Sunny Sweeney

First Published November 2014

A SUNNY DELIGHT

As hard as it is to believe it now, there actually was a time in Ireland when Garth Brooks was unknown. Same story with Brad Paisley. And same again with Carrie Underwood.  And even – going back to a Garth connection again – Trisha Yearwood. But if you think about it, every famous and well-known name in country music, or any other genre, was at one time or another, an unknown. So some of you folk reading today’s column may never have heard the name Sunny Sweeney before. But maybe a few of you will have. What’s for certain, however, is that over the next few years, you will ALL be hearing plenty about this astonishingly talented Texan singer/songwriter.

I first came across Sunny’s music a few years back when I was passing the time of day in one of the most enjoyable ways known to any music fan; just thumbing through shelf after shelf of albums in my then local music store, Heartbeat City. It was the title of Sunny’s album that first caught my attention, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. It could hardly have been more country sounding! And when I checked out the songwriter credits inside and saw two from the pen of the renowned Jim Lauderdale  – Refresh My Memory and Please Be San Antone, plus he dueted on another track, Lavender Blue – and one from the inimitable Iris Dement, not to mention three of Sunny’s own compositions, I was won over in a matter of heartbeats!

That 2006 album remains to this day one of my all-time favourite country albums. So when I learned earlier this year that a brand new album from Sunny was on the way, my excitement was difficult to contain! But getting the news that an interview with Sunny had been given the ‘green light’, well, there was definitely no containing that! There was some shouting out loud done on my part, I can tell you.

Provoked lands every punch it aims and sees Sunny living up to the standards she set herself with Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Just a few weeks back she became the first female artist to top the Texan country music charts in 11 years with Bad Girl Phase, the brilliant lead-off single from Provoked. And at the moment, she’s on tour with none other than Miranda Lambert, winner of 4 major CMA (Country Music Association) Awards for 2014; Album of the Year for Platinum, Single of the Year for Automatic, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Musical Event of the Year for We Were Us with Keith Urban.

The fact that Sunny is keeping this kind of company right now is no coincidence, folks. It’s years of working hard and tons of talent getting the recognition it deserves. Here’s how our chat turned out when we crossed paths a little while back.

Sunny, the first thing that caught my eye, and kind of surprised me about your new album, Provoked, was that you said in another interview I read somewhere that Used Cars was the first time you’d ever written a love song?! Is that really true?   

“Well, I have written a couple before, but none that have ever been recorded for the world to hear! This was just an idea I had that I thought was kind of strange, but thought it would make a cool “love song”… I asked multiple people to write it with me.  Everyone I mentioned it to didn’t seem interested.  I asked Natalie Hemby what she thought, and she said, ‘Please don’t write this with anyone else.’ So, a month or so later, me and Natalie were writing in the back of the bus at a gig and put it all down.”

If it’s not too personal a question – but I think it’s one other writers in particular would love to hear your answer to – what was so different in the emotion of love that inspired this song, in comparison to the kind of love you’ve experienced before?

“Well, I think as we mature, we realize that love’ is much more than just one thing.  When I met my current husband, I just ‘knew’ he was different.  I loved him almost immediately.”

Does it ever feel a little bit scary, or make you nervous, to put so much of yourself into your songs and out into the world?

“Oh yes, but I always say, someone’s gotta do it!’ Actually, I am a music fan first and foremost.  It’s what has always made my world go round.  I always related, even as young child, to the real stories that happened in country music.  That type of music has been the center of my universe since I was a child, so when I started making my own music or singing other peoples’ songs or whatever, I always leaned towards the truthful ones… or ones that COULD be truthful… I just love stories that say something.”

When you’re actually in the process of writing a song, Sunny, is it difficult to ‘go back’ to a very emotional time in order to ‘get-the-song’, so to speak?

“No, I always keep those events in my arsenal, and quite honestly, I am a very emotional person anyway, so reliving things and trying to figure out what could have gone differently is something that, just by nature, I do.”

Do you relive those old feelings in real-time or have you found a way to go back, but at the same time, keep your distance from the actual hurt or pain of the original moment?

“No, the feelings always come back too, but that’s part of the process, and I‘ve had fans tell me that this song or that song has helped them through a similar situation. Quite frankly, if a song touches one person or helps one person, I feel like I’ve done my job. It’s why I don’t mind putting some personal stuff in there.”

To change tack just for a moment, I read somewhere once that you used to have three dogs. Are they all still with you? If so, what are their names and do you still paint their nails and brush their teeth?  

“Yes, I still have two of my dogs.  Unfortunately, I lost one in the divorce. Her name is Merle.  I still have Nash and Dolly who are both fourteen.  They both walk a mile every day and although Dolly is blind, they really get along well. They are quite spoiled and each have their own beds and get covered up at night.  Nash even has her own buzz fan! Needless to say I am a huge dog person!”

I also saw somewhere once that you have a slight fondness for pigs! Where in your life did that obsession begin, and why?

“My grandmother, Dotty, collected pigs, and she actually started my collection when I was young.  She died when I was twelve, and I then inherited all of hers, too.  I have a LOT of pigs…on the verge or annoying to my husband, I’m sure.”

Another obsession of yours, but one you’ve called a “healthy obsession” , and I’d have to agree with you on that, is with ‘the Hag’ himself, Merle Haggard! You’ve had the chance to play with Merle a few times in your career, so do you think country music, as a genre, is unique in how often and easily it seems to allow younger and up-and-coming artists to mix with and learn from their heroes?

“No, I think all genres do that.  I mean, I hope that people think I’m original, but would love it if they could hear the influences of the music I adore.”

You’ve admitted to being a bit of a procrastinator in life, so I was wondering if that applies or stretches to your writing too? How disciplined are you in your writing? Would you have a set time for it every day or does ‘inspiration’ have to come to you?

“I’m one of those that likes structure.  I always save ideas or lines for a song and write them down. But I would prefer to book time with a co-writer to write and then USE  those ideas there. I’m not one of those ‘it may come to me at 7am’ types. If it comes to me at 7am, I’ll write it down and then go back to sleep. I’m only half kidding!  But I am way more productive in late mornings or early afternoons. If it starts getting to like four or five, I’m ready for a cocktail!”

From both Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame and Provoked, it always feels to me that the songs you sing, whether your own or covers, are very much an actual part of you as a person, Sunny. They’re never just something that you happen to do as part of your job. Fair observation?

“Thank you soooo much! That is the best complement you could have given me.  My music is so much a part of me that I would panic if suddenly I was not allowed to express myself through it.”

You were nominated for Best New Female Vocalist at the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards. How big a moment in your career was that, and how did it feel the moment that you first heard the news? But also, Sunny, given that Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame was released in 2006, did it perhaps feel a bit strange to be in the ‘New’ category?

“Yes, it may have seemed a bit odd to be called a newcomer. However, I was so honoured to have my efforts validated enough to be nominated that I did not care WHAT they called me!”

