Category Archives: Interviews

Country Universe Talks with James House

James HouseEngland swings, or at least it did back in Roger Miller’s day. Nowadays, England is more likely to line dance, which helped an album from one of Nashville’s top singer-songwriters become a hit – almost 20 years after it was released.

To back up a bit: in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, country music was in a creative boom era, and James House was one of the reasons. His two albums on MCA Records (James House, Hard Times for An Honest Man) and one for Epic (Days Gone By) are all top-quality affairs that featured his distinctive voice and excellent songwriting chops. While he only had one Top 10 hit — “This Is Me Missing You” — he garnered airplay with several singles. House’s real success, though, came as a songwriter, as he penned hits for the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride and other artists.

Those three albums really deserved a wider audience, and even today, they are well worth acquiring should you ever stumble across a copy. Days Gone By, though, ended up enjoying a renaissance in England last year, where it spawned three hit singles and coaxed House back into the recording studio for a new album and an overseas tour. Not bad for an album that was released in 1995.

“The way this all got started is that country line dance and line dancing in general is generated by the choreographers,” House says. “A choreographer there by the name of Yvonne Anderson had my records for a long, long time. She said that something happened in her life, and she was listening to “This Is Me Missing You,” and something struck her to make a line dance for it.”

The dance and the song took off, and it was soon followed by“Little by Little” and “A Good Way to Wind Up Lonesome,” also from the Days Gone By album. By July 2013, House was a major hitmaker in England. He didn’t find out about it until November.

“A fan said, ‘Do you realize that “This Is Me Missing You” is #1 on the Country Dance charts?’” he recalls. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Great, who cut it?’ and the e-mail came back that said, ‘No, it’s your actual record.’”

House had toured England as an opening act for Randy Travis in the early ‘90s, and that was his only substantial time there as a country singer. After doing a little research and talking to the magazine that ran the charts, he began putting feelers out for a trip overseas for a promotional tour. That quickly snowballed into a full-fledged tour of England, with 19 shows in July and August that are sold out or are quickly approaching that level.

House also decided to put together a new album. Broken Glass Twisted Steel, released April 29, is his first solo release on his own record label, Victor House Records. Earlier this year, he released a blues-rock record for the Troubador Kings, a side project where he sings and plays lead guitar.

Broken Glass makes for a pretty comprehensive James House primer. Three of the 11 tracks are his versions of #1 hits he wrote: “In a Week or Two” by Diamond Rio, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” by Yoakam, and “A Broken Wing” by McBride.

“Then there was a song, “Here’s to You,” that I cut in 1990, and I never felt like I nailed it,” he adds. “So I recut that and was really happy with how that came out. The rest is new stuff.”

“King of Nothing” was something that he had written with the Warren Brothers in the late ‘90s and sang live for years. He recorded that song on the advice of his wife. The rest of the album came together after pouring through his catalog for songs he liked. The first single, “Every Time It Rains,” was rediscovered in the process.

“I wrote it about six or eight months ago with Michael Bradford, who played bass and co-produced the record with me. I had forgotten all about it,” House says. “I had never turned it into my publisher for some reason. I probably just demoed it and stuck it in a drawer somewhere. When we recorded it, it just had that feel that it might want to be played over and over. Hopefully everybody will feel the same about it.”

Despite the 20-year gap in House’s recording career (he has recorded new music periodically), Broken Glass fits in quite nicely with his previous work. His earlier albums never tried to keep up with the production trends of the era, which is probably why don’t sound dated today. Broken Glass is unmistakably country, albeit with a rock edge, and House’s new songs aren’t limited to the typical topics found in today’s country music.

“I was thinking about the album and how there are no trucks on it,” House says. “Love songs to me are timeless, and there are people doing pickup truck songs so much better than me.

Besides, “I like muscle cars, so if I’m going to write about a car, it’s going to be a Chevy Malibu or something,” he adds.

House’s upcoming tour through England appears to be just the start of a busy time for him. He’s working on a U.S. tour now, and he recently made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says of his touring plans. “I’m getting e-mails all the time from the promoter saying that shows have sold out. It’s a blessing to have this much excitement about it. And at this stage to have it happen, I’m grateful.”

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A Conversation with Jamie O’Neal

0647Jamie O’Neal’s time in the mainstream country spotlight was short, but memorable. She kicked off her career with back-to-back number one hits “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” which powered her 2000 debut album Shiver to gold certification. However, subsequent single releases stalled at radio and her planned follow-up album was shelved, eventually leading to the end of her deal with Mercury Records. A tenure at Capitol produced the 2005 album Brave and another pair of hits with “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero,” but history eventually repeated itself with further unsuccessful singles and never-released albums.

Now Jamie O’Neal is embarking on a new chapter as the head of her own Momentum record label, free of major label constraints and of the need to depend on radio play. Her fans’ wait for new music is finally over as she preps to release her first new album in nearly a decade with Eternal, due out May 27, on which she covers a selection of classic tunes that helped shape her into the artist she eventually became.  I recently had the chance to sit down with Jamie O’Neal to talk about these exciting new career developments.

You’re about to release your first new album in a few years. You must be very excited.

I am, definitely. I’m excited to have something new out there, but it’s actually old because the songs are traditional. But I think for a lot of people who haven’t heard them before, it’s going to kind of bring those songs to new ears and new fans hopefully.

What made you feel this was the right time for your first covers project?

You know, I’d never done one before, and I’d always sung a couple of these songs in my show. And my mom used to sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which is kind of what started the whole thing – the old Sammi Smith song written by Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorites. It started out just with my husband and I talking about the songs that we loved, and he said “You know, you’ve been singing these and the fans love them. You should record an album.” These kinds of classics, some of them went to number one and Top 5, they’ll hopefully live on forever. Like “The Sweetest Thing,” Juice Newton, is one of those songs that was a pop hit, number one, and a country hit a few years apart, which is really unique. So I thought that was really cool. One of the first songs I wanted to do was “The Sweetest Thing.”

That was one thing that really stood out to me, that you have some less-expected cover choices. It’s not just songs culled from Classic Country for Dummies, if you know what I mean. There’s some good variety.

[Laughs] Exactly! Like “Born to Run,” Emmylou Harris, might not be a very well-known song, but for me that’s how I felt when I first got to Nashville. I’m hungry. No one’s going to stop me. I’ve got someplace to be. I’m going to make it. I was born to run. I just love what the song says and the message and everything.

There’s definitely no shortage of great songs to choose from in the Emmylou Harris songbook.

Oh, I know. I could have done a thirty song CD really.

It seems that for a lot of people a covers album is the kind of thing that can go very right or very wrong. What qualities do you think are essential for a really great covers album?

That’s a good question. I think staying true to the songs and not changing the tracks too much is important. It was important to me. And I think adding your own element to it is really important so it doesn’t just sound like you’re a karaoke singer. I call myself a soulful country singer, so I wanted to keep that soul in there and sing songs that I love to belt out because I do love big ballads. For me, I’d recorded and written so many mid-tempos, so it was cool to be able to put quite a few ballads on there.

What are your favorite covers albums, country or otherwise?

Well, I love Martina’s album. She did some really cool different choices on there, I thought, and I’ve always loved her voice. I love Seal’s album, and I love Micheal McDonald’s Motown album. That would probably be my favorite.

Can you give me some insight into how you went about choosing songs for this project?

Well, I really picked my favorites, and my husband brought in a couple and said ‘What about this one? What about that one?’ One song that I love is the Bruce Coburn song, my favorite on the album, called “One Day I Walk.” It’s kind of got that bluegrassy feel to it – something different for me. And I did a bunch of backgrounds on there. It’s one of my favorites.

And you have Andy Griggs playing the George to your Tammy on “Golden Ring.”

Well, he came last night and sang with me, and he’s just as great as ever. We’ve been touring together for the past couple years, doing gigs. We just did a country cruise together, and we just really enjoy doing show and singing together. I love his voice.

What the story behind the album’s only non-cover, your original “Wide Awake”?

My husband keeping me wide awake every night with his snoring. I’ve got it figured out now. I have a sound machine on in between us on the rain and thunder and beach sound and another sound machine with the white noise, and I pretty much drown him out. I’ve had a couple people, actually a couple PDs, said “Send that to me and I’ll start playing it.” So I feel really fortunate about that, because I think a lot of people can relate – a lot of women.

One big thing that you’ve had happen recently is that you’ve added “label owner” to your resumé. How would you describe the challenges and rewards of recording on your own label as opposed to a major label?

Definitely less of a budget – I’ll tell you that! You know the days when you used to get a stylist out in Los Angeles or New York and they would fly you there and you’d pick clothes and spend $10,000 on outfits and a $1,000 on a stylist to do your hair and makeup. It’s really difficult these days because even the majors have had to really tighten the budget, and the independents really do as well. So you have to figure out a way to do things for yourself a lot of the time. In the past, everyone was doing everything for me, from my website to everything, marketing and all that stuff. So now I’ve really had to learn, which I feel like I have from some of the best in the business. Capitol Records and Mercury, some of the staff that I’ve worked with, I’ve learned so much from that I feel like, hey, this is cool. I can kind of look at things from a different angle.

