the most part, they’re pretty good people. They’re pretty polite, and for the most part they just want to come up and say ‘hey, I like your music.'”

Tickets and info here.

Further reading: Yearwood discusses her new album, Every Girl.

 

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