Scotty McCreery

First Published October 2020

SEASONS CHANGE, CLASS REMAINS

When it comes to ways to burst onto the music scene and introduce yourself to a global audience, there aren’t many better ways to do that than by winning a show like American Idol. That’s exactly what SCOTTY McCREERY found out back in 2011 when he was the last man standing on the tenth series of the show. Since then, the North Carolinian has established himself as one of the greatest country voices of the modern age, and that’s something that can be stated without any exaggeration, and probably with pretty much unanimous consent. 


It’s not just the power and the beauty of Scotty’s voice on a song by song basis that proves this, either. All four of his albums to date – Clear As Day in 2011, Christmas With Scotty McCreery a year later, followed by See You Tonight in 2013, and most recently, 2018’s Seasons Change – back it up, and all four have debuted at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart. That most recent collection, Seasons Change, contains what is easily one of my favourite songs of the last couple of decades in the shape of Five More Minutes, which made history for Scotty when it topped the Billboard chart in 2018, making him the only country artist in Country Aircheck/Mediabase history to achieve that feat without the backing of a record label. 


Scotty has just released a brand new single, and as with everything the man has put out there over the course of his career, YOU TIME is class. And as well as the song itself being brilliant, the even better news for his fans all over the world, including those here in Ireland, is that You Time is also taken from Scotty’s forthcoming new album. And lord knows that after the 2020 we’ve all been experiencing, the news that there’s a new long-player from Scotty somewhere in the not too distant future is the tonic we all need. I had the very real pleasure of spending a little time in Scotty’s company recently, and we started our chat with You Time. The lead-off single from any collection is always important, of course, so I asked Scotty why that honour went to You Time this time? 


“Well thank you for the kind words on the song. Ya know, it’s just a song I fell in love with the minute we wrote it. And we wrote it, I guess, early last year, early 2019. We were super busy on the road touring, and my wife is a paediatric nurse here at a hospital in North Carolina, and she was busy at work, so we weren’t getting a lot of time to spend together. That’s where the song kind of came from. And just listening back to it, it just felt very me, very us as a relationship. And it felt like a good representation of the new album. And for that new album, we’re working away at it. We’ve got a lot of it finished, but we still have a little ways to go. I wrote half the songs, and half of them will be outside cuts. Hopefully the middle of next year, it will be ready to go.”

Staying on the subject of albums, Scotty’s latest is Seasons Change, a #1 in its own right and continuing a remarkable run for him, as all of his albums have hit that top spot. Seasons Change also contains three #1 singles for Scotty; with In Between, Five More Minutes, and This Is It all featuring. I loved his choice of the song Seasons Change as the album’s title-track, though, because I thought that really hinted at the fact that when the album came out back in 2018, Scotty was in a place in his life where acceptance, expectation, and his love for what he does were all in close to perfect balance. Would that be a good read on how things were at that time? 


“Yeah. When we wrote that song, ya know, it was coming out of a pretty rough year for me professionally, which affected things personally. 2016 was a strange, tough year for me. But all of a sudden in 2017 we kind of pulled ourselves up by the boot-straps and got going again. And really the momentum, and just the feeling of everything started feeling good again. So that’s where that song came from. We took that energy and ran with it on that album, and a lot of the songs were written after we got ourselves goin’ again. But yeah, ya know, I feel like sometimes when life throws things at you, you can either sit there and mope and be sad, or you can pick yourself up and say, ‘Well alright, let’s get goin’ again.’ So that’s what we tried to do.” 

One of those #1 singles from Seasons Change, the glorious Five More Minutes, won Scotty an N.S.A.I. (Nashville Songwriters Association International) Award for ‘One of The Top Ten Songs I Wish I’d Written.’ That’s definitely one of the best-named awards I’ve ever heard of! But far more importantly, the song that won it – Five More Minutes – is definitely a song I wish I had written, too. I asked Scotty if he would mind taking us back in time and behind the scenes to the moments when that song was first coming to life…


“Yeah, absolutely. And I appreciate you sayin’ that. Again, Nashville, ya know, I love that town for the songs that get written there. So to get that kind of award was very cool. But yeah, when we wrote ‘Five More Minutes’, I was in Nashville with a guy who has produced my last couple of albums and has been a mentor to me over the years, Frank Rogers. And another one of my favourite songwriters in town, Monty Criswell. I had just lost my grandaddy Bill about two weeks prior to that, and this was one of the first songs that I’d written since then. I just showed up to the write that day and started talking about grandaddy to Frank and Monty, just the type of guy he was, and if I had just a little more time with him how I’d love to play another round of golf with him, that kind of thing. I think it was Frank that said, ‘It’s just like you wanted five more minutes with the guy.’ I said, that’s exactly right, and that’s the song we’re gonna write today.” 