You have Rachele Lynae as the Momentum flagship artist. How did you come to work with her?

Her family was friends with my dad back in Bellingham, Washington, because that was where my dad lived, and they lived in Linden, Washington. They kind of met in the recording studio, and she was like a teenager at that point. And then she moved to Nashville to go to Belmont, kept in contact with my dad, and when she made an EP, she met with him and played it for him, and he brought it to me. And it’s funny because my daughter was one of the first people to hear it because my dad was putting it in his CD player, and so my daughter was coming up singing these songs and saying ‘You need to hear Rachele. She’s really good, Mom!’ I was like ‘Really?’ Because I listen to her. She has good taste in music. And I figure kids are the ones that, if they don’t like something, you know it’s probably not trending.

Do you feel like you have a signature song?

Probably “Arizona” because it’s so unique and different. It seems to me that I’ve been mistaken for Deana Carter or Carolyn Dawn Johnson a lot, and Carolyn said that she used to get Deana Carter as well. That’s the thing – getting your face out there and not just your name and your songs, but usually when you say “Arizona,” that song is pretty well known.

What’s next for you? Do you have anything coming up that you would like to let people know about?

Well, I’m going to be doing a video for “Wide Awake.” The album is coming out May 27. I’m gonna be touring doing different dates here and there out of town on the road, so be looking for me out there, and the music will be on iTunes!

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A Conversation with Lynn Anderson

lynn-andersonLynn Anderson was born the daughter of songwriters Casey and Liz Anderson, and went on to become one of country music’s brightest stars in the 60′s and 70′s. Over the course of sixteen years, she amassed an impressive string of eighteen Top 10 country hits including chart-toppers such as “You’re My Man,” “How Can I Unlove You,” “Keep Me In Mind,” “What a Man My Man Is,” and most notably the Grammy-winning platinum-selling crossover smash “Rose Garden.”

Anderson continues busily touring and recording to this day. Most recently, she’s lent her talents to a new collaborative album called Betty Swain Project. The album pays tribute to a gifted songwriter named Betty Swain who was unsuccessful in finding individuals to orchestrate and perform her original songs for most of her life, only to have her longtime dream finally realized a few short weeks before her death thanks to a low-budget demo CD and concert organized by singer-songwriter Jim Paul. Lynn Anderson renders two Betty Swain compositions for this new Center Sound Records release, which also includes contributions from Siobhan Magnus, Brittini Black, Loni Rose, Nikki Nelson, Kim Parent, Devin Belle, Taylor Watson, and Marissa Begin. Country Universe was recently able to reach Lynn Anderson out in New Mexico by phone for an interview in which she enthusiastically discusses both her current projects and past career accolades.

Ben Foster:  How did you come to be a part of Betty Swain Project, and what made you want to participate?

Lynn Anderson:  My friend and my steel guitar player Robin Ruddy (who also plays with Rod Stewart) called me and told me about the project, and asked if I might be interested in it, and I said “Sure” when I heard the history of it. Are you familiar with that?

Yes, it’s a beautiful story.

It really is. It’s very interesting. It’s kind of heartwarming. This lady was finally able to hear her music played before she passed away, and she had such great friends and such great family. It’s kind of amazing that sometimes words and music are timeless and sometimes it’s kind of a time machine. If you put them in a box and bury them under the cornerstone of a building, it’s amazing when that building is torn down and you come up with that time capsule, it’s amazing what you might find there. Some things take you back to an older time, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes you’ve forgotten that. I think Betty’s music takes us back to an easier time – kind of a time of Patsy Cline and that basic country music. So I think it’s amazing. I think it’s incredible to be a part of the project. I think that occasionally if you get a chance it’s kind of a wake-up call that reminds you that people have been writing this music for a long time, and though this lady didn’t get recognized in her prime, it’s a wonderful thing that she was able to hear her music played and know that it would be recorded before she passed away.

What qualities do you think made Betty Swain a compelling songwriter?

I think she was very real. I think she was true to her time, which was much more basic, much more down-to-earth, much more one-and-one with your basic emotions. She wasn’t confused or distracted by the cell phones, the computers and all that stuff that we have now. She basically was just a lady who sat and used her music as her means to communicate with other people, and we’ve kind of forgotten about what we call the good old days. We rely so much on social data, social networking that we’ve kind of forgotten actually how to write a letter, how to write down a poem, how to actually sit down and write a letter to another person, and I think that’s what Betty captures. She kind of brings back into your face the fact that people sat down and wrote down their ideas and their thoughts, and that was how they entertained themselves, and that’s how they entertained their families and their neighbors. It was a softer, gentler time.

What can you tell us about the songs you recorded for the album, “Sweet Memories” and “Prove You Care”?

I love “Sweet Memories.” Since Betty Swain’s song, there were other songs written called “Sweet Memories,” but hers seems to have been the first. So it seems that a good idea never dies. There were, as I said, other songs that I know of in the past twenty or thirty years, but hers seems to have been the first, so I thought it was a really nifty chance to get to capture that songs in its first personification. And it may have been written a hundred years ago. Someone may have sat in a cabin in Kentucky and written a song called “Sweet Memories,” but that’s the first one that’s come to my mind, that’s come to my attention. I just think it’s an incredible opportunity to get to see and feel not only how much the same people’s ideas and words were fifty years ago, but how much different they are. It’s a real looking glass. It’s a chance to look back into history and then place us here in the future

I just thought ["Prove You Care"] was a nifty fun song. She seems to have been a forerunner to Loretta Lynn – somebody with the same down-home moral qualities that Loretta Lynn became famous for years later. She was very down-to-earth, and I think that song says a lot of that.

I couldn’t do an interview with you without taking a little time to talk about your signature song. You’ve had a great run of country hits, but “Rose Garden” stands out as the Lynn Anderson song that virtually everybody knows. How would you describe what that song has meant to your career and to your fans?

Well, that was just a little bit of magic. That’s just one of those things that, if you’re lucky, happens once in a lifetime. It had been recorded seven times before I did it, and it wasn’t a hit, but it just simply took off and went out of my hands when we recorded it. We were planning on recording it in several different languages, and before we could do it, it became a hit worldwide. It became a hit in Mexico and Spain and France and Germany and Japan and so on before I had an opportunity to sing it in those languages. So to me it says how much music is a universal language – how much a really great piece of music speaks over languages barriers and over different barriers that seem to rise up between people.  A great song can break them all down.

It’s amazing how things sometime just come together like that.

Yeah, it is. I feel so lucky too that my song “Rocky Top” has become the state theme song of Tennessee. Actually we have two. There’s “The Tennessee Waltz,” but whenever the University of Tennessee makes a touchdown, they have to play “Rocky Top”! Do you know “Rocky Top”?

Oh yes, that’ s actually one of my favorite songs you’ve done.

Wherever we go all around the world, I usually close my show with “Rocky Top.” Everywhere in the world people like the music. It’s a very American song. It’s a banjo and all that. People clap their hands and stop their feet and go “Yee haw” and stuff like that. It’s a very happy, up-tempo very, very American song, so I love “Rocky Top” as much as I love “Rose Garden.”

Looking back on all of your impressive career accomplishments, what do you consider to be your proudest moments?

I think that the idea that “Rose Garden” was named the unofficial theme song for the United States Marine Corps was an amazing moment. When the soldiers came back from Vietnam, we were in a stadium with a lot of soldiers. The U.S. Navy was on the left side – about ten thousand of them – and the army was in the front – about ten thousand of those, and the navy was behind them. On the right, there were about ten thousand United States Marines. When I sang “Rose Garden,” all of them stood on signal at attention and saluted when I sang that song because it was the theme song for the United States Marines! And that’s an amazing thing. I cried. It was an amazing moment having a song that’s the theme song for the men and woman who are defending the United States. It’s an amazing thing.

So what’s next for Lynn Anderson? Is there anything upcoming that you’d like to let folks know about?

I’ve got a gospel project that we just finished. It’s not out yet, but it will be in a couple of months. I’m very excited about it. This is the first time I’ve ever done a gospel project, and we’ve got a song in it that the Oak Ridge Boys came and sang with me, and of course they’re in the Gospel Hall of Fame! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and to have the Oaks come in and sing with me is a wonderful thing. Those guys are just great! I can’t wait to get that out and see what happens with that.

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A Conversation with Zane Williams

Zane WilliamsCountry music singer-songwriter Zane Williams had his first taste of mainstream success in 2006 when Jason Michael Carroll took his song “Hurry Home” into the Top 20. Having already made inroads in the regional country market of his home state of Texas, the Abilene native is currently attempting to break through to a national audience with his fourth album Overnight Success. Amid preparations to embark on his first nationwide radio tour (in an RV with his wife and two children along for the ride), Williams found the time to call Country Universe to chat about his current single and album.

Ben Foster:  What can you tell us about the creative process behind your single “Overnight Success”?

Zane Williams:  Well, that was a pretty easy one to write because it’s so autobiographical. Once I got the idea, I had a lot of subject material to pull from – just from my own life, and from all the other musicians I know. It was a little tricky to get it sort of figured out. I wanted it to be a ten-step process. Pretty much all those things that I talk about in the song I’ve actually lived out in my own life. I didn’t borrow ten grand from my uncle to make my first CD, but I borrowed $17,000 from my grandparents to make my first CD. All the stuff that the song talks about.

