Not since we dropped to our knees and grabbed our chests, upon hearing the soulful growl in Wynonna’s voice when the Judds barrelled onto the country scene in the mid 80’s, has there been anything close to the Jo Dee jolt we are hearing now. Oh yeah, sister, we have dropped to our knees again and even grabbed our chests, but we are also down on our backs with our legs kicking in the air.
The title of this Boston-bred and country-cradled singer’s new album, I’m Alright, couldn’t be any more of an understatement. Much more than simply alright, Messina has proved without a shadow of a doubt that she is scorching, firecracker hot and we are unquestionably loving the heatwave.
Jo Dee is enjoying the coziness of the fire, too.
“The record just went to No. 6! Can you believe it?” screams the flame-flavored redhead after hearing the news that the I’m Alright disc torpedoed into the top 10 of Billboard magazine’s Country Album chart. “And just last week, 23,000 people went out and bought my single – holy tamoly! I know that I’m just lucky and I’m very fortunate and it’s a gift.”
Jo Dee has reason to be so grateful, and not necessarily because her sophomore album is a hot seller and the project’s debut single, “Bye Bye,” has given her her first No. 1 single on country radio. Those factors alone are thrilling enough for a still relatively newcomer, but Jo Dee realizes that the paint on the picture is much more about faith than chart numbers. There was a time when she had neither.
“1997 was a really tough year. It was a year of tears for me, so I call it the ’Year of Tears,'” explains a usually bubbly Jo Dee, but who at this moment speaks very seriously. “I had my heart broken and the rug pulled out from under me so many times. If someone had told me at the beginning of my first album that ’For the next 18 months, you’re going to go through this, this and this, and then you’re going to learn this lesson and that lesson and that this is going to happen to you to teach you that,’ I would have just sat back and said, ’Forget it!’ I would have just said, ’I’ll get a job, maybe waitressing some place or doing computer work somewhere.’ I just wouldn’t have done it.”
Almost two years ago, Jo Dee’s Curb Records’ debut album was finally completed, after the young singer had made her voyage to Music City at the age of 19 — working hard to be at the right place at the right time and doing what she loved most — singing. Right out of the box, her smoldering “Heads Carolina, Tails California” single smacked radio with a punch nobody knew was coming. It was a powerful punch — leaving radio music directors, critics and fans alike totally amazed at this newcomer’s smoky alto vocals and gutsy charisma. Jo Dee rocked, and she rocked big. She followed up with “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore,” another rocked-line belt of country with an alternative twist. The numbers on the charts, however, didn’t follow the path to “Carolina.” Her next two singles, “Want To Make Something Of It” and “You’ve Never Seen Julie Cry,” received even less attention.
“It was like, ’What happened?'” Jo Dee explains of the downhill slide. Afterwards, with the ’no-songs’ on the radio, there were no demands, no bookings and no money. It’s just totally amazing when you don’t have a hit record how little that phone rings. That just broke my heart. But I hadn’t gone out and bought a house or a new car or anything, and I still won’t to this day. But my house I had was on the market and my car was up for sale. Then I eventually realized that I was safe because the Lord provides right to the last. You gotta have faith,” she continues. “Standing here now, I remember that I swore that I couldn’t smile again. But it was like the Lord put a little grin on my face. I don’t mean to be preaching or anything, it’s just what I believe, and that’s that God will bring you right down to your knees and bring you back home.
“And I was not at all arrogant with “Heads Carolina,” she admits. “But I do think that I got caught up in all that to where I had lost my day-to-day conversation and focus on my relationship with God, which is very important to me — it just is. He is the one person that I can truly believe in. He wants nothing else but your love — that’s all He wants. So that’s all very important to me and I lost that, and I was just totally in this phase of ’Where am I going and what am I striving for?’ I had my heart broken in a personal way, business way and in friendship ways. That was all very difficult, but I’m here and I’m able to smile and I’m just lucky to be here.”
The 18-month-long hiatus, however, ultimately resulted in a valuable living and learning experience. Jo Dee not only learned more about who she was and where she was going, but what lay ahead — a second album that would rock both her world and the country world.
“Two weeks into “Bye Bye” there was a “for sale” sign on my car,” she remembers. “Then all of a sudden, my booking agent calls up and he says, ’Jo Dee, we’re slammin’!’ Then it was like, ’Okay, let’s re-group and meet with the accountants again and see what we can do to save what we have.’ And this story is not at all about ’Oh my Gosh, she’s had hard times — let’s feel sorry for her.’ The story is about how the Lord will provide, whether it’s patience, whether it’s strength, whether it’s whatever. It’s something that gets you by.
“It’s all about realizing that there’s happiness outside of having a hit record,” she continues. “Somebody that I stand back and just marvel at is Linda Davis. She’s gorgeous to look at, of course, but on the inside, she’s so beautiful. She’s had so many ups and downs with this label and that label, but it’s still like she constantly stays happy. You just look at someone like her and you have to know that the Lord has something huge waiting for her. She just deserves all the good stuff because she’s such a good person and she gives that love off. When she walks into a room, you just feel it.”
