We have an awesome interview for you all today. And, I need to thank my friend, and former boss, Mark A. Stevens, for sharing this with our readers here at Country’s Chatter. This also gives me an opportunity to tell you all how this website came to be, and where it got its name. During part of my 31 years as an employee of The Erwin Record, a newspaper in Northeast Tennessee, I worked for Mark, when he served as publisher. Mark thought it would be nice if each of his employees had a blog. Since my nickname is ‘Country’ and my passion is country music – it only seemed fitting that my blog be my chatter … Country’s Chatter. Since my first post back in February, 2008, that blog has turned into a full-blown website, with an average readership of a quarter of a million readers per month. When you read this awesome interview Mark did with Sylvia, you will know right away what a privilege it was for me to work with one of the best.
By Mark A. Stevens
It was such a pleasure to interview Sylvia. I’ve been a fan since her first album, Drifter. She’s remained one of my favorite singers. She was just as you’d imagine: sweet, funny and polite. I’m writing some stories from this interview for newspapers in Tennessee and South Carolina, but I wanted to share the majority of the interview as a Q&A with my friend, Donna Rea and everyone at Country’s Chatter.
I hope you will check out Sylvia’s new album. You can order the album via her website, www.sylviamusic.com.
Sylvia called me, and her first things she said to me was, “Mark, it’s Sylvia. Am I calling too early?” She was supposed to call at 3 p.m. I think she may have rung me up at 2:59, but that was A-OK with me. We had been given about 20 minutes to speak, and we ran over quite a bit. I apologized when I realized we had reached 40 minutes, but Sylvia assured me that it was fine. She was really very sweet, as I knew she would be.
So here’s the Q&A:
Sylvia, when I look back on your career from 1979 and throughout much of the 1980s, I get exhausted just trying to imagine how you kept up. You had 18 Top 40 hits, 11 of those in the Top 10, two hit No. 2 and two hit No. 1. An extraordinary run! What was it like?
“It was wonderful and whirlwind, at the same time. I guess you could say it was a beautiful whirlwind. I had worked on Music Row for four years before I got my record deal, and that’s a pretty calm life comparatively. So it was quite the shift from going from a 9-to-5 job, basically, to just feeling like I was working around the clock. But everything I had ever dreamed of was coming true, so it was great. Not much sleep, but other than that, it was great. For the first couple of years, I was pretty much sleep deprived and was trying to adjust to that new pace. Especially when I got the bus in the beginning of 1983, it was a lot easier to be on the road over 200 days a year. The first couple of years, I was going by car, airplane and boat, or every conveyance possible, it felt like. But the bus was great, because I had my own room, I could sleep at night, and this bus moving down the highway, I felt like I was being rocked in a cradle to sleep, which was wonderful compared to sleeping on airport floors and all the things you do when these things start happening for you. The first couple of years were really taxing. But, you know, I was in my early 20s. I was 21 or something when I signed with RCA, and at that age you had tons of energy and your dreams are coming true, and it just feels magical.”
As I’ve mentioned before, I was lucky enough to see you live twice, both times at the Appalachian Fair in Gray, Tennessee, I’m guessing it was 1982 and 1983. First, I’m curious if you remember those performances or is it all just one big blur?
“I have a vague memory of it, honestly. I think in 1981, I worked 323 dates that year with a different band most every night. I started working out with house bands before I put my own band together, finally in early 1983, when we struck out on the bus with my own band. That’s when I finally had my own band. It’s a little bit of a blur when you wake up in a different town almost every day.”
I remember you toppled off the stage when you were reaching out to fans on the front row. You laughed it off and hopped back up on stage. You didn’t miss a beat. Does that ring a bell?
“Oh, yes! I remember that well! There were bushes along the front of the stage that were cut the same height as the stage, so when you have a spotlight in your eye, well. I think I was singing ‘Snapshot’, and I remember that I just kept singing and got back up on stage and didn’t miss a beat.”
It must be hard to even remember where you’ve performed. Is that right?
“I have performed in every state in the Union, except Hawaii. I’ve been to Hawaii, but I didn’t do a show there.”
So let’s get to your new album. How did you come to the decision to go back to the past?
“Well, I continue to record and do concert dates, and I’m not as visible probably in people’s minds because I’m not on a major label. But as I’ve performed the songs over these decades, and the songs have evolved and so have I. I’ve lived a lot of life, and as my voice teacher said, everything in your life is your voice and shows up in your voice whether you know it or now. So I have a lot of life experience in my voice now, and I became intrigued with bringing that music into today’s sensibilities and how I like to record now. In the ’80s, it was a fun decade, but there was a highly synthesized sound with a lot of ’80s recordings, including my own, and even definitely some disco era influences. But I became intrigued with bringing those songs forward into today in the voice that I have now with all that life experience and give them a chance to bloom for a second time.”
You must be pleased with the album. It’s a beautiful album.
