When Trisha Yearwood went to meet with Garth Fundis, her friend and former producer, about a new project, she took along a little litmus test in the form of a song demo.
After making “a record and a half” with MCA president Tony Brown as co-producer, Yearwood decided she wanted to be more deliberate about her next release.
“For the first time,” she says in an interview at her manager’s Music Row office, “I knew, in my head, the kind of record I wanted to make before I ever found the first song. It’s usually the other way around.”
By the time she visited Fundis, however, Yearwood had found some songs, and she wanted to get Fundis’ reaction to one in particular. The former producer for Don Williams and Keith Whitley, among others, Fundis worked with Yearwood on her double-platinum, self-titled first album, released in 1991. They remained a team for five more albums, until she enlisted Brown for “How Do I Live,” a Diane Warren song destined for the Con Air soundtrack and for Yearwood’s greatest hits collection, Songbook.
For her meeting with Fundis, Yearwood brought along “Real Live Woman,” left in her mailbox by its writer, Bobbie Cryner. The song would become the title track and first single on her new CD, released March 28.
“When I played it for him, I thought, ’He might think this is too much of a chick song, and he might not get it,’ but he did. It was kinda the test for him, and he passed it.”
Together, Yearwood and Fundis made the record she always wanted to make, she says.
“I felt like, musically, this is just what was in my gut. This was what I wanted to do,” she says of Real Live Woman. “To this day, I’m still playing my [Linda] Ronstadt records. I’m still playing my Emmylou [Harris] records for inspiration. I thought, ’Why not make that record?'”
Fundis, she felt, represented the best choice for a producer to help her make that record. Not only could he help her get the sound she heard, he also brought the right spirit to the project.
“He was so open to suggestions, as far as musicians go. He totally embraced the idea I had in my head about what I wanted to do for this album,” Yearwood explains. “After the first session, I knew there was no point in trying anybody else.”
Only slide guitar specialist Dan Dugmore appears on all 12 tracks on the album. A veteran of Southern California’s country-rock heyday, and a presence on some of Ronstadt’s early albums, he represents a fitting musical foundation for the project. Around Dugmore, Yearwood and Fundis assembled a cast of skilled and musically appropriate players.
“We needed a drummer who was a little more greasy, a little more rough around the edges,” Yearwood recalls, and Greg Morrow got the call.
“We needed an electric guitar player who didn’t have a set way he played things,” she continues, perhaps describing both Dugmore and Kenny Vaughan.
“We needed to put a group of musicians together who weren’t so familiar with each other that it was like clockwork. They had to really listen to each other, and that makes you play better, so it really felt like a band.”
For repertoire, Yearwood went to the catalogs of Bruce Springsteen (“Sad Eyes”) and Ronstadt (“Try Me Again”). Matraca Berg contributed three songs including one co-written with Harlan Howard (“Come Back When It Ain’t Rainin'”) and another in collaboration with ex-NRBQ member Al Anderson (“I’m Still Alive”). The first track, “Where Are You Now,” is co-written by Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Both sing harmony on the track.
“There are songs on here that are obviously personal, and I would say it’s the most honest, vulnerable, personal record I’ve ever made,” Yearwood acknowledges.
In light of her recent divorce from husband Robert Reynolds, bassist for The Mavericks, it would be easy to conclude that songs such as “I Did” (“Did you ever lose your whole world/And still have no regrets/And did you ever tell yourself/You’d do it all again”) or “Where Are You Now” (“Who would have ever thought that/You and me/Would let forever come to/Used to be”) reflect grief and disappointment at the end of their relationship.
But she remains close to Reynolds. The couple went shopping together at Christmas, prompting double takes from clerks who knew they were divorced.
“We have a really strong bond that we will always have,” Yearwood contends. “In a lot of ways, we’re closer now than we were. That happens to people.”
Still, she understands that those who know about her personal circumstances may search the words of the new songs for clues about her emotional and mental state.
“People are going to read every lyric and go, ’Well, this means this’ or ’This is about this.’ It’s not all that way,” she cautions. “I’m not miserably depressed. I don’t have any idea what my future holds, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be at this moment.”
Suddenly single, Yearwood says she is learning to be on her own for the first time and accepting the fact that, as long as her music is her primary focus, it will be hard to be involved with someone else.
“I’ve made an album that is my favorite album I’ve ever made,” she states. “I’m excited about touring it. It’s a challenge to be single — which I’ve never really been, and I’m not really great at — to try and embrace that, to not look for somebody else to make you happy for the moment.”
It’s not as if she’ll have a lot of time to think about her status, with the record coming out. This week, Yearwood appears on The Late Show With David Letterman (March 28), The Rosie O’Donnell Show (March 29), CNN’s Showbiz Today (March 29) and ABC’s Good Morning America (March 31). On April 1 she’ll be featured on Live By Request Starring Trisha Yearwood on cable channel A&E.
She’ll tape a third episode of CBS-TV’s JAG next month playing a recurring role and beginning April 25 in St. Louis, Yearwood undertakes a 40-city theater tour, the Real Live Woman Tour, which continues through June.
“I haven’t played theaters in about three years,” she says. “I felt like that was the way to showcase this album. I’m really looking forward to that. Once we leave, we’re gone. I’m going to be taking a big nap in July.”