Ron Kelly

Country Spotlight: Edens Edge

June 27, 2012 at 11:54 am , by

Courtesy of Big Machine Records/Jeremy Cowart

Edens Edge members Cherrill Green, Hannah Blaylock and Dean Berner might not be related by blood, but the talented trio from Arkansas certainly have made their Nashville journey—and recent successes—a family affair. “This morning, Dean’s mother texted all of us and told us we’re on Editor’s Choice on iTunes,” lead singer Blaylock told me during the band’s visit to LHJ last week. “And then she sent me the sweetest text the day our album was released. It was so beautiful. All three of our parents give encouragement not only to their child, but to all three of us. We’re all each other’s parents’ kids.”

And when Green brings her 2-year-old nephew to their shows? “He’s like our nephew,” Blaylock says. “We’re all so excited. He plays football with us. He’s the coolest kid!” And he also happens to have great taste in music. “He’s constantly having my dad pull up YouTube videos of us,” Green reports. “He sings ‘Amen’ and he does Hannah’s hand motions to it while he’s watching. He calls Hannah and Dean ‘Anna and Beans,’ and he has a little ukulele that he plays. He’ll flip it like a dobro and play it like Dean does. He’s already showing lots of musical aspirations.”

Luckily for the little guy, he’s chosen some talented role models. The band’s self-titled debut CD brilliantly blends traditional country and bluegrass influences with today’s more modern Nashville sound. The result is a winning collection of uniquely fresh-sounding songs. With harmonies and strong musicianship from Green (mandolin and bouzouki) and Berner (acoustic guitar, dobro, lap steel) behind her throughout, Blaylock’s versatile vocals are irresistible, effortlessly shifting from sounding like a down-home sweetheart on “Amen” to letting you hear her mischievous grin on the playful teaser “Skinny Dippin’.” She oozes vulnerability on the stellar breakup song “Last Supper” then boldly bellies up to the musical bar and wails away on the raucous “Who Am I Drinking Tonight,” making it clear there’s no vocal territory she won’t tackle. The CD’s final track, “Christ Alone,” puts the trio’s harmonies front and center and they are nothing short of heavenly. (Insider tip: To get three excellent bonus tracks, be sure to get the Edens Edge Deluxe Edition, available exclusively at Cracker Barrel.)

On a brief break from playing on the Rascal Flatts’ Changed tour, the band kindly popped by the LHJ offices to chat with me and treat us to a stripped-down set of songs, including their current single, “Too Good to Be True.” More than one staffer left fighting tears after the last song, “Cherry Pie”, so be warned when you watch it after the jump!

Hear Edens Edge perform live in the LHJ offices after the jump.

You guys have an opening spot on the Rascal Flatts “Changed” tour, which has just started. How’s it going so far?
Hannah: The production is breathtaking, the stage is beautiful and the show is so captivating. It really does take my breath away. And we’re going to learn so much so we’re very, very thankful. And everyone on the tour is so wonderful, nice and welcoming, which means the world to us. Rascal Flatts’ fans are incredible and country music fans are the best fans in the world. Being an opener, we’re on when there’s still daylight outside but those people out there are so unaffected by it. They’re just there to have a good time and hear music.
Dean: This is our first tour on the main stage with a full band, so it’s a big step for us. The first show, you’re just kind of going out there and trying not to trip on the stage. By the second show I found myself getting a lot more used to it. I felt like we all got into the groove a lot more. It’s really a fun thing to feel our band locking in together, to feel all the production elements coming together and the three of us really getting into the performance.

You’ve been on some high-profile tours with the likes of Brad PaisleyRebaLady Antebellum and now Rascal Flatts. What have you found were your biggest misconceptions about what it was like to be on a big tour?
Cherrill: I think one of mine was that people get rest. (laughs) We’re blessed to be in country and I think it’s interesting just to see how welcoming the country music world is to new artists. The big A-list artists are just really sweet, so I think that was really refreshing.
Hannah: I didn’t know the level of, like, not rest that there would be. I knew that it was not glamorous. Behind the scenes is not glamorous. The only kind of glamour that you see is actually onstage. (laughs)
Cherrill: And those are the moments that keep you wanting to do it.
Hannah: They are! At this level in our career, we travel 12 hours for a 30-minute set. And that keeps us going, those 30 minutes. I don’t know that the people out there realize how much of a blessing they are to us. They’re the reason we continue to do what we do—literally the only reason, because we could be playing music on our back porches. And we would be if we weren’t doing this.