“I’m very pleased. My friend, John Mock, who I co-produced the record with, this is the fifth record that we’ve made together. We really looked back at every song that I had released as a single and considered which songs really suited the kind of instrumentation that I use today and which songs really still resonant with me and having a meaning to me and felt important to keep alive. And those were the 10 songs that really came to the surface and felt like they needed a second bloom.”
All of the songs on the album were hit singles except the final track, “You Can’t Go Back Home.” Why did you chose to conclude the album with it?
“Right. It was on the ‘Just Sylvia’ album. I was so disappointed in the ’80s that it was not released as a single, because I just feel like it was a wonderful, well-written, meaningful song. At this point in my life, at age 61, it’s a blessing that I get to sing that song with the life experience I have under my belt. It has deeper meaning now than it even did when was in my 20s. So I think it worked out great to put it on this record, because I believe that everything is right on time.”
Was it difficult to, as you put it, to “reimagine” these classic songs?
“It was a really nice challenge, because John and I were clear and we talked a lot of about it. We were real clear that we didn’t want to do anything crazy with the songs. We’ve all heard re-recordings of songs and we go, ‘What did they do to the song? It was so much better before!’ I didn’t want that to happen, and I knew if I was happy with the way it was re-recorded, in today’s voice, then I was just going to trust that others would like it, too. I wanted to honor the soul of the songs as it was originally recorded. Like if there was a signature lick in the song, if it was originally done with a synthesizer, we might do want to do it with an electric guitar or something that’s resonant with today. So it was a challenge from that standpoint, from just trusting your gut to say, ‘Is this what it needs?’ If you really listen to the song, to the lyrics, of how the music creates emotion. What needs to happen with it, recordingwise, it just evolves and becomes clear. And that’s exactly what happened. I’m a big believer in just listening to the songs themselves What needs to happen just evolves and becomes clear. Does it need banjos? Does it need mandolins? The songs told us exactly what they needed. It was fun and inspiring and never a struggle. There was no struggle whatsoever in making this record. It was fun. John and I were both so surprised that how much fun and inspiring it was.”
Life experience, you’ve said, gave you a new feel for some of the songs. Tell me more about that.
“I’m a real stickler about the way I approach any song, whether it’s a new song or a song I’ve performed for years, I want to sit down with it and speak the lyrics, I want to understand why I resonate with it, what images come to mind. I want to know what sensibility is there in how to tell the story. As a singer, I’m a storyteller. You want to know what perspective you’re coming out singing the song. When I originally recorded Tumbleweed as an early 20-something, I was feeling frustrated and feeling, ‘Why doesn’t this guy settle down and stop drifting around? I love this guy, and he wants to wander off.’ So there was some frustration how I originally interpreted the song, but, at the point, I was more feeling like I resonated with this guy who’s balancing his need for freedom and for his love for another person. I had sense that he loved her but that he valued freedom, so I felt a kinship with him now. That’s just a small example, a subtle thing, but I think you can listen to the song now and hear that I’m not upset with the guy, I feel sad about it but I also understand where he’s coming from. And, isn’t that interesting? Because in our early years, we are all about how does this effect me? How can this person do this to me? But as we mature, you gain the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to see how it might feel for them.”
Around 1987, RCA seemed to be moving in a different direction and a lot of country artists, including you, seemed to get left behind, despite the immense success you’d had. What was going on? And did it hurt you?
“I wasn’t alone, I think even Dolly Parton was one. It was a shock. I was so naive. I just always assumed I’d be recording with a major label. That was my dream from when I was a toddler. Music was my life, and this is where I would alway be. I look back and chuckle at my naiveté, but, oh, it was a shock, as I’m sure it was for Dolly and everyone else that got dropped. It was a big shift in the music industry at the time. But that’s just how life goes. Life is about change, and I understand a whole lot better now but I was definitely thrown off balance for a little while by it.”
You started off your career the wonderful Drifter album, a real country-western album if there ever was one. To me, it’s very visual. I see the tumbleweeds, the cowboys, the matador, etc. There were five singles from the album, which was quite extraordinary, the most from any of your albums. You knocked it out of the park from the get-go.
“It’s really interesting. That first record, I was still working as a secretary until the middle of 1980, so when Tumbleweed came out, I was still working on Music Row at a music publishing company, making less than minimum wage. And I had had success. ‘Tumbleweed’ was the third single. That record was truly of a reflection of the culture at the time. ‘Urban Cowboy’ had hit. The writers of the song, they had gone to see the ‘Urban Cowboy’ movie, and ‘Drifter’ was a reflection of the culture at the time. Without trying to do it, they really hit on the pulse of the culture, musically, in fashion. It was a great moment.”
And then there’s ‘Just Sylvia,’ which is as close to perfect of an album as you can get. It’s such a tour de force from beginning to end. You’ve got the singles – Sweet Yesterday, Nobody and Like Nothing Ever Happened. But then such outstanding album tracks like Mirage, Not Tonight, You’re a Legend In Your Own Mind, The Mill Song, they weren’t even singles but they’ll all extraordinary songs. It also had that same feel as the Drifter album, but it also moving toward a more traditional country feel. The Mill Song I think touched a lot of people where I grew up, where a lot of people worked in the textile mills.