Would Scotty find that, as a songwriter, he’s someone who tends to put a lot of his own personal life experiences into the songs he writes? 


“Yeah, ya know, I think for me, that’s kinda something that I enjoy. I enjoy writing about my life, and expressing myself and what I’m going through, through music. Some songwriters can pull things out of thin air, and imagine something, and come up with an incredible song. But for me, I struggle with that. So I’m much more of a  – if I live it, if I love it – that’s kind of what I write about.” 

Scotty had mentioned that 2016 had been a strange year for him personally, and it’s fair to say that 2020 comes into that same category for pretty much all of us. One thing Scotty will definitely remember from this year is the remarkably serendipitous turn of events that saw him as the last artist to play the Ryman Auditorium before operations were temporarily suspended there, AND become the first artist to welcome a ‘live’ audience back to the famous old venue as well. The world, in so many ways, literally changed in the time between those two performances. Did it feel that way for Scotty when he finally got back on stage? 


“Yeah, that was a night I won’t forget. Ya know, for me, any time you get to play the Ryman – the Mother Church of country music – is a special night. You can just feel the history the moment you walk in there. I got to play it in March to a sold-out crowd, there was an interview there, people were standing, it was an amazing night. And it was the first night that I saw people, like, starting to elbow-bump instead of shaking hands! And I was like, oh…this is kinda gettin’ weird! [laughs]. Then all of a sudden, the next day was shut-downs and everything, that was strange. But getting to go back and welcome a ‘live’ audience to such an historic venue, it was amazing too. It was different! It was a sold-out crowd again, but it was a much smaller crowd, everybody was wearing masks, you couldn’t see them singing or smiling. But just to have humans in there with us, and to play ‘live’ music again, to feel the beat of the drums and the energy of the guitar, that was just a moment I won’t forget after taking off for so long.” 

Does Scotty have any idea when he’ll get to be back on stage in front of an audience again? 


“There are still some shows on the books for me this fall and this winter, if they happen. I’d probably be surprised at this point. I’m not too sure. I think for a normal, ya know, thousands of people kinda show, that’s a ways away. But there’s options for a drive-in shop or something that we can work with.” 

Back in 2011, Scotty won the A.C.M. (Academy of Country Music) New Artist of the Year Award. And just the day before I spoke with him, I’d had the pleasure of talking to Tenille Townes, this year’s recipient of that same honour. If Scotty could sit his 2020 self down with his 2011 self – or indeed, with Tenille, for that matter – what words of wisdom would he pass on for surviving life in the music business, having come through everything he has and made it back to the very top again over the last few years? 


“I love Tenille, first off. She’s an amazing artist, and very deserving of that. For me, if I could go back and talk to myself, I think I would just say enjoy the moment. Enjoy the time you have on stage, and writing songs, and making albums and stuff. I think I was maybe just a little caught up in making sure that everything was so perfect…I wanted my show on stage to be perfect, my album, every little thing, instead of kind of just sitting back and letting things happen, and enjoying the moments. It’s a special time. Starting out as a new artist, and everything is so new, just sit back, smile, enjoy it. And kinda be a sponge around all the veterans that you’re around too, because they’ve been doing it for so long.”

Scotty lost a very dear friend – Yamir – in a tragic accident a few weeks before we spoke. He paid an emotional tribute to him by performing a beautiful rendition of Vince Gill’s timeless classic, Go Rest High On That Mountain, on his Instagram. After offering my sympathy and condolences, I asked Scotty if he’d like to share anything about the kind of person Yamir was, and also, on songs like Go Rest High On That Mountain, are there favourite country songs like that one that Scotty would turn to in times of pain or sorrow, ones that always bring him some sense of comfort to hear or to play? 


“Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think that’s the power of music, it’s tremendous. It can make you stand up and bounce around and dance, and smile and be happy, but it can also bring you to your knees. So ‘Go Rest High…’ is one of those songs. There’s a bunch of ’em. ‘Movin’ On’ by Rascal Flatts, too. Music is something I always turn to. Yamir, he was one of those guys, his smile was contagious, everybody loved him. He had a rough upbringing too, so he could have gone either way, with how it was a struggle for him growing up. But he ended up just being the best, salt of the earth kinda guy. I learned a lot just being around Yamir, so it was ough to see somebody get taken away so young, and senselessly. He was a great guy, tough to see that happen.” 

