When k.d. lang first arrived on the American music scene in the 1980s, she was truly a sight to behold -- a shock of straight black hair, wildly colorful Western attire and a lively stage presence that Nashville didn't quite know what to do with.
"I didn't expect them to fully embrace me, because I was not what they would envision as a female country singer," lang says, in a true understatement.
It's been nearly two decades since lang released Angel With a Lariat, her groundbreaking debut on Sire Records. Back then, she was billed as "k.d. lang and the reclines," naming her band in honor of her hero, Patsy Cline. One look at the music video for "Turn Me 'Round," which finds her doing everything but backflips to entertain a nightclub audience, and it's obvious that she had kinetic energy and charisma to burn.
In 1988, lang offered Shadowland, a Nashville Sound-inspired album that paired her with Cline's legendary producer, Owen Bradley. A year later, Absolute Torch & Twang was released, and her music had by then evolved from campy cowpunk to soaring (yet sometimes twangy) singing.
Highlights from those three admirable albums, as well as a handful of rarities and soundtrack contributions, have been collected on Reintarnation, a 20-song album recently released on Rhino Records. The title comes from a Washington Post list of words that take on whimsical meanings with the change of one letter. Thus, "reintarnation" is defined as "coming back to life as a hillbilly."
That title may be cheeky, but it's more than a coincidence.
"I knew that I wanted to focus on the up-tempo stuff," she says when asked about how she narrowed down seven years worth of material. "A lot of people might think of me as a crooner, so I wanted to show that other side of me, too, and incorporate the feeling into the packaging." Indeed, the cover is an interpretation of Elvis Presley's first album, with green and pink words practically shouting out the title.
Talking about the vision she had for her career back then, lang insists she never wanted to be perceived as a mainstream country artist, yet she realized she was getting perilously close with her extensive media exposure. Instead, she preferred to think of herself in the realm of performance art, even though Grand Ole Opry icons like Minnie Pearl embraced her talent. Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells also lent their support by joining her for a music video, "Honky Tonk Angels' Medley."
"I have Owen Bradley to thank for bringing those women in," lang says. "They did it as a favor to him, but by the end of the shoot, we had all bonded, too."
Though she was born and raised in Canada, lang now lives and works in Los Angeles. She says she doesn't keep up with contemporary Nashville, although if she's outside of the city, sometimes she'll tune into a country station. But if she hears a country song from the late '80s while flipping through the stations, her memories will inevitably kick in.
"It does take me back," she says. "I certainly do remember that time in Nashville, and I have relationships with those people like the Judds, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam."
As another artist who struggled to fit into Nashville's notion of a female country singer in the 1980s, Wynonna is quick to praise lang's efforts: "What I admire about her the most is that she dares to be herself in a world that constantly tries to tell you who you are. She doesn't need anyone to tell her. She's that amazing. k.d. lang is absolutely one of my favorites, always and forever."
In 1989, lang won her first Grammy -- in the country collaboration category -- for "Crying," her astonishing, multi-octave duet with Roy Orbison. She still includes it in her concerts and credits Orbison as "a Midas to my career." It brought lang her first charting country single, peaking at No. 42. (Curiously, none of her five charting country singles are included in Reintarnation.)
Absolute Torch & Twang also won a country Grammy in 1990 and was certified gold, although by then she had already decided to close the country chapter of her career. Within a matter of years, she found widespread success with the hit single, "Constant Craving," which scored big on pop radio, won her another Grammy and helped sell 2 million copies of the Ingenue album.
Since then, her output has included a film soundtrack and score (1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), a concept album about smoking (1997's Drag), a traditional pop vocal album with Tony Bennett (2003's A Wonderful World, which led to her fourth Grammy) and an album of cover songs by Canadian songwriters she admired (2004's Hymns of the 49th Parallel).
She's unsure about what the rest of the year holds for her, although she is writing a little bit. ("It's all up in the air," she says.) In the meantime, she's pleased that Rhino offered to put together Reintarnation, which includes several eye-popping photos from those early years. In the liner notes, she also offers a few sentences about each of the tracks, giving insight into her creativity as well as her career. She's also quick to mention that although she didn't stick around in Nashville, she's not a hater.
"I love my history and my dabbling in country music," she says. "I appreciate all the experiences."