June 14, 2008
The biggest-selling female country artist in history, Shania Twain achieved success on a worldwide scale that had never been seen before in country music, and hasn’t been seen since, either. Her stunning visual image made her an icon, but it was her songwriting that made her a superstar, bringing a female empowerment message that essentially ended the long tradition of heartbreak queens in country music.
She started out in her native Canada, raised in Timmins, Ontario. Her given name was Eilleen Regina Edwards, and she was adopted at the age of two by her mother’s second husband, Jerry Twain. Her mom noticed Eilleen’s gifts at an early age, and by the age of ten, she was being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night to perform country songs at the local bars. Because of her age, she could only sing in such establishments after they had stopped serving alcohol for the night. She would sing and play guitar, covering the songs by her favorite country acts of the seventies: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and fellow Canuck Anne Murray.
By the time she reached adulthood, however, her musical tastes had expanded, and she developed quite a liking of eighties pop and arena rock. She was already fronting a covers band at 21 when tragedy struck, and her parents were killed in a car accident. She was suddenly responsible for the care of her younger siblings. She moved them to Huntsville, Ontario, where she made good money performing at the Deerhurst Resort. When all of her siblings had graduated high school, she felt ready to pursue her professional recording career, and with the help of a manager who’d caught her act at the resort, she headed to Nashville.
Her demo tape earned her a recording contract with Mercury Records, who recognized her vocal talent but were hesitant about her unconventional self-written material. Now billed as Shania Twain, she was paired with veteran producers Norro Wilson and Harold Shedd, who felt her own songs weren’t up to the same standard as the material they had selected for her. Only one of the tracks from her debut album, Shania Twain, was co-written by Twain.
The album was released in 1993, but sounded like a project from the early eighties. The production was dated, some of the material was recycled, and her distinctive voice was marred with echo effects. Even the label didn’t seem to know how to market her. After producing a sexy video for lead single “What Made You Say That,” the accompanying album artwork was of Twain wearing a heavy coat next to a wolf by an outdoor fire. The wolf’s face was more clearly visible than Twain’s. After two low-charting singles and one that missed the chart entirely, the album quietly faded away.
However, the video clip for that first single would end up impacting her career anyway. When it was playing on CMT Europe, famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange caught the clip, and was intrigued by Twain’s voice. He contacted her on the phone, and she revealed that she was a songwriter as well. He asked to hear something she had written, so she propped up the phone and played him “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore),” after which he said that her voice sounded infinitely better singing her own material than it did on the record he had of hers. They became phone buddies and eventually arranged to meet at Fan Fair.
The professional became personal, and the pair soon married. Together, they co-wrote songs for her second album, which Lange produced. The lead single, “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”, went to radio in early 1995, while the album followed a month later. As the single gained traction at radio, eventually peaking at #11, The Woman in Me steadily rose in sales. Those sales exploded when the second single, “Any Man of Mine,” became a #1 smash that summer. Soon, the album was selling at a rate that was unheard of for a female country artist.
Her eye-popping videos made her a crossover star before pop radio even started playing her. Defying conventional wisdom, the now multi-platinum singer didn’t tour, as she was too big to open and didn’t have enough material for a headlining set. As the album became the top-selling by a female country artist in history, the awards rolled in. In 1996, The Woman in Me won Album of the Year at the ACM’s and Best Country Album at the Grammys. The set produced another three #1 singles, “(If You’re Not in it For Love) I’m Outta Here!”, “You Win My Love” and “No One Needs to Know.” By the time she was ready to follow it up, The Woman in Me had already sold nine million copies in America alone, on its way to an eventual twelve million in sales.
Twain’s image garnered the most press, but it was her songwriting that was truly revolutionary. The women in her songs demanded respect and fair treatment, refused to be compromised or give in to sexual pressures, and even when on the receiving end of a heartbreak, would not play the victim. The era of the heartbreak queen, best exemplified at the time by Reba McEntire but played on record by nearly every female country artist, even progressive ones like Rosanne Cash or Emmylou Harris, came to an end. From this point on, female country artists would embrace assertive material, and the crop of stars who have followed since Twain’s breakthrough, everyone from Jo Dee Messina to the Dixie Chicks, from Gretchen Wilson to Carrie Underwood, have all incorporated Twain’s girl power message in some form or another.
Her label head, Luke Lewis, said her third CD Come On Over would be country music’s Thriller. Released in the fall of 1997, it entered a respectable No. 2 on the pop albums chart, and sold three million copies by the beginning of the new year. Lead single “Love Gets Me Every Time” spent five weeks at No. 1 on the country chart. But the album really took off when third single “You’re Still the One” became a crossover hit. Twain appeared on the VH1 Divas Live special, and launched a sell-out international tour.
Meanwhile, her album was remixed for the international market. By the end of 1998, what had begun as a strong-selling album defied all conventional rules and actually gained strength with time. Twain scored another huge pop hit with “From This Moment On,” and she won two Grammys in early 1999. The big turning point for the project was the pop remix of “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” which not only pushed sales in America through the stratosphere, but was her breakthrough smash in England, Australia, Germany and other international markets.
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” repeated the success of “Much”, and by the end of its run, Come on Over had sold 35 million copies worldwide, including 20 million in America, the best-selling country album in history. The CMA and ACM both named Twain Entertainer of the Year, BMI named her the top artist-songwriter, and she won another pair of Grammys. She scored huge ratings for her two network specials, and her Behind the Music was the most-watched and most-repeated of all entries in the VH1 series. Her tour played to sell-out crowds around the world. Her album was the top-selling release in the U.K. in 1999, and the top-selling female album in history in both the United States and Australia.
Twain took time off to have a child and rest from the road, and she resurfaced with Up! in 2002. Lead single “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” was a top ten hit around the world, and the album sold over 875,000 copies in its first week in America, staying at No. 1 on the pop charts for five weeks. Rather than decide which fan base to appeal to, she released three different versions of the album, two of which were paired together in America and two in international markets. The U.S. got the country and pop versions, while the rest of the world received the pop and “rhythmic” versions. “Forever and For Always” became the biggest hit stateside, topping the AC charts and going to No. 4 at country radio, while “Ka-Ching!”, her indictment of mass consumerism, was a huge hit in Europe.
Twain launched another hit tour, which would set a record for amount grossed in a country trek. Up! was certified for sales of eleven million, and it earned her four Grammy nominations over a two-year period. Rather than mine the album for ten singles like she did for Come On Over, Twain returned in 2004 with her Greatest Hits, an incredibly generous package that featured four new tracks and seventeen classics. It set a record for the biggest opening-sales week of a hits collection, and has already sold 4 million copies in America, despite being dominated by tracks from albums that had sold more than ten million copies each.
Twain’s been quiet on the musical front lately, but has indicated that she will return soon with more self-written material. When she does come back, it will be the homecoming of a woman who has only released four albums, but is already the biggest-selling female artist in country music history.
- “Any Man of Mine,” 1995
- “(If You’re Not in it For Love) I’m Outta Here!,” 1995
- “You’re Still the One,” 1998
- “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” 1998
- “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” 1999
- “Forever and For Always,” 2003
- The Woman in Me (1995)
- Come On Over (1997)
- Up! (2002)
- ACM Album (The Woman in Me), 1996
- ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1996
- ACM Entertainer, 2000
- CMA Entertainer, 1999
- Grammy: Best Country Album (The Woman in Me), 1996
- Grammy: Best Country Song (“You’re Still the One”), 1999
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“You’re Still the One”), 1999
- Grammy: Best Country Song (“Come On Over”), 2000
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”), 2000