If there is one consistent characteristic all “Good Southerners” possess, it’s unconditional love and attachment for their hometown roots. It’s all about knowing where you come from, and not getting above your raising.
The designation also implies a number of other signifiers, such as commitment to one’s beliefs and obligations, respect for others who helped you along your way and humility even in the light of personal or professional success. The small Georgia town of Monticello has the distinct honor of having provided the environment that nurtured the incredible career of one of country music’s true contemporary superstars, and she has never forgotten the place that gave her the wherewithal to make her dreams come true.
Trisha Yearwood is a small town girl at heart, and she will be the first to tell you. “I am proud of where I came from, and always have been,” Yearwood declares. “In a small town like Monticello, it seems like the whole community raised me. If I was doing something anywhere in the town, my Mom knew about it before I got home.”
A strong underlying theme permeates Yearwood’s conversation regarding her links to the quaint middle Georgia town, and it is easy to assume that even though she has achieved an amazing level of international success as a recording artist, in her heart she has never left home. As proof, following a four year hiatus from recording, Yearwood has returned and dedicated her new album, the aptly-titled Jasper County, to the entire city of Monticello.
There’s not a lot going on in Monticello that distinguishes it from any other small American town, and that may be part of the charm. Yearwood’s parents, banker Jack and teacher Gwen, raised Trisha and her older sister in a very traditional manner, involving the girls in community and church activities, encouraging them to help neighbors wherever help was needed and emphasizing the importance of education.
Yearwood knew early on that she wanted to sing, and began her journey at a young age in spite of the obvious environmental limitations. She recalls, “There weren’t a lot of opportunities to be a performer in Monticello, mainly church choir and occasional talent shows. I wanted to be a singer all my life, and most folks in Monticello assumed I might lead the choir or teach music, since that’s about all that was available there.”
Yearwood fondly remembers one of her first public performances. “It was a Kiwanis Club talent show, and I sang Olivia Newton-John’s ‘I Honestly Love You.’ I didn’t win, and can’t remember who beat me, but I would love to talk to them now,” she laughs. In spite of this early setback, Yearwood’s parents continued to be supportive. “They always encouraged me and my sister to be musical, and my Dad had a great collection of country music records. That’s where I discovered Patsy Cline, and knew I wanted to be a big-voiced singer like her.”
While the church choir, Olivia Newton-John and Patsy Cline might have been the early catalysts for Yearwood’s dreams, it was her discovery of country rock diva Linda Ronstadt when she was 14 that sent her desire into overdrive. “Linda’s music was a big influence on me,” says Yearwood. “I loved the power of her voice, and she inspired me to do as much with music as possible. I wanted to be Linda Ronstadt,” she confesses.
With the blessing and support of her parents, Yearwood participated in virtually every music-related activity in Monticello, and when she began attending classes at nearby Young Harris College, she majored in Business while continuing her musical endeavors. “Education was important in my family, and the decision to be a Business major was very logical, even though everyone knew I wanted to get into music. It has proven useful, as I have some awareness of how to deal with the business side of the music industry.”
After obtaining her Associate degree at Young Harris, Yearwood spent a little time at the University of Georgia in Athens, but she continued to look for a school that would give her both a useful degree and opportunities to explore a career in the music world. “When I found out about the Music Business program at Belmont College in Nashville, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Transferring to Belmont in 1985 put Yearwood in the epicenter of all that she strived for, now she just had to figure out how to break into the music scene. “It was a case of ‘ignorance is bliss,’ because I had no idea that it was almost impossible to get a record deal. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it, so I just did what I could to make connections. I didn’t have any relatives or contacts in the business, but it didn’t stop me from trying.”
Yearwood’s first work in the industry was as an intern at the now-defunct MTM label, and she managed to convince the folks in charge to let her sing on some demo recordings. “Once I started doing demos, people in town had a chance to hear my voice. Kent Blazy was a songwriter that I worked with and he introduced me to some folks.”
At this early point in her budding career, Yearwood also became acquainted with two people who would become immensely important to her future, both personally and professionally. Ironically, they were both named “Garth.” One was another demo singer also hunting a record deal, Garth Brooks. Since they shared the same goal, Brooks and Yearwood formed a friendship and mutually agreed to help each other out as much as possible, a commitment that has taken on incredible significance today (more on that later).
She also met Garth Fundis, a highly respected record producer in Nashville, whose clients included the late Keith Whitley and Don Williams. “Garth Fundis and another producer, Allen Reynolds, were really helpful in my first few years in the business. Allen would give me his honest opinion about songs and things, and Garth helped me set up a showcase with a few label people. Tony Brown, the president of MCA Nashville, was there, and signed me after the first showcase.” Fundis became Yearwood’s producer, and the relationship proved to be quite fruitful.
