Ten Years On, Yearwood Still Has the Touch

Her new album, Inside Out, and her performance in June at Fan Fair suggest that Trisha Yearwood is at the top of her game as an artist — and in a risk-taking mode.

Performing on MCA’s Fan Fair show, this year at Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum, Yearwood invited along backing vocalists Kim Fleming, Bob Bailey and Vicki Hampton. Grounded in the African-American gospel tradition, the Nashville-based trio has sung frequently with Yearwood in the studio but only rarely in concert. They appear on two tracks on Inside Out — Hugh Prestwood’s “Love Let Go” and Irene Kelley’s “Second Chance.”

Yearwood opened her performance with “Love Alone,” the first track on Inside Out. But it was “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain” that left the stadium crowd gasping. After “Perfect Love,” “Believe Me Baby (I Lied),” “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway” (her current Top 20 single), “She’s in Love With the Boy” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Yearwood gave her guest vocalists a chance to stretch out on Keith Whitley’s gospel number.

In a friendly cutting contest, first Hampton, then Fleming, then Bailey took turns rocketing into the vocal stratosphere while Yearwood egged them on. Feeling brave, Yearwood, a superb singer and Country Music Association female vocalist of the year in 1997 and 1998, took a turn herself. “Just remember, I’m blonde. OK?” she joked before getting into her own impressive vocal gymnastics, with encouragement from her talented friends.

Ten years into her career — the June 2 issue of Billboard celebrated her longevity — the Monticello, Ga., native has issued another strong CD, co-produced this time with veteran Mark Wright, making waves lately with his work for Lee Ann Womack. Inside Out follows 2000’s Real Live Woman, a set praised universally by critics for its strong songs and earthy presentation, but not as successful, commercially.

“After Real Live Woman, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to make another record,” Yearwood admits during a morning interview at her manager’s office on Music Row. “I had kinda thought, ’I don’t know what I would do that would satisfy me like that record did.’ The direction I guess, in my mind, when I decided to go back into the studio, was to try to get as far away from that as possible. Musically this isn’t a million miles away, but it’s far enough away that it won’t be compared to it.”

Where Real Live Woman grew from a careful plan, Inside Out emerged out of Yearwood’s willingness to experiment in partnership with Wright.

“It was fun to let Mark do what he did,” she says. “If I needed to rein him in a little bit, I could do that, but at this point in my musical career, I thought, if I want to do something different, I need to let him create, and if it goes too far, I can call it back.”

Wright convinced Yearwood to consider recording “Melancholy Blue,” a devastatingly sad song written by Harlan Howard and Tom Douglas and recorded earlier by another Wright client, Rebecca Lynn Howard (no relation to Harlan). Listening to Howard’s album to learn the song, Yearwood also heard the melancholy-but-hopeful “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners,” written by Rebecca Lynn Howard and Trey Bruce.

“I flipped,” Yearwood says of her reaction to “Corners.” “I must’ve listened to it 20 times in a row … It was very country, and I thought, Mark might think I’m crazy, but I want to sing this.” Her version of the song appears on Inside Out, with harmonies by Vince Gill.

Wright also proposed that Yearwood cover Rosanne Cash’s first No. 1 country hit, “Seven Year Ache,” from 1981. Yearwood rarely has recorded songs closely associated with another artist. She cut Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” as a duet with Aaron Neville for the 1994 album Rhythm Country and Blues, and she contributed her version of The Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” to 1993’s Common Thread: The Songs of The Eagles. But those were exceptions. She was reluctant to try “Seven Year Ache” until Wright suggested they ask Cash to sing on the new recording and Cash agreed.

“We decided not to try to take it in some different direction,” Yearwood says of the recording. “We decided the best way to do it would be to do it like it was done originally, with the ’80s handclaps and everything.”

Photographer Annie Leibovitz played a role in the recording’s final chapter. A friend of Cash’s, she came to Nashville to take pictures for a book and caught up with Cash in the studio, where she was cutting harmony vocals for Yearwood’s “Seven Year Ache.” To accommodate Leibovitz, Yearwood — who had cut her vocal already — joined Cash in the vocal booth.

“I asked Rosanne if she would sing lead and let me sing harmony like I had done in the car everyday on the way to school,” Yearwood relates, “and that was probably the most unforgettable moment of this album for me. I was 16 again. That was when I got the idea to ask her to sing a verse. Hearing her sing it was that [feeling of] ’Oh yeah, people are going to want to hear that, and if she comes in on the last verse it’ll be like, there’s the voice that made it famous.'”

Now, Yearwood has agreed to sing on Cash’s next album, just like she sings on “Deep Blue Heart,” a track from John Mellencamp’s next release, Cuttin’ Heads, due in September. She’ll open for Mellencamp Aug. 6 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver. “He just represents the kind of music that I love — which is roots rock ’n’ roll,” Yearwood recently told Billboard magazine.

Meanwhile, Inside Out, Yearwood’s 11th album overall, is off to a great start. The grandiose ballad “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway,” the first single, is at No. 13 on Billboard’s Country Singles & Tracks chart for Aug. 4, and the video is at No.1 on CMT’s Top 20 Video Countdown for July 25. The album debuted at No. 1 in June and has sold 161,000 copies at press time, according to SoundScan.

Among upcoming dates, Yearwood plays Aug. 11 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, 61 miles from Monticello, and she’ll play the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 7. Her 2001 tour wraps up Oct. 12 at the Crystal Grand Theatre in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

Then she’ll look to other challenges. Still on the docket — a live album, an album of standards, and the long-promised duet outing with her former demo-singing partner, Garth Brooks. A question about the Brooks project draws a laugh.

“I still say that when we did that tour in ’98, that would have been the time to make the album,” she says. “I would do it, I just think matters are complicated now with him living in Oklahoma.

“I probably will sing on [his] new album, because I usually do, but I haven’t been asked to do that yet,” she continues. “I don’t really know what’s up there. I read somewhere that we had cut a duet for that album, but we haven’t.”

And then the Yearwood humor shines through. “My joke, I always tell him, ’We need to try to make this album while I still have my teeth,'” she says, smiling. “At some point, it will be so highly anticipated it’ll be great, or people will just be like, whatever, we don’t care anymore.”