Tears to Laughter
In 1987, Shania Twain's mom and dad were killed in a car crash. Now she's celebrating life on top of the charts. What does she think about it all? And would her parents
There's a song on Shania Twain's The Woman In Me CD that can catch first-time listeners off guard. "God Bless The Child" is a short, spiritual lullaby sung a cappella, and it provides a serene and moving close to an otherwise raucous, sexy album. In that final track, Twain's strong, unaccompanied voice takes you through a doorway from the tumult of the street into the quiet sanctum of a place of worship. It's a private sanctuary the singer/songwriter has clearly visited many times before, and one that no doubt helped pull her through the shock and grief that followed the 1987 car crash that killed her parents near their northern Ontario home town of Timmins. "All they heard was a horn and that was it," she has said. "It was the worst time of my life."
What a difference seven years can make. By late summer of this year, 30-year-old Shania Twain was living her fantasy career, and spending most of her time embracing the tumult of the street. A new marriage had
brought both personal and creative enrichment. A new album - and two singles ("Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" and "Any Man Of Mine") - had topped the charts. Her videos had been given maximum airplay. The media had besieged her with requests for interviews. And a publicity machine had been kicked into overdrive to ensure that the woman in The Woman In Me would be known to every music fan in the land.
One promotional thrust was directed at Music Ciry itself. Right by an Interstate 40 exit to Nashville stood a huge billboard. Thousands of motorists a day saw Twain's image, and were informed that she and her multi-million sales success were "Simply stunning!" By contrast, when she was a kid she had no idea of Nashville's importance in the music industry. "I never really knew it was such a hub," she says. "I knew stars recorded there." So on an early visit, "I kept expecting to see Dolly Parton walking down the street," laughs Twain, who counts Parton's "Coat Of Many Colors" and "Daddy" among her favorite early recordings.
A career on the scale of Parton's may well have been in
the minds of Gerald and Sharon Twain when they first realized the musical potential of their second eldest child. "My parents were big fans of country, and that's all they listened to. Because it was a small town and there was only one radio station, which was multi-format, I got to hear all the music that was happening. I was wearing bell-bottoms, really colorful, tight hip-huggers. My mother was wearing beehive hairdos. I remember very clearly The Mamas And The Papas and The Carpenters, who were big for me, and Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight...I loved it. In retrospect, it was one of the better times for music.
"As far as my career as a child, the only music we had in the house for me to learn from were eight-track country tapes." That became her repertoire at the clubs to which she was taken starting when she was eight. "I never liked any of that," she has said, referring in part to her parents' practice of waking her to sing at local bars after she'd fallen asleep. "I liked singing, but I didn't understand why I had to do it in the middle of the night." As she told Maclean's magazine in August, "Coming from a poor family, the only thing that's going to get your children anywhere is to just push like hell. And that's what my mother did." As a result, she started writing songs in her early teens, entered talent contests and appeared on TV programs such as Tommy Hunter and Opry North ("I started on it at age 10, and even did original material. I still have a tape of one show").
Nowadays, her televised appearances are more on the order of Jay Leno. And nobody could be more pleased with her success than the younger brothers and sisters for whom she put her career on hold following the crash that still reverberates through their hearts and minds. "They're enjoying it. It's really fun because it's their success, too, she says. "I'm just so happy that my parents' efforts and my family's efforts haven't been in vain. I know that my siblings are feeling like big winners right now."
But stardom wasn't guaranteed. "Before my parents died," she adds, "I was still really searching for my musical direction. Everything I did, whether it was R&B or rock or pop or whatever - after the accident, I even did an off-Broadway musical theatre show for three years.... Everyone along the way always asked, 'Wow, have you ever sung country? You've really got this country thing in your voice. You'd really sound good singing country.' And I'd say to myself, 'Oh my God! I'm trying to make a living singing whatever kind of music happens to pay the bills.' I guess it was just one of those things that wouldn't go away no matter how much I tried to ignore it."
The story of how she became a surrogate parent to her remaining siblings dominated the summer's press accounts. "They could have been with me for 10 years. I was prepared for that," she says. "But everything happened at the right time and for the right reasons, and after three years I was on my own. When you anticipate things taking forever, and you obligate yourself and dedicate yourself to something, and then you are suddenly relieved of it... That's why I suddenly felt a sense of freedom. I felt that I had the rest of my life from that point on."
Enter Mary Bailey, a former Canadian country singer who, says Twain, "used to do a lot of the shows that I used to do - and on the same circuit. My mother got to know Mary backstage. She was really intrigued by me, and so my mother started calling her for advice. Later on, when I was about 18, we started working together. She liked my songwriting and set up demo sessions for me."
In time, the relationship grew deeper and it was Mary that Twain turned to when it became obvious that the young singer, who once opened for Bernadette Peters and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was coming to the end of her substitute-parent role. "I was working at Deerhurst," says Twain of the resort near Huntsville, Ont., doing that Broadway-style show six days a week. So it wasn't the type of job that you could take a week off from to go to Nashville to get a contract. I said to Mary, 'I don't know how we're going to do this, but I'm ready for a record deal. I have to do something."'
