Interview: Trisha Yearwood Looks Back on 30 Years in Country Music, the ’90s ‘Golden Age’ + Shares What’s Next in Her Career
After signing her first record deal, Trisha Yearwood found success as an artist right away: Her debut single, the now-classic "She's in Love With the Boy," went to No. 1 on the country charts — the first of five chart-toppers for Yearwood — and the three other singles from her self-titled debut album, itself a No. 2 record on the country albums chart, all went Top 10.
If not for her time as a record label receptionist, though, Yearwood may never have gotten there. That gig, with the now-defunct MTM Records — one of several that Yearwood held in the country music industry before her artist career began — was the kick in the pants she needed: The Monticello, Ga., native realized then and there, she shared during a recent Zoom interview, that she'd better start being aggressive about her career goals.
Clearly, she had the fight inside her. Thirty years later, Yearwood is not only known as one of the leading women of '90s country, but she's also built a food-focused empire: She's released three cookbooks (with a fourth due out in September), and her Food Network cooking show, Trisha's Southern Kitchen, has been on the air since 2012.
For nearly 16 years now, Yearwood has also been one-half of one of country music's most famous married couples. She wed Garth Brooks in 2005, though they go back much, much further than that. Brooks, a member of country music's "Class of '89," was one of Yearwood's earliest supporters, industry friends and tour bosses, and has, time and again, been among her many duet partners since even before they were married.
In 2021, Yearwood is celebrating her 30th career anniversary with a deluxe edition of her newest album, 2019's Every Girl. The title track of the project — Yearwood's first of new music since 2007 — peaked just outside the Top 20, though radio success was never her goal with the record, she admits.
This interview with Yearwood touches on the wisdom she took from the experience of releasing Every Girl, as well as what she'll do next, musically speaking. First, though, we had to go back to the beginning:
You worked in various capacities in the music industry before starting your career as an artist: You interned and worked at MTM Records, you sang demos and did background vocals, and you were a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum tour guide. How do you feel like those experiences prepared you for your career versus your courses at Belmont University?
I think, honestly, the biggest thing I learned from those jobs was, I was not aggressive ... everybody in Nashville, everybody at Belmont, everybody's like, "I'm a really good singer. Here's my demo tape" — you know, they're there because they're trying to get heard, and you have to do that to get heard. I was not that girl.
I think that I just had this thought that it'll happen if it's supposed to happen, but it can't happen if no one hears you, right? So I think my jobs — especially the job at the record label, as a receptionist, watching people come in and out and doing what I wanted to be doing every day — I realized if I didn't tell somebody what I wanted to do, if I didn't get proactive and a little more aggressive, I would get to answer the phone for the rest of my life.
And so, I think the thing that those jobs [taught me] — because they were in the music industry, but I wasn't getting to be a recording artist — they were the jobs that were the catalyst that kind of lit the fire under me to be like, 'You need to get out there; you need to tell people this is what you want to do.'
Martina McBride and I recently talked about how, despite the 1990s being considered a "golden age" for country music, and specifically for women in the genre, she felt as though she had to fight to be heard every time she released music. Her career path is a little different from yours, though — you found success on country radio right from the start — so I'm curious if you felt the same way?
Because my first single went to No. 1, it was a really great kind of baptism by fire — but the opposite pressure then is to not be a trivia question, you know? The first single goes No. 1, [but] there's the chance that you'll never have another No. 1, and then that's it. So there was a reverse pressure ...
I know I'm married to a guy who, it's almost like whatever [he] put out during that time was gonna get played, but I never felt like it wasn't a fight. I never felt like because "She's in Love With the Boy" was No. 1, the next single was automatically going to get played. And I agree with Martina in that, even though there were a lot of women being played, there was still the conversation about "Well, you're only going to play one woman to every four men on the radio" and "A woman's not really going to headline. Okay, okay, Reba [McEntire] — all right, Reba did it." And Reba really paved the way for us as women to sell tickets to their own shows, headline their own tours, but it was never [a given].
Yeah, when you look back with nostalgia. It's like, "Oh, man, women were just [everywhere]" — and there were a lot more of us. And that's changing again — there are a lot more women on the radio now than there were just a few years ago. But, yeah, the battle is constant; it's always a battle.