How do you personally measure how your career is progressing? Is it through what your reviews are like, how singles chart, the impact albums make, crowd reaction at gigs? What are the signs that reassure you things are going to plan?

“I pay my bills doing the one thing I love.  I still cannot believe I GET to do this for a job.  It’s sometimes just surreal to me.  I definitely love my fans, and my shows, and recording, so as long as I get to continue doing that, I’ll be just fine with my progress.”

To go back to songwriting for a moment, when you’re working on a song, Sunny, and I’m thinking lyrics here mainly, do you pretty much accept the song as it first comes to you or are you the kind of writer who needs to edit and re-write, and who worries over even a small word here or there?

“I hardly ever write by myself, as I have grown very fond of co-writing.  Some of the writers I have been blessed to write with – the Warren Brothers, Natalie Hemby, Monty Holmes, Lance Miller, Buddy Owens – they really understand crazy ideas. So, like, the Warrens and Lance together no doubt, if I have an idea, the two brothers always start just playing licks on the guitar and some cool melody happens and then we just start from there. Every write is always different.  That’s the beauty.  You never know what is going to happen when you go to work that day. I have definitely gone back and listened to a work-tape and wanted to change something, as I’m sure everyone does. Again, that’s the beauty of creating. You can do whatever you want!”

Back to Provoked. Garth Brooks always says that there’s one song on each of his albums that defines that album for him. And in a way, defines him at that particular time.  Which song on Provoked does that for you?

“Provoked is simply stated, ‘Just a story I’ve been living and have been needing to tell.’  It wouldn’t have been the same story with twelve songs.  It wouldn’t have been the same story with fourteen songs. It’s needed these thirteen songs to say what I was wanting to say.”

So with Provoked now out in the world and finding its wings and flyin’ its own course, what are your plans for the next couple of years? Do you think we’ll have a chance to see you over here in Europe?

“I would LOVE NOTHING MORE! I have been to Europe quite a few times, and would love to come back!  I am in the process of renewing my passport as we speak, so hopefully sooner rather than later. “

Last question for you, Sunny! You’ve been through some tough times in your life and  career, but you’re still swingin’ and singin’, and doin’ it all from the heart! For others in the same business, either singers or songwriters, what’s the best piece of hard-earned advice that has served you well that you’d like to pass on?

“I know this may sound trite, but the best advice is, ‘Don’t give up’. Seriously. If you believe in yourself and have a LOT of faith, and just keep going, no matter what the critics say, it will work out. Keep your eye on the prize, not on the work.  My real theory is to surround yourself with people that believe in you as much as you believe in you. It’s hard to find those people initially, but when you do, it seems that things always fall in to place.”

ENDS

Zoee

Part 2

First Published September 2020

LOVE LETTERS TO NASHVILLE

Just a few weeks back we had the pleasure of introducing readers to the fabulous singer/songwriter ZOEE. We caught up with the Australian native not too long after the release of her most recent singles, Break My Heart and The Song We Sing. In Part 1 of that chat with Zoee – a weaver of dreams through the beautiful magic of her songs, but also very much a dreamer herself, and chaser of those dreams  – we took a bit of a deep dive into the story behind Break My Heart, as well as into Zoee’s songwriting in a more general sense. 

And, believe it or not, we also got to hear the story behind how this Aussie songstress who’s now based in Scotland, managed to end up smack bang in the middle of Sean’s Bar in Athlone, in a session and carrying out an interview for her role as a presenter on the tv show ‘Nashville Meets World.’ Sean’s Bar, by the way, for those of you not in the know on these matters, is the oldest bar in the world. 


Zoee and her family now live about two hours out of Glasgow, “way out on the coast”, having also lived in Edinburgh. As she says herself, “we’ve lived in a little bit of everywhere!” But how exactly did Zoee end up in Scotland? 


“Long story to that one! I went out to the States a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it out there. Did my first show in Nashville, and decided pretty much from there on out that I wanted to do music. The family said to me when I got back to Australia, ‘You’re really good at this, why don’t you think about doing it?’ I was already leaning on that idea anyway, so I said alright, let’s do it! And they were like,’Well how can we help? What can we do to get behind you?’ And I was kinda blown away at that point. But I thought, well, we always have loved travelling, and we’ve never been to the homelands, we’ve never been to Scotland and Ireland and England, where it all kind of started for our family, so I said well, how about we go there? We’d been to Canada, we’d been to Mexico, all around Australia, so let’s go there and see how it is with music. Lo and behold, after that conversation we bought our one-way tickets and boarded a flight to London, Heathrow. That was four and a half years ago, and we haven’t been back to Australia since. It’s kinda crazy. We started initially in London, and that was super-expensive and very, very competitive for an artist very new to the scene here. So we ended up saying well let’s head further north, let’s go to Scotland and see what the scenery is like up there [laughs]. And it’s been lovely ever since, we haven’t looked back.” 

Zoee’s dad’s name is actually Dundee…well…kind of! I wondered if that fact harked back to her family’s Scottish heritage? 


“Absolutely! And that tied in with the Australian heritage obviously, because he’s got a super, super Australian accent. My dad is my lead-guitar player, by the way, for anybody who doesn’t know. So whenever we’re in the States, whenever he starts talking over there, he’s got a very, very thick accent – and his first name is actually Mick – so everyone’s calling him Mick Dundee! [laughs]. And obviously with all of the family coming from Dundee and Scotland and everything else, it stuck! And now it’s his stage-name. Everybody just knows him now as Dundee! [laugh].” 

Zoee would have been writing in Australia before moving to Scotland, where she’s lived now for four years. I wondered if there was anything about the way she writes, or how she approaches songwriting, that has changed from living in Scotland? 


“That’s a great question, I like that. I think yeah, I definitely think it has. I wrote a lot more folky stuff when I was in Australia. And I think that was because I wasn’t playing shows like I have been while I’ve been living in the U.K. So the ‘live’ scene has definitely influenced my writing style. I tend to write songs now that are crowd-starters. I always try to write stuff that’s going to be fun to play on stage. When I was back in Australia, I was writing stuff that was more or less for myself, just sitting around quietly to just play. And they were the sort of songs that you sit by the camp-fire and play, they’re the real stories. And they’re the ones that you wouldn’t necessarily get away with playing at a festival so easily! The audience might think, ‘What’s goin; on here?!’, ya know [laughs]. So, there is a bit of contrast. And obviously as a person, I’ve grown. I’m four and a half years older. I’ve been getting to see the world through different cultures and places, that definitely helps you grow and helps you see things differently. The music [you write] is so in touch with you as a person, there’s no real separation between the music and the actual person behind the music. So yeah, to answer that honestly, I would say that there’s been a lot of change in me personally, and musically. And vocally, quite a lot of change! [laughs]. I was listening back to some stuff from a couple of years ago only a few weeks back, and I thought, wow! It’s amazing how some changes happen and you don’t even notice. I’m always striving to grow every day, to always do something a little bit better, change this or change that. It’s just about constantly trying to make yourself the best version of yourself.” 

