Clare Bowen can’t help but crack up laughing while recalling her first Nashville performance because what Zac Brown Band did for her at the time is the stuff of dreams.
It was during CMA Fest 2012, and Bowen had only been in town a few days to start her new job playing Scarlett O’Connor on the popular drama, Nashville. ZBB was headlining an after-party at the Hard Rock Café on Lower Broadway downtown. Since they shared the same management, she was asked if she’d like to join the band onstage.
There was only one problem: the only song she was confident singing lead on was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
“It was so funny,” Bowen tells CMT.com. “The band asked, ’Do you know a country song to sing?’ And I said, ’Well it’s gotta be something upbeat, and I don’t know too many of those. But do you know ’Johnny B. Goode?’ And the whole band laughed their heads off in the nicest way. They were like, ’Yeah, we know ’Johnny B. Goode.’ And they swung into it.
Brown and Bowen at Nashville’s 2013 Southern Ground Food & Music Festival
“I was looking at the microphone that was making my voice so loud, and I’m thinking, ’I didn’t know I could make that noise,’ and all of a sudden I got lost in it. The band was incredible. The whole Hard Rock Cafe was packed and dancing. I thought, ’Dang. I just got people to swing dance.’ It’s like my pathetic superpower. I can make people swing at the drop of the hat.”
Bowen has established herself as one of the most consistent entertainers to come out of the series. Right after the production on Nashville wrapped, she headlined her first tour as a solo act in Germany. Throughout the series, she was a regular on the Nashville package tours that worked the UK and trekked North America annually. She was also a support act for a Sugarland tour and Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground music festivals.
Since Bowen spent most of her Nashville life playing someone else, it’s time followers get to know the artist she is, and the result is her 11-song eponymous debut produced by Josh Kauffman. Her vocal performance throughout is high and lonesome, exhibiting the angelic tones of a burgeoning Alison Krauss. “Thinking Out Loud” hit-maker, Amy Wadge; “Humble and Kind” songwriter, Lori McKenna; Zac Brown Band hit-maker, Wyatt Durrette; Taylor Swift hit-maker, Nathan Chapman; and guitarist, Buddy Miller, were some of her collaborators.
“I took five-and-a-half years to write because it was done between filming, touring and everything that came with the show Nashville,” she says. “I’ve gotten so much lovely outside encouragement from people. When I came to town, I got to basically learn how to be in a recording studio with people like T Bone Burnett and Buddy [Miller], which was a massive privilege because I got to meet a lot of people through them, and that was huge.
“When I met my husband, Brandon [Robert Young], one of the first things he did for me when we first met; because I became friends with him before we started courting; he said, ’I’ll introduce you to some of the best people in Nashville.’ That’s how I met Justin Halpern, who co-wrote ’Warrior,’ which has become somewhat of an iconic track on the album for people across the world.”
Bowen says “Warrior” is the album’s cornerstone since it started as a tribute to the pediatric patients she connected with in the hospital during her childhood battle with nephroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that starts in the kidneys.
“I came up in the hospital where most of them didn’t get to grow up,” Bowen says. “I was very lucky that I made it out because my treatment was so severe in depths. That’s the kind of ward I was in: it was the last hope ward, which is why I have such an affinity for St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital]. I realized through writing the album that I had never really written a song about those people who I was on the ward with, and who were my family. I watched people suffer things and see things that no person should ever have to see happen with their child.
“As we wrote, I started to realize that ’Warrior’ pertains to everybody,” she adds. “We’re all human. Everybody has scars, whether it’s in your mind, your heart, your body, or your soul. I wanted people to know that whatever your scars are, sometimes scars are not things that we can see with our eyes.”
Bowen adds there was no way to foresee Nashville’s impact on her life when she first auditioned for Scarlett. “I knew that Nashville was a really special place, but I didn’t know exactly how special it was and then how special it would become for me. This is where I found my home. It’s where I found the love of my life. It’s where I’ve gotten to tell the first part of my story in song.
“There was sort of a funny moment when I first got here because when I came to America, I sold everything I owned. I bought a one-way ticket to the US on a wing and a prayer knowing that I had to give it everything.
“When they showed the Nashville trailer at the then LP Field, I was standing there onstage, I said hello to Kenny Rogers and his wife, who were on the sidestage, and I was like, ’What have I gotten myself into?’ The trailer was playing the background, and my head is 20-feet-high, which is ridiculous, and the whole place was packed, and all the people were screaming for us. And I’m thinking, ’None of these people know that I have like $18 in my bank account. Do they?'”
Bowen is on tour through August. She returns to the Grand Ole Opry July 12.