Taking Care of Business on the Red Carpet

I’m on the plane right now heading home from the Canadian Country Music Awards in Winnipeg – and what an incredible weekend it was.

Since my last diary entry less than 2 days ago, I’ve performed at three very different venues.  I got to share the stage with my buddy Lisa Brokop for a “girl power” acoustic performance at the SOCAN-sponsored Songwriters’ Cafe on Sunday.  Then after the Gala Dinner I was whisked off to perform at the Capitol Records party, where I did a couple of songs with a full band.  My set fell in between performances by Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish) and Deric Ruttan and Dierks Bentley, so it was kind of like being a rock star for the night, especially hanging out backstage with the guys, who kept me in stitches!  It was like a comedy routine back there!

But yesterday proved to be the biggest highlight for me, when I participated in “The Great Guitar Pull”.  It was an acoustic performance of hit songs and stories from the writers who wrote them, and the songwriters I shared the stage with were absolutely stellar.  Along with my great friend and mentor Ralph Murphy, who hosted the event, four of us were asked to participate: myself, Randy Bachman (of Bachman Turner Overdrive and The Guess Who), Buddy Cannon (legendary songwriter and producer of multi-platinum records by Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans and many more), and the one and only “Whisperin’ Bill Anderson” (who is not only a living legend and a staple of the Grand Ole Opry, but who has also penned hits across 5 decades of his career including most recently “Give It Away” by George Strait and the Grammy-winning Allison Krauss/Brad Paisley duet “Whiskey Lullabye”).  I thought I had played with the best of the best when I performed with JD Souther last week, but THIS show found me sitting right next to Randy Bachman and following – get this – “Taking Care Of Business”, “No Sugar Tonight”, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, and “American Woman”.  UNBELIEVABLE!  I have to say I cried a few tears on stage – it was so surreal to have the honour of performing alongside these incredible men.  And my manager was so happy and proud and excited for me that he was in tears too.

Which leads me to the big announcement…I guess at this point I can let the cat out of the bag and let you know that I am being managed by Louis O’Reilly, last year’s CCMA-winning manager who also handles Shane Yellowbird (last year’s CCMA Rising Star) and Brad Johner – a couple of Canada’s best.  After heading up the highly successful independent record label 306 Records (this year’s CCMA-winning label of the year), Louis has now founded the EMI co-venture On Ramp Records which is a home for not only Shane and Brad, but also my high school buddy Deric Ruttan.  So that will be the Canadian home for my record, which is pending release in early 2009.  I am SO excited to be working with Louis – he is not only a very savvy businessman, but he’s also an honest and down-to-earth person, which is a rare and wonderful trait in a manager.

Immediately after the Great Guitar Pull I found myself backstage at the televised CCMA Awards show, rubbing shoulders with the superstars of Canadian country music.  Actually after all of the Canadian artists I’ve met in the past couple of years, it felt more like a big reunion…I didn’t really realize how many of my friends were up for awards, but I felt like I was cheering them on all night long: Jason Blaine, Murray Pulver of Doc Walker (congrats to you on your big wins!), Lisa Brokop, Female Artist CCMA winner Jessie Farrell, Deric Ruttan, Crystal Shawanda (who did a gorgeous performance), and Hey Romeo (winner of the Best New Group CCMA – congrats, guys!).  Actually one of the songs I co-wrote with Hey Romeo is planned to be their next radio single, so guys, you are my favourite (ha ha!).

During the show I was seated right up at the front, watching the cameras whirl around and listening to the fans scream.  How cool.  And I sat right next to Buddy Cannon, so during the commercial breaks I got to chat quite a bit with him.  He’s such a humble, soft-spoken man – you’d never know he had just finished recording Kenny Chesney’s record!

After the show I was whisked off by my manager to the red carpet, where I did a CMT interview with my “dates” – Buddy Cannon and Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, who was a presenter on the show.  Bill, by the way, is so incredibly kind and supportive.  A class act.  He even asked me if I’d be interested in co-writing with him.  Geez, I’ll have to see if I can pencil him in!  :)

The final reception basically summed up what a fantastic weekend this was for me.  I may have only had 6 hours of sleep in the past 3 days, but after having arrived on Friday knowing very few people, I felt like I was in a room full of friends.  I have met so many radio personalities, booking agents, promoters, corporate sponsors and fans in the past three days – and they have all been so enthusiastic and welcoming to me.  I can’t wait to get my record out there so I can go and visit all of them on a big cross-Canada tour.

