Jessica Simpson continues to put in the effort it takes to become a bona fide country star. On Thursday evening (Sept. 4), she greeted the movers and shakers of the country music industry at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville with handshakes, hugs and a brief performance of songs from her album, Do You Know, which will be released on Tuesday (Sept. 9).
Backed by a handful of musicians, Simpson sang five songs as about 150 people nibbled on very small grit cakes and cornbread biscuits, washing it all down with free drinks. She said she wanted to sing about "what my heart's been going through the last couple of years," adding that she felt "really blessed. This could bring me to tears because I do feel at home on this stage, and I thank you for giving me a chance."
After singing her first country single, "Come On Over," she introduced "Remember That," an emotional song about escaping an abusive relationship. The same writers of "Come On Over" gave her the song, and she said she broke into tears the first time she listened to it.
"People are drilling me all the time about if I've been abused," she said, but rather than elaborating, she said she wanted the audience to be encouraged by the music. Throughout the song (and every song, really), she pumped her first in the air and ran her fingers through her hair to emphasize the drama of the lyrics.
"I believe that what has inspired me is my faith and family, teaching me the importance of prayer," she declared. Recounting how she grew up poor with a father who was a preacher she said, "Sometimes we felt we weren't going to be able to keep on keeping on, so we prayed together." (Simpson's father watching from the soundboard at the Symphony Center, and her mother was there, too.) Then she offered "Pray Out Loud," and in a remarkable display of manners for a music industry event, the crowd was quiet and listening.
On the stage, she was flanked by Brett James and Hillary Lindsey, the first two songwriters she collaborated with in Nashville. She said she had to let her guard down during those first sessions, because at first she was afraid "they might call 1-800-US-WEEKLY.com." Uh, what? "Oh! Not dot-com!" she giggled.
She also sang "Sipping on History," which she was about "a love of my life that could have been a fairy tale, but I had another fairy tale awaiting me." (Has she always had a Southern accent? More than once, she pronounced "life" as "lawf" and "write" as "rawt.") In the first line of the song, she lamented the notion that she could have been somebody's June Carter Cash, and when she was through, she stated, "That song is so sad! Why is country music so sad? Not all country music is sad!"
Simpson recalled how she met Dolly Parton at the Kennedy Center, after screwing up a performance of Parton's "9 to 5" in front of the president. Parton accepted her apologies and graciously gave Simpson her phone number. During a visit to Nashville, Simpson went to Parton's office to listen to some new songs.
"I got to stand in her chapel and pray," she said, "and I loved it because there was a hair salon next to the chapel!" Toward the end of the long story, she marveled that "the person that you're there for ends up accepting your failure as success," and that "God answers prayers in His own timing."
At most music industry events in Nashville, you can pretty much wander in, get some chicken fingers and duck out whenever you want to. However, there was a formal check-in at this event, and no outside photographers were allowed. Just before walking down the hall to the reception, I encountered five or six label representatives gathered in a cluster near the entrance. In all the parties I've been to in the last six years, I can't remember this ever being the case. I don't know if they were just hanging out or making sure no unsavory characters were getting past.
Watching Simpson up there on stage without any special effects, paparazzi or Pro-Tools, it's kind of easy to forget that she is super-famous. So far, she's collaborated with top-notch writers in town, and all of the songs she sang fit squarely within the country format, even the Dolly Parton composition. To her credit, she didn't fake her way through the showcase and spent as much time trying to connect with the crowd as she did singing. Plus, she didn't vanish afterwards, instead sticking around to personally thank people for their support, even those who remain skeptical. When it comes to the personal touch, Simpson has already done well to remember that.