Anna Wilson Mines Nashville Gold for ‘Countrypolitan Duets’
Anna Wilson's name may be new to country fans, but her songs aren't. As the writer behind songs such as Chuck Wicks' 'All I Ever Wanted' and Lady Antebellum's 'If I Knew Then,' she's enjoyed plenty of success behind the scenes, but she's also made a name for herself vocally as part of the jazz world.
After recording several successful CDs over the past few years, the bubbly entertainer decided to step out, or rather, back, to an era when country and jazz weren't very far apart, and the "Nashville Sound" brought country plenty of crossover popularity. On her new CD, 'Countrypolitan Duets,' Anna reinterprets country classics from a bygone era, putting a new shine on some old favorites with the help of first-rate friends Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, and Rascal Flatts. Songs such as 'For the Good Times,' 'Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues,' and 'Walkin' After Midnight' get the glove-and-hat treatment from Anna on the album, which was a labor of love for an artist who definitely knows her way around the Great American Songbook.
The Boot sat down with the Pennsylvania native to chat with her about her longtime friendship with Keith Urban, her "chill-bump" moments working with Ray Price and Connie Smith, and her experience wrangling country artists for interviews before she began singing with them.
You've said it was a Judds concert that really sold you on music. What was it about that show that made you want to become an artist?
I went to a Judds concert during their heyday, and they were just tearing it up. My sister took me for my birthday and I was just completely blown away when I saw them live. I just fell in love and said, "This is really what I want to do!" Because I had always sung. I grew up with my mom playing all the standards and the Broadways shows on piano. I would take her stack of books into my room and sing with the hairbrush in front of the mirror. So that Judds concert is really where the big spark came from.
You worked as a publicist in Nashville before launching your singing career. And not only did you work with great artists, but that actually landed you a husband as well!
It did! I moved to Nashville 15 days after graduation, and I got a job as a publicist representing artists like Michelle Wright, Diamond Rio and Lee Roy Parnell. It was fun! I actually met my husband [songwriter] Monty Powell backstage at a Diamond Rio concert, because I was their publicist and he was their producer. He pulled the Joey from 'Friends' out on me: "How u doin?'" [laughs]. I did PR for two years and then I really realized I needed to start doing the music thing. So I met Monty and some other writers, and it just sort of organically moved to the direction of writing and singing from there.
What's refreshing is that you were adamant about paying your dues as a songwriter first.
I knew if I wanted to have a viable artist career, I couldn't without a great song. So I said, let's do this in order. Let's try to really become good at songwriting and get great songs. I got a publishing deal after a few years and my first cut ended up being with Michelle Wright, which was great because I had worked with her before. But the cut didn't even come through those channels. Then I got one with Reba, and Brooks & Dunn, and a Chuck Wicks single. I've been in this town for 16 years as a writer and just walked across the ASCAP stage for the first time. It took that long to get that elusive single. But that was one of the highlights of my career. The Lady Antebellum cut has been my biggest album cut to date -- it gave me my first five-million award plaque!
And it was through writing that you met and became friends with Keith Urban, who appears on 'Countrypolitan.'
Keith and I go back 15 years. We both wrote at the same publishing company together, so we would write songs together, and hang out, and Monty produced his first CD [with] the Ranch, so we were all friends. Keith and I stayed in touch, and we worked together on a pop record I was doing for Capitol back then. He came by and sang harmony and played guitar with me the night I got my first record deal in L.A. He was in between his band album and his solo album, and then Monty started writing songs for his solo career. So we've known Keith a long time. We've written songs together, we've played shows together, but we've never recorded together. So when it came time for this record, I asked if he would do this song with me, 'Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues.' He came by and sang on it, and I said, "You don't have to, Keith, but if you want it, there's a guitar solo waiting there for you." He said, "Oh, I'd love to!" And he picked up that guitar over there and played it on the track.
You have a lot of impressive guests on this album -- Keith, Lady Antebellum, Kenny Rogers. How did you come up with the idea to marry jazz and classic country on this record?