Well, I think I’m gonna try and catch some shut-eye before I keel over onto the shoulder of the stranger sitting next to me!  I can’t wait to get back into songwriting and finishing up the last few tracks on my record.  I also can’t wait to my give my boyfriend a big kiss (he is probably just as tired as I am after listening to me gush about everything that went on this weekend in a bunch of 3am phone calls – sorry about that Dave!).

Nighty night!

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CCMA Week So Far…What a Rush!!

What a week!  I’ve been back to the Fallsview Casino to see Jessica perform my songs and visit with her backstage, I’ve been in Toronto filming a CMT show about my experience writing for Jessica’s record, and now for the past few days I’ve been in Winnipeg, participating in my first ever Canadian Country Music Awards Week as an artist.  And it has been incredible so far!!!  Here are some of the highlights of the weekend…

-Meeting and greeting so many Canadian music industry folks at the Kickoff Party on Friday night – and it seemed like every time I turned around I was running into another artist who was saying “Hey, I just recorded one of your songs!!!”  Wow!  I think there were at least eight of them!

Debuting my song “I Can’t” from my upcoming record (releasing in 2009) for a huge room full of country music movers and shakers at the Industry Awards Brunch…with a SMOKING band (hey, they also back up Deric Ruttan & Jason Blaine, and the drummer also plays for Kim Mitchell – how cool is that?)…and alongside Gord Bamford and Deric Ruttan…and receiving an incredible reception of support and excitement about my album.  Some of the most influential people in the industry expressed an interest in working with me to help make my record a success and to get me performing on a great tour up here, so I’m really excited about that.

-Hanging out backstage at the Fanfest meet and greet for an interview with CMT Canada about my Jessica Simpson cuts, my Canadian roots and my new record pending release

-Bawling my eyes out in my hotel room Saturday night as I watched Jessica Simpson sing my songs “Come on Over” and “Remember That” (her new single) on the televised Grand Ole Opry.  It was amazing.  Her spoken introduction and the way she delivered “Remember That” with such conviction made me feel like Rachel and I were up on stage right next to her.  That song is so much more than a song to me – it’s a message of hope and strength that came out of the most difficult time in my life – and you can tell that Jessica feels the same way when she sings it.  I am SO excited that the world is going to hear it.  (By the way, you can watch the video of the performance online at www.sweetkisses.net).  What a rush…not only having two of my own songs performed on the Opry stage, but also seeing my sweet friend and fellow Ontario girl Crystal Shawanda make her TV Opry debut…and then seeing Patty Loveless sing as well, whose music is one of the main reasons why I chose to be a songwriter in the first place.  And on top of that, the queen of country legends, Loretta Lynn!  Let me just say that in a business that can be so tough for women (only 1 in 300 professional songwriters is a woman in the country genre, and of all last year’s charting radio singles only 17 were written or co-written by a woman), last night’s show was a celebration of strength, perseverance, and success.

-Being asked to give a speech and introduce “Remember That” to all of the program directors and DJs of Canadian radio who were gathered at BMG Canada’s presentation of new radio singles.  Boy, it sure felt fantastic to hear the song coming through those speakers and to have the opportunity to say a few words about how it felt to write it.

There is still much, much more to come – I’m performing tonight alongside Dierks Bentley and Darius Rucker (from Hootie and the Blowfish) and then again tomorrow in the Great Guitar Pull alongside Randy Bachman and country legend Bill Anderson…so I’ll fill you in again soon!

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Cinderella at the Fallsview

I’ve spent the past week feeling like Cinderella with the perfectly-fitting glass slipper on my foot!  I was invited to be one of six songwriters participating in the ASCAP/SOCAN International Songwriting Retreat at the Fallsview Resort in Niagara Falls…and what an amazing experience it turned out to be.

When I first arrived and opened up the door to my complimentary suite on the 32nd floor of the Fallsview Hotel, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Dining room, chandelier, two marble bathrooms, whirlpool tub, and a full wall of windows across the entire suite (including the shower and tub) looking straight down on Niagara Falls, complete with misty rainbows hanging in the air.   It was absolutely breathtaking.  And not only that, but I was also given a special pass allowing me to order room service or eat at any restaurant in the complex for free!

