ROAD BACK HOME

Frustrated by the struggle of making it on Music Row, Sherrié Austin almost walked away from it all. But a touching new hit called 'Streets of Heaven' changed her mind

Sherrié Austin was ready to give up.

After nearly four years of toughing it out on Music Row, she still hadn't cracked the Top 20 with a bona fide hit single ? although she came tantalizingly close with "Never Been Kissed" in 1999. Then her next two singles fizzled, and Sherrié started feeling pretty fizzled herself.

To top it all off, her record company closed.

"I started questioning whether this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," she says. "I just got burned on all the politics and the business."

Two years ago, she went on a vacation from the music business, one that she knew might be permanent. She went to California, hung out with her family, took walks, read and shared long talks with her sister. She even turned down an offer for a record deal, reluctant to re-enter the fray in which she'd been engaged for much of the past five years.

Then one day she wrote a very special song -- and it brought her back to Nashville, and back to singing.

"This song definitely changed all that for me," she says of "Streets of Heaven," her fast-rising new hit. "This all started to be fun again."

Sherrié certainly looks rested and ready, as she digs into her lunch of salmon and spinach with garlic at Nashville's Palm restaurant. Part of her enthusiasm about the song -- a plea from a mother asking God not to take her ill child -- comes from its origin in her own family history.

"When she was the age I am now, my mum went through this with one of my younger siblings who almost died," says Sherrié, now 32. "As a kid, I couldn't relate to what she was going through, but as an adult I can't imagine anything worse than losing a child."

As soon as the song was written, Sherrié called her manager and told him she had changed her mind ? she would take that record deal. Now "Streets of Heaven" is climbing the charts, and she's being deluged with emotional letters and e-mails about the tune.

"I've never had that with any of my other songs," she admits. "It's refreshing to see that I can do something with music other than strive to be rich and famous. That doesn't seem like a very worthy goal."

Now Sherrié has her aims firmly in mind. "I'm finally figuring out what I want to do and say," she confesses. "I want to express more of what's in me than I ever did before."

To that end, she created her fourth album, Streets of Heaven, set for release this month. "It's all about transcending pain, anger and resentment," she says. "I'm proud of all my records, but I really do feel with this one I'm doing what I do best: telling a story. Which is why I'm in country music to start with."

Streets of Heaven features a few songs Sherrié wrote with her boyfriend, Will Rambeaux, who's also written tunes for stars like Faith Hill and Jo Dee Messina. The pair has been together for years, but has no plans to get married just yet.

"It's working for us the way it is," she figures. "Why fix it if it ain't broke? Some people, that's important to them. What's important to me is that we love each other. He's my best friend in the world."

The couple isn't decorating a nursery yet, either. "One of my best girlfriends has just gotten pregnant, and another one's trying," she reports. "But for me, right now it doesn't make sense. I feel like if I were to have kids, I would want to be there all the time, giving them all my attention. What a responsibility -- my God, another human life! I don't think I'm in the position to be that kind of parent right now, because of what I do.

"I've always thought -- in the back of my mind -- that I'd like to adopt one day. There seem to be so many kids who don't have parents, and I don't really have any great desire to have a little Sherrié Austin running around!"

So for now, Sherrié will just keep focusing on her musical second chance.

"I'm just trying to take it one day at a time, and not get too far ahead of myself," she says. "I'm sure there will be challenges and things that'll drive me around the twist, because things haven't changed. I just plan on having a lot more fun this time around!"

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