If they were taking risumis for Queen of Country Music, Trisha Yearwood might not make the first cut. She doesn't have high hair. She doesn't sing about honky-tonks. She has a degree in -- get this -- business administration. But make no mistake, the blond from Monticello, Ga., with the voice that can alternately induce tears and rattle windows has the job.
Ever since 1991, Yearwood has been a consistent hitmaker. But this past year she went off the scale. In September she was named the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year and this spring got the same title from the Academy of Country Music. In between, she released "Songbook (A Collection of Hits)," her first best-of collection. The album's three new tracks -- the Garth Brooks duet "In Another's Eyes," the rocker "Perfect Love" and "How Do I Live" (from the Nicolas Cage explosion-fest "Con Air") -- all hit No. 1. When the latter got an Oscar nod for song of the year, Yearwood wailed it and nailed it on the Academy Awards broadcast. The tune also earned her a Grammy for best country vocal performance, female.
To top it all off, she recently traveled to Modena, Italy, to duet with Luciano Pavarotti at the tenor's annual hometown benefit concert, and sang backup for her old bud Garth Brooks in Dublin for his "Ireland and Back" concert.
Despite the accolades, Yearwood still doesn't feel like country's grand dame. "In country music today it's amazing that you can sell a million records and you can not have a career after that," says Yearwood, with a nervous quickness that carries barely a trace of her Georgia upbringing. "Lari White, who's a friend of mine, sold a half a million records every time out, and they [RCA] dropped her. So those things are always in the back of my mind." [White has since signed with Lyric Street Records and has a new album out this week.]
"You know, my first album was so successful, I had never even heard of a sophomore jinx until I got asked about it in about 20 interviews," Yearwood recalls. "Then it was like, 'Well, yeah, now I'm paranoid! I was feeling pretty good until now!' So you do feel like you're out to prove yourself, and you're out there trying to walk that line of being true to yourself and your artistry and selling records. But at this point I want radio to play my records; I want to sell records. But I want to sing songs that move me. I just don't worry so much about what they're gonna do like I used to. I've been around long enough that I've just grown up a little bit."
That growth shows up on her latest MCA Records release, "Where Your Road Leads," her first without longtime producer Garth Fundis and, significantly, the first on which she's listed a co-producer. "I just thought, 'Well, what does this mean?'" says Yearwood of her new duties. "It's always been 50-50, with Garth Fundis choosing the songs and musicians and generally working on the record together. And that's what I did here. So I didn't change much, except I voiced my opinions more, because I was working with a new producer (MCA president Tony Brown), and I wanted to make sure he knew how I felt."
The result? "Where Your Road Leads" may well be the most assured record of Yearwood's career, with a rock 'n' roll edge to her sound and earthy moments like the country shuffle "Powerful Thing" and the Stones-like ballad "Bring Me All Your Loving." And of course she still tugs at the emotions with the melancholy "Heart Like a Sad Song" and "Love Wouldn't Lie to Me." Then there's the title track, a duet with the Original G, Garth Brooks, who Yearwood met in their scuffling days when she was singing demos for the rent.
"I'm really happy with it," says Yearwood. "Every song doesn't have to be the most intense, serious subject in the world, and you don't to analyze every song -- OK, is my integrity as an artist intact because I sang a song that didn't have deep meaning to it? I think I lightened up a little bit."
Maybe so, but the intensity of tunes like "Wouldn't Any Woman" ("I've loved you to the limits of my self-respect") indicate that the singer isn't shy of dealing with dicey sexual politics. "I've always liked songs that talk about women being independent, but I also don't think that you need to portray yourself as Superwoman. We're human, and you'll give and give and give, and there's some point where you have to stop giving. It doesn't make you a weak person to bend over backwards to try to make something work, but at some point you've gotta be strong. I like that it said that.
"There are songs on my albums where the woman is going to take on the world, and there are others where she's not. She's kind of wallowing in self-pity. And I think we're that way as people. You may not feel that independent and strong, but you wanna hear a song that makes you feel that way. And if I'm really depressed, I wanna hear music that relates."
Yearwood's confidence has done a full 180 since she was Brooks' stage-shy opening act in 1991. "If you'd told me 10 years ago that I would be in this place, I would've been amazed. But when you wake up every morning doing it, you never feel quite as successful as it might look from the outside. You're always struggling to stay in the game. I think it's probably good to feel that way ... and not feel like, 'Yeah, I'm really famous, and I'm a star and aren't I cool.' It's better to stay true to your art and find quality songs. I think you're always hungry as long as you love music."