Does the album have any central unifying themes?

I don’t think the songs do really. I think the main theme that sort of ties it all together is just the fact that I wrote all the songs, and so I think each one of them sort of shows a different side of my personality, and I kind of think of each one as being kind of its own mini-movie, and they’re all pretty different from each other.

Like an exploration of who Zane Williams is, basically?

Yeah, basically. Just all the different sides of my writing and just how I hear country music. You got your honky-tonk song, and then you got your kind of rocking country song like “Hands of a Working Man,” and you got your acoustic-y bluegrass sittin’ on a front porch type song with “The Simple Things,” love song with “Kissin’.” You hear all those types of song on the radio. You don’t always hear that kind of variety from just one artist, but as a writer, I like to write all those different styles.

Do you have any favorite songs or lyrics on this album, or does that feel like choosing between your children?

I think maybe “On a Good Day,” especially the first verse, the one about “steam rising from my coffee cup like a prayer going up.” I was really feeling the mojo that day. I think I put some good imagery in that song. Metaphors and similes and imagery and stuff, you know. I was feeling sort of poetic that day, so I’m kind of proud of that one, and then “While I Was Away” is real personal for me because it’s written for my boy, and I think that one’s got some mojo on it too. But yeah, I like ‘em all, though.  That’s true.

Who are your favorite songwriters?

Man, there are so many.

Living or dead, past or present.

I think Garth Brooks wrote some killer songs. Of course, not all of his hits did he write, but he did write some of those hits. He wrote some really, really good ones. I still feel like Garth Brook’s greatest hits is just like the pinnacle for me. They’re just all so iconic. Like I said, he didn’t write ‘em all, but he picked them.

He knows how to write ‘em, and he knows how to pick ‘em.

Yeah, exactly. Alan Jackson is somebody who I really have a lot of respect for as a writer because he’d just keep it simple and keep it country and classic, and yet still not be too cliché and still be personal and original. He’s just a good’n. He showed that sweet spot. Of Nashville writers, Dennis Linde is one of my favorites. He passed away not too long ago. He wrote a lot of songs. He was kind of a recluse that lived off by himself and wrote by himself. His songs always had a lot of character to them, like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and [sings] “Made her the queen of my double wide trailer.” He wrote “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks. All the hit songs just were fun. And then he wrote [sings] “In John Deere green, on a hot summer night…” So he was one of my favorite writers that wrote a lot of stuff back in the nineties. And then you got the guys like Radney Foster or Guy Clark, kind of singer-songwritery, little bit more folksy-type.

Yeah, Guy Clark’s new album is killer.

Yeah, they’re so varied, so good in their own way.

As a Texan, what are your thoughts on the current Texas country music scene, and what Texan artists do you enjoy listening to?

Well, I think like any scene it’s got its good music and bad music, and it’s got good music that’s not popular and you wonder why, and it’s got bad music that is popular and you wonder why. But it’s also got a lot of great stuff too. I think the main thing I like about it is just that you don’t have to be on a major label. There’s fewer gatekeepers. You don’t have to get permission to work with somebody. You pretty much just get your band together and sort of band together and go play shows and just work hard. So I’m thankful for the Texas community. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d have a career right now because I’m always a little bit of a square peg in a round hole in Nashville. I’ve never had any luck getting a major label deal or whatever, and in Nashville you either get that major label deal or you’re just waiting tables. Or you get a publishing deal, but I did that, and I wasn’t happy just being that because I’m more than just a songwriter. I want to be an artist and I want to perform. Down here in Texas I’ve got a scene that enables me to do that.

I’d say some of my favorites on the Texas scene would be the Randy Rogers Band. They’re just cool, man. They’re really good. I like the Turnpike Troubadours. Singer-songwriters, I like Sean McConnell a lot. Those are some of my favorites. I guess one of my favorites is the new guy up-and-comer William Clark Green.

So what’s next for you?

Well, a lot of stuff, man. We’re basically kicking it into fifth gear, you know. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow and I’m taking my family, and we’re going in an RV that we borrowed from a friend, and we’re going on a twelve-day radio tour. On this twelve-day radio tour we’ll be going through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi up to Nashville, and then spending a few days in Nashville, and then we’ll go through Bowling Green up to Lexington we’re I’ve got some family, and then we’ll be coming back down hitting a bunch of stations in Tennessee, and then going home by way of Arkansas and Oklahoma, hitting stations as we go. So anyway, it’s my first nationwide radio tour. “Overnight Success” is my first nationwide radio single. We’ve got a video for “Overnight Success” that’s coming out. We’ve been working it to the Texas charts for a couple months now. It’s in the Top 10 on the Texas charts. And that’s just the first single, man. Everybody that’s on my team and my record label – management, publicists, and radio promoters and all those people – we feel like there’s a lot more than just one single on our album. There’s two, five or six, so many to choose from.

So the next year or two is just gonna basically be the busiest I’ve ever been, just working my tail off playing shows every weekend and visiting as many radio stations as I can during the week and just really kicking it in into a higher gear than I’ve ever been in. I’ve never really had a good team behind me. It’s really the first time I’ve ever had the help of good publicists and radio promoters and everybody setting up a bunch of interviews for me and just helping to get the word out. We’re hoping to basically make Overnight Success a reality. I’d like this to be my breakout album, and I’m gonna do anything and everything in my power to get the word out about it.

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A Conversation with Amber Hayes

Amber Hayes

Independent country artist Amber Hayes released her first EP C’mon in the summer of 2010, and has since been covering all media ground, building up a solid fan following without the support of a major label.  She had already added “theater performer” to her resume back in 2008, when she was cast as Kathy in the Conway Twitty musical.  The year 2012 brought about the release of her second EP Any Day Is a Good Day, as well as her screen debut in the film Cowgirls ‘n Angels.  Amber Hayes recently spoke with Country Universe to discuss her accomplishments over the past year.

Ben Foster:  How would you describe what your journey has been like in the two years since you released the C’mon EP, and how is that reflected on Any Day Is a Good Day?

Amber Hayes:  I think it definitely reflects in the song “Any Day Is a Good Day,” because I just feel so blessed for all the opportunities I’ve gotten over the last two years.  I’ve gotten to perform overseas and be in a movie and sing the National Anthem at two NFL games.  It’s just been really exciting, and I’ve been really blessed.

What kind of lyrical themes do you deal with on this record?

I think it’s pretty diverse.  I’ve got “Somewhere Out West” which is a story song about a girl trying to find her father.  When I was on WSM the other morning, Bill Cody said “I see ‘Somewhere Out West’ as not just a story song about a little girl.”  “Somewhere Out West” is like what they’re looking for in their life, so I think it definitely doesn’t just have to be about that storyline.  “Suspicious” is just fun – kind of a laid-back feel to it.  “Built This Wall” is more like in your face,  independent.  Then we have “Far Far Away,” and it’s definitely towards the love side of it all – a little vulnerable.  So I think it definitely shows different sides.

What can you tell about your inspiration for writing the title track “Any Day Is a Good Day”?

I wish I could tell you exactly what it was, but when we got into the room that day, we just started talking and throwing out some ideas, and nothing was really going anywhere.  Somebody just said something about it being a good day, and wanting to write a positive song, and so we just kind of came up with that.  But what’s cool about that is one of the co-writers with me, he’s blind.  He has a different outlook on “Any Day Is a Good Day” because his day compared to ours is a little bit harder.  I think when we got done writing that song, it was pretty cool because he sang the work tape, and we were like ‘Oh my gosh, you know this is pretty awesome.’  Our day compared to his is so much easier, but his outlook on it is just like ‘I’m not going to worry about it.  If I can wake up, it’s a good day.’

What kind of experience was it for you being involved in the Cowgirls N’ Angels film?

It was so fun.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself because people will say ‘You were in a movie,’ and it’s like almost kind of hard to believe a little bit, but it was definitely a really cool experience – something I had never been around.  I had done theater, but had never done any kind of movie or TV or anything like that.  It was pretty cool.  The scene that I’m in is a bar scene, and I am the girl singing in the bar, so it kind of made sense.  But I got to sing two of my songs from the C’mon EP, and the stars actually line danced to “C’mon,” so it’s very cool.

What was it like working with Richie McDonald?

He’s very nice.  He’s so nice.  When we wrote this song ["Always There for Me"], and we were trying to decide who to sing it with, he came to mind because I love his voice.  It’s soothing, plus it commands, and I thought it sounds like a dad.  He was just very easy to work with, and so nice.  It’s pretty cool.  He’s done so many great things in his career.  That I got to record with him and perform with him was awesome.

You’ve also branched into television with having four of your songs selected for use in The CW’s Heart of Dixie.  How did that feel?

I’ve been a fan of Heart of Dixie since it actually started coming on TV.  I’ve just always loved the show because it reminds me of where I grew up, and I just always knew that they had a lot of great country music in there, and I kind of in the back of my mind thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if I actually got some music on that show?”  Then we did, and it was really awesome.  I was watching the first season a couple of weekends ago, and all of the placements we got are in the first season, so it really cool to watch that, and then it’s like “Oh gosh, there’s the song!”  So it was neat!

