"I have a real problem with being honest... I can't not be! I was raised
in a very connected community,
where everyone was approachable and friendly. Everyone was honest -- so I
have a difficult time with
things that aren't real. That's just the way I was raised, and it's who I
When it came time to record I'm Alright, Jo Dee Messina's already
platinum sophomore album, she had a
lot of ground to cover. With her breakthrough "Heads Carolina, Tails
California" and follow-up Top 5
smash "We're Not In Kansas Anymore," the copper-haired firebrand soared
into the role of next superstar;
but the dissolution of her management company and other circumstances
conspired to undermine the
ground she'd gained and Messina eventually found herself teetering on the
brink of bankruptcy.
"It's all life -- and you can't take anything for granted," Messina says
philosophically. "All you can do is
keep working, keep believing and be grateful that you can use those
trials to put back into the music."
Working closely with her good friends and co-producers Byron Gallimore
and Tim McGraw, Messina
spent nearly two years seeking out songs that reflected her will to live
and thrive, to be true to oneself --
and the faith and commitment required to see one's dreams through.
"These songs are very survival-oriented," says the two-time CMA Award
nominee and winner of the
Horizon Award in 1999, addressing the ten songs on I'm Alright.
"As I sing 'em and as people hear 'em, it's
a strength thing that you hear in my music. When I hear these songs, they
actually change my mood --
when I'm down, I listen to 'I'm Alright' and the energy just lifts me up,
then the lyric carries me along.
"To me, the songs have to say something I can relate to or would actually
say. I have to be able to represent
it and I have to be able to feel it. Otherwise, I'm not doing myself or
the song any justice."
Messina knows what she speaks of. Her energy, passion and joy for living
infuse songs she sings with a
power and an infectiousness that's undeniable. When people hear her
full-throttle commitment to the music
she makes, they can't help but respond. As a result she's spent over 10%
of the past year sitting at #1 on the
charts with I'm Alright's first two singles: two weeks with "Bye,
Bye," then three weeks with "I'm Alright."
And those two chart-toppers are merely the surface of an album that's
both complex and comforting.
Whether it's the resigned heartbreak - into - action - into - healing of
Messina's own "No Time For Tears,"
or freewheeling on Grammy-winner Marc Cohn's paean to automotive nirvana
"Silver Thunderbird" or the
hushed real life commentary of "Even God Must Get The Blues," Messina
weaves the conversational
intimacy normally reserved for old friends.
"Hey, I like people," she laughs. "My character is to give... It's not
about being a success in the music
business, it's about doing for others and giving of one's self. When I'm
out there and people say my songs
touch them, help them, maybe change their life, that's why I do it! It
gives the music a purpose and me a
reason for doing this.
"My Mom's the same way. So you could say I get it from her."
Raised largely by a single mother in Holliston, Massachusetts, Messina
learned early about working hard as
a means to making one's way in the world. When she was 12, Messina
discovered country music --
Alabama, the Judds, Janie Fricke, Deborah Allen, Reba -- through some
kids at school and her course was
"I've always been a very passionate emotional person," she concedes, "and
that's what country music was. I
could relate a lot better to 'Leavin' On Your Mind' than I could to 'Hit
Me With Your Best Shot,' because it
was more about how people live their lives.
"To me, that's what it's about; getting out there and living life."
Once music resonated inside Messina, there was no looking back. She put
together a band as a teenager and
began playing around. Ever the aggressive businesswoman, she tackled all
the support duties: booking,
managing, publicizing, everything except driving to the gigs, something
even the most industrious 14-yearold
When she graduated from high school, Nashville was a foregone conclusion.
Messina struck out for Music
City, knowing no one and determined to make her mark on country music.
Like so many hopefuls, initial
success was elusive, so Messina took to looking for breaks and picking up
money singing in the various
talent contests that draw the aspiring and the delusional.
"I was hanging out at the Pink Elephant, where they had these talent
contests where you could win money -
- and I needed money," Messina recalls fondly. "So, I won the Grand Prize
and part of the deal was getting
to sing on this live radio show broadcast from Kentucky."
"I went up there and did pretty well, so they made me a regular. I was
singing on the show one night, when
they told me I had a phone call. This guy says he's a producer and he
wants to get together. It's December
19th and I'm going home the next day, because I'd missed Christmas with
my family the year before and it
about killed me, so I really wasn't in the mood for the runaround again."