Continue on after the jump to watch Edens Edges LHJ musical performance and to find out their real-life Too Good to Be True” stories, complete with exclusive photos! Plus, Dean tells us the important life lessons Hannah and Cherrill have taught him and the trio share a list of artists who theyd love to collaborate with on a CMT Crossroads special.

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Country Music’s Sara Evans Talks About Giving Back at the 2012 CMT Music Awards

June 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm , by

One could say there’s a lot of buzz around this year’s CMT One Country spokesperson. Just as Sara Evans is about to start a chat with me about her role with the country music station’s volunteer initiative, she’s stung by a bee. “It’s good,” Evans casually assures me, barely missing a beat. “It’s a little swollen but I’m fine. I’m gonna live.” Her stoic resilience really shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is the singer of the can’t-keep-me-down anthem “A Little Bit Stronger,” a National Celebrity Cabinet member of the American Red Cross and the mom of a blended family of 7 children, all ranging in age from 7 to 13. So while the bee might have picked the wrong lady to mess with, CMT on the other hand seems to have chosen wisely.

“Well, CMT viewers are country fans and country fans are without a doubt, in my opinion, the most charitable, giving, caring, down-home people,” says Evans, who’ll be shouting out to CMT One Country’s volunteer efforts this Wednesday during the 2012 CMT Music Awards. “I’m a farm kid from a town of 1,200 people in Missouri,” Evans continues. “Everything about me speaks to exactly what country fans are. And my mom was really big on always inviting people over and feeding people, helping them out, giving away our clothes—just everything she could do to help people less fortunate than us.”

Evans surveys the devastation left by a tornado in Alabama last year. Photo Credit: Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

As she looks forward to her work with CMT One Country, Evans is especially drawn to one of the initiative’s ongoing six partnerships. “I love the BackPack Program,” she says, referring to Feeding America’s growing effort to get bags of nutritious and easy-to-prepare food to students who are struggling with hunger issues at home. Each year, bags of food assembled at more than 150 local food banks are distributed at the end of the week to nearly 230,000 children. “The fact that there are people who can’t afford school lunches just blows me away,” Evans says, “so I’d like to get more involved with that. It’s a really nice, really sweet program.” (It’s also sweet that, in lieu of providing pricey artist gift bags to those appearing at their awards show, CMT makes a group donation to the BackPack Program at Feeding America’s local Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.)

In addition to being on hand to promote the CMT One Country initiative during Wednesday night’s award show, Evans also has the honor of competing in the Female Video of the Year category, in which she’s nominated for “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” Asked whom she’d favor in her category other than herself, Evans’ decision comes pretty easily. “I’d probably have to go with Miranda Lambert, [nominated for “Over You”],” she says. “She’s just cool. I met her when she was on Nashville Star and I told her she was going to win. She was so sweet and I like her because she’s remained very humble and down-to-earth. And I think she has a really cool voice.”

Believe it or not, picking an outfit for the awards seems to be the biggest source of stress for Evans, who is currently headlining concert dates across the country and gearing up to promote “Anywhere,” her newest single. “I swear to you, I literally will pick [my outfit] out an hour before the show. I’m such a country girl, so low-maintenance,” the songstress says, before poking a little fun at how she handles the whole fashion decision-making process. “Maybe it’s because I think I’m just so beautiful that everything’s going to look great. Maybe I’m just that delusional,” she offers with a laugh. Well, we don’t buy that for a minute—and we have a feeling she’ll look positively buzzworthy in whatever she chooses to wear.

The 2012 CMT Music Awards, hosted by Toby Keith and Kristen Bell, air live on Wednesday, June 6, at 8 p.m. ET. Viewers can vote in the Video of the Year category throughout the telecast.

Country Spotlight: Thompson Square

May 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm , by

Shawna and Keifer entertaining the troops here at LHJ. Be sure to watch their performance clip, after the jump.

They may have just been crowned the Academy of Country Music’s Vocal Duo of the Year, but Thompson Square certainly flexed some potential Entertainer of the Year muscle when they visited us here at Ladies’ Home Journal a few weeks ago. Shawna and Keifer Thompson not only impressed the room with an intimate, stripped-down set of their hits (be sure to check out the video after the jump), but they also earned an instant, easy rapport with the staff and kept us all in stitches with their hilarious stories and banter. (One coworker enthusiastically emailed me her review after their performance: “It was like a 2-for-1 show—music and comedy!”)

