In 1996, when the country charts were still just as heavily populated with female artists as they were with male acts, Massachusetts native Jo Dee Messina burst onto the scene with the Number Two smash, “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” A string of energetic chart-toppers followed, including “Bye Bye” and “I’m Alright,” recorded for Curb Records, which at the time was also scoring major hits for Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes, among other country stars. Messina also earned the CMA’s Horizon Award in 1999.
In the gap between 2000’s Burn and the 2005 release of Delicious Surprise, Messina and her road manager broke off their engagement and the singer also entered rehab for alcoholism. Still, the latter album, like its predecessor, topped the charts, as did its first single, “My Give a Damn’s Busted.” Married to businessman Chris Deffenbaugh in 2007, the couple has two sons, Noah, now 5, and Jonah, 2. But even as her family was flourishing, Messina’s relationship with Curb was withering. At the end of 2012, she left the label, uncertain of her next step, but anchored in part by her growing presence on social media. The next phase of the loquacious entertainer’s recording career would be financed by contributions from her fans through the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Messina raised the cash needed to release her next album as an independent artist. Yet, because the idea was relatively new at the time, some were skeptical as to why a musician who had achieved her level of success would find it necessary.
“I was with a record label that was not releasing records, which was frustrating from a creative standpoint,” Messina tells Rolling Stone Country. I don’t think it was done in a vicious way. I think the people in charge at the time were scared of their shadow, frightened to make a decision. So they spun around in circles and got nothing done. So I asked to be released. I’d been there since I was a kid. So I was like, ‘OK, now what do I do?’ So I started writing.”
Flirting with a number of different genres, including, she says, “pop, rock, R&B and funky stuff,” one of the home recordings Messina did was for a song she co-wrote with a friend, called “Unbreakable.”
“We did this demo on the third floor of my house,” says the singer. “There are no real instruments; we did it on my computer. I reached out to people on social networks and I said, ‘Hey, send me a picture of you holding signs that say ‘Faith,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Dream,’ ‘Believe,’ ‘Unbreakable.’ The outpouring was massive. All those people in the video are fans. We made this little video shot on our iPhone. As I began writing more songs on just a regular basis, I’d post them on Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. I asked [the fans], ‘If I were to make a record would you want to see this song on it, or this song?’ Because I had enough songs to make a record but I didn’t have the budget.”
Messina’s cousin, musician Alex Preston, who finished in the top three on American Idol earlier this year, was living with her at the time, having taken a year off from college to scope out the songwriting scene in Music City. He’s the one who first suggested the Kickstarter approach to her.
Compounding the newfound complexities of the recording and fundraising process was the fact that the singer was also spending much of her time in her ailing mother’s hospital room, which meant that it took even longer to complete. But now that the project, simply titled Me, is out, she’s hoping fans and radio will give it a chance, especially the hard-driving standout, “A Woman’s Rant,” which encapsulates the 24-hour challenges of being a working mom. Perhaps not surprisingly, winning the fans over has already proven easier than convincing radio to play the song, which she began as a simple journal entry.
“That started after I got up at 4:30 in the morning and the baby was crying,” she explains. The line that people jump on is ‘women, they do twice the work and get half the pay.’ That line is not referring to what’s going in the world right now as far as I could have the same job as you and would make half as much. That was I work a full-time job then I come home and I’m working until I collapse on a second job of laundry, taking care of the kids, dishes, dinner.… I don’t get paid for that one!”
Another of the song’s line that has raised some eyebrows is “I’d walk a mile in his shoes if he’d walk half a mile in these,” which Messina explains “was literally a line that I said to my husband while wearing Jessica Simpson six-inch platform shoes. I was like, ‘Dude I would kill for those shoes right now.’ But people took that as man-bashing. It’s supposed to be funny, but some people are just looking for a reason. I’ve heard [radio] programmers say, ‘If I wanted to hear a woman rant I’d go home to my wife. That shows me a very disrespectful husband, by the way.”
Still, Messina is grateful for any radio airplay she can enjoy at this stage in her career, especially considering the state of flux the business continues to be in on a daily basis.
“The music industry is in such a great-changing form right now,” she says. “It’s a little bruising to be a part of, but it’s fascinating to watch. [Laughs] To quote Brad Pitt in Money Ball, ‘The first one through the fence always gets bloody.'”