Ok – I have to admit – I felt kind of guilty.  I mean, here’s boring old, sweatpants-wearing me, owner of a 6 year old compact car and a 900 square foot house I struggle to pay the mortgage on, being treated like some kind of royalty.  So what did I do?  Well, first I jumped on the bed for a while like the kid from “Home Alone” (you probably think I’m kidding but I’m not)…then I ordered room service (of course!), took a giant bubble bath in the jet tub and headed downstairs to meet the rest of the writers – I’ll tell you more about them in a minute.

And the fairy tale just kept going after that…the next night I had planned to pick up my sweetie (who was flying up from Nashville for the weekend) at the Buffalo airport in my little car, but the Fallsview folks insisted on sending me in a fully loaded long black stretch limo!  His flight was delayed by an hour, so the limo driver and I parked in the VIP lot to wait.  I guess it’s not supposed to be kosher limo etiquette to invite the limo driver to watch a movie with you in the back of the limo, but I figured why not?  I could use the company.  So we sat back there and watched a Jim Carrey movie until the plane landed.

The entire week was amazing – I have never eaten so much gourmet food in my life – but I have to say that Saturday night’s show was definitely the highlight of the trip (and probably one of the highlights of my LIFE).  Fallsview had booked an invitation-only acoustic show especially for the high rollers, movers and shakers of the casino, and the six of us songwriters were performing.  So here’s who I shared the stage with:

-JD Souther (wrote the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight”, “Best of My Love”, “New Kid in Town”, Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter”)

-Darrell Brown (Grammy winner who wrote Keith Urban’s “Raining On Sunday” & “You’ll Think of Me”)

-Brett Jones (wrote Leanne Womack’s “Little Past Little Rock”, Bobby Pinson’s “Don’t Ask Me How I Know”, Montgomery Gentry’s “Whatdaya Think About That”)

-Dave Berg (Grammy nominated for Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy”, Emerson Drive’s “Moments”, Rodney Atkins’ “If You’re Going Through Hell” & “These Are My People”)

-Deric Ruttan (multiple CCMA winner, wrote “A Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” & “What Was I Thinkin’” for Dierks Bentley)

It was absolutely incredible to share the stage with these writers and hear so many of my favourite songs being performed.  And it was an especially full-circle moment to sit on stage with Deric – who I played in a band with during our days at high school in Bracebridge Ontario – and to hear the Eagles songs we’d sung in the old days coming from JD, who was sitting right next to us!  Who would have ever thought that would happen?  Not me!!!

So I’d like to send out a big THANK YOU!!!!!!!  to ASCAP’s Ralph Murphy, Kelly Kelly & the Fallsview folks, and the SOCAN folks for including me in such an amazing lineup of writers and extending such amazing hospitality.

I’m spending a few days in Toronto, hanging backstage at the Jessica Simpson concert in Niagara Falls later this week, and then I’m off to perform at the Canadian Country Music Awards, so I’m sure I’ll have lots more to fill you in on soon….

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Jessica Simpson’s “Remember That” Controversy

The tabloids are bursting this week with controversy over Jessica Simpson’s comments in a recent Elle Magazine cover story in which she discusses the song “Remember That”, written by myself and Rachel Proctor.  The song reaches out to women who are experiencing abuse from the perspective of someone who has lived through it, and in the interview Jessica admits that she herself has experienced abuse in the past.

Online message boards are overflowing with discussion about who may have abused Jessica, and why she has chosen not to come out and identify the culprit.  Knowing the level of sensationalist media around her private life, I completely understand and respect her decision not to name names.  If she wanted to, Jessica would have every right to identify the person, but that is beside the point.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter who is responsible for abusing her.  What does matter is that it can happen to anyone…and that it isn’t usually obvious to the outside world when it’s happening.

I have to say that this is something I have strong feelings about.  Having lived through an abusive relationship myself, I was faced with the decision about whether to speak up about the experience or not.  Rachel and I chose to write a song about it, and in doing so to share our experience with the public.  The down side is that somebody might get hurt by it – suspicions and aspersions cast towards anyone, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, are a sad side effect.  But the upside is that when you think about the sheer number of women who could be HELPED by hearing that song, I believe the good outweighs the bad a thousand times over.

