“I’m having hot flashes,” jokes Trisha Yearwood, peeling off a layer in a lounge area at Sony Music’s Nashville office and fanning her face with her hand. She’s just rushed in from the set of the ABC musical drama Nashville, and plops down on the couch with a hearty “howdy.” “I just came from doing some TV, which is why I feel like a hooker,” she adds on the generous application of makeup adorning her face.
Yearwood has recently turned 50, and, in a slim-fitting T-shirt with a sheet music pattern, she’s in terrific shape — she hikes, she plays basketball, she even does Zumba. Lately, perhaps the best exercise comes in the form of her world tour with husband Garth Brooks, who also happens to have a new album out, Man Against Machine, the same month as her latest LP, Prizefighter: Hit After Hit, lands on shelves (or laptops, through Brooks’ digital service, GhostTunes). It’s her first in seven years.
It’s a different world these days than when Yearwood first came to prominence in the early Nineties with her double-platinum self-titled debut — massive female stars dominated Music Row at the time, and country pop was just on the crest of a giant takeover. Putting together Prizefighter, a collection of her re-recorded classics and new songs including the anthemic, self-empowering title track, Yearwood knew that the battle to the top wouldn’t be quite as easy. But, as she tells Rolling Stone Country, she’s never been about “selling her soul” to the radio gods in order to score hits, anyway. Here, Yearwood ruminates on turning 50, being on the road and what she thinks women need to do to reclaim the throne.
Is the imagery of “Prizefighter” emblematic for you – coming back swinging after some years away, in a country climate that you know has changed so much?
Well, as an artist you always want to get played on the radio and have hits, but at this point, 23 years in the music business, I knew I was going on the biggest tour but I didn’t have any expectations for country radio. I just thought, “I’m a woman, I’m 50 years old. Let’s see what happens.” But when I heard that song I got really excited. If I have a shot to get played on radio, then this song is probably it.
This album is very true to your point of view, but not necessarily tied into any current trends. What do you think of the way the genre is gravitating?
I mean, I get it. You want to sell records, but if you want to call yourself an artist, your job is how you express yourself. If you’re a painter, you don’t go, “abstract’s really selling, so that’s what I’m going to do.” If you’re really truly an artist, you have to think what you’re meant to paint. I’ve patterned myself after my musical heroes. The name that pops into my head is Emmylou Harris — I think about her song choices, but I don’t know what her album sales have been. I think it’s about the quality she makes and she’s still been very successful. If you record a song that you love, then you’re going to win. But if everyone is telling you it’s going to be a hit record and you hate it, then you have to sing a record you hate every night. And you just sold your soul for the radio.
One thing about Prizefighter is it shows how undeniably country you are — which wasn’t always the general perception of you.
It’s just who I am. When I first started making records, I was referred to as more contemporary. I listened to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, but my big, big influences were Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, so I wasn’t really put in the traditional country music category. Oddly, the way that country music has changed, I’m probably more traditional than most of what’s out there, but I am still really true to the roots I grew up with.
How do you feel about the presence — or lack thereof — of women on the country charts right now?
In the Nineties, the women of country were taking over. There were a good ten of us that were selling a lot of records and getting Number Ones. I gave credit to Reba McEntire for knocking that door down for women. But sometime in the last 10 years it feels like those doors have closed again. What happened? I don’t know why it is. I know that in our shows that we’ve done so far with Garth, you’re seeing a lot more guys than you used to see. So I don’t really have the answer. I knew being older was against me but I didn’t realize being female was against me. I started hearing, “Oh, it’s really tough for girls right now.” And it really is. That just makes the lyrics to “Prizefighter” more important to me. I just have to fight a little harder, and I think women have always had to fight a little harder in this business. But I just think we have to take it back over.
How can that be done?
I think of myself as a listener. And if you want me to buy your record, you have to sing something I relate to. And maybe we need to be making sure we are singing songs for women. I think Miranda Lambert does that really well. I think she is probably the one I would say, out of everyone, I can relate to, even though I am a lot older. I listen to her and think, “I get that,” I can find myself in those songs.
Prizefighter is half classics, half new tracks. How did you select what made the cut?
The hits are like what I would do in a live show — I can’t imagine I’d ever do a live show and not play “She’s In Love With the Boy” or “Walk Away Joe.” Those songs, they were easy to figure out. For the new songs, the way I make an album, the songs kind of show up, and I wanted them to fit in — I wanted you to be able to hear “Prizefighter” and “She’s In Love With the Boy” together. Sometimes, it’s about where they are placed in the sequence. I was listening to songs, and I heard “Prizefighter,” and I thought it was unlike anything I’d ever done. I’m not really known for anthems. I’m more known for story songs. But I was struck by it and how it spoke to me in so many different ways. And that got me wanting to sing it and excited, and it was the catalyst that got the project done.
Did Kelly Clarkson, who sings on the track, instantly come to mind?
She did. The demo had a harmony above it and it was a challenging song for me — it’s a wailing song. I thought, “It’s gotta be someone that can wail.” I couldn’t have done that part. She’s the most down-to-earth person that has no idea how incredibly talented she is. We’re very similar in that we don’t believe our own hype.
One of the new songs, “Your Husband’s Cheatin’ on Us,” is pretty naughty.
It is naughty. When I heard it, I thought, “That’s so bad.” And I liked it but I never thought I’d record it. But then I thought, “What the hell, I’m going to record it anyway.” Anyone that hears it thinks it’s a fun song, but it’s wrong on so many levels. Musically, it has this Bobbie Gentry vibe that’s so cool.
Obviously the song isn’t explicitly about you, so what is it about songs like those that you love?
If I think back over “She’s in Love With the Boy” and “The Song Remembers When,” they’re stories, and I love songs that tell stories. I think there’s room for everything and I think when we start trying to ask, “What should I record that will get me played?” — well, you have to really record music because it moves you in some way.
Was it an intentional decision, then, to release the your LP at the same time as Garth’s so you could tour together?
We said when we got married almost nine years ago that we didn’t want to be together to be apart. We’ve done that in our lives and we really enjoy each other’s company and want to be together, so there wasn’t any way that either one of us would have gone on a tour like this without the other.
What’s is been like to be back on the road again?
Being on the road is great. The cool thing about this particular tour, I get to play music with the love of my life, whereas most people go on the road and they leave their family behind. And our girls are grown, so we just get to go out and be together all the time. It’s really the best of both worlds.
Nashville’s been getting an incredible amount of attention lately — the show Nashville is just one example. What to do you think of the boom?
Everything comes in waves. Before I moved here, in the Sixties and Seventies, you’d hear stories about how cool it was when Kris Kristofferson moved to town and the outlaws came, and then things died back down. And then in the early Nineties, Garth exploded and people who never listen to country music were suddenly paying attention to Nashville. This time, it feels like not just the music industry but the whole town is having a resurgence. There’s cool shopping and cool restaurants and cool places to live.
So is this album a lead into a project that will be a collection of entirely new tracks? Is that what’s on the horizon?
Yes, it will be all new songs. I already have songs. I’m excited about the opportunity to make a record with all new music. I don’t know when I’ll get started on it, probably the first of the year. I’m definitely not going to take seven years to make a record again.
And you just had a milestone birthday. Do you feel 50?
I’m pretty immature. I feel 15!