Sparks fly as duo Steel Magnolia releases debut
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Country music fans are already familiar with the feel-good story of Steel Magnolia, the boyfriend-girlfriend duo who met at a karaoke bar and went on to win the CMT contest show "Can You Duet" back in 2009.
Few acts have gotten as much exposure in their formative years as Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones. They've been nominated for 10 major music awards, scored a top-five hit and have become a popular opening act for some of country's biggest names — all before the release of their debut album.
The Dan Huff-produced "Steel Magnolia," which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard country albums chart and No. 7 on the all-genre chart last week, gives listeners a more complete picture of a duo that's been charting an unusual path to a very different sound.
"The record we set out to make, it's what we think is a real piece of art from beginning to end," Jones said. "We feel like you're taking a journey."
What listeners will find on that journey is a band that doesn't quite fit the well-worn formula that defines most country duos. With a few exceptions, their debut is a mosaic of soul, R&B, pop and rock, with just a hint of country in the sonic touches producer Dann Huff lays over a handful of the songs — a racy banjo line during a chorus, a mood-enhancing pedal steel accent.
That eclectic sound is what drew Big Machine Records' Scott Borchetta to the group when he served as a judge on "Can You Duet," a show that featured a record contract with Borchetta's label as top prize.
"You rarely have what I would refer to as two elite singing voices," Borchetta said. "Usually duos are one dominant voice, then the other one carries harmony, whether it's The Judds, Brooks & Dunn, et cetera. And for them to have such unique individual voices that blended so well, I thought it was something really unique, that if they really got a grasp and a direction, then it could really be something special."
Linsey, 25, grew up in New Orleans and Ponchatoula, La., the daughter of a mother who loved country, a father who loved rock and the soundtrack of south Louisiana playing in the background. Her mother helped her start and front her first band as a teenager.
Jones, 30, was born in Texas and grew up in Illinois, where the sounds of country, rock and soul were his obsession.
"I went to an all-black church for almost two years and there was just a real lively music scene at the Baptist church there," Jones said. "So I think after that I got into soul music for a couple of years. As far as music goes, I can number it off in about two-year periods where I would get obsessed with something. I'd listen to it until I could do it or sing it."
He started his own band, too, and served as guitarist and lead singer before deciding to move to Nashville.
They admit it wasn't easy to put aside egos and acknowledge they were better together than apart. But there were obvious sparks when they played together and the give and take of their relationship — Jones' playful goofiness brings out the eye roll in Linsey — enhances their stage persona. Unfortunately few record executives in Nashville got it.
"I think the answer we always got was, 'Wow, you guys are great, we just don't know what to do with you,'" Linsey said. "And I think a lot of it had to do with we had so many different influences and all these different songs and it didn't necessarily all fit together. And I think being on the show and meeting Scott Borchetta and assembling the team that we have has allowed us to kind of develop into something that has a sound and it all does fit together. Dan Huff made all that work on the record."
"We finally belong," Jones joked in a childlike voice.
"Oh, my God," Linsey said, "will you stop?"
AP writer Caitlin R. King in Nashville contributed to this report.
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