Speaking of festivals, and indeed, speaking of Nashville which Zoee had already mentioned, I wanted to talk about another amazing song of Zoee’s called Nashville. She had been in Nashville last year for CMA Fest, so I was wondering if the song came before the visit – from wanting to get there – or from the experience of having been in Music City? 


“Well I’d been to Nashville once before I got to play CMA Fest. I grew up listening to country music, and songs from the seventies and eighties especially. And not even so much country, rock ‘n’ roll, AC/DC, Meat Loaf, so many different sounds, Paul Simon as well. So there was a lot of variety. But whenever I heard something that was country, I’ve always had this warm feeling, and just connected with it. And I can remember vividly watching a documentary on Neil Young when he was talking about going to Nashville, and that just stuck with me as a kid growing up. I was like, gosh, I want to go to Nashville someday, that sounds amazing there! And when I finally got there, I underestimated the power of the southern culture! [laughs]. And the warmth of everybody there, I didn’t expect it to be quite as lovely as it is. I got there and I was just completely overwhelmed by it, I just fell in love with the place. The fact that everybody’s just so supportive of each other too, ya know. You would think that an industry that’s so driven on competing against each other, and climbing on top of each other to get where essentially you’ve got to go – and I mean, that’s such an awful mindset to have, by the way – but you would expect a city that’s full of musicians to be very driven by that attitude. But they’re not. It’s the complete opposite. From my experience, it’s been warm and welcoming, and everyone’s like, ‘Well I’ve got a show, come and join me, I’ll get you up with me, we can play some songs. We should write a song!’ [laughs]. There’s this energy, and this loving, embracing feeling, and I just fell in love with it.”

Zoee continued, “So the song ‘Nashville’ came about when I was flying to Nashville to go play CMA Fest, and it had come to me a little bit before. I was thinking, yeah, I ‘m going to Nashville, and thinking about how it’s always felt like home, and I was thinking about it and thinking about it, and by the time I actually got to Nashville, the song was finished! So I actually played the song in Nashville before it was even recorded. And the reaction was…crazy! And wonderful. So I recorded it when we got back to England. I was going to do it while I was there in Nashville – we did record a little bit there – but time-wise, I just didn’t have enough. I was on tour in the U.K. at the time and I had a three week gap, so we went to the States and we did CMA Fest and the Bluebird Cafe and a bunch of other places. I had three weeks there, but I just didn’t have enough time to record everything. It’s kind of like my love-letter to the city, and the adventure of getting there, ya know.” 

Zoee had mentioned earlier in our chat that she’d been doing a lot of songwriting during lockdown, and I’d heard that she also had plans to release a new single each month between now and the end of the year. True? 


“True! Yeah [laughs]. I mean, this is the thing. I had planned for 2020 to be on the road most of this year. We were going back to Sweden, we were doing another U.K. tour, we were going to Ireland, back to the States, to Nashville, Germany and a few other European countries. But obviously with everything that all got wiped out pretty quick. So plans had to change pretty quick as well. So instead of focusing on touring this year, I focused on recording and shooting, and doing a whole bunch of other stuff to get new music out. Prior to this year, I’ve only had officially three songs released, three singles. One was for a film soundtrack for a feature film called 19 Willock Place, that was called ‘Town.’ I had an acoustic folk song out called ‘This Time’, and I had one very early song I wrote called ‘It’s The Weekend.’ But my style has changed so much from when I recorded that. So I was kind of edging at the bit to release new stuff. So this year I decided to focus on getting in the studio, and getting some stuff recorded. And by the studio, I mean at home recording, working with a producer closely, and getting a whole bunch of new stuff ready to release. So yeah, I can officially say that I have a single coming out now every month until the end of the year, and then maybe a few surprises at the beginning of the year as well.” 


Given that Zoee and her band are so accustomed to being on the road, what has 2020 been like for her in that regard, having to put a full-stop on ‘live’ music? 


“For the first months, it was awful. I had C2C that I would have been playing, and other festivals lined up as well this year. This year, for me personally, would have been a real jump-ahead in my career, because I’d worked so hard the year before. So this was going to be the next step, if that makes sense? Because I’m independent, you’re essentially your own record label, you’re taking care of all the bookings, and the social media, the visuals, the editing, the content, the creation…there’s so much stuff you have to take into consideration. So this year, 2020, was a big one. And the team and I had a lot on the agenda. The team is obviously my family. My mum’s my manager and my booker. And my dad and my brothers. they’re my band. This year, we had a lot on the table, and we had worked hard last year for it. To see it all kind of vanish into thin air was really heartbreaking for the first months. But after that, it almost became this sigh of relief in a way, to almost say wow, this is all that we’ve achieved in the last few years. And it was nice to take a break and just re-evaluate things, I guess. To help take more precise and accurate decision making going forward. And that next step has been to record and get more stuff out, and get more stuff ready. And also giving people a chance to listen to some of the music that you wouldn’t have heard unless you’d come to a show. With everybody being at home and locked up [laughs], and nobody able to go to concerts and things, it’s been really nice to be able to connect with people online as well, and share some of the stuff that I’ve been playing and working on for years. I mean, ‘Break My Heart’, for example, I’ve only just brought that out…what was it… a month ago? But I wrote that three and a half years ago. And unless you’ve come to a show, you wouldn’t have heard it. And I’ve got so many more songs like that. Plans for touring are out of my control, they’ve been taken from underneath me, so now it’s time to turn my attention to focusing on giving everybody some music.” 

C2C is obviously a huge event on the country music calendar. So as an independent artist, how did Zoee make that happen? 


“Actually, funny enough, they reached out to me about playing! And I was blown away. It came through Live Nation, I’ve worked with them a few times. We’ve done quite a few things in Glasgow together. Yeah, they reached out to me. They said, ‘We know your stuff really well, and would you be interested in playing C2C?’ And I was like, would I?! OF COURSE! [laughs]. And it was the week of C2C, when it was meant to be happening, that everything got cancelled and the official lockdown happened, and I was so heartbroken, ya know. It was this close, this close…[laughs]. But ya know, I think everything happens for a reason, and it has given me a chance to just sit back and take a look at everything, and plan for 2021. My plan is to come back stronger than ever in 2021.”In keeping with her plan to release a new single every month for the rest of the year, Zoee dropped the beautiful Take Me Away on Friday last…

“The song ‘Take Me Away’ is an empowering song about the process of finding yourself. I’ve learned in order to move forward in life, you have to let go of the naysayers, the negative, and begin doing whatever it is that gets you leaping out of bed in the morning. So this is one of those songs that no matter what mood you’re in, as soon as you start playing it, your energy shifts. It’s such an uplifting song and I’m excited to be able to bring that kind of energy to everyone. The world seems to be a bit of a madhouse lately and I think we all need a balance-shift right about now. As a songwriter, I try to write from a personal place of experience.”

