Jamie 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!
When Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.
There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.
Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
“Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
“Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
“Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett
How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.” The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.
This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49. Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.
This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
The cross-pollination between pop and country music in the early eighties provided an opening for Juice Newton and her undeniably infectious aural confections.
By the time that the hits started rolling in, they had been a long time coming. Newton had found local success in a band she dubbed Juice Newton & The Silver Spur. Their regional popularity led to a deal with RCA in the mid-seventies. They released two albums, an eponymous debut in 1975 and After the Dust Settles in 1976, but both projects sank quietly, with one single barely denting the country charts.
The band switched to Capitol records, but disbanded after a third album went nowhere. Newton stayed on the label as a solo act, and her single “It’s a Heartache” nicked the bottom of the pop charts. It became a smash single in Mexico, but American audiences embraced Bonnie Tyler’s version instead. She made some headway with her 1979 album Take Heart, which featured five charting country singles, but none of them made a significant impact.