In addition to Jo Dee’s music, with explosive “summer-cruise-feel” vibrations, she, herself, also unveils a personality that sends out nothing less than positive thrills. “I think a natural thing for me is to want to do for people. I’m a do-er. Someone once told me ’You’d give away the farm if you had the farm to give.’ That’s a good thing, but I guess it can be a bad thing, too, because I’ll wear myself out trying to do for other people. But it’s also a natural thing. My mother was that way. She would give me her last 35 cents for my school lunch, and she would go all day without even having coffee. So I think that’s just who I am, and I want people to feel comfortable with me.”
I’m Alright, co-produced by Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, gives us something more than comfortable in country music. The project boasts a superb vocal performance, excellent production and a song selection that bounces from one emotion to the next. For Jo Dee, personally, she is aware of a few bounces in the right direction, too.
“I think there’s definitely a maturity in the lyrics and the songs on this album,” she says. “And you can almost tell that I’m more comfortable behind the microphone on this record than I was the last one. I sometimes have a difficult time in the studio. I make them shut my vocal off. If it bleeds through the headphones, it’s like I can’t sing. You know how it is when you listen to yourself, and you think, ’Oh man, I don’t sound like that.’
“Byron pretty much created me,” she states. “He found me when I was a kid and I’d just moved to Nashville. I was 19 years old and he started working with me. But I think who I am musically has a lot to do with the influences I had when I was a kid. I think there are some things that I nail better than others. But Byron took the time to really focus in on what was my niche. We cut really bluesy stuff, and we were kind of afraid to send that out on a record because this isn’t blues — this is country. We cut real progressive stuff, but he says there’s this certain magic in the more rockin’ stuff. Some of that stuff, I can walk in and nail the first time and that’s it. But there are other songs I have difficulty with and will maybe have to try two or three times. I think that Tim is the same way. The music that I do is kind of the same stuff that Tim does. Tim and I have that in common.”
Jo Dee was a big hit with fans and fellow artists at last year’s Celebrity Softball Challenge
Jo Dee has much in common with the handful of country artists who are reeling in fans from around the world.
“I think I’m country, but I really don’t know how to describe it,” explains Jo Dee. “I don’t know if it really has to do with me, but I think with the Shania Twains, the LeAnn Rimes and whoever, that’s working. With pop music, there’s a real void right now — you’re either listening to hip-hop, AC or rock. But there’s no pop anymore. There’s no Journey. There’s no Rush. There’s no Eagles or Pat Benatar. You just can’t find that anymore. But you’re finding more of it in a country format. So I think that audience is coming to us. Shania Twain is just incredible. I bought her last two records and she is crossing barriers and opening doors. It’s like Garth Brooks — I think he’s going ’Hey, we’re over here in country music!’ So I do think that some of us are kinda rockin’ country.”
Kinda rockin’, kinda country, kinda pop and even kinda bluesy — it’s all very much there in Jo Dee’s music, in addition to some revitalized country gems that are undeniably breathtaking. Featured are Jennifer Warnes’ classic “I Know A Heartache” and the late Dottie West’s spicy “Lesson In Leaving.” Jo Dee revs them both up with her own edgy accent, yet brilliantly leaves them as they are, with respect to their original deliverers.
“We did ’Lesson In Leaving’ as more of a tribute,” she humbly admits. “We did not try to top Dottie or anything, because those shoes are just too big to fill. I wouldn’t even want to try. Tim and I heard that song on (TV’s) The Dottie West Story. Tim was like, ’Man, this sounds like you. You should cut that.’ So we wanted to do it for my first album, but decided no remakes on the first record out. So when we first started making this record, Tim was like ’Let’s do the Dottie West tune.’ I was like ’Yeah!’ So we did it as a tribute to her. She was somebody who lost everything because she gave so much. She helped everyone else out so much that she didn’t always take the time to help herself. Then when it did come time that she had to help herself, she had nothing left. That’s why she lost so much. But she was truly a fighter and people really need to know about her. She touched so many lives while she was here. The whole arrangement of that song is due totally to Tim.”
As an even further extension of Jo Dee’s admiration for Dottie, she opted to perform the song recently when she made her debut appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. “The whole vibe in the room was so totally intense, and it was like my feet weren’t even on the floor,” explains Jo Dee of the Opry stint. “It was just incredible — just incredible. And that’s a country singer’s dream. It’s one of the parts of the huge picture — singing at the Opry. It is the Mother Church of country music and that’s where it all began. So to go back there is an awesome thing.”
Perhaps what is most awesome for this singer — who has already soared to a mountain high, taken a few falls down into the valley, and then takes flight back up to the top — is that her fans know she’s someone with whom they can truly identify.
“I really want people to know that I’m real and that I truly love people. I just do. I’m very grateful for everything that’s happened. I just need for people out there to know that each individual person is very special to me. I try to make them feel that way when I see them. And if they catch me on one of those days when I’m tired, I can only apologize. I usually try not to go out on those days,” she laughs. “Here’s a challenge from Jo Dee Messina. Anyone who has the new album, my way of saying ’thank you’ for your support is you pull the sleeve out of the album, mail it to the fan club address that’s on the back and I will personally sign it and send it back to you.
“I don’t know how to thank people enough. They don’t get it, and I don’t think people understand how truly grateful I am that they’ve bought this record.”