Earlier this month, on September 6th, Zoee also released an acoustic song I Am Your Friend, to Facebook and Instagram, a song she wrote for a friend who was suffering with suicidal thoughts. “I know the magic of music and how it’s helped me through tough times in my own life. I can only hope that my stories and songs can help lift someone somewhere through their dark times. After all, we need to be smiling and happy. It’s a short life.”  

Zoee is also nominated for 12 Awards at the Fair Play Country Music Awards in Holland, with the winners being announced in November.

TAKE ME AWAY is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS 

Ed Holland

First Published June 2017

A HURRICANE AT HARVEST TIME

Since first appearing on the country music scene in Ireland in the last few years, Mayo based band Hurricane Highway have been gathering new fans as fast as they’ve been releasing some top quality tunes. And that’s pretty fast! The music, however, is just one of the reasons why the band have come so far in such a short time. 


Another, and one that’s equally as important, is the fact that frontman and lead-singer Ed Holland, and band co-founder Kevin Collins, are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. And funny, too. What you see is what you get with both men, and what you’ll also get whenever you’re in their company is some good laughs. They take their music seriously, but they know life is to be enjoyed. So they make it as enjoyable as they can for themselves and those around them.


Ed and I had been trying to make our diaries match up for some time so we could have a chat about all the exciting things that have been happening for Hurricane Highway. Sadly, though, we were finally able to catch up on the morning after the terrible events at the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester a couple of weeks back, when twenty-two innocent men, women, and children were murdered in cold blood by a callous, and cowardly, act of terrorism. And equally sadly, our chat on that morning is now published here only a few days after yet another despicable terror attack in London.
We began by Ed telling me how he’d become aware of unfolding events in Manchester the night of the atrocity at the M.E.N. Arena….


“Well basically I was havin’ a kind of a sleepless night so I logged onto Facebook, and I hadn’t heard anything at that stage cos’ I’d been watchin’ a bit of a film before I went to bed. I hadn’t even switched over to the news. So I logged onto Facebook, saw what was happening, and my first thought was just shock, horror straight away. I mean, at a concert, such a cowardly attack, ya know. I jumped up outta bed and I switched on Sky News, that’s what I did. It was horrific, such a helpless feeling. Needless to say, myself and Kevin (Collins, from Hurricane Highway), and everyone involved with the band send our condolences and our deepest sympathies to all of those affected and to Manchester.”


Moving on to happier matters, and one of the main reasons why we’d scheduled our chat in the first place, the release of Hurricane Highway’s fantastic debut album, ‘Exposed’, in late April. As the days ticked down to the album finally being released, I wondered what was life like for the band as they prepared for their big day? 

“Very nervous! [laughs]. And excited, too. Both. So much work went into it, three years of work and seven singles in that time. There was anticipation, nerves, and excitement all at once. And anxiety, too, I’ll be honest [laughs]. All of those emotions were involved. And we weren’t expecting to hit the number one spot with it, we thought if we charted at all it would be great because there’s so much competition out there. So to actually do that, to get to number one, we were delighted. And the way it’s been received so far, and the airplay it’s been getting, it’s actually given life again to all the older singles. It’s been great.” 


What had Ed been most worried about around the album’s launch?


“I suppose any artist’s biggest worry is that it wouldn’t realise the potential you feel it should. Especially when you put so much into something, with no stone left unturned, and that’s really the way we kind of tried to deliver each song and our videos, as we were goin’ along. Doin’ it all to the best of our own abilities anyway. So you’d worry that certain people mightn’t like it, that it might get slated. I haven’t really thought about it like this before, it’s a good question.” 


So, for fans who may not have managed to get their hands on a copy yet, what can they expect to find on the album? Will all seven singles be there?


“Yeah, all seven singles are on ‘Exposed’, everything we’ve done since the very beginning. There’s eleven tracks in total on there, so a good few new ones as well. We have the current single, ‘Make You Mine’, which is track one on the album, and we’re hoping to release another single from it in September. We’re already workin’ on new stuff cos’ goin’ into next year we’ll be back in the studio again workin’ on the next album. We’ll probably pick a song to be the new single and test the water with it. That system kinda works for us. A lot of other artists maybe record the whole album then pick the best singles out of it, but we kinda do it the other way round [laughs]. But that just seemed to be the way it happened, there wasn’t any plan. We recorded ‘Your Man’ and that took off with all the regional radio stations. Then we were under pressure to get somethin’ else out after that, and so on it went. Yeah, so that’s kind of how it happened.”


The release of Exposed was one huge date in the diary for Hurricane Highway in 2017, and there’s another coming up in August when the band will be among an impressive homegrown contingent who will entertain country music fans at Harvest Fest. 


“Yeah, Aiken Promotions rang us on a Friday and asked would we be available to go to a press-conference on a Monday, the official launch of the festival, so we said absolutely! On the Saturday they rang us again just to confirm everything and say they were delighted to have us as part of the line-up. And we were obviously pretty delighted with that, too, of course [laughs]. So we’re up in Enniskillen on the Saturday, the 26th, and Westport then on the Sunday, the 27th. We have some other good shows comin’ up too in the next while. We’re in the Roisin Dubh in Galway on the 4th of August, we’re in Ballymaloe at their festival on the 1st of July, and a few more cool ones like those, too.” 


Hurricane Highway, for those of you who may not know, are very much a country-rock band with a distinctly American country influence. And to the best of this writer’s knowledge, Hurricane Highway are also the only band of their kind in Ireland. Given that fact, how would Ed describe the journey of trying to establish themselves? 


“It’s been a building process, for definite. I’ll have to say that. You’re competing with all the main contenders who are in the charts, and then there’s a certain flavor of country too, so you’re goin’ to be competing with the country stars as well. Ours is more of a cross-over style, though, so there’s a small percentage of the market that we’re lookin’ at in some ways. But look, I suppose it’s about carving out a niche for ourselves in that market, really. And that’s the way it’s been from the start. So we’ve been building it all song by song. So people are getting to like us through the songs, more so than just because we happen to be the only band of our kind or anything like that, ya know. A lot of people have come up to us and said, ‘You’re brave for goin’ down the route you have’, and what they mean by that, I think, is that sometimes you’ll see even some of the big country acts comin’ in from America, the ones that are kind of doin’ what we’re doin’, and it can be hard for them in Ireland, too.”


At this stage, I suggest to Ed that we better bring his Hurricane Highway co-founder Kevin Collins into the conversation, or he won’t be too pleased with either of us! 


“[Laughs], I suppose we better! Yeah, it was myself and Kevin that started Hurricane Highway. Kevin’s wife passed away a couple of years ago and he was goin’ through a kind of a hard time. And I was just after breakin’ up from a twelve year relationship around the same time. Now I’d known Kevin alright, but not very well. Anyway, he was playin’ in a bar in Westport and I went in when he was playin’ one night, and he asked me up to sing a song. So up I went, and I sang ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ Now I only found out a couple of months ago that this was actually his wife’s favourite song, which was a bit of a mad coincidence. But we’ve always felt like there was something kinda guiding us along the way, with all of the positive things that have happened. It’s been an amazing journey. So the band helped Kevin in that way, brought him out of that place he was in and gave him a kind of a distraction, I suppose you could call it. We just really bounce well off each other musically. Kevin came to me with ‘Your Man’ and said, ‘Hey, I think we should record this’, and that’s how the whole journey started. We recorded it, and from that Hurricane Highway was born. So out of bad can come good, ya know.”


