As a star of stage, television and film, Kristin Chenoweth may be best known for her work in Wicked, Glee, Pushing Daisies and The West Wing. Yet the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, native with the soaring soprano also has a deep and longstanding connection with country music and some of its most beloved stars.
In promotion of her new album, For the Girls, Chenoweth visited CMT to discuss her country influences, including legends like Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, and Dolly Parton.
CMT: Being from Oklahoma, I am curious — every time you come back down South, does it feel a little bit like you’re coming home?
Chenoweth: It always does. I was here in 1988 at Opryland when I was 19. I was a singer and dancer, back when we had Opryland. And I wanted to stay. My dad said, “You have to go get your degree, you have to finish.” I was like, “No, I’m good.” He said, “No, you have to go.” He put me in the car, literally. Came up here, and took me away and made me finish.
But you know what that summer did? That was the training that allowed me to cross a lot of different lanes, musically. I feel like the lanes are widening a little bit more and especially in country music. I feel like I might want to go meet a realtor after we’re done here with our interview. I know y’all don’t want us to all move here. I know. But I don’t take-up much space, so there’s that!
Your new album, For the Girls pays tribute to some female musical heroes of yours. What was the inspiration for putting together this collection of songs?
After the last record, which was Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, all the great standards, I wanted to do something different but I didn’t know what. So I wrote down a bunch of songs that I always wanted to sing. I whittled it down from like 300 songs to like 50. Steve Tyrell, my producer, goes “You need to continue to whittle.”
So we whittled it and whittled it, and I saw that it was a list of unique singers that I’m celebrating here. There’s only one of them. When you listen to Barbra, you know it’s her. When you listen to Judy, you know it’s her. Eva Cassidy, you know it’s her. When it’s Dolly, you know it’s her. When it’s Linda, you know it’s her. I wanted to tip my hat to all of them, and also do my version.
You’ve always said Dolly Parton is one of your biggest inspirations and now you’re getting to work with her on “I Will Always Love You.” I mean, not just singing with her, but singing on her most famous song!
I still can’t believe it. It’s like, did it happen?!
I heard it, it happened!
[laughter] OK, just checking! Making sure I’m not in a dream. I suggested [singing] “Here you come again, looking better than a body has a right to…” I always loved her singing that song and she said, “If I’m going to sing with you, I want to do one that I wrote.” I thought, “She’s not going to give me ‘I Will Always Love You,’ no way.” And she did. It was her suggestion. … I sort of did my thing, and she did her thing — which I think she did some really cool different things on her own song, after all these years.
You know, when I heard it I cried. I videoed her, I sent her me crying. Because I was in Atlanta shooting a movie, BAWLING. People are like, “Are you OK?” I’m like, [imitates crying], “You can’t know yet. I can’t talk about it!” She sent me a video back and she said “I can’t tell if you’re crying ‘cause you love it or hate it.” I said, “I love it girl! What, are you nuts?!” Anyway, I still can’t believe that happened.
Was it one of those pinch-me moments? If you could tell your 10-year-old self that you were going to be singing on this song with Dolly one day, would you have believed it?
Never would have believed it. When I was little, a kind of famous musician in Oklahoma told me, “You’re like a little Dolly Parton.” So that’s one of the first musical influences I had. We wore her records out. So if you had told me that, I would have said, “No, that’s not true.”
But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know the answer. Just like she bet on herself when she wrote that song and left her mentor. She bet on herself. I thought, “You know Kris, this album, these are basically covers of people that I love more than anything. Bet on yourself. Just bet on yourself.” So I learned a lesson early from her.
The album also includes a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Was this one especially daunting because hers is so timeless?
It was the hardest one. Speaking truth. Because I said, “I can do a good imitation of Patsy,” and I can. There are times when I can do her to a “T.” So I started doing that with “Crazy” and Steve Tyrell said, “Stop it right now. Stop it right now if you’re going to imitate. Because that’s not what this album is.” And I said, “I can’t do it any other way.” Her phrasing is perfect, every note is a money not, and it’s all a cry. I can’t do it any other way.
He made me stop listening to her. I cut the song [from the list]. I said, “I’m not doing it.” First of all, I don’t want country music to, like, kill me. Secondly, I can’t hear it without her. I stopped listening and six months later we revisited it. I don’t need to go into my inner monologue to why, who or what it’s about for me, it’s personal, but it changed the entire song. Some people will say “uh-uh,” but some people will listen to it with a new ear, I think. But that was the hardest one for me because of Patsy.
Last year at The Kennedy Center Honors, you paid tribute to Reba with a song from Annie Get Your Gun. You two seem like you’d be a natural pair. Has anyone pitched a project for you together, like a sitcom?
That’s what we want. Me, her and Melissa Peterman really want to. In fact, we were talking about it last night. Yeah, we want to do one so bad. First of all, we’d go to work together and be happy every day. Secondly, we’re all comedians but different types of humor, so it would work. Third, we all look different. It would just be SO fun.
Nobody knows this story. I actually first met her back at Opryland, on my day off. But she doesn’t remember. She’s kind and says, “Oh, I think I might remember.” She doesn’t. It was my night off. The guy that ran Opryland said, “Would you come and we’re celebrating this artist that’s really hitting it big named Reba McEntire?” I was like, “I know who that is.” And they said, “Would you come and hand out candy as a little pillbox girl?” I was like, “I’ll read the phone book, whatever I have to do.”
So I show-up and he said, “Do you want to meet her?” And I got chicken. I said, “No, I’m scared. No, I don’t wanna bother her. No, I’ll just watch from afar. I’ll just watch her eat.” So I had the candy and all of a sudden he goes, “You’re coming.” He brought her over and she goes, “Well, hi, what’s your name?” I go, “Kristin. Would you like some candy?” [laughs] That was the first time we met. She took, I think, Pink Dots.
So you were basically working catering for her that day?
Pretty much. And I couldn’t speak. I was like, [meekly] “Uh, do you want candy?” If I could go back in time and relive a moment, it would be with Reba.
Maybe a different opening line?
Well, I should have said “Hello, Queen.” But no, I’m like, “Do you want some candy? We have Pink Dots.” Not what I always dreamed of.
You were just doing your job!