But what I learned from Reba was, you don't go, "Oh, well, poor me, I'm a girl in this industry." You just work. And Reba is the queen of, like, you just work, and you just work twice as hard, and that's just what you do.
"I don't love being 56 years old in a lot of ways, but one thing I do like about it and have enjoyed is that this next generation of female artists, who I've become friends with ... They've got things that are easier, and they got things that are way harder, and I think that it's nice to feel like we have each other's backs."
It's frustrating to hear that, but it's also a really good reminder that there's always a generation of role models before you: What Reba was to you, you are to Lauren Alaina, for example. That's, in a way, encouraging.
Yeah, and I think what's cool, too, is that there's an assumption, or a stereotype, that women don't get along with each other and that there's always this jealousy and this kind of catfight situation happening, and I have found completely the opposite. I have found that the women who I would consider mentors — women like Reba, Emmylou Harris — have been nothing but friends and kind to me ...
I don't love being 56 years old in a lot of ways [laughs], but one thing I do like about it and have enjoyed is that this next generation of female artists, who I've become friends with, they grew up on my music, they grew up on the '90s, and it's hard for them in a different way. They've got things that are easier, and they got things that are way harder, and I think that it's nice to feel like we have each other's backs ...
There's a women's club that is great, and the love and the care and the friendship, the camaraderie, is there, and it's an honor to feel like you're getting to kind of pass what I got from Emmylou and Reba, pay it forward. And I think these girls will do the same; I think they'll pay it forward to the next generation.
Going back to the idea of the '90s as that "golden age": Did it feel like that when you were in it or, like you were saying, does it feel more like nostalgia at work?
I mean, it was amazing. Because, for me, I'd been wanting to be a singer and on the radio since I was five years old, so this was my dream since I was a little kid, so to pack your bag and be on the bus at midnight and go all over the country, and then all over the world, and sing — are you kidding me? [Laughs]
And the '90s was such a great resurgence of country music. It's when SoundScan came to be, it's when Garth ... he really did kind of take country music to a huge audience, and it was country music — he didn't change his music to be something different. He had a crazy show, but the music was country. So it was a good time to be an artist, and there were a lot of us, and so for me, it's wrapped up in — I mean, I did more shows in a year than I've ever done in my life. You're gone, so, you know, [my] personal life suffered, my dog suffered, but the experience that you've dreamed your whole life for ... Those are the best memories that I'll have for a lifetime.
It's very sweet how intertwined your career and Garth's career are, really dating back to the start of them both. Is there a piece of wisdom from him that you can trace back to those early days that you still keep with you?
There's a lot of things. People ask me all the time about why our marriage is successful, and I always say because we were married to other people and we were friends for a long time, we were friends — we were buddies — and you'll tell your friends stuff that you would never tell a guy you're dating, right? So we knew everything about each other that you would never tell somebody that you wanted to really impress [laughs], so we had this strong base friendship that I think a lot of couples don't get because — and I was guilty of that, too — you go straight into a romance with somebody, and a few years down the line, you're like, "I don't like this guy. What was I thinking?"
And early on, outside of romance and outside of marriage, knowing Garth as an entertainer and knowing him before he became famous, that was also a nice thing: to watch a friend succeed and be really successful, and to watch how he didn't change. You know, I knew him before his first album came out, so I got to watch that success and see him become just a bigger, more famous version of himself. And it was really valuable to me as an opening act for him in '91 to watch ... the way he treated the crew, the way he took care of his band, the way he talked to everybody that wanted to interview him, the way he signed autographs after a show. It was Entertaining 101, and it was also a lesson in how to stay true to who you are, how to stay grounded, and that was valuable to me, and that served me so well, because I'm not sure how I would have turned out.
I'm not sure if I wouldn't have been like, "Yeah, it's okay for you to carry all my bags," but Garth is like, "You carry your own bag. You pull your own weight." I'm like, "Yeah, okay, but what if I have a No. 1 record?" He's like, "You carry your own bag." [Laughs] So I get it now.
"Touring with Garth in 1991 was Entertaining 101, and it was also a lesson in how to stay true to who you are, how to stay grounded, and that was valuable to me, and that served me so well, because I'm not sure how I would have turned out."