I wondered if there had been any particular piece of advice that’s ever come Ed’s way, about either life in general or life in the music business, that has really helped to shape him?


“Oh yeah, jeez, that’s a tough one. But yeah, there is, plenty. I suppose one would definitely be to enjoy the journey because you don’t know what the destination is gonna be like! And that really applies to so much in life, including what happened yesterday in Manchester, ya know. Because you just don’t know what’s goin’ to happen, you have to really live in the day, I think. There’s certain things that everybody has to plan in life, but you can’t be livin’ in next August or whatever. It has to be for today, for the moment you’re in right now. We know the work we have to do for Hurricane Highway, and I know the work I have to do for it myself, but it’s still important to enjoy every part of it. And that’s more what we’re tryin’ to do with Hurricane Highway, more so than saying, well we want to reach such a peak, but never knowing if we’ll ever get there, ya know. You have to set standards, and you have to set goals, and try to achieve them all even though there’ll be some you won’t. And in this business it’s very tough because you do get a lot of knock-backs. But that’s the music business, it’s one of the toughest businesses to be in, so you have to be able to take it. I think acceptance is key as well, acceptance of life’s circumstances. Accepting life on life’s terms, I suppose.”


If it was in Ed’s power to change one thing about the country music scene in Ireland, a change that he feels would be for the better and for the greater good, what would it be? 


“I’d stop people from jiving!! [laughs]. I’d get them to sit down and then they might go to more concerts! [laughs]. Ah no, I’m only joking there. I know plenty of people who are mad into jiving, they love it. But I think people sitting down to enjoy more country artists, concert style, that mightn’t be such a bad thing either, ya know! [laughs]”


To wrap things up, I decided to really get Ed thinking! So, if a movie was about to be made of Ed’s life, what would it be called? And not only that, but what songs would play over the opening and closing credits?


“That’s a tough one now! I’d have to think about that! I don’t know, ‘Exposed’, maybe, get a bit of promotion out of it for the album, too! [laughs]. I’ll probably be thinkin’ about this later and I’ll come up with a great answer altogether! I’ll ring ya back later! [laughs] And songs? Right, for the opening credits. Well I have to look at this in two different ways if it’s a movie about my life. Are we looking at the happiness, or the sad parts, ya know? I think, Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, is that too cheesy? [laughs] I don’t know really. But there’s a song or two on the album which are very meaningful to us. ‘More Than I Could Be’ is one, track seven, and ‘If This Is Goodbye’, track number ten. Those two songs explain so much actually, they’d be great for a movie.”


ENDS

Charles Esten

First Published September 2020

A LIFE OF MUSIC & INFINITE BLESSINGS

The hit U.S. tv show NASHVILLE ran for six hugely successful seasons, winning fans all around the world in the time between when its first episode aired on the ABC network on October 10th, 2012, and the grand finale which came our way via CMT on July 26th, 2018. Based around the lives of several country music stars and stars-in-the-making, Nashville quickly became more than just a tv show. With all of those cast in leading roles blessed with musical as well as acting ability, Nashville took on a life of its own away from the tv screen, with each season also bringing to life several albums of original music from the show. 


It was almost inevitable that this music would eventually take to the road, and indeed it did, beginning with tours in America in 2014 and 2015, before eventually finding its way to these shores in 2016, 2017, and again in 2018. If what happened on our tv screens made stars of the cast (even bigger stars in the case of Hayden Panettiere, ‘Juliette Barnes’), the magic that was made in the recording studio (overseen firstly by T-Bone Burnett and then by Buddy Miller) and then recreated on-stage, made them superstars. And none more so than the man who walked in the boots of ‘Deacon Claybourne’CHARLES ESTEN. A singer/songwriter in real-life too, Charles quickly became one of the show’s most beloved figures, thanks to the intrigue, romance, and ultimately no small measure of sadness involved in his relationship with ”Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton), and as the uncle of ‘Scarlett O’ Connor (played magnificently by Clare Bowen, whom we’ve been lucky enough to interview twice for OTRT). Nashville may have come to an end, but for Charles Esten, the music plays on. And how thankful we all are for that. In fact, Charles has just recently released his new single, SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, and I had a chance to sit down with the man himself to have a chat about it all the other week. 


Amazingly, the day of our chat was also his birthday. So I began by first asking Charles why on Earth he was spending part of his birthday talking with some random Irish guy?! 


“[Laughs] That’s my present! That’s what I asked for! I said, I would like to speak to a random Irishman on my birthday, and here we are [laughs]. I’m very grateful that you knew that [laughs]. And I’m happy to talk to you, don’t worry about it.” 

On then to that new single, Sweet Summer Saturday Night. There’s a lovely kind of bittersweet, end of summer but all is well kind of vibe about the song. I asked Charles what he wanted to give to his fans with this one…


“Well, I think, if we’re gonna be honest, we haven’t had that many sweet summer Saturday nights this summer. So before this all happened, I cast my mind back to what that meant to me. And for me, when I was younger, and when I was growing up in high school and getting together with my friends and going out to find where the girls were! And getting to sort of hang out with them. This tries to evoke that as much as possible. And like all songs of that nature, it tries to do it in a bit of a watercolour way, with some particular details here and there, and some other ones that maybe you share. So it might not be exactly my sweet summer Saturday night that you’re remembering, but you’re hopefully drawn back to one in your memory as well. It’s an odd time to be releasing music, because you’re either gonna be dealing with the complexities and difficulties of all this, or I think you want that other kind of song, the escapist song, that takes you somewhere else. And this is the latter, for sure. Music’s been able to do that for me during all this, so I’m hopeful that maybe I can help someone else do that as well. Take a little trip back in time!” 

Because it is such an odd time to be releasing music, I wondered if Charles faced any kind of dilemma over what type of song to put out there? 


“Well that’s it. I knew I was either going to do something that gets right – in as much as I can – to the heart of this, it’s such a hard thing to decipher. Initially when all this started happening, all the lockdowns, it takes a second to even process how you’re feeling about something. Sometimes the writing comes before the processing, and is part of the processing. But in other times, there was just something about this [‘Sweet Summer Saturday Night’] that I thought really was a breath of some fresh air in the midst of all this. It was an outdoor song, it’s by the water, it’s being with friends, she’s sippin’ on a beer…it was just all of these things, so I thought let’s get out of the house! Let’s go somewhere special, and just be with some old friends. It was either or, and that’s where I landed, for sure.” 

Staying with birthdays, and going back to an earlier part of Charles’s career, the amazing Buddy Holly, had he lived to be with us still, would have been eighty-four the Monday before we spoke. Charles, more than many, having been Buddy for a couple of years in his own life, knows the significance of Buddy Holly’s legacy on modern music. I asked him when he first became aware of the man from Lubbock, Texas? 