Staying with songs and songwriting, while I know that You Time and a lot of the next album was written in pre-Covid times, I wondered if Scotty had been doing much writing since this all started? Has Covid had any knock-on effect on his songwriting? 


“Yeah, for sure. Like I said, we’re still working on this album, we’ve got some of it finished but we still have a ways to go with some of it as well, so we’re still writing songs and finding songs to finish out the album. I’m not sure it will be such an obvious effect of like talking about wearing masks and quarantining and stuff [laughs], but more the not taking for granted the days we have on earth, living life to the fullest, and the appreciation for life, I think, will definitely show up on this album. That’s kind of what I’ve taken out of all this time at home, really looking back and remembering how things were. I think once we get back to normal, I won’t take for granted the days on the road where I’m kinda like, ‘Aw man, I’m bored today’, or ‘I wish I could go home.’ No, I’ll be enjoying the moment. That will definitely show up.”

Scotty is a big, big golf fan, and he and some of his friends enjoyed some success out on the course back in June, something which he shared with his followers on Instagram. How good did that feel, I wondered, the chance to get back out and enjoy some golf with his friends after not being able to for a while? 


“[Laughs] It felt great! It’s luckily one of those things you can do outdoors. And for me, I socially distance very well in golf, because I’m always hitting my ball in the woods anyway! [laughs]. So that’s a pretty easy thing to do [laughs]. But yeah, we had fun, and I’m hoping to play some golf in Ireland, that’s always been a bucket-list thing for me!”

Earlier in the week we spoke, Scotty had what he called his Elvis Presley Tuesday. And sadly, just the day before we spoke, the great songwriter Mac Davis, who wrote In The Ghetto for Elvis, passed away, adding to some of the other great writers and artists like John Prine and Joe Diffie who have taken their leave of us this year. I asked Scotty who were the songwriters and artists who have been most central to shaping his love of country music, and inspiring him as a writer and performer himself? 


“My goodness, there’s a lot of them to pull from. And yeah, it’s been a tough year losing artists and songwriters. It’s been a tough year all around. I grew up listening to more of the classic stuff, guys like Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap. And Elvis was obviously a huge influence on my life. I dressed up like him for Halloween, and sang all his songs in school! He was obviously a big guy for me. Songwriting wise, I mean, I’m writing with a bunch of the folks that I love. Brad Paisley is a guy that I grew up listening to. Allen Shamblin, there’s a guy who wrote a lot for Randy Travis, and who I’ve had the chance to write with. Every time I get the chance to write with him, it’s a really cool experience. Luckily, there’s still a lot of those kinds of guys who are still around that I can sit down and write with. But unfortunately we’ve lost a few of them this year too, and that’s sad to see.” 

When Scotty gets to meet someone like Brad Paisley, and to sit down and write with him, because he would have been someone Scotty looked up to, how long does the weirdness – for want of a better word! – last before he gets over the fact that he is actually in a room writing with Brad Paisley? 


“It took a while, for sure [laughs], just because I’m such a fan. And I still am a fan. He took me out on my first tour in 2012, and we got to go January through December playin’ shows with him, and gettin’ to meet his family, and meet his road-family. He’s always just been super cool to me. But, I mean that is a thing when you get to meet your heroes, and it’s pretty obvious, I think, for them to see that I’m a fan cos’ my jaw is on the floor [laughs]. Luckily, I really haven’t met any of my heroes and after that been like, man, I wish I didn’t meet him. Everybody’s been so kind and so cool.” 

Like almost everybody who planned on hitting the road in any direction or for any length of time this year, Scotty has had to reschedule a lot of tour dates. But, God willing, we’ll be seeing him on this side of the world in 2021. But his shows in Dublin and Belfast next May will, somewhat astonishingly, be his very first in Ireland! So as we ended our chat, I asked Scotty why he’d been keeping us waiting so long?! 


“[Laughs] Aaaw man…if it was up to me, I’d have been there every year for the last ten! [laughs]. Ireland is a place I’ve wanted to go for so long. You know, we didn’t even get overseas to play any shows until last year, I don’t know what that was, whether it was logistics or whatever. But it wasn’t for the lack of wanting to go! The McCreerys, my side of the family, is from over there, I think, Northern Ireland. So we’re excited to go. I’ve never had Guinness! I’ve been holding off, I want to have my first Guinness in Ireland! And hopefully get to play a little golf too, and get to meet and talk with a lot of amazing folk. I can’t wait!”

