Thursday, July 7, 2016

Interview Flashback - On The Road With Whitney Duncan

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in October 2009 on The 9513.

Whitney Duncan didn’t say “I want to be a country music singer” with her very first words, but she might of well have. With a passion that belied her age, Whitney sang at school events, including multiple elementary and middle school graduations as well as finished as a medalist at a talent competition at Loretta Lynn's ranch.  

Country music was always her first love. She begged to go to the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville and managed to get up on stage and play when she was barely a teenager. She began travelling to and from Nashville from her home in Scotts Hill, TN in high school, writing with some of Nashville’s best writers. By her senior year, she had landed a record deal. Almost immediately, Duncan landed a duet with country legend Kenny Rogers but the first big record release still eluded her. She’d write and co-write cuts for Lee Ann Womack, Katie Arminger and Crystal Shawanda in the meantime.

In 2007, Duncan participated on the USA network show Nashville Star and self-released her debut album. After placing on Nashville Star, she signed to Warner Bros. Records Nashville and the life of the recording star started in motion. Her first solo single, "When I Said I Would" tasted the charts at #48 but it is her third single, “Skinny Dippin’,” that is making its mark. It is in the Top 20 on the Music Row charts and just entered the Billboard Top 50. Meanwhile, the sexy video for the latest single has been a staple across the country music video stations.   

KEN MORTON, JR.- Have you been given the key to the city from the mayor of Scotts Hill yet?

WHITNEY DUNCAN- I was! It was awesome. A few years ago, they did that. They had a little parade in town. This town has the nicest people and the coolest people ever. 

KMJ- I understand it was your grandfather that introduced you to country music. Tell me about that influence.

WD- I could always hear him singing around the house and he had such a great voice. But he would never perform in front of other people or anything. And he was always such a big fan of country music. He definitely introduced me to it- and Elvis. I would go to my grandparents house on the weekends a lot and I was a total granddaddy’s girl. I would go and we would watch Elvis performances, movies and everything. I was obsessed with Elvis from age four. We would also constantly watch the Jerry Lee Lewis movie Great Balls Of Fire. Oh my gosh. We would watch that movie every single weekend. As a little girl, I could say the words to the movie before they came out of the actor’s mouths. When I find out that Dennis Quaid was not Jerry Lee Lewis, I think I cried. (Laughter) When I finally saw the real Jerry Lee Lewis, I said, “That’s not Jerry Lee Lewis!” I had in my mind that Dennis Quaid was Jerry Lee Lewis. I was pretty heartbroken. Not to say that Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t good-looking or anything, but he is no Dennis Quaid. I would say that Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis- both of them- made me want to sing. My parents never played or anything but they both loved music and we always had it around the house and playing in the car. My dad didn’t like country too much. He would listen to the Rolling Stones, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and all that stuff. My mom would listen to nothing but country. There would always be that battle.

And of course, my mom always won. She loved Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette, Travis Tritt, Don Williams and all that stuff. I had a lot of different influences growing up in music. 

KMJ- And just how early were you performing at the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge?

WD- Too young! When I wanted to go somewhere, my parents were the best. I could talk them into anything. I always wanted to go Tootsies. And during the day, there’s lots of tourists and stuff in there. So I got to go up and play with the house band. I did “Stand By Your Man.” Of course. But I had to get out of there when it started to get dark and they started to serve alcohol. I think I was 10, 11 or 12. 

KMJ- Most acts get complimentary beer- for you it was Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples.

WD- (Laughter) Exactly! Looking back, that was fun.

KMJ- Your most recent single “Skinny Dippin’” sold an impressive 50,000 digital downloads partly due to a pretty racy music video that any warm-blooded male found appealing. Any hesitations in that video shoot?

WD- We got a lot of treatment ideas for that video. I was very picky on what I would do and what I wouldn’t do. The song is such a visual song in itself. It had to line up with the song and even make the song better. I really think this treatment did that. It kept it young and flirty and fun. And even funny in some places. Instead of… well lets just say that a lot of the ideas we got were… over the top. When were agreeing to do this, I was saying, “I won’t do that. I will not do that. I certainly won’t do that.” It was hard. And I thought they pulled it off great. I don’t think it’s too racy of a video for sure. When I sent it to my parents, that was my test. If it went too far, they won’t like it. Because they’re the most conservative people you’ve even known. When I sent it to them, Mom loved it and thought it was beautiful. I was good to go. If Mom and Dad approve, then we’re good. 