What can you tell us about your contribution to Liam Sullivan’s new book Making the Scene:  Nashville?

Well, Liam came to my album release show that we did with WSM at Station Inn.  I met him then, and he asked if he could interview me for this book, so we just sat down and talked, and I just kind of told him my story like an interview type thing.  I kind of just forgot about it, and then when I found out it came out, I just started looking into it, and come to find out I actually made the book, so it was really cool.  So it’s a great book about Nashville, what you should do when you come to town, and great places to go – even if you’re not into the music industry, but just visiting.

Let’s talk about some of your musical heroes.  In what ways do you endeavor to carry on the musical legacy of the women in country music who have inspired you?

My biggest influences are Reba and Dolly and Barbara Mandrell probably, but I love people like Jeannie Seely and Jean Shephard, and I’ve also had the big honor of knowing both of those women and working with them.  I just am so grateful to people like them who still to this day get to go on the Opry every week and sing country music, and they’re so proud to represent country music in such a great way.  They’re so classy.  I think that’s the deal with all these people that I love.  If I could say one word that sums them up, it’s class.  They’re great entertainers.  I think that every single one of those women, when they walk out onstage, they have you right in the palm of their hand.  Of course, Dolly and Reba and Barbara Mandrell have all done a little bit of everything, and that’s what I want to be, and that’s what I want to do.  I definitely want my fans to go away from a show

thinking ‘Wow, this was so fun’ and ‘She puts on a great show,’ and I can’t wait to go back again.

You pay tribute to one of your heroes with the song “Me and Loretta.”  How did that song come about?

Well, I wrote that song with Brian Eckert and Brady Seals, and Brady is a huge traditional country music fan.  He said “You know, we should write a song about your love for country music, or somebody that you love.”  He loves Loretta, and he knows Loretta and has worked with her in the past.  He said “You know, every song of Loretta’s that you hear you’ve gone through, somebody has lived.  Let’s just make it where you’re like talking to her, or in the car with her or something,” and we came out with “Me and Loretta.”  I think it’s a pretty cool story.  I think it’s just kind of like with “Somewhere Out West.”  Loretta can be whoever you want it to be, but to me it’s just Loretta.  Every one of her songs is just so real, and like I said, you’ve lived it at some point in your life.

What’s next for Amber Hayes?

“Any Day Is a Good Day” is the single, and we’ll see what happens with that.  Just booking stuff for 2013, and I don’t know.  I guess I’ll just see what happens!  I’m just so excited to get new music out, just because it’s been two years, and I’ve done a lot since then.  I feel like I’ve really built up a lot of new fans, and old fans that need to hear some new music, so it’s exciting!

Official website:  www.amberhayesmusic.com 

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A Conversation with Katie Armiger

KatieArmigerIn 2007, Katie Armiger released her first album at just 15-years-old after winning a local singing competition in Texas. Since then, she’s had quiet but solid success in the industry, earning four Billboard-charting singles and touring with major artists such as Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Ronnie Dunn. 

Last year, Country Weekly’s readers voted 21-year-old Armiger the “Hottest Bachelorette” for the second consecutive year, just before she appeared on ABC’s dubious reality television show, “The Bachelor Pad.” Ironic events, considering the fellow Sugar Land native has built her image on independence and  empowerment, themes she captures pithily on her first Top 40 hit, “Better in a Black Dress.”

Armiger’s latest album with Cold River Records, Fall Into Me, drops today - but don’t expect a collection of love stories. Its 14 songs depict the highs and lows of love with equal weight,  backed by strong, melodic hooks and Armiger’s character-filled voice. Last month, she took some time to chat with Country Universe about the blend of styles on her new album, being a woman in a male-dominated genre, and the inspiration for her ode to single girls.

Seetharam: Country music has long struggled with a gender bias that’s only now starting to melt. What’s your experience been like as a young female artist in the industry?

Armiger: Oh, I agree. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it just comes with age, but I do feel like the industry has changed. When I first started, it was so male-dominated. Now the doors for females are opening up, and it’s a lot easier as a female artist to get your music out there.

How do you differentiate yourself from the other young female artists that are out there?

That’s a good question. I think everyone has their own style, and I am a singer-songwriter. Everything that I write is very personal – sometimes I wish it wasn’t as personal as it is. And my music is a blend. I tend to write everything. There are so many different types of country music– there’s more traditional, more modern – that you can sing, which is so neat. I try to do a really good blend of that.

I think that’s the constant debate – there are so many influences in country music these days. How do you define country music, or can you?

The thing about country music, regardless of what the sound is like, is that the songs all tell stories. You can listen to any country song, and it tells a story, whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not a song that’s sung without purpose. And that’s what I really love.

Are there any new artists that you find particularly interesting or inspiring?

I’m a really big Hunter Hayes fan. I love his stuff. He’s so talented. I’ve met him, and he’s so friendly. I really think we’re going to see great things from him.

He seems to be rising very quickly. Who are your idols in the industry, or the artists whose careers you admire?

I listened to a lot of Martina McBride growing up, a lot of Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt. A lot of very strong female country singers. I definitely try to emulate that. I want to portray strength in my music, and all of those women are very, very strong, dominant personalities. They knew what they wanted, and that’s always what I try to go for.

Speaking of different generations, have you had the chance to catch the show “Nashville”? Does it align with how you perceive the industry, and the way the veterans and newcomers interact?

I haven’t caught everything, but I’ve watched a few episodes. I honestly think it blurs the line. Some of the stuff is a little true – like you watch it and you’re like “OK, I can see that.” There’s definitely drama in the music industry, but not quite to that extent.

I’ve never seen anyone quite like Juliette in country music. Have you come across that kind of attitude?

No. That’s what’s funny. One of the things I love most about country music is that it is such a family thing. Everybody’s friends. Everybody’s super nice. It’s not cutthroat like other industries, and [“Nashville”] makes it seem super cutthroat.

What was is it like to play the Opry for the first time back in 2011?

It was one of the most indescribable things. It’s such an honor to be there, and when you’re singing, you’re just sitting there going, “I’m standing in this spot where all of these people –all of these legends who made country what it is– stood years ago.” It’s surreal.

And you have a dog named “Opry,” right? What’s the story behind that?

My dog at home gave birth, and she was one of the puppies. My stepmom called and was like, “You have to take her!” She was born when they made the announcement in my hometown that I was going to be playing the Opry. At the time, I thought there’s no way that I can keep the dog. I’m too busy – this is not going to work. But as soon as I got home and I saw her, I said, “Well, I don’t really care. I’m taking her with me.”

Let’s talk about your new music. You landed your first Top 40 hit with “Better in a Black Dress.” I think it’s fantastic – it’s empowering in a way that you can’t really find on country radio.

Thank you. It’s funny you say that because that’s definitely the thing I love the most about it. I think a lot of women are scared to sing songs like that because they think guys are going to judge them more. Guys can sing songs like that all the time, but if a girl sings something like that, it’s totally different. A guy can sing a song about taking a girl home and having fun, but a girl can’t.

What inspired this song?

It’s funny. It was kind of inspired by winning the [Country Weekly] “Hottest Bachelorette” contest. I had a lot of people try to set me up. You hit 20 and people are like, “So do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to settle down? When do you think you’re going to have kids? What’s your five-year plan? Tell me.”

I went into this with that thought in mind, and I wrote the song with my friend Blair. When I sat down, I told her, “I’m not ready for any of that. I don’t need the white picket fence. I don’t need to get married right now. Someday – just not now.” We wrote that song as the answer to all of these people saying that settling down is what you should do right now.

I love that story. Is the new album similar in theme to that song? How is it different from your previous albums?

It is very different from my past album. A lot of it is very progressive and percussion-driven, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a theme, and that would be love. A lot of songs, whether they’re happy or sad, use the word ‘fall’ as in you’re falling in or falling out of something. And I thought it would be really cool to name the album after that concept, because whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love, that feeling of the fall you always remember.

That’s an interesting way to weave together songs that are happy, sad and in between. You co-wrote or wrote all songs on this album – what was that writing process like?

It was definitely challenging. I set out with the goal in mind to write everything. That’s what I had set out to do on all the other albums, but I heard songs that I just loved along the way and cut those as well. But on this one, I really set my mind to it. I was touring a ton in the last two years, and I’d be home for two days a month and would just try to write as much as possible when I was home. Sometimes I had to force myself get in the zone, even if I wasn’t there.

You’ve said it’s a deeply personal album. Are there specific people that these songs are about?

There definitely are. I won’t ever name names or anything like that, but honestly, some of them are about me, and some of them are about friends and their relationships. It’s a little bit of everything – it’s not just about me.

Do you have a favorite song or lyric on the album?

I cannot pick a favorite on this album. I have a few that I really, really love. There’s one I wrote with Mallary Hope, and it’s just this really sweet, really pretty, stripped-down love song (“Safe”). It’s actually the last track on the album. That’s definitely one that sticks out for me.

It’s about that feeling when you’re in a relationship – the happiest moment in a relationship. I think every person, whether you’re a girl or a guy, wants to feel safe. And when you feel safe with somebody, when you can tell them anything and be yourself with them, that’s the best feeling,

at least for me. That’s what the song is about.

