"Following Her Heart"
Yearwood finds success on her own terms.
By Michael McCall
JANUARY 12, 1998: When Trisha Yearwood accepted her first Country Music Association Award last fall, the Grand Ole Opry House crowd rose in a standing ovation--the only one that a current artist received all evening. For Yearwood, and for country music, it was a defining moment. The unusual outburst of support from the crowd of competing industry heavyweights underscored the respect Yearwood enjoys among her peers. But there was a subtext as well: At a time when country music is foundering due to a lack of artistic conviction, Yearwood was heralded for her gutsy determination to put out mature music that ignores trends and defies the formula-driven mind-set of Music Row.
"I was just blown away," Yearwood says of receiving the Female Vocalist of the Year honor. "I wasn't prepared at all for the response from the crowd. To win it, of course that was a thrill. It was the elusive award. It was the one I wanted because it was the one I'd never got. But the crowd--that made it so much sweeter for me."
She hasn't always received such resounding support; at times, Yearwood has struggled because of her musical decisions. That's because, as much as any current Nashville hit-maker, she transformed her star status into a license to put quality before calculation. "For me, it's about being able to sleep at night," she says, leaning back on a couch at her publicist's office. "It's about being able to live with the choices I make. I know music today is real image-driven and marketing-driven. It's not always about the music. But for me it is. I truly love songs, and that's what I've wanted to base my career on."
This love took Yearwood in a different direction than many of her contemporaries. Like a handful of other female artists--Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss--Yearwood has provided country music with an artistic conscience that contrasts wildly with the sound-alike ditties and shallow ballads that clutter country radio. Yearwood is the youngest on that list, which makes her dedication to artistry all the more commendable. While a peer like Faith Hill obviously models her career on Reba McEntire, Yearwood looks elsewhere for guidance.
"Most of my musical influences and heroes are those artists [for whom] the quality of music is number one with them," she says. "I've always cited Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris. If you look at their careers and their music, they're not the biggest stars, but they've always had an important artistic presence. They're known for doing quality work, year in and year out. I've always wanted to be that kind of artist."
That wasn't necessarily the plan Nashville originally had in mind for her. Yearwood began with a bang when her first single, 1991's "She's in Love With the Boy," became a No. 1 hit. It was the first time since 1968 that a debut single by a female country artist had achieved such a feat. "It was a blessing and a curse," she says, looking back. "Within three months of having a record deal, I had a No. 1 song and a gold album. It happened so fast. Everybody thought every record would do that and that I'd be the next big thing."
That didn't happen, and part of the reason was Yearwood's unwillingness to cash in on her instant stardom. For the follow-up to her debut album, the singer got pitched scores of story songs about young lovers and other lighthearted tales that fit the mold of "She's in Love With the Boy." Yearwood balked. Instead, she put out Hearts in Armor, an album anchored by powerful and complex songs, many taken from outside of conventional Music Row sources.
"For me, it was important to show that I had some maturity," says Yearwood, who was 27 when Hearts was released. "I didn't want to sing the same song over and over again. We purposefully tried to steer off in a different direction."
Hearts did produce a couple of massive hits with "Wrong Side of Memphis" and "Walkaway Joe." But the album also ended Yearwood's faithful support from country radio. The bluesy sass of "You Say You Will" failed to crack the top 10, apparently because it came across as too forceful and aggressive for programmers. Moreover, the stunning "Down on My Knees," set to a spare piano melody, offered heart-stopping, bare emotion. Radio largely rejected it, even though it remains one of the most effective country ballads of the '90s.
Yearwood's second album set the tone for her career, much more so than "She's in Love With the Boy." Her subsequent work can be compared with such landmark Ronstadt albums as Heart Like a Wheel and Hasten Down the Wind. They're heavy in well-written ballads, and the song selection shows a careful ear for distinctive material from a wide range of songwriters. As with Ronstadt and Harris, Yearwood's song choices reveal an impassioned music fan and an artist who understands the powerful emotional chords that a well-written, well-performed song can touch.
Ever since Hearts in Armor, Yearwood has danced a precarious tango with country radio. She has occasionally scored top hits: Indeed, tunes like "The Song Remembers When," "The Woman Before Me," "Like We Never Had a Broken Heart," "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," and "Everybody Knows" rank among the most memorable radio hits of the '90s. But Yearwood's seven-year career is just as remarkable for the singles that have been rejected by country radio--most notably, her undeniably powerful versions of Gretchen Peters' "On a Bus to St. Cloud," Melissa Etheridge's "You Can Sleep While I Drive," and Layng Martine and Kent Robbins' "I Wanna Go Too Far." Her consistently strong albums are packed with songs that extend far beyond the scope of radio's tightly restricted radar.
Yearwood has continued to struggle with country radio. But even at times when her record sales have started to slip, she has never once altered her determination to maintain a high standard of taste. Throughout it all, she credits MCA Records with remaining in her corner. The label initially debated about her career direction during the making of Hearts in Armor. But, as time has passed, the execs have seen the value in the direction she's chosen.
"They originally saw me in a way that was maybe more one-dimensional or mainstream than I ended up being," she says. "In the beginning, especially, they communicated to us that they thought it was going to be one way and that we seemed to be taking a detour from that. But once they realized that this was what I was going to do, they got behind it. Now they let me do what I want."
With the recent release of her greatest hits album, Songbook: A Collection of Hits, Yearwood's strategy suddenly seems brilliant. The album has already sold more than any of her previous collections, and her profile is higher than ever. She's now being glorified for the same traits that roughened her path in the past.
"This feels real good to me," she says with a smile. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I get to be an artist, I get to make the records I want to make, and I don't have to worry about some of the things other country singers do. It's nice to be in that position."
Meanwhile, Yearwood is set to take on a new challenge. For the first time in her career, she's going into the studio without her longtime collaborator, Garth Fundis. Feeling the need for a change, Yearwood has decided to work with MCA president Tony Brown on her next collection. The two will begin work on the album this month.
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