When Jessica talked to Rachel and I about how deeply she identified with this song, we knew it had found the right home, but we were actually quite amazed that she was going to record it.  We always knew that it would have to be recorded by an artist who could identify with the lyrics of the song – lyrics that say “I’ve stood there in your shoes” – but we didn’t know if anyone would ever have the guts to publicly stand up and take ownership of having personally experienced abuse.  It would be a whole lot easier for an artist to sing a song about abuse written story-style, in the third person.  That could climb up the chart just as fast as this song could, but it could never change someone’s life as effectively as a song sung directly TO an abused woman BY an abused woman could.  So the fact that Jessica was willing to record this song and to face the controversy it brings is both a testament to her strength and a measure of her dedication to helping other women through what she’s experienced.

Living through something like that…it’s the darkest, most painful territory of the human spirit.  It leaves you with a deep compassion for others who are going through it, and a burning desire to somehow help them find their way to the light again.  For Jessica’s sake, for Rachel’s and for mine, I hope that this song is a ray of light for someone when they need it most.

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“Come on Over” is a Record-Breaker!

I can’t believe the response that Jessica Simpson has been getting with “Come On Over”!  Rachel Proctor and I wrote the song with Jessica, and it was released by Columbia Nashville as Jessica’s first country radio single at the end of May.  I was performing up in Canada when the song arrived at radio stations and my phone started ringing off the hook with calls from friends all over the USA who were hearing it over the airwaves.  Within minutes it was posted on YouTube, Perez Hilton’s gossip site, Entertainment Tonight online, MSNBC etc, and by the end of the day I was watching a story about it on TV’s E! News Daily.  At the end of the week Billboard reported that the song had made history, breaking all previous records for the highest charting debut of a new country artist by entering at #41!

I’ve been getting a kick out of watching the progress of the song on the charts every day.  You can  visit www.allaccess.com, register for free, and check the “published” country Mediabase chart which updates the song’s position daily.  (By the way, LW means last week, TW means this week, “Aud” means audience in millions, a red arrow signifies a “bullet” of upward momentum, “Spins” means the number of plays on major country radio stations in the USA, and you can also click on the song title to see the list of radio stations who are playing it the most).

Now, two weeks after its release, the song is at #28 in the USA (#27 in Canada) and rising fast.  Since its release on iTunes a couple of days ago it is reportedly the #3 most downloaded country song and the #22 most downloaded song across all genres in the USA.  (And #1 in Canada – thanks, eh!!)  In the past week it has been played 1200 times on the major U.S. country radio stations alone for an audience of almost 9 million.  That just about blows the top of my head off when I try to think about it.

Not only that, but the song has also been given great reviews in Billboard, R&R and Rolling Stone Magazines, and lots of great front-page press by newspapers like The Tennessean and The Chicago Sun-Times.  (You can read those on my PRESS PAGE.)

Speaking of press, I have to put in my two cents in support of Jessica, who despite the great professional press on this song, seems to be a magnet for particularly nasty public criticism by online bloggers.  They love to hate her.  She can’t sing, she’s an airhead, her music is stupid and trite…I’ve been shocked at the cruelty and ignorance of some of the things people write.  First, anyone who makes the claim that Jessica can’t sing is not a singer, because a singer would recognize that this song has a huge range (an 11th, to be specific, and anything beyond a 10th is right up there with Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood – a wider range than most of us can belt without shifting to head voice).  Jessica delivers it with both personality and good intonation, and that’s a tough balance to strike.  Second, anyone claiming that she is an airhead has never spent any one-on-one time with her, because it was instantly obvious to us as her songwriting collaborators that she is in fact a smart woman with substance, emotion, the great strength to overcome personal obstacles and the even greater strength not to share them with the public.  Third, if you think her music is not meaningful, then just wait…wait until you hear some of the songs she’s recorded for the rest of the record.  That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

I gathered with some friends to watch TV yesterday morning when Jessica performed “Come On Over” for the first time, live on ABC’s The View and backed up by Rachel Proctor on harmonies.  (Click here to watch it online.)  Rachel was text-messaging me with updates and photos from backstage, so it was almost like being there in person.  This whole experience is such an amazing one for the two of us.  She’s become my close friend and main collaborator, and from the first moment we sat down to write we realized how much we have in common.  We both experienced some success early on in our careers, but since then we’ve both come through parallel times of pain and abuse, we’ve struggled to pay the bills, we’ve experienced a lot of frustration and had to learn some hard lessons about patience, and we’ve worked really, really hard to get to where we are right now.  Rachel said that when the cameras came on and the band started playing the song, she stood on that stage and pictured me sitting in front of the TV in Nashville, and it was all she could do not to cry.  I felt the same way.  Success is a thousand times sweeter the second time around, and we are savoring every moment of this.