It took me a little while to find my voice as an artist and what best suited it, and that ended up being jazz. I started writing jazz songs, and I had so much fun doing it, I haven't stopped since! I really just returned to my roots and what I grew up on. People kept coming up saying, "We really would like to hear you do something familiar, like cover songs." I thought because I'm a writer in Nashville, that's first and foremost how I want to express my artistry. So how can I do that in a unique and compelling way? That's how I came up with the idea for 'Countrypolitan.' There aren't any jazz singers out there doing classic country songs. There aren't many country artists doing classic country songs, because they're busy promoting their own new music, as they should be ... why not blend the two worlds I love the most, great country songs and great jazz singing onto one project?
But the album originally didn't start out to be a duets CD?
No. When I first started, I thought I was going to be the only singer on it. It was just going to pay tribute to this era, and I was going to interpret the songs. I thought maybe on one song I'd get one of the original artists as a guest appearance. Ray Price, of course, was certainly on that list, and I sought out a bunch of channels to get in touch with him and I was fortunate that he said yes. The same person who hooked me up with Ray also hooked me up with Connie Smith, so then I had both of them. It sort of took off from there!
What was it like working with Ray, one of your musical heroes, in the studio?
I didn't know what to expect. He walked in, and he was very quiet and reserved -- he's 85 years old. We had never met each other. He stepped in there and nailed 'You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me' in one take! Monty and I were sitting in the control room welling up, because that was the music he grew up listening to with his dad. I grew up listening to Ray's songs too, so it was surreal. It was definitely a "chill-bump" moment! He was so cute -- he said, "Well, is that going to work?" I said, "Yes, I think that's going to work fine, Mr. Price, thank you so much!" And he said, "I just love what you did with this song. I'm so glad to be singing it with you. Let's go win a Grammy with this." I said, "OK, from your lips to God's ears!" I told him if we get nominated, he's gotta come on the show and sing it with me. He said, "You bet, I'll be there!" It was just a great moment!
He's amazing. He's so musical -- a wonderful talent! I met him at a show in Napa Valley. He came out to my show and we had a great time, and it really bonded us. I brought him to Nashville and he sang 'You Don't Know Me' twice, and it was better than even we thought it would be. It turned out great!
Another Matt, Canadian crooner Matt Dusk, recorded one of your favorite songs on the album, and the two of you have been touring together on his Back From Las Vegas tour. How did all of that come about?
We couldn't seem to find an artist that 'Welcome to My World' was going to gel with, and I was bummed about it. Then I met Matt Dusk at the 11th hour. The record was already in the can, and I didn't even know Matt. I met him at Blackbird Studios here. He was mixing his tour DVD and heard about my album, and he asked if there was any room for him to be on it. I told him I'd love it, but we had just finished, and I didn't know if we'd have enough time to be able to record it, get all the legal permissions done, etc., but if he could get his people to push it through I'd consider it because there was one song, the Jim Reeves song, that I didn't have room to put on. He knew the song and loved it. So we cut the song the day after the Opry, and it turned out amazing! Now we're going to a lot of PBS markets and I'm going to open up for him and then halfway through his set I'll come back on and we'll do our duet.
You're very involved with Habitat For Humanity and even wrote a song they adopted as their theme song. What inspired you to write that?
I did a build here in Nashville. They built 10 houses in five days, and they asked me to come and sing for all the volunteers for Whirlpool. I was so inspired by their work, all these people who had come into Nashville from all over the country, that I said, "I need to do something nice for these people." I was inspired by the stories of the families and the volunteers, so I wrote this song, 'A House, a Home.' It was supposed to just be for that one event, and then they heard the song and came to me and said, "This song totally embodies our message. Can we use this for other things? We really love it." They put it in all their public service announcements all over the world. It's been such a reward to me, because I've been able to contribute something I love to do, which is write a song, sing it, and maybe help people out, too.