“Well I had a father that was a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll, that was when he had grown up. He was rather proud that he was right in the sweet-spot of early rock. I think he was probably fifteen years old in 1956. And he would tell me, even long before I got that role, that you can’t even imagine the impact of lowering the needle onto the record that played the introduction to That’ll Be The Day. Nor could you imagine the impact when everybody heard about the tragic plane crash that took Buddy, and the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. I had known a fair amount about Buddy, more perhaps than some of my friends of a similar age, but it wasn’t until I got to start researching to play the man that I really got to do a deep-dig on his career, and on the things that made him spectacularly meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll, so crucial, so pivotal, so foundational. If you think about it, one way to explain how young he was when he did all this, is by…what age did you say he would have been, eighty-four? Many people would guess that he would have been much older because you tend to forget how young he was at the time. He wasn’t much older than my father at the time. He was a very young man doing all these hits, and also he did them in such a short span of time. From the time That’ll Be The Day went number one to the time of the plane crash itself, was eighteen months. That’s amazing to me. Especially when on top of that, you go ok, so what was the catalogue that basically came out in that window? And then you go, well ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘It’s So Easy To Fall In Love’, ‘Everyday’, ‘Rave On’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, ‘True Love Ways’…it just goes on…and on…and on! It’s like how is that even possible?! You talk about a supernova really just exploding onto the scene and just changing music. Also, the other thing that people forget, is that that time, well who was on the charts? Who was big? It was Elvis Presley, it was Chuck Berry, it was Little Richard, it was The Everley Brothers, all absolute superstars, all Mount Rushmore type rock ‘n’ roll characters. But none of them were their own band. None of them were writing all their own songs. I’m sorry, Chuck Berry, obviously was the prototype guitar player writing his own songs too, there’s not a better songwriter than Chuck Berry. But I’m talking about the prototypical garage band, where a couple of friends get together. You play drums, you play bass, I’ll play guitar, you play rhythm guitar, that thing that is essentially the blueprint for every rock band that came after it…is Buddy Holly and The Crickets! It’s kind of unbelievable when you think about it.” 

One of the things that I’ve always loved about Buddy Holly is the beautiful simplicity of his lyrics. And I guessed that lyrics are important to Charles too, as his website displays a wonderful selection of the words to some of his songs, something I don’t recall seeing before with any other artist. In one of his most recent quarantine live-stream videos, Charles spoke about a song of his called That Song, and how a particular part of its lyric lets you “touch the pain” in the song. So would lyrics be his favourite part of the songwriting process? Or his biggest strength as a songwriter, perhaps? 


“Wooh! That’s a wonderful question. It’s sort of hard to picture them like that. It’s almost like asking a pilot, do you prefer the left wing or the right wing? [laughs]. I think you know what I mean. But, having said that, I think the fact that I love lyrics so much – and I don’t want this to be misconstrued – is why I like country music so much. Country music, the lyric, the story, obviously always has been a part of it. And early rock ‘n’ roll, for sure. But later rock can be more bleak, more symbolic, less literal. I love something about the literal. Even if it’s representational. ‘That’s when I saw her walking on the water / Sippin’ on a Michelob Lite/ And she looked right at me/ Ooh she knew she had me/ Sweet summer Saturday night…’, that’s literal. I mean, it’s symbolic of other nights and other things, but I do like something about that. And a well-turned phrase, man, you’re right! There’s just nothing like it! But, the only thing I can say is a well-turned phrase with the right tune behind it…! Let’s go back to Chuck Berry real quickly. There’s so many of them, like ‘a coffee-coloured Cadillac.’ Man, I could almost write a little book! I would love that. You just turn the page and here’s another phrase, whether it’s from a Springsteen song or something like that, there’s so many. Here’s one, ‘Screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves’, that’s the beginning of ‘Thunder Road.’ That’s why a lot of times I do country covers of songs you don’t think of as country. You don’t necessarily think of ‘Thunder Road’ as country, but man, what’s more country than the screen door slammin’! [laughs]. I do love a great, great lyric, very much so. I have to cop to that, you’re right.” 

When Charles took on his Every Single Friday project a few years back [beginning on July 15th 2016, he released a brand new original single – which he wrote or co-wrote – every Friday until July 21st 2017, totalling fifty-four songs, and earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the achievement], did that in any way change his style of, or approach to songwriting? As each Friday rolled by were there any instances where, for example, he might normally have spent more time on a song – not rushed them, given them a few weeks or months to come fully to life – but for that project found himself finding ways to get where he needed to with a song, while still being happy with his work and not damaging the integrity of the song, a lot sooner? 


“I would say only in a broad sense, never in a specific sense. I never said, ‘Oh I need a song by tomorrow. Finish this thing, even if it’s not ready or done.’ Never said that. But what it did do, is there’s something about deadlines that inspires creativity for me. I can have a thing called paralysis of analysis, where you’re just overthinking. You don’t have to turn it in, so you wait. There’s something about saying it has to be done by, or it’s gotta be done soon at least, that, to me at least, it sort of unclogs the pipes. I found that writing begets writing. For years, I had all the time in the world to write a song, because I wasn’t in Nashville, I was just an actor in L.A. and if I had an idea for a song I’d start to write it. I didn’t need to finish it that day. That’s generally not the Nashville way. Generally, you go do a co-write down on Music Row, you’re there four hours, five hours, maybe six. But you walk out with something that definitely resembles a song. Maybe it’s not finished, but it’s well on its way. I’ve always like that. You can always keep going back to fix ’em. And I do have songs like that, that I’ve written, literally over the course of years. It’s sort of like the way compression works with power. Compressed energy. Whether it’s a steam engine, or any kind of turbine, that when you compress that energy you end up getting more motive force out of it. And it pushes the song forward. Pushes you to get to that place that you might not have gone otherwise. It really was tremendously inspirational to the creative process to just go out there and say I’m going to do this. If you think about it, I never said to anybody I’m gonna write fifty-four songs and produce them. What I said was I’m gonna keep releasing them for as long as I can, and for as long as it makes sense. I might have stopped at twenty, and I would have been fine with that. But it just opened up the floodgates. What it really did to me, is I always felt like I was starting late in Nashville. I didn’t even come here to play Deacon until I was forty-six. So I always felt like, aaw man, what if I’d come earlier? So that was my ten-thousand-hours. I just wanted to immerse myself in it. I never like to feel like I’ve left anything on the table. If it was gonna turn out that Nashville didn’t get all those seasons and I had to go back to L.A. and get another job, I wanted to look back and say I did all that I could, which is one of the Nashville songs, that exact line. I want to look back and say I did all that I could, is in the song A Life That’s Good. And I sort of live my life by that. So I can look back now and say that musically, and during that period of time, I definitely did all that I could.” 