I heard “Come On Over” on the radio here in Nashville for the first time last night.  I had worked yet another 18-hour day and I was heading home from the studio in my car.  When I heard that familiar acoustic intro – the one that had come from my own guitar – my heart just about leaped out of my chest!  I spent the next 3 minutes driving up and down Music Row, past the late-night deserted record labels and publishing offices and recording studios, with the volume cranked up to 10 and a big goofy smile on my face, thinking “yeah – this is my town”.  What can I say?  That was a great 3 minutes.

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Jessica Single, Dog Days and the New CD

My phone rang last night, and when I picked it up, I heard the voice of my good friend and co-writer Rachel Proctor on the other end.

“Have you heard?” she said.

“Heard what?” I said, bewildered.

“We got the first Jessica Simpson single!!!!!!”

I screamed.  I mean SCREAMED.  So loud that the dog ran and hid under the bed.

Rachel and I have had three songs recorded by Jessica for her new country record, set for release on RCA’s Columbia Nashville label – two of which we wrote with Jessica – but we had no idea one of our songs would be her first radio single.  As many of you probably know, only a couple of songs per record are selected to be played on the radio as singles.  That’s where we make most of our income as songwriters, but the competition for those slots are tough and many writers never get that opportunity.  This song is scheduled for release in mid-June, and after hearing some of the record in advance, I really believe that Jessica is going to be HUGE in the country market.  Her voice suits the genre perfectly, so hopefully country radio will welcome her with open arms.  She deserves to be treated with some respect for a change.  After meeting her, I have to admit I feel a bit defensive on her behalf, especially when I’m standing in line at the grocery store counter and looking at some of the ridiculous tabloid headlines about her.  I don’t know how she stands it.  It’s gotta be tough.

Rachel and I are also currently in the process of writing a book to go with our song “Remember That”, which Jessica has also recorded for her project.  The book, like the song, will encourage women to leave abusive relationships by sharing the stories of those of us who have experienced physical or emotional abuse in the past and have found the strength to walk away from it.  It hasn’t been easy to write – it has brought up some very tough memories for both of us – but we really believe that it will be an important opportunity to share strength with those who might need it most.

On top of that, Rachel and I have been performing full band sets along with our co-writer Bruce Wallace in a monthly benefit show for Nashville’s Camp Chaos Dog Rescue, a local grassroots organization which is a passion of ours.  We’re calling the series “Dog Days of Summer”, and we just had our second show which also featured a set by Mercury artist Julie Roberts.  It was a lot of fun to see and hear Julie perform her hits, along with one of the songs she and Rachel and I wrote together (“Mama Said Don’t”, which has been posted on her MySpace page: www.myspace.com/julieroberts).  I had a great time closing out the night with some new songs in my set.

As for my CD, it looks like I’ll be working with a major Canadian manager for the release of my new project early next year.  Work is still underway on it, and I just had a fantastic photo shoot for the cover with Nashville’s Juan Pont Lezica.  Juan has done most of the famous promotional photos for Keith Urban and Jennifer Hanson, and he and his wife (a stylist) did a beautiful job making me look like a rock star.  Stay tuned – I’m keeping most of them under my belt for now, but I’ll be putting a few up on my site soon.

Putting together your own CD without the funding of a major record label is not a cheap undertaking.  There are a LOT of upfront costs, and I’ve spent more than a few sleepless nights trying to figure out how to fund this new project and get it out there to the public.  There are musicians to pay, studios to rent, hours and hours of bills for mixing and mastering, photo sessions, graphic design, and replication fees – and that’s before the videos, radio promotion and touring bills start coming in.  But the universe has a funny way of providing things for you when you need them most.  A few weeks ago, I replaced my friend Tia Sillers (who was down for the count with bronchitis) in a performance at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe…and after the show, a man came up from the audience out of the blue and offered to sponsor my project!  So thank you Donny Lassetter and the Thornton Steel Co. Inc. for your kind and selfless help!  I can’t wait to share the final product with you!

Well, I’ve got a big weekend ahead…my good friends Lisa Brokop and Paul Jefferson are getting married on Sunday, and Mary Sue Englund and I wrote a song for them, so we’ll be singing it during the ceremony along with our buddy Tania Hancheroff.  And then Rachel Proctor and I are heading up to Toronto next week to perform together in the gala headliners’ show for the Tin Pan North Festival, so I guess I’d better get packing!