What they did was send demos of original music to Nashville's Dick Frank, one of the founding fathers of the Country Music Association. Intrigued by what he heard and, possibly, the offer of Twain's staff discount room rate at Deerhurst, Frank and his wife came up to see her show. "He liked it," says Twain, "and he went back and said all the right things to all the right people. Obviously, we had what was
needed to impress these people at the right time. This was around 1990, and country music was just taking off in a big way. If this had happened at any other time, I might have missed the boat."
Instead, her ship came in - or at least began to enter the harbor. She started to put things in place, changing her given name to Shania (an Ojibwa word for "I'm on my way"), hiring Mary as her manager, and keeping a wary eye on business deals. "If I hadn't had a childhood career, I probably would have signed a contract with the first person I came across," she told Entertainment Weekly. "When you start young, the noveley goes away. You're not enamored of the stardom."
It took until 1993 to get her first album released. It was self-titled but created little buzz. "Still," she says, "it did a lot of great things" that included attracting the attention of two famous men: actor Sean Penn (who directed a video of a track from the album, "Dance With The One Who Brought You") and record producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange (who would become her husband and co-writer). Twain knew nothing of Lange's reputation or his work with such artists as Bryan Adams, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Michael Bolton and Billy Ocean. And Lange knew nothing of Twain, except that he liked the way she looked and sounded - he had seen her video for "What Made You Say That," in which a sultry Shania cavorts on a beach with a half-naked hunk.
It took some persistence (first with Mary Bailey, who didn't know who he was either, and had at first simply sent him an autographed photo), but Lange finally got through to Twain. Before long, the pair were writing songs together over the trans-Atlantic phone lines for Twain's second album. They first met face-to-face in June 1993 when Lange and Adams flew to Nashville for Fan Fair. Six months later, they were married.
"It was just like a dream," Twain has said. Of her new husband's creative help. "I could have ended up with an album that's not all that different from anything else coming out of Nashville. Mutt made the difference. He took those songs, my attitude, my creativity, and colored them in a way that is unique." What also helps, she says, is their intimacy. "He hears me singing this stuff when I'm writing it, so when we're in the studio he'll say, 'Well, that's exactly the way I want you to sing it, the way you sing it when you're holding the guitar and sitting in the living room and writing it.' He wants that intimacy to get on the album."
The result is The Woman In Me, which has sold astoundingly well - over 200,000 copies in Canada and two million in the U.S. "People ask me, 'What makes her so different?"' says Bailey. "I always compare her to an athlete who's going for the gold because an athlete will spend her whole life preparing. She didn't take her voice for granted. She perfected her craft." She has certainly impressed industry observers. "She's an artist who's able to take country music beyond its normal boundaries," says Doug Pringle of the specialty-TV service New Country Network and Toronto's CISS FM. 'I'll bet you 30 percent of her sales are from people who would not describe themselves as country fans.. .but they soon will be because Twain's album is pure country." Jim Baine, editor and publisher of Country magazine, agrees: "It's an interesting new sound but it doesn't completely betray the country roots." Adds Greg Haraldson of Calgary radio station CKRY: Part of the success of country music today is sex appeal. And Shania's incredibly sexy."
The Twain camp puts great effort into how the singer/song-writer is perceived. "We really wanted to make sure the imagery was going to be natural and me, not too vogue or made-up, but still glamorous," says Twain. "People want to know that they are getting to know somebody who is approachable and real, but at the same time not necessarily someone you'd bump into at the grocery store. If you take away that excitement, you take away the novelty. So how do you get that balance? A lot of that is achieved in photographs."
Which lead Bailey and Twain to the star of the movie 10: "Mary said, 'Well, look at Bo Derek. She's a naturally beautiful, glamorous woman, and her husband has done her photographs.' So we called them. He said no. She said yes. Then he said yes after she convinced him. After we all got together, he was so into it, and he ended up doing the photo session for the album cover, the calendar and the first two videos. He really took to me, and I ended up being like a daughter to him."
Whenever possible, the daughter who has more than fulfilled her parents' ambitions escapes to her newest sanctuary, the lakeside home and studio she and Lange are building on a 3,000-acre estate near Lake Placid in the Adirondack mountains. It's an area with more than its fair share of dense forest, and it must remind Twain of the times she spent in the bush with her father, an Ojibwa forester who taught her how to trap, hunt and use a chain saw. But it must also remind her of how her mom and dad died. They were driving to a job, she has said, when they collided head-on with a loaded logging truck.
"I used to feel their presence all the rime," she says. "They would always come to me in my dreams. Then there was a time when I had this really strange dream - this was before I left Huntsville to get my recording contract - that in one way or another everything just seemed settled and okay and they just went on their way. I don't know anything about what happens after death, but whatever it is, they're doing it now. They just kind of released themselves and they were gone, and it was a very nice feeling of relie£ I guess it was just my own final letting go."
Canada's Hot New Country Stars, Winter/96 cover