Still, when the husband-wife act landed in Las Vegas last month for the ACMs, they were—to hear them tell it—feeling like long shots. “You’re going up against Sugarland and they’re kind of like the new Brooks & Dunn,” explains Keifer, giving props to the two acts that have dominated the Vocal Duo category since 1991. “We’ve been around a couple of years, but it’s really just been a year and a half that we’ve been in the thick of things. We figured it might take us four more years to even get close.” But luck proved to be a lady—and her husband—that fateful night: T2 hit the country music jackpot and became the first new act to take top honors in the duo category in 20 years.

“It’s hard to process all that’s happening. Just hearing you introduce us in there and saying we’re the Vocal Duo of the Year, it’s weird. It’s a strange feeling,” Shawna admits. “I kind of compare it to getting married,” Keifer adds. “You think you’re gonna have this amazing feeling come over you, like, ‘Oh, we’re married, and this is what it feels like when you’re married.’ But it doesn’t work that way. It probably took us 10 years for us to finally feel like a married couple. And that’s how all of this feels. None of it feels real. It’s truly a dream come true.”

While Keifer and Shawna remain incredibly humble, the award is far from being undeserved. Their breakthrough single “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” was the most played song on country radio in 2011 and they’ve taken home three American Country Award wins plus multiple Grammy and CMA nominations in the past year. And in a few weeks they’ll be vying for two CMT Music Awards, with a double nomination (for both “I Got You” and “Glass,” their latest release) in the Duo Video of the Year category.

“We don’t have any kids but I’d imagine it’d be harder to say that one’s better than the other,” says Shawna, finding it difficult to play favorites with her video creations. Keifer is equally as torn, but ultimately does reveal a preference. “I thought ‘I Got You’ was a brilliant video. [Director] Wes Edwards did a fantastic job of putting that whole thing together and it was so different,” he says. “ ‘Glass’ is our new single and you want that one to win, too, but from an aspect of what deserves to win? ‘I Got You.’ Hands down.”

Whether they come out on top at the awards show, a win is definitely headed fans’ way when the duo heads back into the studio later this month to work on new music for their next CD. “We actually got about 16 things demo’d and we’re going to start to put some tracks down in preproduction,” Keifer says, noting that there will be a more diverse range of material on the new album than on the first. “We’re gonna have some really beautiful ballads, which we don’t really have on the current album—except for ‘Glass.’ We were just really scared about being pigeonholed with that whole ‘hokey married couple’ thing on the first record.”

The CD will still be rockin’, though, Shawna promises, proving she’s learned some lessons on the road from all of the extensive touring T2 has done. (Currently, T2 is opening for the red-hot Lady Antebellum Own the Night tour.) “It’s hard when you’re a new artist to go out and play new songs for people that aren’t familiar with you,” Shawna explains, “so it’s important to have some energy. When fans come to our show, they’re going to hopefully have a good time and rock out with us.”

For now, you can rock out with Thompson Square by viewing their fun-filled LHJ performance after the jump. You’ll also find some highly entertaining bonus interview moments, in which I get their he said/she said take on everything from KISS-ing on the ACM red carpet, what drives them nuts about each other and why Keifer may start following Blake Shelton’s lead on Twitter.

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Margaret Durante’s Nashville Diaries

February 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm , by

This month’s installment of Margaret Durante’s Nashville Diaries finds the up-and-coming country star answering our reader submitted questions from one of her previous guest blog installments. Watch our fun video chat with Margaret (and get a quick tour of her recording studio in Nashville) to find out everything from her thoughts on those who shoot to instant stardom on American Idol to her varied musical influences, her love affair with the snooze button and her most recent healthy snack obsession, hummus, which she claims she would eat with a spoon if it were socially acceptable.*

Margaret is gearing up for her next single, “I Ain’t Your Mama,” to hit radio next month. The playful and sassy number is the first release off of her forthcoming full-length CD, tentatively titled Better Now, which is being produced by James Stroud (Tim McGraw, Chris Young, Toby Keith). So while we all wait for those musical goodies, go grab yourself an edible goodie (hummus, anyone?) and continue on after the jump to watch our video Q&A with Margaret.