KMJ- Your first singles have flirted with the big charts thus far, and your most recent single seems to making a dent. Any sense on why the first couple of singles haven’t made a bigger splash at radio yet?

WD- In places that they’re playing it in daytime hours, it is connecting. That’s what’s so awesome. It’s selling like crazy. On the Music Row charts, it’s up to number 17. Stations that are playing it are getting a reaction from their audiences. On stations that don’t play it, you can’t get a reaction from something you can’t hear. It’s really hard as a new artist. You have stations that will only play a certain amount of songs. And they don’t necessarily always want to take a chance on a new artist. That makes it really difficult. It’s sad that it is that hard. It’s hard for that new artist to get a song played these days. When it’s played, it gets a reaction, though. And that’s really all you can ask for. 

KMJ- What can we can we expect on your upcoming album, “Right Road Now?”

WD- I co-wrote the whole thing and I’m most excited about that. It’s a wide variety. “Skinny Dippin’” is the fun side of me but there are many other songs that are deep and dark and I like that too. It’s a big variety of stuff from fun, happy and up-tempo to the other side. There’s something for everyone. I was very picky with songs- I always have been. These are my favorites. 

KMJ- Has Warner Brothers set a release date yet?

WD- All I know is early in 2010. It’s been changed so many times, it’s ridiculous. When they get a date, they’ll tell me and that’s when I’ll get excited.

KMJ- How frustrating is it for the artist to be in that record label “holding pattern?” It seems a bit like purgatory from the outside looking in.

WD- I don’t focus on that part too much. I totally understand what they’re doing and it makes complete sense. You want to put out a record when you have the most audience. That part makes sense to me. Until you get that, there’s no real reason to put it out. People can get a taste of it on i-Tunes. You can even buy the digital EP that will hopefully tide you over until the record comes out. Granted, no one will be happier than me the day it comes out. For sure. You put your heart and soul into something like this for so long, you want to get it out for the fans. Ultimately, that’s the whole point of music. 

KMJ- You performed at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time this month- how was that experience?

WD- I am not one to get nervous. I never get nervous. But when I walked on that stage, I thought I was going to vomit. I was SO nervous. I wasn’t even nervous before. Walking into my dressing room was a really cool moment. When I stood on the side of the stage, John Conlee was introducing me. And I love him and his voice. I always have. That’s really cool. When I walked out there, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is the Opry. It was a really cool moment. 

KMJ- Any special behind-the-scenes moments for you?

WD- I got to take my picture with Little Jimmy Dickens! That was so cool. He’s such a nice guy. I also got my picture taken with John Conlee. All my parents got to come backstage. As special as this was for me it was more special for my grandparents. The Grand Ole Opry is the be-all end-all for them. They used to come up to my house every Saturday and we would all watch the Grand Ole Opry together. This, for them, was like the fact that I had finally made it. He’s always told me I would have made it when I get invited to play on the Grand Ole Opry. My granddaddy never goes anywhere, but you bet he came to the Grand Ole Opry that night. 

KMJ- You’ve written cuts for other artists like Lee Ann Womack, Katie Armiger and Crystal Shawanda- any other songs out there on hold or being cut by other artist?

WD- Yes! I got a LeAnn Rimes cut. It’s a beautiful song and I was upset at first when it didn’t get to make my record. But it’s a big ballad and gorgeous and I can’t wait for you all to hear it. 

KMJ- When a singer/songwriter has a song cut by another artist, is there as much pride on that song as if you cut it yourself?

WD- I think probably even more so. I’m really hard on my songs. But when someone else cuts it, they’re saying they love it to. They love it enough to want to cut it themselves. 

KMJ- What is country music to Whitney Duncan?

WD- It’s definitely my life. From an early age, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. And I’ve never doubted it for a minute. There have been times in which I’ve asked if I’d ever get my chance or shot. I’ve kept with it and I love it. I don’t know what I would do without it. There’s really nothing else I’d rather do. 

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