(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I have nothing but unabashed admiration for Shania Twain after reading her raw account of her life and how she saved and raised her siblings and herself and escaped a childhood of poverty and abuse, to go on to become a megastar.
Her new autobiography From This Moment On is a very frank and graphic account of her life and her early upbringing in Canada, her career and her personal life.
Her childhood was a bleak and stark horrorshow of deprivation and the seamy side of life. Her parents’ marriage was basically one long fight. Do you want one stark description of one of her experiences as a 7-year-old? Here is one:
“Charlotte’s father was still in his bathrobe, watching TV in the bedroom. He called us in and invited us to jump on the bed, which we were eager to do. As we jumped up and down, giggling, his bathrobe opened to reveal an ugly, dangling organ surrounded by a ghastly bush of hair. The man made no effort whatsoever to cover himself; he just lay there coolly, clearly aware that he was intentionally exposing himself to a couple of little girls, one of whom happened to be his own daughter.”
That was not an unusual event in young Shania’s rough raising. She regularly sang in bars and strip joints at an early age and was exposed to sights that young children were usually protected from. She tells that she first had sex at age 15.
It’s extraordinary to see the resilience in Twain. Despite a rough life, lifelong voice problems, seemingly endless financial problems throughout her childhood and young adulthood, struggles with severe stage fright and bitter betrayal by her husband and her best friend, she has rebounded remarkably to make a new life for herself.
After her parents were killed in a wreck, the Twain estate was sued by the insurance companies involved for damages when police determined that her father was responsible for the accident. It was up to the young Shania to clean up that whole mess. And then to find a way to provide for herself and her siblings. She found a job singing in a cabaret act, titled “Viva Vegas,” at a golf resort. And she moved her family to a house without running water. Shania did the laundry by hand in a river and hauled buckets of water back to the house for cooking and washing. The family survived.
It was at that golf resort that she was discovered. A friend acting as her manager persuaded a Nashville music attorney to come and hear her onstage. Her big number was “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The attorney took a demo tape back to Nashville, and it got to Mercury Records, which signed her.
Once she got a record advance and moved to an apartment in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, she got her first credit card, tasted cornbread for the first time and learned to chew tobacco.
She wanted to record as a pop artist, but Mercury was a country label, so she was now country. Mercury also insisted she change her first name from Eileen to something more acceptable. She picked the name “Shania,” from a wardrobe mistress she had worked with at the golf resort. She embarked on a crash course of watching CMT to figure out what country music was then sounding and looking like.
Mercury sent her on the road as part of “Triple Play,” a tour featuring Twain and fellow newcomers Toby Keith and John Brannen. Her first recordings were not successful. Then she met the successful rock producer Mutt Lange. He had her first CD and wrote to Nashville asking her to autograph a picture for him. Then he started calling her on the phone, and she sang the songs she was writing to him. Then he came to Nashville’s Fan Fair in 1993 and they met. They started working together, and she was able to persuade Mercury to let him produce her second album, which became the enormously-successful The Woman in Me.
Eventually, they fell in love and married and bore a son, Eja. Fourteen years into the marriage, Lange betrayed her.
His affair was with Twain’s good friend Marie-Anne Thiebaud, who was their secretary. Twain had been noticing that Lange was acting distant, so she asked Marie-Anne if it were possible that he was having an affair. Impossible, said Marie-Anne. Eventually, Marie-Anne’s husband Frederic told Twain of the affair. She was devastated.
She wrote, in part, in one letter to Marie-Anne, “Please leave us in peace! Please, I’m begging you. I am so low, so broken-hearted I can’t take it anymore. I wish you love and happiness, but I am dying, and I can’t take it anymore. This is killing me. I loved him so much and I can’t cope anymore….”
This is obviously a book of catharsis. She decided to open up and share what she has gone through and the result is extraordinary. Eventually, she and Frederic fell in love and married in January of this year. By her account, she and Frederic and Eja are enjoying a happy life together.