The Wilkinsons underwent a major professional growth spurt in the 20 months between the release of Nothing But Love, their first CD, and the debut of their new work, Here and Now, out this week.
Having scored success with singles such as “26¢” and “Fly (The Angel Song),” the family trio from Trenton, Ontario — dad Steve, 44, daughter Amanda, 18, and son Tyler, 15 — felt more confident about asserting themselves in the studio this time around.
“The first one, we were very green,” admits Amanda during a recent interview, as the sun streams into windows at the offices of the group’s management company.
“We were a little more courageous this time about putting forth our ideas,” adds Steve, quickly picking up the thread of his daughter’s thought.
“Not as hesitant about saying, ’Hey, what if this would work?'” Amanda shoots back.
This is the way a conversation with the Wilkinsons goes. Talking with the close-knit family can feel like watching a tennis match. The observer’s head snaps to and fro as comments zing back and forth between all three.
The Wilkinsons have been Nashville residents since September 1997. Steve, a former carpenter, came south initially to pursue a career as a songwriter. He brought the family with him (including mom, Chris, and younger sister, Kiaya, 10), and right away they so impressed Vince Gill that he offered to have the trio join him in an impromptu performance on the Grand Ole Opry.
Like the Wilkinsons first album, Here and Now is produced by the tag team of Giant Records chief Doug Johnson, Russ Zavitson and Tony Haselden. They must have heard their share of the Wilkinsons’ rapid-fire exchanges, especially once the trio felt less timid about putting forth their own ideas.
Not everyone agreed, for instance, that “Don’t Look at Me Like That,” a tune featuring ’60s-style sitar, a lush pop arrangement and an R&B-inspired groove, belonged on the album. “I loved that song,” Steve recalls. “(The producers) were really good about it. They said, ’We don’t see it like you do, but if you’re this passionate about it, then there’s got to be something there.'”
The song stayed.
A vocal part in the third verse of “Hypothetically,” sonically altered to sound as if it’s coming from a vintage AM radio, owes its presence to a suggestion from Tyler. And the tuba used throughout the song? That was Steve’s idea.
“It just fit the song really well,” Amanda says. “We all sort of put our heads together and tried new things. The cool thing is, it’s one of those albums, when you’re hearing it, you could listen to it once and go, ’Oh, that was cool.’ When you hear it again, you go, ’What was that?’ It keeps people interested.”
The first single from Here and Now, “Jimmy’s Got a Girlfriend,” stalled at No. 34 on Billboard’s country singles chart, though the video spent several weeks in CMT’s Hotshot rotation. Still, the song has earned new fans for Tyler, who handled lead vocals on that tune and four others from the new album. Almost 16 (his birthday is April 29), Tyler’s voice deepened as he moved to the adult side of puberty.
“It generally made sense for Tyler to sing more this time,” says Amanda, an outstanding vocalist herself, who yielded some of her own vocal duties to accommodate her little brother. “The first album, we were sort of in the position where he was having difficulty hitting the notes he needed to hit and going through that funky period. Now, it’s like he’s come into his own.”
He’s come into his own both as a singer and as a babe magnet, to hear Steve tell it. When the group toured Canada this winter, as “Jimmy” was heating up, the response to Steve’s spoken introduction of the song was always the same.
“Every 13 to 17 year old girl in the audience rushed the stage,” Steve says.
For Tyler, it was a surprise. “I look in the mirror, and I’m like every normal kid out there,” Tyler reasons. “I don’t see anything special. It’s kinda weird — flattering, but weird.”
The avalanche of awards and award nominations that came their way in the wake of their early success also must have felt flattering but weird. Last year, The Wilkinsons were nominated by Country Music Association voters for Horizon Award and Vocal Group of the Year and by Academy of Country Music voters for Single of the Year and Top Vocal Duo or Group. They won five Canadian Country Music Association awards including Single of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Group or Duo of the Year and the Wrangler Rising Star Award.
Aside from the awards, however, Steve feels that sharing a career with Amanda and Tyler has afforded him another great benefit. “I get to spend every day with my kids,” he says. “Some dads fight for an extra hour a week to spend with their families. I’ve told these guys, privately, that I like them as people. Sometimes parents don’t get to know their kids enough to say that they like them.”
Steve also gets to observe, firsthand, the little crushes and infatuations each kid has felt — the “Jimmy’s Got a Girlfriend” moments — while growing toward maturity. So far, they both say, they’ve had no time for a serious relationship. To sing songs about longing and heartache such as “One of Us Is in Love” or “Shame on Me,” for instance, they have to reach into some other emotional place, and they do.
“Any singer can sing a song,” Amanda asserts, “but if they don’t put their frame of mind in that person and be that person, then I don’t think anybody’ll believe what they’re saying. We worked really hard on trying to capture that.”
Papa Steve sings lead on the final track, “The Only Rose,” which celebrates the uniqueness of a “little red-headed girl” who feels self-conscious about her nose and her freckles. “In a field that’s full of daisies/You’re the only rose,” goes the final line of the chorus.
Steve collaborated on the song with Steve Wariner, who adds harmony vocals to the track. They wrote “The Only Rose” in the days following last spring’s school shootings in Colorado.
“When we got together, there were tears in his eyes talking about it,” Steve recalls. “He said, ’Why don’t we write something today where we celebrate the differences in our children.’ We picked that little girl with the red hair, who stands out from the crowd, who would be easy to pick on in school, and we celebrated that child. Difference needs to be appreciated.”
Steve wrote six of the 11 songs on Here and Now. Whether any of them can duplicate the success of “26¢” is of little concern to him, he says. “I don’t think I’ve written my best song yet,” he feels. “I don’t think we’ve recorded our best song yet. If you ever figure that, boy, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
“I was raised with a very strong work ethic, and I’ve tried to raise Amanda and Tyler that way. What you do, you grab onto it with both hands. We’ve done that and continue to do it with writing and performing and recording.”