Note: I checked with LHJ food and entertaining director Tara Bench, and we both say acceptable or not, we’d be right there with Durante eating the stuff by the spoonful. Bench’s creative but less fanatical serving suggestions include whisking a spoonful into a lemon vinaigrette to make a creamy dressing for salad or grilled chicken, or spicing it up with some hot sauce and spreading it on an egg sandwich for breakfast.

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Kellie Pickler: A “100 Proof” Love of Cats

January 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm , by

Photo: Russ Harrington

Are you a cat lover who’s tired of the host of feline fashion faux paws … er, pas … that you see in the stores? Well, you’ve got a friend in country music’s Kellie Pickler, who recently teamed up with Fresh Step litter and the ASPCA for a great cause that’ll benefit both cats in need and your wardrobe.

Now through March 15, in honor of February being Cat Appreciation Month, Fresh Step litter will donate $1 (up to $100,000) to the ASPCA for every photo posted on their Facebook page of a pet owner wearing a cat-proud outfit. If your closet is currently cat-pride free, relax and don’t cough up a hairball. That’s why Pickler partnered with fashion designer and fellow cat lover Geren Ford, creating the limited-edition sweater you see Pickler wearing here. When you visit the ASPCA website to purchase the sweater ($35), 100% of the proceeds benefits the ASPCA. You can also virtually “try on” the sweater at Fresh Step’s Facebook page, post it, and make the $1 donation. It’s so easy, your cat can probably do it!

Pickler, who unfortunately had to relocate her beloved cat Pickles due to her husband’s severe allergies, is thrilled to be part of such a pro-cat program, brushing off any fear of being stamped with a “crazy cat lady stigma” as cooly as she’d brush cat hair off a couch. “I’m not ashamed of anything,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t really worry about what everybody else is doing and what they like. I kind of do my own thing. I love cats and I’m not going to not love cats just because somebody else doesn’t think it’s cool. I don’t think they’re cool if they don’t like cats.”

She was in a similar mindset while making her brand new CD, 100 Proof, which is out today and takes Pickler back to some more traditional country roots. “On my last album, I made a record based on what I thought radio would play and what I thought people would want to hear,” she explains. “I didn’t do that with this record. I’m not trying to get anybody to like me with this album. Nothing’s forced. I was me, I didn’t make this record for anyone but me and I think it’s okay to do things for yourself every now and then.” Her new approach has produced an album that is her strongest, most personal effort yet. In fact, by not worrying about what anyone wanted to hear, she just may have made the record everyone was waiting for after falling in love with her on American Idol in 2006.

Continue on after the jump for more dish about Pickler’s brand new CD …

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Country Spotlight: Sherrié Austin

January 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm , by

Some have pegged Sherrié Austin as the Taylor Swift of the Sex and the City generation. While it was Swift who titled her 2008 album Fearless, it’s Austin who’s had a longer track record of making big, brave moves to get to where she wanted to be. From moving as a teen from her native Australia to L.A. (when she won a role on the sitcom The Facts of Life), to leaving L.A. behind to chase down her dream of making country music in Nashville and even later tackling a few roles on Broadway, Austin’s made a habit of staring down challenges and coming out on top.

If you think about it, Austin’s new CD Circus Girl could also have easily been titled Fearless: She funded the CD, coproduced it and is promoting it, all without the support of a major label. She also took full creative control, penning three of its songs and cowriting all of the others. The task would be a tightrope walk for any country act but it was even more so for Austin, considering that this marks the first time she’s thrown her own hat into the Nashville ring in eight years. Though the singer enjoyed a string of country hits that started in the late 90s (“Lucky In Love,” “Put Your Heart Into It”, “Never Been Kissed,” “Streets of Heaven”), she’s remained mostly behind the scenes the past few years writing songs for others, including some pretty big hitters (think Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, George Strait and Trace Adkins).

When Austin visited us here at LHJ recently, she was honest about how daunting her Circus Girl endeavor was, even though she came out the other side stronger than ever. “There were times when I just woke up and said, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m taking such a big risk here with my time, with my money,’ ” she admits. “But every day this voice just kept saying to me, ‘Keep going. Take another step, take another step.’ I just listened to it. And I have no regrets.”

Continue on after the jump to watch Austin's live, acoustic performance in our LHJ Ladies' Lounge.

