Anna Wilson’s revolutionary new album, Countrypolitan Duets, creates a magical union of country, jazz and pop by effortlessly blending the genres to form a fresh but timeless new sound that pays homage to Nashville’s musical roots.
“I would describe it as country music and jazz music shaking hands because it’s a real fusion of two great American musical art forms,” Anna says. But that modest description is an understatement, according to noted author/music historian Robert K. Oermann, who says, “Top vocalist Anna Wilson has made the first album that fully marries jazz to country music… Anna Wilson is not just ‘shaking hands’ with two Nashville traditions. She is embracing them both. Brilliantly.”
Anna, a sultry and soulful jazz singer and award-winning songwriter, is joined on this project by some of country music’s biggest names, from current chart-toppers like Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts to legends such as Kenny Rogers, Ray Price and Connie Smith. In addition, famed jazz musicians Rick Braun and Larry Carlton added their unique musical interpretations to create a sound that is appealing to jazz and country fans alike.
Indeed, the response to the project, which she co-produced with her husband, songwriter Monty Powell, has been both immediate and overwhelming. For instance, the album’s debut single, the duet “You Don’t Know Me” with American Idol’s Matt Giraud, hit No. 1 on the iTunes jazz chart – where it remained for four days–after singer Adam Lambert tweeted about his love of the song.
The album’s title was inspired by “The Nashville Sound” which was the pop-leaning style of country music of the late 1950s and 1960s that featured lush string arrangements and compelling horn sections and garnered mainstream success for artists such as Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. During this era, jazz and country naturally intersected, and this album is an effort to bridge the gap that has developed in subsequent decades. Anna’s concept was to record classic country standards such as “Night Life,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “For the Good Times” with jazz arrangements embodying sophisticated new interpretations.
“Countrypolitan Duets came about as an answer to the question that I always get in every interview, ‘What’s a jazz singer doing in Nashville?’” Anna says. “I realized I was in a unique position as an artist to combine these two genres, with a concept record in a way that had never been done before. My jazz artistry and the records I recorded in the past, for the most part, embody original jazz songs that I write that sound like they belong ‘back in the day.’ But as a member of the Nashville music community, when it came time to record standards, I chose classic country songs.”
While recording Countrypolitan Duets has been an important step in Anna’s musical evolution, she will most remember it for the “chill-bump moments” it provided her with her musical heroes and friends. Ray Price, then 83, had to cancel his first session because of illness and reschedule it four months later. “He walked into the studio and nailed his vocal on ‘You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,’ in two takes,” Anna recalls. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the control room, including Jay DeMarcus from Rascal Flatts, who had temporarily lent us his studio because mine had been temporarily down.”
“Another magical moment was when Connie Smith came back to the studio on her 68th birthday,” Anna says. “She had already sung her part and was finished, but because she was so excited about the track, she wanted to see the big band horns recorded. And then there was Keith Urban, who after singing his vocal on ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,’ walked over and picked up one of Monty’s guitars and asked if he could play the guitar solo.”
“Recording with Kenny Rogers was a dream come true,” she says of “For the Good Times.” “He didn’t just come in and sing his lines. He was really concerned about how we could make it better. He said, ‘Duets are kind of my specialty, so if you don’t mind, may I make a few suggestions and you can use whatever you want?’ Everything he suggested was right on the money.”
Anna has released three albums, and this marks the follow-up to her 2008 original holiday project Yule Swing! (Transfer), which earned her slots on three Billboard charts, including No. 12 on the Overall Jazz chart. She has shared billings with Josh Groban, Al Jarreau, Keith Urban and others and is featured performing her self-penned song “A House, A Home,” which appears in Habitat for Humanity’s international public service announcement campaign. “She’s got a voice like creme de cacao and an inner metronome that swings wildly from age to age,” says Jazz Times. The Philadelphia Daily News says, “Her material evokes the song-craft spirit of a Carole King, while her dramatic, vibrato-rich voice sounds at times like a young Bette Midler.”
She’s also a prolific songwriter who has penned songs for Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lee Ann Womack and Chris Cagle. She co-wrote “If I Knew Then,” which is featured on Lady Antebellum’s mega-hit album, Need You Now, and received a prestigious ASCAP award for co-writing the 2008 Chuck Wicks country hit, “All I Ever Wanted.”
She and her older sister were raised in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, by her mother, a homemaker and piano player who introduced her daughters to American songbook standards, and her father, a teacher and coach who had always encouraged his daughters to study an instrument. She began piano and guitar lessons and wrote her first song in fourth grade. She spent years singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror, with a stack of her mom’s music books, but she didn’t decide to pursue music as a career until her sister took her to a Judd’s concert for her 17th birthday. “I had wanted to be a singer since I was five but my parents didn’t know anything about the music business so it seemed impossible to really find a way into it. Mostly just a dream,” she says. “At first they were not happy with my sister for taking me to that Judd’s concert because it wound up being the tipping point for me that made me realize I had no choice but to chase the calling of a career in music. My parents understand that now. Music chooses you, and when it does, your only option is to follow your heart.”
Eager to launch her music career, she rushed through Baltimore’s Loyola University in three years and moved to Nashville 15 days after graduation. Although she loved American standards, the music earning airplay on MTV and VH-1 was mainstream pop, so she thought she would have to leave behind her jazz inclinations to have a larger platform for her artistry.
But her jazz talents were too powerful to be denied for long. When she released her first album The Long Way (Curb/Asylum), a singer-songwriter project inspired by the Lilith Fair movement, critics described her as a jazzy Stevie Nicks. Meanwhile, artists such as Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Michael Buble began enjoying mainstream appeal with jazz. “I thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if I wrote a jazz song’, because I never tried,” she says. “I sat down one day and did. I haven’t stopped since.” You can find her amazing original jazz songs that sport a fresh modern day lyrical appeal on her past two critically acclaimed jazz albums, Time Changes Everything and Yule Swing!
Countrypolitan Duets is the brainchild of Anna Wilson. Through it she gives listeners an experience of how she uniquely blends jazz and country music. Fans will hear top stars croon, and jazz instrumentalists strut their improvisational chops peppered with a little Texas swing and twang. Wilson says, “There have been moments in musical history when country and jazz were not so far apart. In my life, they are always combined, and through this project, jazz and country will once again get to shake hands. I couldn’t be more thrilled about that.”