Read Katrina Elam's official bio, and you may conclude that she's had a smooth ride to the top -- a publishing contract at 16, a record deal at 19 and critical raves every step of the way. Then there are all those world-savvy songs on her new album that make you wonder if the pretty 20-year-old isn't singing way beyond her experience. But she has an explanation for everything.
"There are so many people [who've] taken a long time -- 10 years or whatever -- to get their foot in the door," Elam acknowledges. "So I guess you could say that it happened to me fast. But I wouldn't say that it happened easily. I was doing 150 shows a year by the time I was 14. I've always been really busy trying to pursue this. And there are a lot of obstacles we don't even talk about. It hasn't been an easy road."
That road, whatever its rigors, began in tiny Bray, Okla., where Elam grew up as the daughter of an oilfield-working dad and a stay-at-home mom. Even as a youngster, she took her singing seriously. She meticulously studied the music on her favorite albums and honed her own renditions of the songs until she got them exactly as she thought they should be. By the time she was in her early teens, she was a performer of choice for everything from corporate parties to wedding ceremonies. When she was 15, the Oklahoma Country Music Association and the Oklahoma Opry both proclaimed her female vocalist of the year.
Elam's high profile in Oklahoma helped her make contacts in Music City.
"I had been traveling back and forth from Oklahoma to Nashville for several years," she explains. "I signed a publishing deal when I was 16 with Warner/Chappell Music. So I was coming back for a week out of every month at least, just to write. I knew a lot of the writers in town and a lot of the publishers and a lot of the record label people, too."
Her album, Katrina Elam, bears witness to the many bright contacts Elam has made. Co-produced by Tony Brown and Jimmie Lee Sloas, it pairs Elam with such laureled co-writers as Robin Lee Bruce, Lee Thomas Miller, Wayne Kirkpatrick, John Rich, Josh Leo, Chris DuBois, Jim Collins, Stephony Smith and Gordon Kennedy. In fact, Elam shares writing credits on nine of the album's 11 songs.
But these are not your standard coming-of-age tunes. "The Breakup Song," for instance, has the world-weary voice of a woman who's heard every parting cliché imaginable. "Home Running Away" channels a despairing housewife. And all one needs to know about the ego-scorching "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is that the title is a sentence and not a phrase. Elam co-wrote all these and sounds like she's singing them through the filter of experience.
"I've always been like an old soul all my life," she asserts. "It's very hard to explain, but I've never really had a hard time relating to adult situations. ... Maybe [I did] that first year [of writing professionally] when I was so new to it and so nervous still. I wrote a lot of songs then about being young. 'Normal,' on my album, is about the hard times of going through high school. I've always been impacted by [adult] songs, no matter how old I was. I remember when I was in the third grade, I sang a Dolly Parton song about love. It was this really deep song, and everybody in our class was making so much fun of me. But I was like, 'Don't you get it? It's such a pretty song about love. Don't you understand?' I'm really an emotional person. So I've always loved songs like that."
As her first single, "No End in Sight," continues up the charts, Elam has been touring with Keith Urban, who also played banjo and electric guitar on the single.
"I had met him a few times, but I didn't really know him," she says. "Then Jimmie, my co-producer, played bass on Keith's album. So he called him and said, 'Hey, do you want to come play on this new girl's album?' He came over and did it, and I got to hang out with him in the studio then. He's such a cool guy. So nice."
Although she had been co-writing with Warner/Chappell songwriters before she signed with the company, Elam says it was a solo effort that finally earned her a contract. "I actually played them a song I wrote -- by myself in my living room in Oklahoma. It was a song called 'Wings.' Now that I look back, I don't think it was that good. But I guess since I was only 16, they kind of liked it. It was the story of a woman in a bad relationship." No surprise there.
Soon after she turned 18, Elam moved to Nashville for good. And it was good -- no waitressing, demo-drudgery or other mind-numbing distractions. By now, she was able to live entirely on her songwriting advances.
"I waited about a year before I [approached] the different labels," she explains. "I just kind of went around and played for each one. I had three offers, including Universal South." It took her several months, she says, to get out of "some management situations," during which time she had the leisure to linger over the recording offers made to her. In July 2003, she went with Universal South.
"Universal South has been awesome," Elam exclaims. "It was never like, 'Here's who's going to produce you, and here's how you're going to look, and here's how you're going to sound.' It was always, 'What makes you feel good?' I had worked with Jimmie Lee Sloas in the past, and we had written '[I Want a] Cowboy,' 'Prelude to the Kiss' and a few other songs. I never met anybody else in town here that I clicked with so well musically. I can hum something, and he just takes off with it and gets it. We're on the same wavelength, I guess. So I knew I wanted to have him involved. But at the same time, I've dreamed since I was 9 years old of working with Tony Brown." In addition to his other labors, Sloas also plays bass in Elam's touring band.
Elam says several of the songs on her album date back to her earliest days in Nashville, well before she achieved her record deal. Among these are "Unbreakable," "Cowboy," "Prelude" and "Normal."
However, it is one of the songs that she didn't write, Elam says, that particularly stands out for her.
"After I moved here, a friend of mine that I had gone to school with since I was 5 years old passed away in a car accident," she says. "I tried during the entire [period] of getting a record deal to write a song about him or for him. But I could never get myself to go there. One day, I was writing with Deanna Bryant, and she played me a song she had written. It was 'Flowers by the Side of the Road.' It just said everything I wanted to say, and it said it so beautifully."
Elam will open shows for Urban on his CMT-sponsored Be Here '04 tour through December.