~ YOU TIME, the brand new single from SCOTTY McCREERY, is out now and available on all platforms. Scotty plays The Academy in Dublin on May 9th 2021, and The Limelight in Belfast (which is sold-out) on May 11th. 

ENDS

Tenille Townes

First Published October 2020

THE SACRED, THE SPIRITUAL, AND LEMONADE

Singer/songwriter TENILLE TOWNES is an extraordinary artist. And she is such, because she’s also an extraordinary human being first and foremost. The same kind of empathy and awareness for the well-being of others that saw Tenille begin her Big Hearts For Big Kids project long before her name was ever seen in lights or known throughout the country music world, is found in her writing. Somebody’s Daughter and Jersey On The Wall – both of which have topped the charts in her native Canada, and also claimed the prestigious Single of the Year prize at the C.C.M.A. (Canadian Country Music Association) Awards, in 2019 and 2020 respectively – are perfect examples of this. 


In the last few weeks alone, Tenille was honoured with the accolade of New Female Artist of the Year at the A.C.M. (American Country Music) Awards, where she also joined country mega-star Miranda Lambert, together with Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, and Elle King, in picking up the award for Musical Event of the Year for the song Fooled Around And Fell In Love. Not long after that, Tenille had further reason to smile in what has been a trying year for everyone in the music business, as she was named the winner in the Female Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Music Video of the Year categories – with the last two both coming for Jersey On The Wall – at the C.C.M.A. Awards. That’s a heck of a few weeks! 


And yet, despite being inundated with media requests from literally all across the United States, Canada, and beyond in the days following those successes, Tenille was more than happy to give some of her time to chatting with OTRT. Which takes us right back to our opening lines today. As well as being an extraordinary artist – part of which, no doubt, involves being an absolute pro – Tenille is an extraordinary person, well aware that she has fans all over the world now, and ready to acknowledge them. For a little context there, let me just share with you the fact that it’s not unusual for some artists, a lot closer to home too, to refuse interview requests after their first couple of singles gain them some attention, because of their “busy schedules.” 


Having already been a fan of Tenille’s for some time, the opportunity to finally spend some time in her company was a real pleasure. In fact, I joked with Tenille that I should perhaps be addressing her as Miss Female Vocalist of the Year, given the events of the few days before we spoke when that was one of the awards she took home from this year’s CCMA Awards. I asked Tenille if she could describe what it felt like to be the person at the centre of nights as magical as the ones she had recently experienced? 


“[Laughs] Thank you for the congrats! I mean, it truly is just like…it feels very surreal, like a movie or something! It’s just so wonderful to have the community of Canadian country music believing in this music, and wrapping their arms around it. I grew up watching and learning from that industry, so to have really have them believing in this right now, and just knowing that that song – ‘Jersey On The Wall’ – really made its way to people, really means so much to me. I’m just really grateful to wake up every day and get to do the thing I love most to do.” 

I asked Tenille if she ever goes into nights like the A.C.M. or the C.C.M.A. Awards with any sense of expectation as to what might lie ahead? How does Tenille prepare for nights like those? 


“That’s a great question! I don’t really know how you’d prepare, I just was excited to be there! To get to play the show this year was very different in the sense of not being all together as a community. Usually with the Songwriter of the Year and the Video of the Year it’s like we’re all at a big gala event the night before the televised show, and they give some of the awards out early. So you’re just kind of sitting at your table with your team, and just going, ‘Oh my goodness, are they gonna call my name?!’ And it’s so exciting [laughs]. And you get to have some dinner [laughs], and just be together with your people. So I really missed that this year. But I’m so glad that the C.C.M.A.’s still found a way to really push through and make it happen, and still bring everybody together. And yeah, the award for Female Artist of the Year was entirely a surprise. We were getting ready to tape the performance and they were like, ‘Annnnnnd we have some news for you…!’ [laughs]. I just was like, oh my goodness! So very cool! [laughs].” 

Did that throw Tenille off a little bit or anything, finding that out at such short notice, literally just before she taped her performance? Or did it end all the more to the excitement of things? 


“I think it’s a little bit of everything! Definitely extra adrenaline [laughs]. Oh my goodness, I mean, how do you emotionally respond to that? It’s something to be so excited about, and thankful for. You want to say all the right things, and really, more than anything, just soak in the moment. It’s a lot like a dream. And it’s a crazy reminder to be like, ‘THIS is real life’, and I don’t want to miss any part of what this feels like.” 