You two collaborate often, and you've done quite a few collaborations throughout your career. What makes you want to keep doing them?
I love the sound of different voices together. I come from the school of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and most of Ronstadt's harmonies were — she didn't do a lot of duets until the Aaron Neville period, but most of her harmonies were male, and so I always loved that sound of the male voices with the females.
And so, for me, the collaborations always — It was never, "Hey, I'd like to do a duet with Don Henley," it was more, we cut "Walkaway Joe," and then sitting in the studio and listening back, you're like, "It needs to have a really distinctive voice on it. Wouldn't it be cool if Don Henley would do this?" And lo and behold, he did. So it's always been about what the song kind of calls for.
Outside of that, other collaborations — like, singing with Aaron Neville was like that. Oh my gosh, that was a project that we got asked to do together, but to get to sing with that voice was just incredible.
There's something called a buzz, and sometimes voices don't really gel together and sometimes they do. I feel like Garth, our voices really buzz together really well, so it's always fun to be in the studio with him because we just have this unspoken kind of thing that happens when we record together, and you look for that.
So, I love it because I just love the sound of those voices together. I always [wondered], "What would it be like to sing with Vince Gill? What would it sound like to sing with George Jones?" And I've been lucky to get to do those things.
When you originally released the single "Every Girl in This Town" in 2019, it was your highest country chart debut, and it seemed as though people were really interested in hearing new music from you. How did that influence your recording plans going forward?
I don't ever want to wait as long as I did for Every Girl because what I learned was, I need to make music to be complete — like, it feeds my soul in a way that I just hadn't done in a long time. So, I definitely want to, sooner than later, start to work on a new record. Because it always happens that I'll just hear a song and be like, "Oh, okay, I have to record this, and now I gotta figure it out, I got to find more songs."
It's funny: The Every Girl album, I distinctly remember going into Garth Fundis, my longtime producer, and saying, "I just want to enjoy myself. I haven't made a record in a long time. I want to have fun. I don't want to be worried about — I don't think I'm gonna get played on the radio, so I don't want to worry about that. I just want to find songs that I love." And, honestly, it was the most fun to just listen to songs; I was pleasantly surprised at the song choices, what was out there, and I love this record.
And then, when people started to hear the record — like, industry insiders, friends of mine — then came the, "Oh my gosh, we have to send this to radio," and I'm like, "But do we? Because are they gonna play it?" And then we did, and we got a great response up front, and then the struggle began — it was just a hard road — and then the pandemic happened.
So I think: Yes. The short answer is yes, I'm always gonna make music. The long answer is whether or not it gets played on the radio to the extent that I want it to can't be a factor for me, because [I don't want that to] dilute the quality of the music for me. It's like, I've got to feel good about it and let it do what it's going to do ... So, yeah, as long as I have a voice, I'm going to use it.
"The short answer is yes, I'm always gonna make music ... So, yeah, as long as I have a voice, I'm going to use it."
How do you balance that desire for radio airplay with the idea that if you're happy making the music, the airplay shouldn't matter?
Yeah, it's tough, because there's a lot of pushback on older artists wanting to still be current. And if you can be, if the songs are there — if they're not there, cool, but if the song is there, let people decide, you know? Play it enough.
This goes back to the female thing: It's like, "Okay, well, you're going to play the song, and you're going to research it, but you're going to play it twice at three o'clock in the morning" [laughs]. So the 10 people that heard it liked it. But you don't have enough time for me to talk about what I think about all that ...
It's a struggle between wanting to — it's almost like getting to a place in life where you're like, "Okay, I'm never going to be a size two — I'm fine with that." You have to get to a place in your life where you have to appreciate what you have and try not to control the things you don't really have control over. But as an artist ... you don't want to say your time is over.
A lot of people who make those decisions ... I just wish they would let the vast majority of the public decide, because I also live with a guy who, I watch the fight at radio and if a song goes to No. 1, it's been a real fight. And it's Garth Brooks, and the music is great, and, by the way, 60,000 people want to come see him perform, so the guy's still got the goods ... So when I watch that, it makes me a little bit more apprehensive [and makes me want to] go, "I just don't think I want to fight that hard."
I want to make music I love, I want to try to get it out there, and then I have to be okay with what happens.
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