Why would she? From its first track to its last, Circus Girl soars, bursting with a real sense of Austin’s effervescent personality and pluck. There are tracks that will make you laugh out loud (“I Didn’t,” “If I Was a Man”), tracks that will make you cry (“Get Your Leavin’ Done,” “Tryin’ to Be Me”) and even tracks that will make you want to … ahem … get a little frisky (“I Just Want to Love You Tonight”). Lyrically, Austin absolutely nails it when she captures the internal thoughts that run through everywoman’s head. In her single-lady lament “Friday Night Girls,” for example, she sings, “Trying to look twenty-one / is getting old and it ain’t no fun / That mirror don’t lie / like it used to.” And in “If I Was a Man,” she vows to burn her push-up bra, singing, “Wouldn’t mind me a girl / with some meat on her bones / I’d love me just as I am / If I was a man.”

For the time being in her life as a lady, though, Austin’s main man is singer-songwriter Shane Stevens (a cowriter on Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey”), with whom she stars on the Sundance Channel’s Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. The show, just nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding reality program, follows the relationships of four straight women and their gay best friends down in the heart of Music City. While being a part of GWLBWLB has helped reintroduce Austin to her fans, it’s also reminded her that performing is something she loves to do. And that’s certainly music to all of our ears.

For a video of Austin’s live and acoustic performance in our LHJ Ladies’ Lounge, read on after the jump. You’ll also get the scoop on this once again rising Nashville star and find out what her hesitations were about doing GWLBWLB, the unique way she wound up writing her favorite song, what country (and pop) stars she’d love to hear sing her tunes, and lots more.

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Country Spotlight: David Nail: Let Him Reign

January 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm , by

Photo: David McClister.

After occupying the country radio charts for a marathon 48-week stint, David Nail has finally been rewarded with his first, well-deserved number-one song: “Let It Rain,” the first single off of his The Sound of a Million Dreams CD. Now that he’s top of the heap, though, don’t expect him to lose the perspective he’s been given on his rise to that position. “There have been a lot of times over the course of my career that it didn’t look like I’d be able to make a record, much less have two out and get to travel the country and tour with people,” the Missouri native told me on a recent visit to the Journal. “My short-term and long-term goals are always one in the same. I hope to do something today that allows me a tomorrow. I hope to do something this year that allows me another year. I do not take things for granted.”

Case in point was his reaction to his Grammy nod last year for his vocals on “Turning Home,” off of 2009’s I’m About to Come Alive. “I can’t remember anything in my life being more unexpected,” Nail says of the moment he got the call about his nomination in the Best Male Country Vocal category. “It was just a whirlwind. I remember literally dropping to my knees and just being overcome with surprise and emotion. I kind of teared up a little bit, went and hugged my wife and said, ‘Baby, I’ve spent a long time trying to get people to like what I do. And evidently the people in this town like what I do.’ ”

Hear Nail sing three stripped-down songs for the LHJ staff after the jump.

His fans across the country aren’t complaining much, either. If you follow him on Twitter you’ll see that he not only talks the talk, he (excuse the word and phrase play) twalks the twalk of gratitude by maintaining one of the most engaging and appreciative conversations with his supporters—the Nail Nation—of any artist through that medium. Entertaining proof of this came when someone recently pondered about whether Nail himself actually signs the promo CDs that go out. Nail, in turn, tweeted back a photo of the stacks he was signing at that very moment as he watched TV, no doubt doubly endearing himself to anyone who might have been having the same doubts. (The bonus, by the way, of following Nail on Twitter is that you’ll get such in-depth college and pro sports analysis that by sheer osmosis you’ll be qualified for most on-air positions at ESPN.)

So, with a killer voice, his first number-one under his belt, a nation of loyal fans and a second album chock full of high-charting potential, Nail seems poised to make Nashville’s all-star team in 2012. That turns to speculation over what the follow-up single to “Let It Rain” will be, so in an homage to Nail’s athletic leanings (and, well, because I’m a dork) I couldn’t help but create my own next-single sports bracket for what I’m thinking/hoping for in terms of his second release. Check my brackets out after the jump and let me know if you agree. You’ll also find the video of Nail’s in-office LHJ performance after the jump, as well as to his takes on everything from where he fits into the current Nashville music scene and what charitable effort he’s passionate about, to why Taylor Swift reminds him of Garth Brooks, and more.

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