Before working on her brand new album, Circus Girl, Sherrié Austin thought she had retired from making records. Her biggest hit, “Streets of Heaven,” climbed to No. 18 at country radio in 2003, but the momentum faded quickly. That single capped six years of only moderate musical success. In frustration, she relocated to New York City and met the man who would change her life — her best friend, Shane Stevens, a gay musician and songwriter who divides his time between Los Angeles, Nashville and New York City.
Starting Friday (Nov. 18), they’re sharing their unique bond on the Sundance Channel reality series, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. The show was filmed on location in Nashville.
Although they’ve both released new solo projects, Austin and Stevens are finding success as songwriters, too. Austin’s credits include Tim McGraw and Faith Hill‘s “Shotgun Rider,” Blake Shelton‘s “Startin’ Fires” and George Strait‘s “Where Have I Been All My Life.” Meanwhile, Stevens co-wrote Lady Antebellum‘s No. 1 hit, “American Honey.” As performers, they’re making the yuletide gay with a kitschy Christmas tune, “Naughty or Nice,” the final track on Circus Girl.
While driving around Nashville in Stevens’ car, the cut-ups calledCMT.com to chat about their new music, their friendship and the reasons why they signed on for the TV show.
CMT: Sherrié, at what point did you decide it was time to make a new record.
Austin: (laughs) That’s a good question. I don’t think I realized I was making a new record, per se. I started out to do a singer-songwriter CD that I could pitch and get cuts. Then it kind of just grew. I started to get a lot of Facebook messages from people asking when I was putting the record out. My bestie here, sitting next to me in the car, Shane Stevens has been …
Stevens: Forcing her. … For months and years!
Austin: … trying to get me back into the studio, and I said, “No, I don’t do that anymore. I write songs for everybody else.” I kind of didn’t know I was making a record, which is probably good. Because if I think about things too much, that’s usually where I mess up. I’m doing the “build it and they will come” plan. I made this record and co-produced it, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. I’m very proud of this one.
Shane, what was your response when you heard Lady Antebellum’s version of “American Honey”?
Stevens: A full-on freak-out. Their producer, Paul Worley, played it for us in the studio. When we pitched it to them, it was basically a work tape. It was a drum loop with [the songwriters] Hillary Lindsey, Cary Barlowe and I singing together. Charles [Kelley] was the first to hear it, and he freaked out. They really did an amazing job cutting that song. It was life-changing. And we all knew in the moment that we heard it, it was going to be life-changing. That song changed my life forever.
In your eyes, what is that song about? Why do you think it resonated with people?
Stevens: It’s about getting back to a simpler time in life. When you were a kid and the worries weren’t so heavy — that’s what we wanted to capture. That’s what “American Honey” is about. We wrote it in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Hillary, Cary and I go away several times a year and write together. We were having a glass of wine, and Cary suggested we get some whiskey and make a hot toddy out of it. So he picked up this bottle of American Honey. We were sitting on the couch by the fire. It was snowing, and one of us looked over at the bottle and said, “Wow, that would be a great song title. Let’s compare that to a simple life and a girl who wants to get back to it.”
Can you tell us more about how you became friends?
Austin: Well, I had gone to New York for my wild and crazy “lost year,” as I call it. I left Nashville after making my last record. I was burned out, and I wanted to do something different and reinvent myself and go where nobody knew me that well. I wanted to experiment with a whole new culture. So I went there to do a Broadway show for a year or so. And I did some performances in the New York Theatre Festival and made some really good friends. That’s where I met Shane, through a mutual friend over lunch, and we fell in love.
Stevens: We completely fell in love, and we’ve been in love ever since. That was seven years ago. … The other night, we were saying, “Who knew that we would randomly meet in New York City and that this is where we’d be?” But this is exactly what God wanted us to do.
What made you want to do the TV series?
Austin: It’s interesting because I turned it down a couple of times. I wanted to be sure how this subject matter was going to be treated because we do live in the South. I’ve been singing country music for 15 years here in Nashville, and one of my best friends is gay. And it was important to me that if we did this, we could show it in a positive, honest light.
Stevens: Hopefully, we’ll shed some different light on some really important issues. And save some children’s lives. Kids who have been bullied are a big part of my heart and Sherrié’s heart. It really does get better. It may not look like it now, but it does.
Austin: I loved the message of the show, too. I have a gay uncle, and one of my mom’s best friends is gay. It’s in the DNA, as I always say. And I felt like it was time for this subject to be talked about a little more. Shane and I are all about loosening up the buckle of the Bible Belt. It is controversial, but I feel like at this point in my life, I want to be able to say something about this subject matter and start a conversation about it because it’s still very taboo. … I also thought it would be a lot of fun for Shane and I to do this together. And we want to make the world just a little more fabulous. (laughs)