At this year’s A.C.M. Awards, Tenille had the most unique of moments, performing her song Somebody’s Daughter – which won the C.C.M.A,’s Single of the Year award last year – on an empty stage at the famous Ryman Auditorium, because it is, after all, the year we’ll never forget! And it was the same night Tenille followed in the footsteps of artists like Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, and Kelsea Ballerini by being named as New Female Artist of the Year. It must have been the most emotional of moments for her…


“It was, absolutely. I mean, it’s so surreal to have been a part of that show at all. And finding out about that award, I found out through a Zoom call when Keith Urban showed up on the screen. I was just like, ‘What is happening?! This is crazy!’ [laughs]. I was so emotional and so thankful. And the day that it was announced Ashley McBryde called me, and Lauren Alaina called me, just this little community of people who were all like, ‘We’re just glad you’re in this spot.’ It meant the world. So stepping into that performance, I was really imagining that embrace of the community that’s pulling up a new chair to their table! That, just in itself, was emotional to me. And then getting to play was so fun. And, very strange in an empty venue! It really is missing the most beautiful and the most important part, which is the community of people who come to shows for that shared experience of live music. It was very, sort of quiet and weird. I sometimes experience this during soundchecks, where you know, you step out into an empty venue and there is a sort of sacred, spiritual part of that because you can imagine the people who are going to fill those seats. And to me, especially in the Ryman, it’s picturing my great-grandmother in there. And all the angels that are really kind of filling the space. Even though it was empty and missing people, there’s a lot about that experience that really didn’t feel empty at all.

Tenille has described her debut album, The Lemonade Stand, in the most beautiful of ways, calling it, “a gathering place, where people can come and be filled up.” What I love about that, is that she clearly doesn’t see her album as being simply all about her, but rather about what she – and her music – can give and can do for other people. Firstly, I asked Tenille if she considered that to be a fair observation, and secondly, I wondered which albums by other artists give her that feeling of being somewhere she can go to fill up when she needs to? 


“Thanks! That’s an excellent question, so cool. To me, that’s really what music is, a place where we can realise we’re not alone in something, and be comforted and lifted up. And it is about where communities can meet up, it’s always going to be that anchor. I’m so glad that this album is kind of an introduction to what I hope is a lot more of that feeling. And I mean, I feel that from so many different records, especially having been on the road this last little while – well, it’s been a while now [laughs] – but the most recent tour with Miranda Lambert, listening to her music makes me feel like, you know because she ‘s talking about things that are real and are true, so her art is a place where I can find pieces of myself. I feel that when I listen to Shania, that’s what I grew up listening to, or to ‘Joshua Tree’ by U2. I would listen to that with my dad and it kind of felt like a piece of my soul, like I could just come and be there. And I think that about Dolly Parton when I hear ‘Coat of Many Colours.’ I imagine listening to that in a motor-home driving around with my grand-parents. I think music is just like a big invitation. It’s opening a door to a space that you can just walk into and not be alone in.” 

Even though I’d only been talking to Tenille for a few minutes at this stage, it was already very clear to me that she’s a very spiritual person. And another thing that I really love about Tenille is that all the while she’s been putting her heart into building up her career, she’s also been putting her heart into building better lives for others too, by way of her annual fundraiser, Big Hearts For Big Kids. I knew this was something that’s very important to Tenille, so I asked her to tell us about the Big Hearts For Big Kids project…


“Thank you for asking, I love getting to talk about this. Big Hearts For Big Kids was like a concert fundraiser that I started in my hometown after hearing about our youth shelter and the kids in our community who needed a safe place to turn to. Home wasn’t a safe place for them. It was just kind of alarming to think about kids my age in my own hometown that were struggling with that. I wanted to do something to help, and music is my outlet for that. It’s this thing that really does bring people together. We rented this hall and decorated it, invited people to come and bring some auction items, but the night of our first event the shelter had to close due to lack of funding. It was like, wow, we’re really supposed to do this today. It was amazing, that night people showed up and we raised like thirty-thousand-dollars. I was just blown away. Every year we’ve continued that event and helped to keep the shelter on their feet and those doors open to youth who continue to come and find the guidance and love that they need to keep going. It’s been just remarkable watching that. It makes me so excited about where Big Hearts For Big Kids can go next. This year we weren’t able to go back to my hometown and travel, and do the event in our traditional way, so we did one here in Nashville, a live-stream where anybody from anywhere in the world could tune in and watch! And it was really special, both to benefit the shelter in my hometown, and for planting a seed for something here in Nashville with Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, Troop 6000, which helps young girls without permanent housing here in Nashville. So that was just a really fun event. We had performances by Luke Combs, and Dierks Bentley, Brandi Carisle, and Lori McKenna, so many of my friends and heroes. It was a really wonderful evening and one of the highlights of this year for me, for sure.” 

