For all the overnight success stories Nashville likes to tell — whether they really happen overnight or not — it's easy to forget how many artists come in with guns blazing, only to ride into the sunset shortly thereafter.
That seemed to be the case with Jessie James Decker, a big-voiced spitfire who landed on the all-genre Billboard 100 with her debut single "Wanted" in 2009, but then struggled to repeat — or even find an image she and fans could live with. Pressured to record in a pop style and positioned as a 19-year-old sex bomb against her better judgement, she found herself lost with country music's all-important female demographic, who simply could not relate.
"I had a real hard time with female fans," she admits, dressed casually in cutoff jeans and sipping a coffee in her talent agency's lofty 23rd floor office, looking down on Music City. "Girls didn't like me, and that killed me because I've always wanted to be a role model for young girls."
She may have remedied that problem now, though, by just being herself. After two seasons of E!'s Eric and Jessie: Game On, a reality show that followed Jessie and her New York Jets wide receiver husband Eric Decker as they navigated their first pregnancy (they now have two children; Vivian, 2, and Eric Thomas II, 10 months), her new single "Lights Down Low" has earned a spot inside the Hot Country Songs Top 40 and is headed for country radio in August.
That might not sound like much, but in an industry where one under-performing single can get an artist dropped (just look at Scotty McCreery for recent proof), even the tiniest bit of a comeback is worth noting, especially after so long.
"I knew doing this show that if girls got to know me, it would really help them get to know my personality and maybe they would want to be a fan," she says. "So it did help, hugely. That's why I'm sitting here."
The professional rebound has gone hand in hand with a personal transformation. Jessie says she wasn't confident in herself when she came to Nashville right out of high school, and that's why she allowed the hyper-sexual image to be pushed on her in the first place. But all that changed when she met Eric and got married in 2013. She came out of her shell and now hopes to help other girls do the same with her upcoming second album, tentatively set for the end of 2016. But still, there's a stigma that comes with reality TV.
"What does get hard is when I'm put in the box of, 'Oh, she just woke up one day, did a reality show and decided she wants to be a singer,'" says Jessie. "That's offensive, and it's not the case with me. I've been singing my whole life, and I hope when people hear my voice, [they don't hear] some random girl pretending to sing. I have pipes and this is what I do."
The truth is, she can also write songs. "Lights Down Low" is written very personally about her marriage, celebrating the fun side of being hitched and showing her to be the complete opposite of a temptress. Jessie co-wrote the tune with Alyssa Bonagura via text message.
"When you have kids it can be hard sometimes, because you've got to find creative ways to spend time with each other," she explains. "So with 'Lights Down Low' I wanted to just write about all the things that we do to try to keep the love alive in creative ways, because you can't always go out on a date. . . but you can make a date at home."
Jessie and Eric both took part in the video shoot for "Lights Down Low," working with a playful treatment that shows the couple cooking breakfast, sharing a bubble bath and enjoying plenty of flirtatious roughhousing. Just like the reality show, there wasn't much acting involved, and Jessie says the whole thing felt comfortable and natural, which is exactly how she wants to be viewed from here on out. But with such a romantic song, the video clearly needed a hot-and-steamy component, so Jessie let Eric take on that task.
"The roles were reversed a little bit," she says with a hint of satisfaction. "Usually it's the hot, sexy country girl in the video, and this time I was a little bit more conservative and I wanted him to be the one I get to stare at and be all sexy."
Eric was happy to play the part, she insists. He didn't want some other guy all over his wife, and her new fans would have called foul if that ended up being the case.
"My fans would have been a little weirded out," she says. "I mean, I wrote the song about Eric, and they know our life together. To have some other guy playing that role? They don't like that stuff."
Plus, Jessie was still recovering from giving birth to the couple's second child. "I was actually breastfeeding still, during that video shoot," she admits with a laugh. And while she wants her life to be an open book, some things are better left behind closed doors.
"Can you imagine if I came out in lingerie with the baby?" she asks with a laugh. "They didn't need to see the pumping in the back room!"