Laura Bell, who made a splash on Broadway in productions including 'Hairspray' and 'Legally Blonde,' releases her debut country album on Mercury Records this week. It's cleverly titled 'Achin' and Shakin',' as the project has two sides: one of achin' ballads and another of shakin' uptempos. The CD's first single, 'Giddy On Up' (from the 'Shakin' side, of course), has catapulted the Kentucky native to instant country stardom, with more than a million online streams in just one month and digital sales of more than 50,000. The song also landed her a coveted performance slot on this weekend's ACM Awards, along with two CMT Award nominations for its video.
Laura Bell invited The Boot to spend a sunny March day with her in her new hometown of Nashville. Our cameras tagged along as she made the media rounds to CMT, GAC and several radio stations ... along with a quick breather at legendary honky tonk, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where we stopped to talk about the new album and her flourishing new career.
How'd you come up with the idea for a double-sided album?
I started to write a lot of ballads that were sultry and had a Norah Jones-for-country kind of feel. I wanted to bring elements of old soul music and old country music. They were all kind of sexy ... and kind of sad. But then I would write these uptempos that were sassy or witty and had a better sense of humor. They all still had an old school vibe; all of the songs do. But people here had heard both sides that I was writing and had been suggesting, "Well what if you did two different albums?" And I said, "Well what if we do half and half? Like an old record?" So you would listen to side A and then flip it over and listen to the B side, like an LP. So it ended up that we got a 'Shakin'' side and 'Achin'' side, with two completely different producers.
Your first single is arguably your most important single ... so you're off to a great start! Are you having to pinch yourself at the rapid success of 'Giddy On Up'?
I am trying so hard to live in the moment and enjoy it while it's happening, because it feels like a moving freight train that I just got on and I'm trying not to look back and get dizzy! I'm trying to stay focused on the moment and appreciate it. It's hard work because once that happens, you have all this stuff you have to do to make it continue to happen, to keep the freight train going. But I feel really blessed to first of all have the opportunity to do music, and second of all to have it be going well.
You've done a great job on this album of merging traditional country with a modern sound. Is that important to you -- to keep it country but also keep it fresh?
Totally. I was actually just trying to create music that I like. I have an affinity for the more throwback sound, old soul music. I had the opportunity to put the two together and have them produced in a modern way, and to me that's like the ultimate. I love the sound of horns, I love gospel singers, I love bluegrass music and picking, I love guitar picking and fiddle. I also like that country recitation. So putting all of the elements together, it's just representative of my taste. And on a lyric side, it's representative of my sense of humor and also my dark and deeper side, as well.
Have you heard any vocal comparisons that you thought were either dead-on or dead wrong?
I hear Dolly Parton a lot for 'Giddy On Up.' And someone told me that 'Cigarette' sounded like Barbara Mandrell, I guess because of the smokiness. I've heard Tammy Wynette, I've heard older Loretta Lynn, I've heard nobody that had great success after I was born. Except for Barbara Mandrell, and the reason I know that is my mom was watching the Barbara Mandrell TV special when I was born, so that's a cool comparison. My mom was always talking about watching her, [imitating her mom] "You were just layin' right there and I was watchin' Barbara Mandrell, and now you're doin' country music!" Hilarious. So yeah, all my influences were at the height of their success prior to my birth and around my birth.
You'd make Barbara proud. She told us not long ago that she wishes more acts would bring choreography back to country shows, and your live show is all about that.
What I ultimately want to do is entertain people. So I agree with Barbara. There is something that has been lost in country music -- the entertainment, the dramatic side, the Grand Ole Opry, 'Hee-Haw' ... You don't really see 360 degrees of entertainment -- make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wanna dance. That's what what attracted me to country music as a young child, and that's what I want to offer. So in my show, there's gonna be emotional moments, there's gonna be dancing, there's gonna be some pranks ... and I'm gonna be clogging a little bit! It'll be different every night, because any time I do any kind of show -- even if it's a Broadway show, it's different. I try to challenge myself every show.
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You may be new to country, but you're a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran. How do you think coming into this as an already-established celebrity is going to help your music career versus how it might hurt you?
Having a fan base from 'Legally Blonde' ... they tend to be pretty loyal. They've been very supportive so far. I don't feel like my music has turned them off if they were a Broadway fan. And if people know me, they know I've played different characters and sang in many different kinds of styles. Broadway is not genre-specific. People think that all Broadway sounds like 'The Sound of Music' and 'Chicago.' It doesn't. It's pop rock, it's country, it's opera, it's all over the place, so you have to be able to sing all of it. Your typical country fan wouldn't know that about Broadway, they may not know that I'm originally from Kentucky, that I started doing country music prior to doing my first Broadway show. I have to earn their confidence and respect, and they have to realize that I'm actually pretty authentic.
A great way to earn respect in this town is to write your own music, which you do. Which of your co-writes on the album is your "baby" ... the one you're most proud of?
I had written a song with Nathan Chapman called 'When It All Goes South.' We looked at each other and he was like, "I think this is my favorite song I've ever written," and I was like, "This might be mine, too!" And he's like, "Do you want to get together to write next week?" And then we wrote, 'Cigarette,' which then became my favorite. I love that there's a clever punch line. It's kinda sad, like "I should've left my lipstick on a cigarette" ... it's a song about regret. Instead of kissing you and getting involved with you, I should've smoked a cigarette, because quite honestly that was healthier for me than you. It has a real strong country vibe.
Are you rooting for 'Cigarette' to be a single?
It probably won't be. Most of the time when I get an album, my favorite song on it is never the single, it's always some other song that never became a single.
You've done a ton of media today. What's the silliest question you've been asked in an interview?
You know what I always get which drives me crazy? Britney Spears was my understudy in a show called 'Ruthless' when I was little. And people ask me, "Did you know that she was going to shave her head?" I'm like, "No! She was ten! I was ten! We were little kids!" I get so frustrated when people ask me that, like they want to get dirt on a 10-year-old Britney Spears. That is the most irritating question I get asked, so please stop asking that! ... Now I do have dirt on some other people, but you'll never know!
Buy 'Achin' and Shakin''
Video shot by Brian Kaplan and edited by Tristan Waldroop.