Right now Tenille is part of something called the American Currents; State of the Music exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I wondered if she could tell us what anyone who is lucky enough to get along there will see of the girl from Grand Prairie, Alberta? 


“I believe there is the outfit that I wore for my Grand Ole Opry debut, and some hand-written lyrics from ‘Somebody’s Daughter.’ I just can’t even believe that that’s real! I’ve visited the Hall of Fame so many times, and I feel inspired every time I go in there and I find little pieces of history. It just always kinds of…I don’t know…it just fills my soul up. So to be in there is insane, that does not seem like real-life! [laughs].” 

Tenille is an award-winning songwriter, who has #1s to her name, and who has everyone from iHeart Country, to Bobby Bones, to C.M.T backing her as country music’s next ‘big thing.’ But everything I’ve just mentioned starts with a song. So what I wanted to know was when Tenille is at that stage, is there a certain way that songs tend to come together for her? 


“I think, for me, it’s really just kind of about listening to whatever I’m supposed to write that day. It’s very much like being a vessel. You’re just catching what’s coming through. But I love to write from the observer perspective, I love to tell stories and kind of process how I feel about the world. I’m doing a lot of writing in this time, at home right now, writing over Zoom with all my friends. I’m really grateful to be able to be creative in this time. I’m just kind of digging into my own emotions, and thoughts, and loneliness, ya know, or celebrations in this season. I’m just really trying to have music be my safe place to communicate that. Ideas really come from anywhere and everywhere. Conservations with friends, or a movie I’m watching, or a book I’m reading. Just kind of whatever is pulling at my heart!” 

Has Tenille’s songwriting spark stayed with her throughout everything that’s been happening this year? 


“I think it was very difficult, especially in the beginning of the shutdown. It was a strange time to feel inspired and creative. To me, writing songs and tapping into that creative space is a lot like a practise. Even if I’m writing songs that are just exercising that muscle and helping me just, you know, feel good in the day [laughs], to me it’s been like a piece of my sanity and a bit of a lifeline. I’ve really kind of continued that practise through this whole time and I’ve written a ton of songs this year. And it’s really brought me a lot of peace in a very heavy-hearted time.” 

Would Tenille be an everyday writer? 


“I think in seasons for me. It’s hard for me to step into that space when I’m on the road, or when I’m focusing on Big Kids With Big Hearts or some kind of project, I like to really jump in with both feet. So this past season of putting out the record, but really kind of just being home, has been an opportunity to jump into writing with both feet. So it has been every day for the last while, for sure.” 

Tenille had mentioned her Zoom call with Keith Urban earlier in our chat, when she thought she was going to be doing an interview, but instead, he appeared on her screen with the news that she had won the A.C.M. New Female Artist of the Year Award. During that chat of theirs, Keith asked Tenille who her first call would be to after they finished talking and she replied that it would be to her parents. I wondered if that had happened, and how did they respond to her good news? 


“Oh it was, and they were just so excited! They were in the car driving, and I wanted to make sure that both my mom and dad were there. And they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re here, what’s goin’ on?’ So I was like, well, Keith Urban just called…and they were like, ‘Ummm….what?!’ [laughs]. They were so excited, there was lots of cheering, and lots of emotion. It was wonderful to share that moment with them, even across the distance.” 

Tenille was meant to be over here in Ireland back in March for C2C, which unfortunately didn’t happen this year. But hopefully next year it will be back, and hopefully Tenille will be back, too. When the world settles back down again is more international touring something Tenille would like to see on her schedule? 


“Oh my goodness, I will be on the first plane that I possibly can to come and see you guys! [laughs]. I was so looking forward to seeing Ireland on this past trip, I have not been before. It’s one of those bucket-list places in my heart to travel to in the world. I was just devastated that we couldn’t get there in March. But I promise that we’ll be back as soon as we possibly can.” 


THE LEMONADE STAND, the debut album from TENILLE TOWNES, is out now. 
ENDS 

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 

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