Speaking of Nashville and ‘Deacon‘, I told Charles that I’d been very lucky in that I’d had the pleasure of chatting to his friend and colleague on the show, Clare Bowen – who is, as Charles will know well, one of the loveliest people there is – on two occasions. When last we spoke, in talking about Nashville, Clare said she was happy for her character ‘Scarlett’ and how her time on the show came to an end, because ‘Scarlett‘ probably has the happiest possible ending to her Nashville story. How did Charles feel about walking away from his character of ‘Deacon’ when that moment finally arrived? 


“I have to say that, number one, I agree with you, Clare is just lovely and wonderful and an ethereal spirit. I enjoyed all of our scenes together. The ‘Deacon’/’Scarlett’ connection was one of my favourite things on Nashville. The arc that ‘Deacon’ had, the road that he walked…there were three things that we knew about ‘Deacon.’ He desperately loved ‘Rayna’, and he desperately loved music. It was just part of who he was. And he was an addict in recovery, an alcoholic. There was a lot of damage underneath all that we knew about early on. So it was really special to me that, even in the final seasons after we lost ‘Rayna’, where it’s a little bit like, ‘Well now what? What happens?’ And that question is, she meant so much to him, I just wanted to explore the nature of the fact she was so strong and such an important part of his life, that maybe she might have made him a strong enough man to even go on without her. That’s the kind of love that you want to aspire to. Not a love that makes you cripplingly reliant on somebody, but that makes you so that you can even go on without them. So we explored that the final couple of seasons. And the, the final piece of the puzzle that I’m so glad they touched on, was well what are the original wounds? What are the original wounds that led to that darkness? And for ‘Deacon’ it was his relationship with his father. So to bring that in, right down the stretch, and to sort of bring that to as healthy and as processed a close as possible on the final moment of the final episode, to me there’s a real perfection about it that lets me walk away and feel good about where ‘Deacon’ started, and where he ended up. In some weird way, those characters in my mind are out there in the world living their post-Nashville lives. Not literally, I’m not a crazy person [laughs]. I’m saying to think of that now, ‘Deacon’ had somewhere to go that was much more healthy. Maybe, even a lot less interesting to watch! That’s how you want to end a show. We saw the interesting parts [laughs], that’s what I would think! [laughs].” 

Going back to birthdays again, and a very special young lady in Charles’s life has a very special birthday coming up in October. And his daughter, Addie, who will be celebrating her 21st, is a huge part of the reason that Charles has been performing his Quarantine ‘Live’ Streams over the last few weeks and months. I asked Charles to tell me about his very important work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society…


“Thank you for giving me that opportunity. You’re correct, my daughter Addie is nearly twenty-one years old, and that is as great a blessing as I can imagine. I just got off the phone with her, she called me to wish me a happy birthday on Face-Time. When she was two-and-a-half years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia. And when I was a kid, I remember seeing those newspaper stories about how that was a death sentence, pretty much. By the time Addie was diagnosed, they were able to tell us that there was an 85% survival rate. Now to a parent, that 15% on the other side of that is massive. But, she went through two years of chemotherapy and went into remission rather quickly. Because of all the discoveries made between our youths, she was able to survive. So now she’s happy, she’s healthy, she’s cancer-free, she’s in college, she’s a division-one soccer player. And we are just so grateful to have her healed and in our lives. The blessing of that is just infinite. The least we can do is to turn our attention towards helping further fundraising for further discoveries to help others who are going to find themselves having to face the road of blood-cancer. That’s what L.L.S does. The Light The Night campaign is massive and a great part of that. That’s why we’ve been using these quarantine ‘live’ streams to still try and raise a little bit of money. Just because this massive Covid crisis is around, it doesn’t mean that blood-cancer goes away. So many charities are having difficult times because so many fundraisers are ‘live’ events, that’s how you make your money. So we’re doin’ what we can. And we’re so grateful for people to give and help us out on that, and I’m so grateful to you for asking about it.” 

While Addie will be giving the Esten household plenty to celebrate in October, Charles’s daughter Taylor was giving the family loads to cheer about right now as she made a name for herself in the Music City Mayhem event, obviously having picked up a trick or two from her dad along the way! But as a dad, how did it feel for Charles to be seeing Taylor step into the limelight like she’d been doing? 


“It’s just thrilling for me. I have to admit, being an artist, whether it’s an actor or a singer/songwriter, there was never anything that I was afraid of doing. I was rather invulnerable, sort of leathered up, you can’t hurt me [laughs]. But when it’s your child, that’s when you’re vulnerable! I just want all the best things for her, and I want her to be able to do her music at the highest level that she wants. What I’m so proud of is to see her life as an independent artist. Her songwriting is just fantastic. The group of people she’s surrounded with, to create her videos, to create her ‘live’ performances, or as it is now, her virtually ‘live’ performances, or the music she’s making right now, it sort of blows my mind. I’m so proud of her. It’s leaps and bounds beyond where I would have been, or even could have been, at that stage. For those who don’t know, her name is Taylor Noelle, and her latest song is ‘West End’, which obviously could have a London reference but it’s actually about Nashville’s west end. But man oh man, it’s my favourite of all her songs! And it’s sure something to see people enjoy it. She spent a little time in London as well, and loved it very, very much. She actually got to do a small performance there, and I know she would love to get back.” 

I’ve only been to Nashville once myself (waaaaaaaay too long ago now), but on that occasion I was lucky enough to visit the Grand Ole Opry, and luckier still to be invited backstage. I know how excited and awestruck I was that night, and yet, Charles has performed upon that famous stage over one-hundred times. I asked him what it feels like to sing on such hallowed ground, and does that experience change the more often it happens? 


“It’s hard to describe it. It’s hard to overstate it, for sure. The same father that raised me up on early rock ‘n’ roll, raised me up on early country music also. By the time I went there, none of it was lost on me. I understood the centrality, not just of the Grand Ole Opry, but of that circle on the Grand Ole Opry stage, that all the greats have stood in and performed their classics. I knew why I was there, and why I got to sing there was because I was playing this guy, ‘Deacon Claybourne.’ The only way I was able to do that at all was by the people that are surrounding you there, the musicians. They’re just as top-notch talented as it gets. And they’re all so kind. And the artists who I was surrounded by, whether it was Little Jimmy Dickens, who at that point was ninety-three years old, or Jeanie Seely, one of the great female singers as well. Vince Gill was around. And these people made me feel welcome. And without feeling welcome, I don’t think I could have even stood in that circle. My knees were already knockin’ [laughs], my mouth was already a little dry [laughs]. It was because that kind of support was there, that I was able to do that. And there’s still always a frisson, an energy, an electricity, especially now that it’s been so long since I’ve been on that stage, I just miss it so dearly. I remember suddenly I went, ok, this is still wildly exciting, but now I can finally sort of BE HERE, and enjoy it and do it! For a time, it felt like sky-diving and it was over before you knew it [laughs]. That’s one of the hard things about very exciting moments, whether it’s being on the Royal Albert Hall stage or doing improv on TV, there’s so much of it where you want to calm your nerves, but you also want to BE THERE. It’s a combination of things. That’s why so many artists or people drink, or try different ways to calm themselves down! But I was always like, well, why would I want to do that? I’m in this business TO FEEL these moments. The trick is feeling them in the right measure, without letting them overwhelm you. Or, without controlling them so much that you weren’t really there, and didn’t really wholly enjoy it. So there’s a real sweet-spot now when I’m on that Opry stage, where I still feel it, but now I can enjoy that feeling!” 

SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, the brand new single from CHARLES ESTEN, is available now on all platforms. 

ENDS 

Natalie Maines

First Published July 2013

CHICK, FIGHTER, MOTHER

Thirty-two words. That’s all it took to turn Natalie Maines from a dixie darlin’ to a Saddam supportin’, America hatin’, devil in disguise. At least, that’s what happened in the eyes and ears of country music radio and a large number of country ‘ fans ‘. Fans for whom, it must be added, the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking – even common sense, perhaps – were as much a foreign language as any other found beyond the shores of their good ole U.S. of A.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against America or country music, far from it. In fact, I’ve spent some of the most memorable days and nights of my life under the blue of a ‘Buckeye’sky in Ohio, and country music defines a massive a part of who I am. But even now, a decade on, how Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated back in 2003 still gets me shaking my head in disbelief. There truly are times in this life when no matter how much you love something, you can still find yourself almost diametrically opposed to everything that something seems to stand for or represent at that moment in time. And 2003 was one of those times.

With the release of Mother, Natalie’s first solo record last May, it’s worth remembering how this Dixie Chick spoke her mind, stood her ground, and fought back when lesser souls would have shattered in face of the storm that engulfed her and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.

It was London, 2003 at the Shepherd’s Bush Theatre. The world stood just ten days away from yet another war as the U.S. and Britain prepared – despite huge anti-war demonstrations – to invade Iraq in search of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ their intelligence services had confirmed beyond a doubt existed. That was the message being relayed to the world by then President George Bush, his Vice-President Dick Chaney, their Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For the greater good of the free world, war had to be waged, they argued. But a lot of people disagreed with that assessment, Natalie Maines among them.

The Chicks were on the European leg of their Top Of The World Tour. Their album sales were in the tens of millions. They already had eight Grammys to their name and their count of CMA Awards topped that by a further two. Their cover of the Stevie Nicks classic Landslide was riding high at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just three years earlier they had performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the sporting and television highlight of the American calendar. But then Natalie Maines spoke from her heart. And thirty-two words changed everything. As she was later to sing, “The top of the world came crashing down.”

“Just so you know”, she began, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Now, in the same way as I’m not attempting to run down America as a country or all Americans, or everyone who’s a country music fan, or who was involved in the industry then, I’m not saying that Saddam Hussein was basically a good guy, a bit of a character who was misunderstood and suffered a bad reputation because of that. Absolutely not. He was a tyrant, a dictator. A brutal, arrogant, selfish narcissist. But was the invasion of Iraq and the grief it brought upon so many the way to deal with him? Again, in my opinion at least, absolutely not.

As soon as word reached the States of Natalie’s comments while on stage in London, the fallout began. And the nature of the attacks on her, Martie, and Emily were deeply personal, vicious, founded mostly in the flag-waving bluster of patriotism as defined only by flag-waving and bluster. As mentioned earlier, all argument and rationale was as far removed from the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking as Bush et-al always were from those ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Unquestionably, no male band would have been vilified in the same manner.

Maines and the Chicks were accused of supporting communism. One radio caller suggested, in total seriousness, that Maines herself should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on Iraq. Bill O’ Reilly – renaissance man that he is – referred to the band as, “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” In the ultra-conservative world of O’ Reilly’s middle class America just ten years ago, it seems that while opposing war was a big no-no, encouraging violence against women was an acceptable form of free speech.

Other protesters labelled Maines, Maguire and Robison as  ‘bimbos’ and ‘dixie twits.’ “Free speech is fine”, remarked one man, “but you don’t do it outside of the country and you don’t do it publicly.” Another reasoned that, “Being ashamed of our President means being ashamed of our country.” One couple even offered this sage advice, “Keep playin’, keep makin’ music, and keep your mouth shut.”

Within a week Landslide had fallen from #10 to #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. And within two weeks it had crashed out of the chart completely. Country radio all but banned the Dixie Chicks in response to the frenzy of country ‘fans.’ Many stations even went as far as to set up bins outside their offices so that ‘fans’ could publicly dump their Dixie Chicks albums. In some cases, the public destruction of their albums was encouraged and even arranged by having tractors drive over them to crush them.

Even President Bush himself commented on the controversy, although this time he was perhaps pointedly missing the point and the bigger picture as opposed to just not getting it, as was so often the case. “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt”, he opined, “when people don’t want to buy their records.” Bush, of course, like the Chicks themselves, is a native of Texas where he served as the Lone Star state’s 46th governor between 1995 and 2000.

On May 1st, 2003, Bush held court aboard the USS Lincoln, a banner behind him proclaiming, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ He stated at the time that this signalled the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In December of 2011, President Obama oversaw the final withdrawal of the last remaining US troops from Iraq. There have been almost 4,500 US casualties in Iraq, nearly 4,000 of them since President Bush’s ‘mission’ was ‘accomplished.’

In 2007, Taking The Long Way, the Dixie Chicks’ first album since the top of their world came crashing down, claimed five Grammys. Among them, the awards for Album Of The Year and, for their defiant, fight-not-flight anthem Not Ready To Make Nice, the awards for Single and for Song Of The Year. Upon its release, Taking The Long Way debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and the country charts, despite receiving next to no support from country radio. Clearly and thankfully, however, the band retained the support of their more liberal, contemplative fans. Even if, to their eternal shame, a significant number of their fellow country artists distanced themselves from the Chicks in every way possible. But they were not without allies among big names in the music world as both Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were vocal in support of the Chicks’ right to express their opinions freely.

Even country legend Merle Haggard could see through the bluster and past the flag-waving. “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks”, he stated, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.” 

Mother is not a Dixie Chicks album. And it’s definitely not country, so don’t expect either one. But it’s doubtful that any labels like country, pop, rock – or whatever else – were even discussed by Maines and her producer Ben Harper when they began work on this collection of songs. And in truth, what ‘kind of’ an album it is doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that one of the most powerful, expressive and emotive voices of the last fifteen to twenty years, a voice that has been too long gone, has gifted its vocal dynamism to the world once more. As it happens, though, Mother (whose title track comes from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album) IS an excellent debut. Among the standout offerings are Natalie’s graceful embrace of the Jeff Buckley classic Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, and Come Crying To Me, a Maines co-write with Dixie Chick band-mates Martie and Emily.

Last week the US celebrated the fourth of July, its Independence Day. If anyone can claim to have truly lived in the spirit of what that day is supposed to recognise, then it’s Natalie Maines.

And long may she continue living that very same way.

ENDS