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Back to the River

I went through a pretty rough divorce a few years ago.  You can probably tell that from my music.  Writing has been a big part of the healing for me in processing all that heartache…it became a place to put the pain so I didn’t have to carry it around with me anymore.

A while ago, on a cold February day, I went through a very cathartic exercise in forgiveness.  It was completely spontaneous – I just woke up in the morning and knew exactly what I needed to do.  I’ve wanted to write a song about what happened that day for a long time, but I was afraid to even try because the experience was so intense that I knew it would be very difficult to do it justice in a song.

Well, the other day I finally wrote the song.  I wrote it with two of the songwriters I admire most: Tom Douglas and Jamie O’Hara.  Tom’s songs are works of art…”Grown Men Don’t Cry” by Tim McGraw and “Little Rock” by Collin Raye, to name a couple, and Jamie is a Grammy-winning songwriter who has had a string of solo-written hits including “Grandpa, Tell Me Bout the Good Old Days” by the Judds and “The Cold Hard Truth” by George Jones.  As you can imagine, being in the room to write with two such amazingly talented writers is an unbelievably creative experience.

We started off writing a completely different song, and for some reason the conversation took a turn and I felt compelled to tell them about this experience I had…I closed my eyes and re-lived it…and the words just tumbled out.  When I opened my eyes, Tom said, “That’s the song we need to write”.  An hour or so later, we had it finished, and there was my story almost verbatim, painted around the edges with poetry.  It’s called “Back to the River”, and it’s gonna be on my new record in early 2009.  I hope you like it!

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Tin Pan South and a Cherry Red Strat

The past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind of activity for me!  It all started last Tuesday with the first official “Dog Days of Summer” benefit concert at the Rutledge here in Nashville.  Rachel Proctor, Bruce Wallace and I each played a full band set to raise funds for the local “Camp Chaos” dog rescue organization that we’re involved in.

I decided that rather than staying in my comfort zone and playing my acoustic guitar the whole night, I would take that cherry red electric Stratocaster guitar down from the wall in my studio and  play that instead, solo and all, to close my set of original songs with the cover song “Magic” by The Cars.  It was a blast!

The following week was Tin Pan South, the world-famous songwriters’ festival here in Nashville that features acoustic performances of original songs by hundreds of hit writers.  The writers perform in sets of four, and this year I was asked by NSAI (Nashville Songwriters’Association International) to put together my own “round”.  So I invited some of my favorite friends and cowriters to participate: Rachel Proctor (writer of “Where Would You Be” for Martina McBride), Julie Roberts (Mercury recording artist best known for her hit “Break Down Here”), and Gary Baker (who penned the monster crossover pop/country hits “I Swear” and “I’m Already There).  We played to a packed house of industry professionals and amateur songwriters alike, and it was especially exciting because Julie was debuting several songs that she had cowritten with Rachel and me, so we played along and harmonized with her.  We had a ball!

But the night was far from over.  The moment I got off stage, my phone rang and it was my cowriter Tia Sillers, asking me to take her place in a show at the Bluebird Café across town in 20 minutes because she was losing her voice!  So I packed up my guitar, jumped in the car and arrived just in time to take the stage alongside songwriters Mark Selby (The Dixie Chicks’ “There’s Your Trouble”, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Blue on Black”), Doug Johnson (Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses”, Rascall Flatt’s “Skin”) and the amazing new Curb artist Christianna Perez. Tia’s shoes are hard to fill (she penned the huge hit “I Hope You Dance” for Leanne Womack) but the show went really well and the audience was fabulous.  Not only that, but we even had a cameo performance by legendary country artist Larry Gatlin, who looked at me and said “This girl can sing tenor to a dog whistle!!!”  I think that’s a compliment….

The next morning, I was up and at it again – NSAI had invited me to be a panelist at their songwriting symposium alongside some of my songwriting idols: Gary Burr (“What Mattered Most”, “In a Week or Two”), Victoria Shaw (Garth’s “The River”) and Chris Wallin (Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink”, Montgomery Gentry’s “Something to be Proud of”).  We each performed a song and answered questions from what looked like an audience of several hundred writers.  It was a really special thing to be up there with writers whose songs I have loved for so long.