“When one of the reasons I resonated with that song is that my mother worked in a shirt factory for a number of years, and we moved back up to Kokomo, Indiana, where I’m from, and they both worked for General Motors. They were factory workers, and I so resonated with what that song said.”
You’re famous for “story songs,” which I guess is a form of the traditional ballad. One of the best is the beautiful conclusion to your new album, “You Can’t Go Back Home,” which was always a favorite of mine. It wasn’t a single. Why did it make the re-imagining?
“I love the idea of anyone calling me a storyteller. That’s how I see myself – as a singer, as a a storyteller. I think that’s very different from a lot of singers that I hear today. That’s very different from a lot of singers that I hear today,” she said. “I don’t know if I would say they’re storytellers, maybe celebrities that have amazing voices and can do a lot of things with those voices. I really love that, and I watch ‘The Voice’ and all those shows, but I feel like there’s almost a dying breed of singers and artists and storytellers – in the public eye, at least. There are a lot of us, independently recording, and making great records and singing great story songs, but it doesn’t seem to be what is relevant on country radio today. I miss that. When you hear songs like Tammy Wynette’s ‘Apartment #9’ or ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’ or Patsy Cline’s songs of heartbreak, that’s what inspired me to be a singer, and I’m not hearing a lot in the mainstream today. But now that will probably change, because everything does. From my own selfish reasons, I miss the great story songs. Those songs help us learn about our own life’s journey.”
While you changed some instruments on your songs and tweaked arrangements, am I right that the only one that got a slight lyrical change was “You Can’t Go Back Home”? You changed the cost of a movie ticket from $3.50 to $10.50. Tell me about it.
“When we picked the song, I knew that had to be updated before we got in the studio, because I lived with it and worked with it to see if wanted to put it on the record. It dated the song, and I even tried different amounts. I even Googled what were average ticket prices today, and it ranged, of course, but it seemed that 10 was the right amount and it sang well. But I changed the lyrics on another song, too.”
Which one? I didn’t catch it!
It’s the second line in ‘I Love You By Heart.’ I changed it, because I never really felt that that line was one I felt comfortable singing. The original is, let me get this right, is: ‘You’ve got this way of going right to my head/ Boy, I’ve been hungry, but I’ve never been fed.” Well, I changed it to: ‘You’ve got this way of going right to my head/ I think I love you, but it’s never been said.’ That other line never felt right to me, and I just took the liberty of changing the song and suited the song and where I am in my life better.”
So what’s next for you?
“My plans are to tour. Now, that’s easier said than done. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a full tour. Every year, I do several shows and sometime benefits, but to really mount a full blown tour, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve done that. But I hope the record will generate enough interest and excitement and reviving interest in the music that I can have a second bloom in the concert venues, too. That’s my dream that we can do that too. To help accommodate that, we are releasing ‘Nobody’ to secondary radio again next month.”
There’s something I’ve wondered about over the years. When and how did the decision come to be made that you would simply go by Sylvia?
“That’s a very simple answer, really. My maiden name was Kirby, and RCA did not like it. They thought it sounded too pedestrian or like a vacuum cleaner. So I knew the next thing they were going to do for me was make up a last name for me, and I just quickly, off the top of my head, with no forethought whatsoever, just spoke up and said, ‘What about just using my first name? There aren’t any other Sylvias in country music.’ And there was this moment of silence, and we were in this big meeting at RCA. And then the head guy said, ‘OK.’ And that was all the discussion. It just happened in an instant. And I’m so glad it did, because I didn’t want to have a name that wasn’t mine, so it worked out great.”
How on earth did you, at 20 or 21, have the confidence to that in that room full of music executives?
“I’ll tell you why I had the confidence. It’s because a theme in my life is authenticity. I cannot have any phoniness or fakery about me. I’m who I am, and I just knew I couldn’t have abided going by a name that wasn’t mine.”
Before we wrap it up, I want to tell you a couple of stories. My seventh-grade teacher. Mr. Treadway, saw you at the Appalachian Fair, too. He waited after the show and got your autograph on a photo. He proudly hung that in the front of the classroom.
“Oh, that’s so sweet.”
My father, who passed away in 2014, loved your music. I even talked about it as part of his eulogy. He introduced me to your music. He loved Drifter, the Matador, Whip-poor-will, all your songs, really. Those are great memories for me, and I want to personally thank you.
“I’m so glad you had that bond with your father and that he introduced you to my music. That really touches my heart.”
Thank you again for talking to me.
“Thank you, Mark. It’s been a pleasure.”
(Mark A. Stevens has served as editor and publisher at newspapers in Tennessee, Louisiana and South Carolina. He is now president of MAS Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.)https://www.countryschatter.com/2018/06/interview-time-to-get-reacquainted-with-sylvia/InterviewNew Releases"Drifter","Second Bloom",appalachian fair,Mark A. Stevens,MAS Communications,Sylvia