Her first single, “She’s In Love With The Boy,” hit the charts in spring of 1991 and soared to #1. This feat was followed with nine more chart-toppers, including “That’s What I Like About You,” “The Woman Before Me” and “XXX’s and OOO’s.” Yearwood says, “Garth is a great song man, and we agreed early on that we both had to like a song enough to record it. It really helps to have someone like him working with me, as he knows what works for me.”
To date, Trisha Yearwood has earned four Gold (sales of 500,000), four platinum (sales of 1,000,000), a double Platinum and one quadruple Platinum album. Her shelf holds three Grammy® awards, three CMA awards, two ACM awards and she was inducted as a member of both the Grand Ole Opry in 1999 and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2000. This public validation of Yearwood’s success was well deserved, as she is one of the most talented and consistent artists in the country music world. Her clear strong voice is always matched with carefully selected material that suits her well, and she has maintained a high standard of quality in her songs throughout her career. She elaborates, “Picking songs is a very subjective experience, and I really can’t explain it. If a song grabs me, I latch on to it. There are some songwriters who I know I can rely on to send me good material (Beth Nielson Chapman, Matraca Berg), but I prefer not knowing who wrote a song before I listen to it.”
In addition, she has never given in to popular trends such as relying on flashy outfits and complicated choreography in her performances, instead simply letting her immense musical skill work for her. But it was hard work. Life as a professional musican can take its toll on personal relationships. Yearwood has been married twice, a short marriage to her college boyfriend that ended just as her career was taking off, and a union to Mavericks’ bassist Robert Reynolds from 1995 until 2000. Their wedding took place in the historic Ryman Auditorium, a big celebrity-style event before celebrity weddings were cool. Yearwood and Reynolds remain friends, and she admits “The biggest thing was that we made the mistake of thinking we could make a marriage work without being together. I didn’t give it the kind of serious thought it needed. If I was home, he was on the road with the Mavericks, and when he was home, I was on the road.”
So in 2001, after over a decade of recording and touring, Trisha Yearwood took a breather. “I was literally on the road for 12 years, and that life is just too fast paced. It was time for a break, and I needed it.” One year turned into four years, and Yearwood found that the time away from the business was rejuvenating. “I finally had a regular routine, and was able to get my priorities back in line.”
It also gave her time to give something back to the people who had made her so successful, and Yearwood focused more of her time on charity events, something she had always done. “Doing charity work is part of small town life,” she says. “If help is needed somewhere, you just do it. How can you not? Being in this position we have the opportunity to do things for others. The hard part is choosing what to do and for which groups. Signing or donating items is easy and helpful, but I like to be actively involved in the organizations if possible.”
Beneficiaries of Yearwood’s support include the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the National MS Society, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, among many others. Yearwood also experienced another positive change in her life during this respite. The other Garth (Brooks) had already made a significant impact on her life. They had sung backup on each other’s debut albums, and when Brooks broke out first as a headliner, he had taken Yearwood on tour as his opening act. This gave her a great amount of exposure, and helped launch her into the upper echelons of commercial success. The friendship has lasted a long time, and the blossoming of that relationship into love recently became official with their very public engagement.“We were friends for so long, and saw each other go through so much. I think that we both learned a lot from past mistakes, and that perspective helps us realize what’s important.”
In 2004, with her personal life on track, it was time for Yearwood to get back to doing what she loves the most—making music. Joining forces once again with Fundis, who had worked with her on most of her 11 albums, she knew what sort of record she had in mind. “I wanted it to sound ‘country.’ We made a conscious effort to have an organic feel, and I’m really happy with it. Plus, I was rested and ready to actually enjoy the process of recording again.”
Jasper County is a wonderful collection of songs stamped with the Yearwood trademarks—intelligent lyrics, catchy melodies and that gorgeous voice wrapping each tune in its warm embrace. But the music business is fickle, and Yearwood knew that things had changed since her last album was released. She was pleasantly surprised, however, by the response of country disc jockeys when she showcased some of her new material in March at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. “The DJs said, ‘We missed you,’ and were very enthusiastic about the new songs. That was wonderful, and being gone for so long made coming back really special.”
Jasper County is a musical gift to Yearwood’s Monticello hometown, whose citizens honored her by renaming the main road in town Trisha Yearwood Highway. “That is really important to the small town girl in me, and when I go home I want them to see that I’m not any different. I go out to the store, the bank where my Dad worked, and just try to let them know I have not forgotten them. I rarely ask songwriters to modify their work, but I specifically asked that the lyrics in ‘Georgia Rain’ be changed to include the words ‘Jasper County.’ It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to Georgia.”