Tonight, 2 days later, I’m preparing for yet another Bluebird show, and then I’ll be performing in Georgia for the next two weekends.  In the meantime, I’m scheduled to co-write every day of the week.  Over the past two weeks I’ve written songs with Michelle Wright, Cyndi Thomson, Julie Roberts, Lila McCann, Rachel Proctor and a bunch of other writers I really admire, so my day job is pretty exciting too.  Who needs a vacation?  My whole life is a vacation!

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A Wee Pint of Guinness (Performing in Belfast, Ireland)

I just got back from a terrific week in Ireland, where I performed at the 4th annual Belfast Songwriters’ Festival.  I had the opportunity to play a couple of acoustic shows with Don Schlitz and Pat Alger, who are some of my greatest songwriting influences.  Don wrote a slew of hits including Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” and Allison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All”, and Pat wrote a bunch of hits including Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and “Unanswered Prayers”.

The week started off a little roughly when I was stranded at the JFK airport for 24 hours en route, and then the airline managed to lose my bag AND my guitar (losing your guitar is like losing your child!) so I spent my entire visit over there with no belongings except the clothes on my back and what I could borrow from my sister Amy, who had fortunately come along for the trip as well.  But the Irish people gave us a lovely warm reception and it was easy to just roll with it – I was able to borrow a guitar for my shows.  Finally my belongings were found and delivered to Belfast just in time to turn around and go home again (which was another 24 hour journey thanks to the blizzard that kept us stuck on the runway at the airport in Chicago for hours on end).

One of the highlights of my stay in Belfast was a visit to the Cregagh Primary School, where I performed for a class of 9 & 10-year-old kids as part of the festival’s outreach program.  The festival’s organizers have been working with the local children for a while to encourage and teach them to write songs.  Since there is still a lot of friction between Catholic and Protestant populations in the area and the schools are still quite segregated, this is a great way of bringing together kids from different backgrounds and enabling each of them to learn and write about the lives of the others.  The kids sang a traditional Irish song for me, and I played a few of my own songs for them.  It was a great day.

Another highlight of the week was the spontaneous jam session that evolved in the pub downstairs from the hotel where all of the performers were staying.  Every night, the pub was a gathering point for us (Guinness is a big part of life in Ireland, and we took every opportunity to taste it – it’s actually much more creamy and delicious over there than it is here, so I’m a convert!).  While the locals cheered on their rugby teams in the big TV match, the rest of us began to pass the guitar around and perform folk songs from our various countries, as well as some of our own original songs.  Before long we had drawn a crowd, and the group had grown to include headliners Nanci Griffith (USA), Annika Fehling & Tobias Frohberg (Sweden), & Tony McLaughlin (Scotland) as well as about 8 other writers from various countries around the world.  Pretty soon a harp player joined us to jam out some solos (quite beautiful hearing her play along with some of the traditional Celtic music!).  When we really got rolling we even managed to kidnap a man who happened to be passing by outside on the sidewalk with a fiddle on his back, and he started playing some fantastic Irish reels.  I think the most wonderful moment of all was when we convinced Dougie MacLean to perform his song “Caledonia”, which is hugely popular in the UK and has become a surrogate national anthem for the Scots.  He sang it quietly, with his lilting Scottish accent, and by the time the first verse was over everything in the bar had suddenly become quiet: the TV had been turned off, all the bar patrons had crowded around, and a few people had even come in off the street to sing along.  It was so beautiful that it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Actually the hair stood up on the back of my neck a lot while I was there, especially during the tour of Belfast that my sister and I took.  For two hours, a taxi driver drove us around; we saw the huge dry dock where the Titanic was built before her disastrous maiden voyage, some beautiful churches, and many of the fantastic murals painted on the sides of buildings all around the city.  The murals serve as memorials and political statements honoring both sides of the Loyalist/Nationalist conflict that used to plague the area up until about 8 years ago, when acts of terrorism were a common occurrence, and the hotel we were staying in would have been enclosed in barbed wire and manned by armed military guards.  The wall still stands in the middle of Belfast (quite like the Berlin wall) separating the Catholic sections from the Protestant ones, and it’s not unusual at all to see a row of lovely houses with one of them gutted, burned and empty in the middle.  Apparently these taxi tours are not necessarily objective or even accurate in their description of the conflicts, but it was interesting seeing our driver point out many of the names of his relatives on the memorial signs throughout the city.  It left me absolutely awed at what people had lived through so recently in a city that now seems so tranquil.