What was it like working with Chad Carlson? Was there a specific sound that you two were trying to create?

I worked with him a little bit on the last album, and we really wanted to change from the last album. We wanted to have cool moments in every song, and I wanted to be able to hear the acoustic guitar on songs. I wanted there to be a lot of percussion and a lot of movement so that when you’re listening, you can tap your hand – whether it’s a slow song or a happy song. It’s definitely a bit different than the previous records, so hopefully people like it and can relate to it.

I love every single aspect of country music. I’ve written every single type of country song, and on this album, everything was definitely put on there with a purpose and with intent. It wasn’t just putting some songs on there for the sake of doing so.

Over the past few years, you’ve toured with a lot of different major country artists. Were there any elements of their tours or music that you took away and were able to channel into your new album?

I don’t know if I put any of the elements into my new album, but I definitely took all of the things that were in the back of my mind for future touring. Just different things like watching how their crew interacts and how they interact with their crew. It’s tiny things like that that you put in the back of your mind and say, “Wow, I never want to overlook that.”

Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, touring or otherwise?

I did one show with Brad Paisley this last year, and I was like, “This is why he is where he is.” He has it completely together. Every single thing. It must take such a long time for those people [on his tour]. It’s a very big crew to put a show on, but everybody’s so gracious and so humble and it doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s nice and friendly to everyone. That’s so important.

Why do you think people like Brad and Reba McEntire and those types of artists have had such staying power in the industry?

I think it’s a combination of having really good music, having a really great personality and having that drive. You have to have that. You’re out on the road so often, you’re not home a lot, and you have to just be OK with that. You always have to be on and be positive, and I think that [artists who've had staying power] are always great at that. It’s very hard to do sometimes.

Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? Where do you want to be?

I still want to be touring. I mean, who can say where they’ll be, but I just want to be singing and making records. I want to be putting music out there – and having people love the music and hopefully relate to it.

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For the Love of Holly: The CU Interview with Paul Burch

Though his career lasted about two years and ended tragically more than 50 years ago, Buddy Holly continues to impact and influence the music world. Part of it is his mystique: unlike many of his contemporaries, Holly never grew old, never had a scandal derail his career and never found himself wasting away on some oldies circuit. He’s the eternally young, energetic, slightly geeky-looking rock & roller with the hiccup in his voice and a Fender Stratocaster in his hands.

Mystique only goes so far, though. Holly left behind a strong collection of songs that have aged extremely well – mainly because they’re constantly being reinvented. His songs have been covered by hundreds of singers, across every music genre imaginable. Just this year alone, in commemoration of his 75th birthday, Buddy Holly tribute albums have featured both of the surviving Beatles, Lyle Lovett, Florence + The Machine, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and Justin Townes Earle.

Add to that mix Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly by Nashville’s Paul Burch. Much like the way Holly’s music has a timeless quality, Burch’s combination of classic country, blues and rock & roll has its roots in the 1950s and ’60s but never sounds dated. Beginning with 1998′s Pan-American Flash through 2009′s Still Your Man, Burch has released a series of critically acclaimed albums and recorded with luminaries such as Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler.

Burch’s admiration of Holly comes from both the love of his music and an appreciation for what he managed to accomplish in the short time he recorded.

“Holly was the arranger, the producer, the writer, the rhythm guitar player, the singer and the lead guitar player,” Burch says. “He balanced all that at the age of 22 and has at least 20 songs that everybody knows, being in the business for about two years before he was killed. Like him or not, you just don’t come across an artist like that very much.”

Burch says that he first heard Buddy Holly’s music on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack, and as he got more involved with rock & roll, the appreciation for Holly grew.

“My voice is pitched near his, so it’s easy for me to sing,” he says. “But I find that of all the rock & rollers that I adored growing up, Holly’s music is something that I can sing now that I’m older. The words are good, the chords are good, the songs are good, but they’re just very slightly underdeveloped.”

He attributes that to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who was a pop producer and didn’t have the same rock and R&B sensibilities that Holly had. As a result, the songs are developed enough for Holly to become successful, but they also allow for many interpretations. Burch, for instance, adds fiddle and accordion to the Holly classic “Rave On!” to give it a Cajun feel.

“You can do anything with them because they’re great songs,” Burch says.

Words of Love wasn’t intended to be a full-fledged album; Burch and members of his band, The WPA Ballclub, went into the studio just to record a Holly song, possibly as a single. In that regard, it didn’t vary from the type of recording that Burch and the band normally do.

“Recording for us is fun, and we just do it on a semi-regular basis,” he explains. “Often, I’ll bring in various incarnations of the band together just to get us on tape, to make sure we had a record of what we sound like.

“For me, that’s a healthy way to approach recording,” he adds. “There’s something about [recording] where I allow it to be a bit sprawling, so I don’t truncate the process.”

Burch initially went into the studio with his usual touring band, drummer Marty Lynds and bassist Jim Gray, and in the span of a couple of hours, they had recorded four Holly songs, all on the first or second take.  He then brought in some of the band members who contribute to Burch’s records but don’t usually tour with him, and the same thing happened.

“Every time we went into the studio, we’d record four or five songs,” he says.

Burch says that Words of Love was not meant to be a Holly “best-of” album. Along with familiar Holly hits like “Peggy Sue” and “Think It Over,” there are lesser-known gems like “Blue Days, Black Nights” and “Midnight Shift.”  With the WPA Ballclub at the top of its game (the band in its various incarnations also includes Jen Gunderman on accordion, Fats Kaplin on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on upright bass and Tommy Perkinson on drums) and a bunch of great songs, it’s a cohesive album that pays tribute to a talented artist but still fits nicely into Burch’s catalog.

As it was such an impromptu album – Burch didn’t even use lyric sheets on any of the songs – there was little advance planning done. When he and the band did listen to Holly recordings, they shied away from the familiar finished takes and turned to rarer live recordings or rehearsals. Those performances showed more grit than Holly was able to generate in the studio.

“Holly was far ahead of his time in thinking of a studio as a place to make a unique-sounding recording, different from how you would perform it on stage,” Burch says. “On stage, The Crickets were a tough, lean rock & roll band, but in the studio they could be a little more delicate, using boxes for drums or a celesta piano, which you can’t hear very well on stage.

“That was the one thing I wanted to do,” he adds. “Turn the bass and drums up whenever it was possible. It’s not always easy to do, because there’s so much wonderful delicacy to Holly’s music. But when it was possible to bring in some dirt, I tried to do that.”

In recording the songs, Burch was more concerned about capturing the feel of the songs than staying true to the technical aspects of Holly’s music. He played a Stratocaster on some tracks, like Holly did, but he didn’t feel obliged to using it on every song, He didn’t stick to Holly’s arrangements, either. Burch’s version of “Not Fade Away,” for instance, has no chord changes. He came up with that idea after listening to a rehearsal take of Holly and his drummer, Jerry Allison, playing Bo Diddley’s “Mona.”

“It was just so cool to hear a loud acoustic guitar and a loud drum,” Burch says. “There were no vocals; they were just getting into a groove. I thought about writing something off of it, but then I thought “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need those chord changes.”

Words of Love represents not only a tribute to one of Burch’s heroes, it also represents a turning point in his career, though even he isn’t entirely sure what is coming next.

“It feels like the band and myself are turning a very positive corner,” he explains. “I’m quite satisfied with the last couple records, and I think we’re starting to achieve some things live which are quite interesting. So I thought that before we go off in another direction that’s quite different from our other records, it would be nice to put a cap on that and do an album of standards. It’s an end of the beginning and the beginning of the next part.

“It may not be that much of a change, but it feels like it has the potential to go into some interesting areas for us. We’ll just have to see.”

For more information about Paul Burch, go to www.paulburch.com.

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A Conversation with Katie Cook

KCookKatie Cook has been a staple on Country Music Television since 2002, hosting various series and specials such as CMT Most Wanted Live, the MWL concert series, MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the popular weekly entertainment magazine show, CMT Insider.

But her experience with country music is actually three-fold: along with being embedded in the industry as a television host and interviewer, she’s also the daughter of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Cook, and she’s both a singer and songwriter herself – she released an album in 2000 as part of a band called Reno and continues to hone her songwriting skills. Cook took some time to share with Country Universe her opinions on the state of country music, the evolution of CMT and her recent White House visit, among other topics.

Seetharam: You’ve grown up around different cultures and lifestyles, having lived overseas in London. How has that shaped your perspective on country music?

Cook: That’s a good question. I honestly think when I was younger living in Nashville, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of country music until I moved back to England after high school. And then I moved back again in my mid 20s to work on music and I found myself missing Nashville so much, and when I really tried to become a songwriter myself, I realized how difficult it was to write a great, melodic, catchy, hooky, 3-minute song that tells a story, that can wrap an entire interesting story up and make a point in 3 minutes. It’s extraordinarily difficult and it’s something that country is known for, and I don’t feel it exists in such a powerful way in any other musical genre I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.

