Sunday, 12 April, 2009 2:31 PM
Heidi Newfield Finds Her Own Way (CMA)
by Erik Anderson
2009 CMA Close Up News Service
It's no surprise that
Heidi Newfield would get another shot. After all, she's the voice
of "Pour Me," Trick Pony's whiskey-drinking anthem of
But this time that shot isn't at the bar of a high-flying honky
tonk like Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon, where the band made its
name during its early years. Instead, it's a shot at a solo career.
Newfield's second round
is going down smoothly so far, thanks in large part to "Johnny
& June," a wish for timeless love inspired by the real-life
story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. She conceived this gorgeously
atmospheric song, which reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot Country
Songs chart last year, with Deanna Bryant and Stephony Smith; it's
one of six co-written by the fiery performer on What Are We Waiting
This solo debut album
on Curb Records spun heads in the industry because it signaled a
risky but sophisticated, and above all, successful artistic rebirth
for Newfield. More than that, it marked her first pairing with producer
Tony Brown, a star in his own right for the albums he's made with
Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, George Strait and
"Leaving Trick Pony
and going forward on my own was scary," Newfield admitted.
"I didn't know if anyone in the business would want to work
with me or if radio would play me. What if they all said, 'She's
a good girl but she had her chance with Trick Pony'?"
Instead, Newfield's triple-threat
talents as a singer, writer and entertainer exploded throughout
these 10 tracks. But before pulling this off, she made all the right
moves in elevating her beyond her group identity to stellar solo
First, after leaving
Trick Pony in 2006, she came under the wing of Manager John Grady,
who had signed Miranda Lambert, Van Zant and Gretchen Wilson, among
other artists, during his run as President of Sony Music Nashville.
When he was a Partner in Red Light Management, he was instrumental
in bringing Brown and Newfield together at exactly the right time.
"I had just ended 24 years of working with Universal Music
Group artists almost exclusively," said Brown, who had come
to the record label group in 1984 via MCA Nashville. "Everyone
in the business figured I'd make another Platinum album with George
Strait or another superstar. I said, 'I'll wait and see who shows
up at my door.'"
When Grady and Newfield
knocked, they brought demos of three songs that Newfield had co-written
or scouted. Brown was skeptical at first. "Heidi is such a
great person," he said. "Every song plugger and songwriter
in this town loves Heidi. Honestly, though, I was never really too
fond of Trick Pony's albums, which I found very campy and honky-tonk.
But when John and Heidi played the songs she'd written and those
she'd chosen, like Lori McKenna's and Felix McTeague's 'Wreck You,'
I thought, 'Wow, this is good stuff!'"
Another attraction for
Brown was Newfield's voice, a balance of grit and sugar that's uncommon
among Nashville's newer leading ladies. "Heidi definitely has
that R&B 'heart' thing - some soul going on," Brown said.
"That's not something you can learn. You either have it or
That's not how Newfield
felt when she moved from her native California to Nashville in 1990.
At that time, her lightly sandpapered purr-and-wail range, nurtured
on classic Country and blues records as well as AC/DC, Led Zeppelin
and other rockers, didn't feel like much of an asset at all.
"I was singing demos
for songwriters," she recalled. "And they told me, 'You're
not a very good demo singer because you don't sound like anybody
else. How can we pitch demos with your voice to somebody like Reba
McEntire?' I was devastated. I wanted to cry. I wished I had a big
gorgeous voice like Trisha Yearwood's or could be a crooner like
Martina McBride. But now, after going so much further along on this
journey, I realize I have my own voice and I'm comfortable in my
Her track record with
Trick Pony didn't get in the way on this journey, at least not initially.
From 1996 through 2006, during her run with guitarist Keith Burns
and bassist Ira Dean in that band, they issued three albums - Trick
Pony in 2001, On a Mission in 2002 and R.I.D.E. in 2005 - along
with six singles.
At the same time, Newfield
was carving out her own identity within the context of the group,
with in-concert antics that included crowd surfing or stalking the
stage while blowing harmonica like a diminutive blonde apparition
of blues queen Big Mama Thornton.
When Newfield left Trick
Pony, she parted without any acrimony on her part. It was a need
to test her creative mettle, rather than any bad blood with Burns
and Dean, that led her to decide to set out on her own. "The
thing is," she explained, "you can make your music and
do your business in your comfort zone, or you can try to get better
and evolve. I wanted to evolve."
What Am I Waiting For
is practically a textbook study in artistic evolution. The album
distances Newfield from Trick Pony's hard, electric guitar-driven
sound, with arrangements that often pivot on acoustic six-string
textures, piano and subtle amplifier tones.
"That was an important
distinction for us to make and something Heidi's album has in common
with the first album I produced for Wynonna," said Brown, referring
to his work on Wynonna's self-titled album from 1992. As much as
songs like "Johnny & June" and the soul-searching
title track reflect Newfield's quest for gravitas, there's still
plenty of stomp in the album's grooves. The revenge number "Nothin'
Burns Like a Memory," which Newfield wrote with Ira Dean and
Eric Silver, and the bad-girl closing track, Angaleena Presley's
and Mark Sanders' "Knocked Up," are both plenty Country
and plenty rock 'n' roll.
said Brown, "was to try to make an album that would let people
hear Heidi as a serious artist - and I believe she's a real contender
- without dismissing her fun side, which her fans already know and
love. I think we did that, cutting a very cool album that can go
three or four singles deep."
But even as she established
herself on her own terms with What Am I Waiting For, Newfield felt
that the jury is still out on her solo career. "This year will
be really crucial for me," she said. "I hope people will
understand that I've tried to not reinvent myself but to let them
see who I really am and how I've grown."
Even so, she has obviously
won a place in the hearts of many Country fans with "Johnny
& June." Brown insisted that his approach to cutting this
memorable single was to simply follow the blueprint of the demo
that Newfield had created with Bryant and Smith, complete with the
tune's signature cello colors and bold guitar-propelled choruses.
"Everybody on the
session knew it was a hit," Brown said. "And when we all
listened back, we felt we'd been part of something special."
Much of that quality,
Newfield believes, stems from the fact that its message goes beyond
the familiar epic of Cash's and Carter's love story. "It's
really about all of us," she said. "We all want to find
that great enduring love of our lives. And when you find a song
like that, or a love like that, you just have to let it happen naturally."
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