Our tour of the beautiful northern coast was also fantastic, with the highlight being a visit to the Giant’s Causeway – a strange geological formation caused by the cooling of volcanic lava into large black 5-sided cylinders that stand on end.  An entire section of the coastline was comprised entirely of these stones standing side-by side at different heights, giving it a unique honeycomb appearance.  The black rock was gorgeous against the white foam of the waves crashing in from the Irish sea, backed by tall mountainous bluffs covered in thick green grass flattened by the wind.

All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to visit the land my ancestors came from for the first time and to share in a truly international musical experience.  Thanks to Colin and Anne McGee and all of their helpers for their hard work in organizing the festival.  I’m in love with Ireland now, so I’m sure I’ll be back!  And the Guinness just isn’t the same over here….

Posted in Blogs

Pearl’s Music Box

This diary entry isn’t about the music business…but I think it’s an interesting story that explains a little bit about where the music came from in my life, so I’ll include it here on my site.

My friend Tia Sillers gave me some bath salts – the old fashioned kind in a tin can – with a wonderful scent.  They say that your sense of smell is one of your strongest senses when it comes to memories, and I believe it.  It took me the better part of a year to figure out why that can of salts captivated me so much…they smelled sad, romantic, and so evocative of my childhood.  This morning I finally realized why.

When I was a little girl, I had a music box/face powder holder that belonged to my Grandma’s sister, Pearl.  My Grandma sat down with me one day and told me her story.

My Grandma’s parents were very poor Irish immigrants who settled in Toronto around the turn of the century, back in the days when people turned up their noses at the Irish (it wasn’t unusual to see a sign posted in a storefront window that said “no dogs or Irish allowed”).  My Great-Grandfather found a menial but respectable job as a night watchman at a factory, and put aside every penny he could to educate his three daughters.  The idea back then was to raise cultured young ladies who would rise above their lower-class roots to find good, well-bred husbands to take care of them.  Each of the three sisters studied an art; Grandma was a concert pianist, Lorena was an elocutionist (that’s the lost art of delivering monologues and reciting poems – like Anne of Green Gables did), and Pearl was a classically-trained singer.

In the 1920s, Pearl was a young woman, just out of high school and still living at home with her family.  She had landed a coveted position as a stenographer for a respected company in downtown Toronto.  One day in the middle of the afternoon, she turned to her coworkers and said “Why did they turn the lights off so early?”  The lights weren’t off.  She had suddenly gone completely blind.

Some of the ladies at work helped her home on the streetcar that afternoon, and the doctor was sent for.  He diagnosed Pearl with detached retinas, and prescribed the “treatment” of the time – total immobilization.  Pearl was to spend months on end lying in bed with her head encased in sandbags, completely still, in hopes that her sight would return.  Her sisters took turns reading to her by her bedside.  But after the better part of a year, nothing had changed, and the doctor finally gave up hope.

Eventually Pearl came to terms with her condition and learned how to deal with it, studying Braille, learning music by rote, and relying on a lot of help from her family.  The world was less accommodating to the handicapped back then – it was a lot tougher to make do.  Eventually her sisters moved out and started lives of their own, and when her parents died a decade or so later, Pearl was unable to take care of herself.  I remember the tears welling up in Grandma’s eyes when she told me about the day she and her sister had to move Pearl into an asylum because neither of them were able to take her in (husbands and children, so hard-won, had to come first).  The asylum wasn’t a pretty place, but it was the only option.  When the sisters visited Pearl there she would beg and cry and struggle against the nurses, wanting to go home – but there was no home left to go to.   She didn’t last very long in the asylum– she died in her late 30’s.

I never met Pearl, but her music box sat on the dresser in my room throughout my childhood.  It was a beautiful little round green metal box with pink flowers on top and it played a delicate, unidentifiable Victorian tune that I can still hum to this day.  That music used to tell Pearl where the box was so she could put her face powder on more easily.  There was no face powder left in the box by the time I got it, but the faint scent of it always lingered under the lid, and every day I would open it up and breathe it in.  Those bath salts Tia gave me have that same scent.  They make me think about Pearl, and how different her life would have been if she had been born in my generation instead of her own.  It seemed so tragic that her condition could have been so easily remedied today with a simple surgery.  How sad.

Posted in Blogs

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