I think I had to get away from Nashville and the country music scene to really look back and realize how strong the writers are here, and how incredible the players are. Because very often as a younger person in Nashville, I would listen to stuff from elsewhere. You know, I’d listen to more alternative music coming out of England and stuff, but when I really got into the music scene over there, I was like, “No one plays like they do in Nashville.” The pickers, you know, you don’t get that kind of quality anywhere in the world, I don’t think, so again I think being part of these different cultures helped me look back on Nashville and appreciate it that much more.

I have to ask about your father because he’s really a fantastic songwriter. Between him working with such high profile artists and you interviewing such high profile artists, what kind of conversations do you two have?

You know, we never talk about music. In fact, we’ve tried to write so many songs together, and I suppose we’ve completed a few, but you know, when he and I get together, it seems to turn to any other subject but music. I think because we’re so close and there’s so many other things going on in the family and with friends and stuff that the conversation always leads elsewhere.

We’re both really opinionated, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything musically either. He’ll say, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio the other day by such and such. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was awful,” and I’m like, “Really? That’s my new favorite song.” So, we just have such different opinions that we’ve just kind of learned to keep our musical lives separate. But that’s not to say he’s not completely supportive, and he watches the shows I do, and I try to listen to all of his new songs. But for the most part, we’re just dad and daughter.

You mentioned you liked some alternative music when you were younger – it seems like your musical taste stretches across many genres, not just country music. What do you think of the current country music that’s infused with other sounds, like rock or pop?

Well, you know, there’s two sides of the argument. Some people say, “Well country’s got to move forward,” and other people would say, “Why is it changing? Keep it traditional.” I really see both sides of it. I probably prefer it when somebody has a real appreciation of traditional country and then mixes it in with things you don’t expect them to. And that can even be an artist like Beck – that doesn’t necessarily even have to be a country artist. I kind of probably lean more to liking that type of thing more than someone who’s just trying to sell me a rock song as a country song. I think that’s just…I don’t know. That’s not my favorite style. It’s almost like bad 80s rock being regurgitated and labeled country music. So you know, I don’t typically have a music collection that reflects that kind of modern country.

But I have absolutely no boundaries as an artist, as a writer, as a music lover. I mean, nothing frightens me at all about loving country music and mixing it with other things or driving it forward, in even bizarre ways. I’m like, “Bring it on!” I love music, period. I personally do really love country music because I think the playing is magnificent. I think the story telling is magnificent. I think there’s just something so romantic about unfortunately an almost lost way of life in America, and I think I’m very drawn to do that, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself one of those people that would be guarding country against change. I don’t think I’m that person at all. In fact, I think the more people that can discover it, the better.

Absolutely. That’s my philosophy as well. What about all these female artists who are breaking barriers in country music? You’re a female musician yourself – what’s your take on them?

I think it’s fantastic. I really, really love that there are so many young females out there now that play all different kinds of instruments. You know, you’ve always had a few of those in the past, but when I was younger, you had like Sheila E. You had Joan Jett. You definitely had a few artists that played. And of course, you had Barbara Mandrell, who played everything. And she was just a hero because she literally played every instrument: drums, saxophone, keyboard, everything.

But I think more likely now, a young girl’s going to grow up and be like, “Yeah it’s just no big deal to pick up the guitar and learn how to play and write a song. Taylor Swift does it.” It’s just obviously such a more common sight now, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. Because too often in the past a woman was just supposed to stand at the mic and look pretty. And there’s nothing wrong with that but women take to playing just as easily as men, and I think they’re going to be more encouraged now because of this young crop of lovely ladies that play and sing and write. It’s fantastic.

Let’s talk CMT a bit. Earlier in the decade, CMT played an important role in popularizing roots music, with artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. What drove that, and why do you think there’s been a shift away from that now?

Yeah. I think everything’s cyclical. Obviously at one point, that kind of sound would be all you would have heard, practically, on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM years ago. And country’s always going to shift in and out of different things. It’ll all come back around. Right now it is kind of more of a maybe rock-edged type of thing. Look at how big Gretchen Wilson was, and now, if anything, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood kind of slid into her position, and they’re more slick in their production. It’ll come back around. You know, it always does.

One thing that I thought was so interesting – the first time I interviewed Loretta Lynn was backstage at the Opry. And we weren’t on camera, and we were just kind of chatting, and I said, “I want to know what your take is on country and where it’s going.” And she said, “Oh you know, it’s always going to be going somewhere different and that’s fine. Back in the day, everyone gave Patsy Cline so much grief for going pop.” And it was so interesting to hear her say that because I would not have labeled her a pop artist, but when I think about it, at the time, what she was doing was very pop for most country ears. And yet now we would look back and consider her such a traditional artist, and anyone who sounds like Patsy Cline now would be considered hard-core, country traditional. It’s just interesting, isn’t it? To get that different perspective.

I think it’ll all come back around. If you get too much of any one thing, you’re going to crave the other. The grass is always greener. Things are a little less acoustic right now but it’ll all come back.

That’s an interesting perspective both you and Loretta have, and I think many people would agree. But it does seem like CMT as a channel has evolved over the years into something different. There’s a little more pop culture on there now, more television shows and movies, and a little less music. Do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?

Well, yes and no. I love some of the programming, but I’m just a music person, so I’m always going to wish that there was more music. It’s very interesting what people watch, what they tune into. Because we can run music programs and get very low ratings, and then run a rerun of Nanny 911 and get massive ratings.

So, although I personally would rather see music and videos all day, I can understand some of the programming decisions because like any business, we want to stay on the air, and we want to be able to afford to do these big award shows and great big music programs like CMT Giants, that honor Alan Jackson and Reba [McEntire] and all these wonderful artists. And you can’t pay for those unless you’ve got people tuning in, and for some strange reason, people will tune in sometimes in very large numbers to programming that’s not always music-related. So, it’s a catch-22. I can see the business side of it, but I personally tune in more to the actual music programs because that’s what I’m interested in.

What’s your favorite music video of the decade? Or do you have one?

Wow. Hmm, there are so many to choose from. I tend to live very much in the moment, so usually what’s on my mind is something that I saw very recently. I can tell you one of my favorite songs of the past decade was probably Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”

I love that song.

And I thought it was a video that perfectly matched the song. I loved the extras that they had in it. I loved the way it was cut together, the editing. I loved the scenery. I loved how cool the band looked in it. That was a favorite. Gosh, what was that other…why am I going blank…it’s because I’ve just been staining my floor and I’m probably high from the chemicals. That first really big Jason Aldean song. “Hicktown!” Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown” – that’s the one I’m thinking of. It’s kind of similar to the “Boondocks,” Little Big Town kind of vibe. I just thought they were both really fresh videos and those were probably a couple of my favorites.

Is there a single quality that you look for in a good music video?

I think because I’ve been doing TV for awhile now I really look at editing, and I look at how things time out. You know, how a cut or a certain dance moves really times out with the beat of a song. “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson – that was probably one of my favorite videos of the last decade. I know I’m giving you a few instead of picking just one. I just thought it was really sexy and the way the dancers again moved with the beat. I think you can be a great video director, but a really great music video director to me needs to have a great sense of the music. They need to be really passionate about the song and really feel the beat of it and edit accordingly. That’s just something I personally really like in a song.

When you’re interviewing these artists on the red carpet or on any of the shows you host, you’re essentially a musician interviewing a musician. Does that affect the way you interview? Do you ever wish you could give advice?

Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but I do think it affects the way I interview people. If anything, it probably – I don’t know, in some way it helps. But I think it probably hinders me more because I know sometimes a question that they might not really want to answer, or something that I know they’ve probably been asked a million times, and you know, I always try to come at it with an understanding of how they might answer something. But sometimes a question just needs to be asked because it makes good television and it’s what the viewers at home want to know. But I might inside be squirming a little bit.

I can’t really think of a perfect example right now. But even something as simple as, “When you did that duet with so and so, what was it like being in the studio with them?” I know there’s a really good chance they weren’t in the studio together. Because when you live in Nashville and you work around music yourself, you have a good understanding of how these things work, and you know that schedule-wise, it’s very rare that duets even happen in the same room with people. But you know, it’s important to ask that because it’s what people at home might be wondering. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes I do see an interview slightly differently.

And I understand Dolly Parton is your favorite artist?

Oh I love her. She’s just my favorite – not just musically, but just…

Your favorite person.

Yes, favorite person to interview, definitely.

Do you have a Dolly interview or quote that stands out for you?

You know, well, yeah, I’ve got a lot. It seems like every single time I’m with her I’m like, “OK, that tops the last one.” She always says something that tops the last one.

She’s just fabulous. And hilarious.

The funniest interview, honestly, was, the very first time I ever met her. I did like a whole half-hour, sit-down live show with her called [CMT] Most Wanted Live, and before we went out, we were comparing outfits. And of course she had on a to-die-for, fabulous outfit. Oh, it was pink and yellow and princess-like and just made her look amazing. And I was kind of joking that my outfit wasn’t very interesting compared to hers, and I must have made some comment like, you know, “Maybe I need to put more of a push-up bra on. I’m going to look like a child sitting next to you.” And she laughed and she said, “Your boobs look great!”

Well later on we were sitting there in front of the audience, the whole crowd, and I think I took like an audience question about, does she ever feel sorry for flat-chested women because she’s so well-endowed or whatever. And she laughed and she said, “No we’re all beautiful,” and then she said to the audience, “Look! Look at her boobs! Don’t you think they’re great?” – pointing to me. “Don’t you think she has lovely boobs?” And you know I just absolutely went bright red.

