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How The Wreckers Defied The Doubters (2007)

Originally published in the April 23, 2007 issue of Country Weekly magazine featuring Keith Urban on the cover.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and the sun is shining brightly—but you’d never know it here inside Nashville’s Melrose Billiards, a dark, vast, basement-level pool hall lit mostly by neon beer advertisements and the lamps hanging over the pool tables.

Even at this hour, there are about a dozen people on hand. Most are at the bar, watching arm-wrestling on ESPN, but a few chalk up their cues for a game. Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp, better known as hitmaking country duo The Wreckers, do not.

“I’m a terrible pool player,” admits Jessica, seated beside her partner on one side of a booth table. “I’m horrible at it. I lose badly, every time.”

“I think I’ve played three games in my life,” Michelle adds. “We’re not pool players, by any means. We’re more bowlers.” 

Luckily, these two won’t have to make a living as pool hustlers anytime soon. The Wreckers’ 2006 debut album, Stand Still, Look Pretty, is a gold-selling hit that has spawned the radio favorites “Leave the Pieces” and “My, Oh My.” They’re nominated for two awards at the April 16 CMT Music Awards, and two more at next month’s Academy of Country Music Awards. In June, they’ll kick off a tour as the opening act on Keith Urban’s much-anticipated summer tour. “It’s the opening slot that everybody in town wants,” Jessica notes, “so the fact that Keith chose us is pretty incredible.”

“We’re flattered,” Michelle adds.

It’s all a sweet vindication for the duo. Michelle abandoned a successful run as a pop star three years ago to start The Wreckers with Jessica, her longtime friend and backing vocalist. From the beginning, the two fought record-label resistance and skepticism from music industry observers.

“It was such a struggle for us to get our project off the ground and get our record out that we had very low expectations for how the public was going to receive it,” Jessica admits. “So this whole year has been amazing. So many incredible things have happened.”

Michelle has no regrets about giving up her pop career, which included hits like “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted” and her chart-topping, Grammy-winning duet with Santana, “The Game of Love.” While her workload hasn’t changed that much, she says the world of country music is very different from life as a pop star.

“The relationships that I have with everyone I work with now are much more genuine,” she says. “From people at the record label to radio people to artists to interviewers, it’s just a different vibe. Everyone is really sincere, and I really, really respect that sincerity. It’s something I wasn’t used to in the past.”

“I’ve been around from the start of Michelle’s pop career, and I saw her go through some extremely unhappy times,” notes Jessica, who has known Michelle since 2000. “Times when she was unsettled about what was going on in her career. To see her so happy now in her professional and personal life is a really beautiful thing.”

One ingredient in Michelle’s happiness has been her satisfaction at watching the talents of her duo partner being discovered. “I’ve always been Jess’ biggest fan, before all this happened,” declares Michelle. “When this first started, whether people meant for it to happen or not, the spotlight leaned onto me. It’s really exciting to see that change now, to see it be equal. I’m really proud of her.”

In fact, Jessica penned the pair’s new single, “Tennessee.” “I wrote it shortly after I moved to Nashville,” recalls the Kansas City, Mo., native. “The main line of the song is Things are sweeter in Tennessee. I really feel and believe that. This is my home, and where I’m supposed to be. That’s much of what the song is about.”

But not all.

“It’s also about a relationship that was on the way out,” she confesses.

With my older brother,” Michelle points out. “I have to sing about my brother every night!” 

Luckily, she’s not the only one singing along. Michelle explains that she and Jessica have measured their progress by the ever-increasing number of fans in the audience singing every word of their songs back to them each night. “We’re so wrapped up in work that we don’t know how everyone else perceives us at all,” she says. “So that’s been our gauge—seeing how people’s reactions change as we keep plowing along. I don’t think people were singing to every song this early on in my pop career. It’s a really exciting thing to see every night.”

“It’s been a shocker to us,” Jessica says. “A pleasant shocker.”

The two are ready to earn even more fans with their sophomore album, which they hope to begin recording in October. Both have already begun writing songs. “She and I sat down the other day and went through what we already have, and we already have a good chunk of material to start with,” Jessica reports. Still, she says, “We’ll be doing a lot of sitting on the bus and writing.”

The duo plans to make the next album much closer to the raw country sound they had in mind for Stand Still, Look Pretty—until record-label execs objected, asking for more of the pop sheen Michelle’s fans were used to. With success comes the ability to call more of the shots next time around.

“On the next record,  I think we’ll be able to add more fiddle and banjo without our label calling and saying, ‘No, don’t do that!’” Jessica says. “We’ll be like kids in a candy store, really able to do everything that we have in our heads.”

Out from behind the eight ball at last, The Wreckers are ready to rack ’em up again.

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