Quirky and undeniably talented, Kristin Chenoweth is adored for her roles on Broadway and television. It’s a long way from the rodeos and churches where she sang as a child in Oklahoma. Yet, even with a built-in fan base, she admits being nervous about releasing her first country album.
“I think it’s OK to admit when you’re frightened or scared of something. It’s the unknown,” she says. “And also, I didn’t want it to seem arrogant of me, like, ’Now I’m doing country! Move ov-ahh!’ Because I know who’s come before me, and I respect it. But I wanted to try.”
When Chenoweth landed a record deal with Sony Masterworks nine years ago, she requested the option for a “country-flavored” album to be written into the contract. And after her memorable spot as April Rhodes, singing “Last Name” on Glee, her friend Diane Warren reminded her about the option and emphasized to her that the timing was finally right.
During a recent visit to CMT, the vivacious entertainer chatted about the music on her new album, Some Lessons Learned, along with her earliest musical memories, her summer job at Opryland theme park and her first sweet encounter with Reba McEntire.
CMT: Many times on the album, you take a love-gone-wrong song and have fun with it, like “I Want Somebody (To Bitch About).” What’s the best part about doing a song like that?
Chenoweth: I think because of where I’m at in my life. You know, I was born — but not yesterday. (giggles) Hopefully, through those fun songs of movin’ on and being OK with it, you can hear the experience. And also [hear] what you’re looking for, like in “I Want Somebody (To Bitch About),” because that’s what we all want really.
There’s a lot of action in “Wreck You” — and desire. What were you hoping to capture when you recorded it?
That is the surprise hit! That and “Fathers and Daughters.” People love those two songs. You know, people who know of me think of me as this happy, perky, never-down person. And you know, I’ve had my moments. I’ve done some hurting, and I’ve been hurt. The song is a very … I hate to use the word “sensual,” but it’s what all of us want in a mate. We want to make them crazy. We want to make their head spin around. Just to be honest, we want to make them hot. We want to feel that. That’s the way we’re created as beings, and that’s what we want. We want to feel that, and we want to give it. And that’s what that song is about.
Do you feel like a stage character when you sing some of these dramatic songs, or do you bring your own personality to it — or both?
I tell you, it’s so fun to feel free from a character. The character is me, which is the real me. It can be a little daunting to put something so personal on there because, again, that’s not how I’m known. I co-wrote a song called “Mine to Love” about being in love with someone you can’t have — or shouldn’t have. There are a lot of people in this world that can relate to that. To put something like that out there, people are going to guess, “Oh, who’s that about?!” It’s personal! That’s what’s so great about being a recording artist. You get to speak!
How did you learn about country music? Or has it always been part of your world?
It’s always been a part of my world. I grew up in Broken Arrow, Okla., so largely the musical influences I had were country music. My great-uncle Moss did bluegrass, and the earliest memories I have are sitting on his knee and seeing him play bluegrass. He didn’t have a great voice, but he could sing. He could cut a rug. He really could. And he could play.
I grew up in a household listening to country. Probably my earliest remembrance I have is Patsy Cline. I remember my uncle saying, “Do you hear that cry? That wail in her voice?” And I knew what he meant. Obviously, Dolly [Parton] is an idol of mine. Trisha Yearwood, Chely Wright, Faith Hill. Those are the ones.
I thought maybe you’d say Reba, too, with the Oklahoma connection.
I don’t know how I left her out! Of course, Reba, she’s like No. 1. I worked at Opryland [theme park] in 1988 in one of the shows, and I was asked by one of the guys who ran Opryland if I would like to give candy out at this party at Opryland Hotel. And he said, “Reba may be there.” I said, “Well, I’m there.” He said, “I can’t promise it.” I said, “I don’t care. I’ll be there.”
So I showed up, and I walked around with a little tray of candy. I remember that I looked at her and she took a piece and she said, “Thank you so much!” In my mind, we had met, we went to school together, we were best friends. … So when I got to meet and spend time with her later in life, it meant a lot to me that she was so encouraging. She’s been a person of encouragement and a kind-hearted person. I think there must be something in the water in Oklahoma.
What kind of show were you doing at Opryland?
When I was at OSU during my freshman year, Opryland came to our school. We had a lot of talent at Oklahoma State University, and they came to audition. And I got in — me and another kid — and it was all the scoop. I was going to go, no matter what. I got accepted into a show called Way Out West. I did “Buttons and Bows,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and a song from The Music Man, of all things, “Will I Ever Tell You.” I did it with a quartet, and then I danced my face off. And I never wanted to leave.
How long did you stay?
Three months during the summer. My parents were like, “We’re going to get you back for your sophomore year,” and I was like, “No, I’m going to stay here and work at Opryland for the rest of my life.” They said, “No, you’re going back to college.” And I said, “No!” We had a big fight about it. I’m glad I went back to school though.
Between those early days and now, so much has changed, but what has remained the same?
I get emotional when I think about it. … I think the best gift you can give your kids is self-esteem. And to not be afraid to try, even if you fall on your face. And I’ve fallen on my face. And this [country album] is another risk. But it’s one worth taking when it’s a part of who you are.