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Sunday, 12 April, 2009 2:31 PM

Heidi Newfield Finds Her Own Way (CMA)

Photo by Erik Anderson

Heidi Newfield


By Ted Drozdowski
© 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 2000.
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 For.

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 many others.

"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 status.

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 you don't."

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 own skin."

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.

"Our challenge," 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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