That’s priceless.

Oh I was fanning myself. I broke a sweat. I was laughing so hard. I could not believe I was on camera with Dolly Parton and she’s commenting on my boobs. It was just one of the funniest moments in my life. I’m not sure anything’s ever going to top Dolly Parton complimenting me on my chest (laughs).

Dolly is clearly a hold-nothing-back kind of person, but have you ever interviewed an artist who you think is misunderstood by the public? Maybe you got a different perspective when you met him or her in person?

Yeah. There are certain artists that I can tell are a little bit shy. I mean, obviously Alan Jackson, Billy Currington – some of the guys are really, painfully shy, and they get on camera and they’re just quiet and, you know, they seem very unsure of themselves. And then the minute the camera goes off, you can have the most normal conversation with them. And I always think, “Oh why can’t you do that when the little red light comes on?” So yeah, there’s definitely artists that seem very different off camera, and I wonder if their real personality comes across, but you know what? They’re doing well and they have fans, so evidently people do understand them. But yeah, some of those shy guys are the ones that really wear me out. I’m like, “Come on, loosen up!”

Shifting gears a little, you were recently at the White House for “An Evening of Country Music.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?

Yeah! It was incredible. It was really exciting to see an entire day at the White House devoted to country music. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Charley Pride were there – all great ambassadors for country music. To actually be in that ballroom and see the President get up and give a wonderful introduction to these country artists and talk about country, and how it’s such an important part of American culture was, you know – I really got the chills. It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to the White House, so I really was kind of absorbing it all.

We got to see the press room, which was tiny. And it’s so interesting because, you know, you see something on television and then you see it in person, how different it is. And we were at the back of the room, so when the show was over, we were actually the first to walk out, and they led us down a hallway and then just kind of left us on our own to find our way out. And I was like, “We’ve been let loose in the White House!”

That’s not something you can say every day!

It was incredible. We weren’t really let loose, of course. It was all under very controlled supervision, but it felt like we were running goofy and loose in the White House, and that was very exciting. But yeah, it was a very proud moment for country.

Did you get to interact at all with the President?

I didn’t get to hang out with Obama and Michelle and the girls, but I did get to see the First Dog. One of the White House workers, I guess — I don’t know what the right term would be– but somebody was walking the dog, and he’s beautiful. He’s big. For some reason I thought he was still a little puppy. But he’s quite large and he’s a good-looking dog. He’s got quite a yard to roam around in.

I hear you’re an expert tweeter – or rather, I see you’re an expert tweeter. What do you enjoy about twitter?

Well I’m actually fairly new to it. I like getting to know people. I like getting very kind of down-to-earth questions from people, and I think what I find refreshing is that I assume the only reason anybody would want to talk to me or hear from me is to get like country music gossip, and that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of people are like, “Where do you like to eat? How old’s your kid now? Do you like being a mother?”

More personal questions.

Yeah. It seems like people just are more curious about who you really are as a person, and I find that really refreshing. I go to work and put on the false eyelashes and do my hair all fancy and put on the nice outfits and everything, but when I come home, I’m just like anybody else. I’m sitting around in my Old Navy sweats and eating something I shouldn’t be eating and prying my eyeballs on the computer. And we’re all kind of the same when we just get into that mode, and I just like connecting with people on that really normal level. That’s a lot of fun for me.

Do you tweet at other artists? Or mostly fans?

You know, I don’t know who all these people are that read it. I just kind of get on there and send a message out and wonder where it goes. It goes into cyberspace and I don’t really know who’s reading it but people keep signing on, so I guess I’m doing something right.

When you’re not tweeting, what are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?

Well I have a children’s book called “Little Big Benny,” and that has recently been edited. I kind of have it out with a lot of kids right now. A lot of kids are reading it and giving me their feedback. I’m trying to really nail down exactly what age group it’s for. I’m really hoping by the end of the year to be shopping that around to publishers. So that’s taking up a lot of free time.

I’m a mother and that’s an ongoing project right there. She’s going to be three in a couple of weeks. And we decided to do our kitchen. We just ripped our whole kitchen from the 40s out, which was actually kind of cool looking but had absolutely no storage or work space. So we just completely gutted the middle of our house and decided to pretty much do it ourselves so that we could save money, and at this point I think I maybe would rather just be in debt (laughs).

That sounds extremely chaotic.

It’s been really chaotic. I’ve been making meals in a toaster oven for almost six months. But you know, there are some people in the world who don’t even have a toaster oven, so I’m not going to complain.

But there’s always other stuff going on. I’m always writing. I’m always working on creative stuff. I’m hoping to launch a T-shirt campaign –I’m not going to say anymore about it– but I’m hoping to have something really fun available in the next month. Very creative T-shirt thing. So yeah I’m kind of – I consider myself a creative person. I’m not happy unless I’m working on something. So I never really have a day off, but that’s just the way I like it.

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Catching Up with Joey + Rory

Jory+RoryThree weeks ago, I had a chance to chat with one of my favorite new acts, Joey +Rory. It has been over a year since their break through on CMT’s Can You Duet and several months since the release of their album The Life of A Song. So, Country Universe thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with them to see what’s been happening since the whirlwind of their recent success.

Not surprisingly, it was a pleasure to speak with them. They were very honest and down to earth. Along with telling us how they’re handling their new found fame, they didn’t shy away from expressing their feelings on current country music, songwriting and what they are and are not listening to these days.

How has life been since Can You Duet?

Joey: Well, in a lot of ways, in last year’s time, our lives have changed tremendously. But, also, in a lot of ways, we’re still the same in terms of our relationship, marriage and closeness. We’ve gone from having the farm out here and the little restaurant and Rory writing songs to being on the road visiting different cities every other night.

All the TV exposure has obviously heightened people’s awareness of who we are. We literally can hardly go anywhere without people knowing who we are in airports, gas stations and restaurants and places like that. I think in a sense all of a sudden we’re very recognizable and people want our autographs and pictures. So, that’s changed. It’s kind of been different for us to have that.

But as far as our relationship, we’re very much the same. We’re just as in love as we were a year and half ago. Our marriage is even stronger. There’s no more stress related to this because we get to do this together and travel everywhere together.

Rory: Our life here at home is just the same. There are more people that know us and when we go to the restaurant (the restaurant that Joey owns with Rory’s sister, Marcie), there are people from out of town that drive in all the time, but we’re the same. Everything’s exactly the same; it’s just expanded a lot.

Do you ever get frustrated by all the extra attention?

Joey: We’re really grateful for it. I think there’s times where life on the road can be very draining. Jetlag and everything else kind of comes with that. There are times when we might be completely tired and not want to be somewhere or feel like we just want to go to sleep. Sometimes, it is what it is. But we really appreciate it and we know it won’t always be this way. We just take it a day at a time. The fans are just fantastic. We have an opportunity to do our music, because we have fans. And we have people who want to meet us to tell us how we’ve impacted their lives. You know, if it weren’t for them buying our records and coming to our shows, we wouldn’t be able to be successful and do what we do. It’s all for them.

Joey, in your bio, you list The Judds as one of your major influences. I can even hear a young Wynona in your voice. What was it like to have Naomi as a judge? Was it more nerve wracking having someone you respect so much critique you?

Joey: We’d never met the Judds before the show. In fact, the very first concert I ever went to was, I think, when I was nine years old. My dad took me to a Judds concert in Indiana.

When we went and auditioned for the show, it wasn’t until we walked behind that curtain into the room that we knew who the judges were. You walk in and you’re taken back by it, but you can’t be at the same time, because you have a job to do. But throughout the whole show, Naomi was on our side from day one. She really liked what we did. She liked what we were, what we wore and our style of music. Coming from her, it was so well respected. You know, we all had to kind of critique ourselves and kind of take into account that everybody’s different, everybody has opinions. You just show up the next day and you just try to take it in and make those adjustments.

But for the most part, it was just a thrill to be around her. She had such an energy and presence in the room. Since the TV show she’s come to the restaurant. She’s featured in our “Cheater, Cheater” video. She’s been very supportive. I just received a letter from her, a card, two days ago, since we were on the CMT Awards. We’ve been to her house several times. I mean, we feel like we’re all just one big family now. It’s been an amazing year.

My favorite artist is Vince Gill and to have him just hanging out in my living room is just something I can’t even imagine.

Rory: Our daughter is an aspiring singer-songwriter. So, they had a big event about three nights ago that was sort of like “famous fathers and their daughters.” It was Heidi and me and Vince Gill and his daughter, Jenny and some other people. It was really a thrill. I was just like you. I’m a humongous Vince Gill fan. There’s a lack of realness I see in people. There’s lots of talent and a lot of hard work, but he’s one of those people that always seems like a real, average, everyday guy with extraordinary talent and a real big heart. I just loved seing him and he was wonderful. It was our first time meeting him. He really gushed over Joey and Joey’s voice. So, he was aware of us. Of course, we’re tickled by that. I’m like you, if he was in our living room this evening, having dinner and visiting…that would be a thrill.

