“Streets of Heaven” is well on its way to becoming Sherrié Austin’s streets of gold. The single has already climbed into the Top 20, a first for the Australian-born singer. Better still, this song about a mother entreating God not to take her sick child has renewed Austin’s determination to continue as a recording artist. “The day that I was driving to the writing appointment,” she recalls, “I had decided to quit. I was talking out loud to myself in the car, saying, ‘That’s it! I’m done! Send me some kind of sign. Tell me what you want me to do because I don’t have a clue.’”
Austin made her American recording debut in 1997 on Arista Records, the then-dominant country label whose roster also included Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and Diamond Rio. Despite her glamour and talent and the label’s promotional muscle, Austin never really caught on. She left Arista when it became a part of the RCA Label Group in July 2000. The next year, she released the album Followin’ a Feelin’ on WE Records, an independent label. It yielded one low-charting single, a cover version of Dolly Parton’s doleful “Jolene.” After that, Austin concentrated on songwriting.
With “Streets of Heaven,” which she co-wrote with Academy Award-winner Al Kasha and newcomer Paul Duncan, Austin achieves an emotional gravity that contrasts sharply with her earlier and lighter romantic fare. “This song is a bit of a departure from anything I’ve done before,” she concedes. “I had never really been able to write story songs like this before. My mother especially had been telling me for years that country music is about telling a story. And this one was based on a real experience that our family went through. [Austin's younger brother nearly died from an illness when he was a child.] So it must have left bigger impression on me than I realized. When I got away from the business for a while and spent two years being nothing other than a writer, it allowed me to open up something inside that I hadn’t had a chance to do before. … It was kind of a growth period for me.”
During one of her many flights to California to visit her family, Austin met Steven Bliss, who subsequently became a frequent co-writer. He urged her to branch out. “He said, ‘You know, you should be out here writing with some different people and just try some stuff. … Let’s go [write] with this guy, Al Kasha.’ I had never heard of him. When I walked into his house, he had two Oscars sitting there on his piano. They weigh 11 pounds each. [I know] because I picked them up and tried them out.”
Kasha earned his Oscars for “The Morning After,” the theme for The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and “We May Never Love Like This Again,” for The Towering Inferno (1974), both of which he co-wrote with Joel Hirschhorn. Among the other country artists who’ve recorded his songs are Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Charlie Rich, Lacy J. Dalton, Floyd Cramer, Gary Morris and Johnny Rodriguez.
“Co-writing is very interesting,” Austin says, “because it’s very hard to remember afterwards who did what. It’s a big mess. But the song was really the most effortless one I’ve ever written. It was a title Al had. His original title was ‘The Streets of Heaven Must Be Crowded Tonight.’ So we flipped it to ‘It must be kind of crowded on the streets of heaven.’ I remember saying that this reminded me a lot of an experience my family went through. So it was very easy to write it from that perspective. We wrote about half the lyrics, and then I got a bunch of the lyrics going on a walk one day, where the whole ‘Jesus/you lost a son once too’ [verse] fell out and hit me. It was spooky. It was like someone whispered it in my ear. Then we wrote the melody after all the lyrics were done.”
They completed the song about a year ago, and Austin ultimately decided to build an album around it, using some of the material she had written earlier. The upshot is Streets of Heaven, the album, released in August on Broken Bow/C4 Records.
“I didn’t realize during those two years of writing that I was even making another record,” she says. “I was just writing to get a lot of stuff off my chest. But the moment that song was written, I knew I had my first single. It was just a feeling like I’d never had before. It was such a strong instinct that when I called my manager I said I’d only sign the record deal if this is the first single.” Her label is donating 25 cents for each album sold to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
In the meantime, “Streets of Heaven” continues to broaden and shore up Austin’s fan base. “I’ve had amazing e-mails, and amazing experiences happen when I’ve sung the song,” she asserts. “A crowd in Cincinnati sang every word with me. It just overwhelmed me. I’ve never had anything like that happen on stage before. And then, of course, I’ve got a drawer full of pictures of children. Parents come up and give me pictures all the time of children that are sick and children that they’ve lost. So I feel like I’m part of a very large family now.”