"I was thinking, 'Oh, great, now I gotta go meet with this guy!' He
starts in with 'You got a little Dolly in
your voice, and a little Reba.' He's running down all his plans: make a
demo, shop it to a couple labels,
maybe do a showcase. Finally, I said, 'Hey! That's great... but I don't
have any money,' figuring that would
be the end of it, because it's always about that."
"He looked at me like I was nuts! He said, 'I don't want your money...'
and we went down in the basement
of this publishing company he was with and actually put some stuff on
That producer was Byron Gallimore, who was also developing a young
maverick named Tim McGraw.
Though Jo Dee was the first one Gallimore got signed, her initial
recording de-railed during a management
shift at the label.
"Just about every label in Nashville offered us a deal," Messina
recounts, "but by the time my deal fell
apart, they'd all signed women and the slot was full."
While Messina struggled to recover her equilibrium, McGraw's star took
off. At the height of his initial
explosion, Messina went to Fan Fair as her dear friend's guest -- and met
Curb A&R exec Phil Gernhard
backstage. "I was thinking y'all need a redhead on your label," she
The folks at Curb agreed. Before long, Messina was in the studio with
Gallimore and McGraw coproducing
her debut album. It came out of the chute hotter than Georgia asphalt --
and a star was seemingly
Though circumstances conspired against her, a few things remained
constant. Not only was Messina's love
of music an anchoring passion, her sense of self maintained her during
the dark months that lay between the
end of supporting Jo Dee Messina and the release of "Bye, Bye."
"I lived in the same house my whole life, so I'm very strong-rooted,"
Messina explains. "I grew up in a
small town where everyone knows everyone, so you never lose sight of who
or where you are. It was very
hard to leave that when I came to Nashville, but then you realize growing
up like that, you always remain
Knowing who you are, what you want, what's important can ground a person
in the stormiest waters. For Jo
Dee Messina, it allowed her to wait until she found the songs she
believed in -- and offered her the
confidence to stay true to her heart.
"I think these songs are very basic," Messina says with a knowing smile.
"I look for the simplest songs in a
lot of ways, because it's the simplest things that people relate to. And
music is, ultimately, about
From the sweepingly resolved ballad "Stand Beside Me," with its
realization that relationships are about
respect to the hushed vulnerability of "Because You Love Me" to a feisty
romp through Dottie West's
signature song, "Lesson In Leavin'," Messina brings a sparkle and a
strength to songs that offer women a
realistic path through the world.
"I never know if a song is a hit," she acknowledges, "all I know is if I
love it. When I heard 'Bye, Bye,' that
song hit me. It is the same when I write. I don't know if the song 'No
Time For Tears' is a hit. But it has a
groove and melody that was in my head that I had to sit down and write."
"That song was exactly what I was feeling. And that's what I like songs
to do, hone in on my heart and go
"Look at 'Even God Must Get The Blues.' Because I went two years between
records, I got to try a lot of
songs out on the road, and people would come up to me and say, 'I need
that song. You have to record it.'
There aren't very many ballads that rip my heart out and lay it right
there in front of me... But I figure if
you're gonna do a ballad, it better be one that goes that distance."
When Jo Dee starts talking about her music, her already strong verbal
skills kick into overdrive. Every song
is important every influence integral. She has a strong commitment not
only to her records, but to the
people she makes them for.
"Look at Dottie West. Tim and I both saw the TV movie of her life and he
thought 'Lesson In Leavin' was a
perfect fit. But to me, she was just untouchable, because how do you fill
those shoes? I figured I couldn't
copy it, but rather do a tribute -- after all, what better tribute than
to someone who was such a survivor?
Someone who gave so much to others?"
"And that's how we attacked it."
Surviving is a pretty bottom-line thing for Messina. But her strength,
grace and laughter makes even the
rudimentary things soar. And when she wraps her voice -- all raw emotion,
funky promise and a hint of
cayenne and honey -- around direct statements of real life, she can't
help but connect.
I'm Alright, indeed. For Jo Dee Messina, alright would be a bad day.
No, for the Boston-bred redhead, most
days are diamonds that sparkle in the sun and lift us up to a happier
place. Just listen to the resilience, the
spring, the easy-come, easy-go spirit that infuses her songs and feel the
cares melt away.
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