I admit that I didn’t actually watch Can You Duet when it originally aired, because I didn’t really know much about it until after the big hype that surrounded it on some blogs. As you may already know, the world of blogging can be pretty harsh, but you guys managed to be very well liked throughout the run of the show. But it wasn’t really until I read that you had signed with Sugar Hill Records that I took a sudden interest. How did that marriage come together?

Rory: First off, we had a pretty strong sense that we weren’t going to win, even before the show was over. We just were not a major market act. Actually, we are a mainstream act. But mainstream has turned so far that people who are mainstream acts have to go somewhere else. And people that are rock acts, pop acts, they’re now all of a sudden mainstream acts or what mainstream labels want.

At the time of the show, we were under contract with RCA and Sony, since the final five were all under contract with them. When we knew we didn’t win, we asked Rene Bell right away if she was going to pick up the option to keep us and she said “No. We’re only going to focus on this one act (winners, Caitlin & Will).” She said, “You guys are free to go and do whatever you want.” So, they released us. American Idol, who also had us under contract because of the show, released us as well.

I’m an independent guy anyway. We have our own Indy record label that we started a few years ago called Giantslayer Records and we broke anew artist named Blaine Larsen. We created and put up his record, put it out and broke him into mainstream. So, we’ve really been working in that world for a long time. The one thing I knew was that we couldn’t champion ourselves. So, we were immediately thinking about Indy labels. I brought up Vanguard to a very good friend of mine and he had a relationship with the people there. He said that he’d be glad to call them. So, he did and it turns out that Vanguard and Sugar Hill were interested in getting involved in mainstream country. We had had a lot of exposure and they got up to speed on it quickly and they thought that we were authentic at the same time that we were commercial. It seemed like a good marriage and a good step into this mainstream world for them. So, we just sort of shook hands over the phone, cut our single, cut our record, put our record out. Our single was in the top 40 and our album was in stores before we actually had flown to L.A. and signed our record deal with them. They were just that trusting and able to work that part just on our word. So, it’s been a great marriage. We love ‘em; we really, really do.

When you went in to record, did you already have a vision for the sound of the record or was it highly influenced by the sounds of Vanguard/Sugar Hill’s previous output? Would your record sound the way it does no matter what company you were with?

Rory: It would have been this way. They really didn’t have any input on our producer or the songs, the sound or anything else. We had met Carl Jackson a long time before and we had wanted Carl to produce Joey anyway. Then we just sort of by accident became a duo for this TV show. So, Carl said, “Well, gosh, I’ll just produce both of you.” He’s a fan of my songwriting and I’m a fan of his. Both Joey and I love Carl’s production. He had done a record on Bradley Walker that’s one of our favorite records in five years—mostly the sounds and songs and everything. You know, we knew what we wanted to do a hundred percent. We’d never recorded with Carl, so the sound happened because of Carl, but he had the particular way of doing it. He’s very vocal heavy and very acoustic instrument heavy and that’s exactly what we wanted and wanted to be a part of. So, it wasn’t the Indy label influence at all for the sound of the album. What it was, I think, is that they recognized that’s what we were going to do. I think they realized that it was going to fit in their world also.

I was excited about Sugar Hill, but I was also excited about Carl Jackson, knowing of his previous work. Earlier, you mentioned Blaine Larsen. I know that he’s cut some of your songs, Rory. Is there a difference between the songs that you pitch to other people versus the songs that Joey + Rory would record?

Rory: Well, the only difference is there was never a Joey + Rory and so I’ve always just written songs. A lot of them I’ve put my heart and soul into and our lives into, but those songs are just largely ignored at all times, because they have some personal element or they’re not radio friendly. Whatever that is. The only difference is that we’re much more willing to be honest as artists than artists who would, maybe, cut our songs. No one’s willing to cut “Play the Song.” No one’s going to cut a number of songs that we have, like even “Cheater, Cheater.” So, it’s the same songwriting; it’s just that it’s more like we’re willing to be more honest, I think, and outside the box.

But now that we are a duo, we all the sudden do want to, not just by chance, write things that have part of our story and our heart and soul in it. Because that’s the way it would have been in the past. I would be writing songs really hoping Tim McGraw or someone else would cut the song and, hopefully, it would have some of what’s important to me in it. But now, all the sudden, we have the opportunity to write a hundred percent of what’s important to you, that you think is relatable to other people. You don’t have to wonder, is it relatable to Tim McGraw or to Sugarland. That’s not even an interest anymore. It’s like, we’ll just write a hundred percent from our perspective. That’s a very, very freeing thing for us.

Yeah, I imagine… Who are you listening to these days in country music? Assuming that you are listening to anybody in country music.

Rory: I listened to a bunch of albums here, recently, a bunch of new release albums that I personally thought were okay or not okay, somewhere in there, but okay. Then, the other day, I just got online and I downloaded an album that Carl Jackson had produced on Alecia Nugent. And I’d never even heard an Alecia Nugent record. We’ve met her, but we’ve never heard one. It just blew my mind, because it’s just like our record. It’s got the same kind of sound, same kind of production and it’s got a real focus of great songs on it, and great singing and great harmony. That’s what I’m listening to, because, in my opinion, it’s head and shoulders above all the other production and artistry that I’ve heard in the last six months.

Mainstream wise, we love Josh Turner and, basically, the really country things like…

Joey: Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson

Rory, Yeah, yeah.

Joey: They’re very acoustic or they’re very country sounding and very traditional. That’s what we kind of lean toward.

Rory: What do you listen to now, Love?

Joey: I’d say I listen to Bradley Walker all the time. He’s a nice bluegrass artist that Carl Jackson did a record on.

We actually heard the new Holly Williams album. It was really, really great.

Rory: We really liked that.

Joey: we really did. We’re excited for her.

I discovered Bradley Walker, because Vince Gill sang on his record. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot of good music that way. So, maybe you guys could invite Vince to sing on your next album…just an unsolicited suggestion…something to think about (laughs).

Rory: (laughs) Yeah, that’d be great. Carl can probably make it happen. Maybe we’ll also invite Emmylou.

 That would be awesome. That’s actually one of my favorite songs on your album. It’s gorgeous. There’s a lot to choose from, of course, but…

Rory: Thank You.

I already think I know the answer judging by our conversation today, but I have to ask: Is Joey + Rory a permanent act now? You’re not going to go back to doing your own things after this record, are you?

Joey: No…

Okay, good.

Joey: No, no. I tried for a long time to be a solo artist, because I never knew that there would be a platform for a married duo, a married couple. You know, it wasn’t something that Rory had wanted in the last twelve years. But now that we’re doing this together and traveling everywhere together, I would not have any desire to do this on my own or just go out in solo. We’re a duo in life because of our marriage and it just carries on into our careers; I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Rory: I feel the same way. I really feel like this is her career and her opportunity and God has just given me a huge opportunity to be part of it. You know, I’m thrilled to death and having a great time. I think that we do have something special that we didn’t even know that we had. We’re having a good time spinning our wheels out there on the road, playing for people and we’re getting ready to do some more recording soon.

Well, I suppose it’s time to let you go. I just want to end by saying that I, along with many of the Country Universe readers, am a huge fan. So, I’m really glad that we had a chance to chat today and thank you for your time.

Joey: It was really nice to meet you. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up to your neck of the woods, sometime.

Rory: It was sure nice to talk with you. Have a great morning.

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A Conversation with Kathy Mattea

matteaKathy Mattea has long been a favorite for both the writers and readers of Country Universe. Earlier today, we had a chance to speak with Mattea about her current album, Coal, and covered many other topics along the way.

Coyne: I see Coal as the culmination of what you’ve been doing musically, which has always been introspective and focuses on the bigger issues of life. But you’ve also always done a lot of public work for social justice, especially with AIDS and the environment. It seems like it all came together on one album this time around.

Mattea: It’s been an evolving thing. It wasn’t intentionally that way. Interestingly, it came to me to do the album because of the Sago mine disaster.  I had just been torn up by it. My grandfathers were coal miners, and my mom worked for the United Coal Miners and my brother used to work for the coal industry, and I was just so emotionally torn up by that event.

I was asked to sing on Larry King Live on the day of the funerals to close the show. A bunch of musicians came down to work for free, just because there were so moved by the event.  And I thought, “This is a great thing. This is what music is for. I’ll make a record of this story. I’ll go back to the songs and make a record about coal mining.”

That was really my only thought about it, and the journey took me to a place that I could not see on the front end. It threaded together family stories. It led me to people who taught me about mountain top removal, which is a form of strip mining that’s going on in Appalachia right now. It also put me in touch with people so I could see that a lot of these stories are ongoing. A lot of these songs are very much the same today as what was going on in the coal fields forty years ago, sixty years ago, and longer.

You had said a few years ago that you’re now in this period of your career where you’re checking off the list. You wanted to make an acoustic album, which was Right Out of Nowhere, and the Celtic album Roses, and you made another Christmas album and now this coal mining album. What’s next on the list? Have you decided yet?

I have decided, but it’s just coming into focus, so if I tell you now, the thing will evolve in another six months so that it won’t be relevant to what I say . You have a jumping off point, but it always turns out to take you places that you don’t expect. I am starting to look around for songs for the next record, and it’s definitely a roots record.

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