Worth the Wait

Heidi Newfield opens up about “Johnny and June,” her rebirth since leaving Trick Pony, her excellent new album—and kids.

On Dec. 13, 2006, at Nashville’s Wild Horse Saloon, Heidi Newfield played her last show as the powerhouse lead vocalist with Trick Pony, the award-winning trio she’d fronted since before their debut release in 2001.

Following a recent CW photo shoot, she sat down to talk about her transition to a solo artist, her new music and her wishes for her former band mates, Ira Dean and Keith Burns. Here’s part of what she had to say. For more on Heidi, check out the September 8 issue of Country Weekly.

CW
What was the process of making the album like—scary, cathartic, exciting, empowering . . . all of the above?
HN
It was all of the above. There’s no doubt, I don’t mind admitting, I had a lot of trepidation. I was very scared walking into a studio with a guy like [producer] Tony Brown. I wanted it to be great. I wanted it to be the best I could do on that given day. When I got in the studio and I started to sing, I just closed my eyes and let it go. I started to dig into these songs that we all agreed—Tony, myself, management, the label—we really pulled together as a team and I did not record one single song that I wasn’t madly crazy in love with.
CW
That’s sort of a departure I would guess for the way you’d done things with Trick Pony, just by virtue of having had partners you had to compromise with.
HN
Absolutely. Everyone knows that when you’re in a band, it is absolutely a compromise. You can ask anyone—you can ask Rascal Flatts, you can ask Brooks & Dunn—you can ask anyone who’s in a collaborative relationship creatively. You have to give and take, and you pick and choose your battles. There are times I recorded songs I didn’t necessarily care for. There are times that Ira recorded songs he didn’t care for. And probably Keith did I’m sure. There was a lot of give and take.
I’m not a confrontational person, oddly enough. You’d think I might be ‘cause I can stand my ground when necessary. But I really didn’t so much with the band. I found myself backing off. I didn’t fight for songs sometimes that I should’ve fought for. Well, here I was on this new ground and I was getting to record with someone I had the utmost respect for as a producer, who had the same song sensibility that I had. We didn’t argue over songs at all. We were going right down the same path.
He recommended an old Lucinda Williams tune. We sat down in his office and we were goin’ over songs and I was playin’ him some more things that I had written and a few things I’d found. And he said, “You know what? I always wanted to cut this old song. Lucinda Williams cut it. Do you remember ‘Can’t Let Go’?’ “ And I said, “Vaguely . . . remind me.” And he played it and within 15 minutes we decided . . . it was a no-brainer, because it had something the album was lacking. And he was looking for the right voice. He said, “You have that grit in your voice. You have that sort of swagger in your voice that fits this. I’ve been looking for that and I haven’t had the perfect artist. If you like it, this’d be cool.” So we started the session off with it.v
And that also spoke volumes. Because the first day of sessions to cut this record, here I’m walkin’ in with all A-game guys—all phenomenal players that I’m blown away with their talent. Some of whom I’d played with before on the Trick Pony stuff and had built a relationship with. A few guys I had never had the opportunity to work with. Ira being a bass player, I’d never gotten to work with Glen Wharf before, and I’d always wanted to. Several guys like that.
We started the session off with “Can’t Let Go,” and we did that on purpose because we thought it had this cool, vibey, funky sort of organic feel to it. And it was the perfect start for the album. And it really was because it put all those musicians in a cool frame of mind. So, when they came back in after playing it, they all came back in and went, “This album’s gonna be cool!” That made Tony and me just look at each other goin’, “Yeah!” And that was the vibe. The whole process of making this record was a totally professional, but completely joyful, creative process. Every day I literally said, “Oh, this is the way a record should be made.” Tony was there for every second of it. I got to work with Steve Marcantonio behind the board. He was in love with the project. So there was a lot of love and good, positive, cool feelings in the room. And that just made me sing better every day. I wasn’t afraid to throw ideas out.
I think one of the things, too, that really blew me away . . . was that a guy of Tony Brown’s experience, all the great records that the man has made . . . from day one, he was extremely respectful of the record I wanted to make. Not just the record he wanted to make. And he was very clear on that from the get-go. He said, “This is your record. We’re making your album. Not my record or [manager] John Grady’s record or Curb’s record. This is Heidi Newfield’s record.” He would ask me, “What do you think about this? Who do you like for this? What room do you like to work in?” He wanted me to be comfortable. And that’s the number one key for a great producer, letting everything good come out of that artist. Bringing the best out.
And every day, the more things like that happened, it gave me more and more confidence. So I really credit Tony Brown and my management team for helping build my confidence back up. And telling me, “This is a special project. This really means a lot to us just like it does to you.” And every day, it gave me more and more of a sense of one of the things God put me on this earth to do.
CW
“Johnny and June” is such a powerful, moving song. Talk about how that came about.
HN
I still get misty when I hear it. I wrote “Johnny and June,” it was a first co-write with Stephanie Smith and Deana Bryant. I had known both of those girls for a while, but I had never written with them. We sat down. And I had had the idea for a song entitled “Johnny and June,” this great big edgy love song . . . a big rockin’ ballad, if you will. But that idea never came to fruition. And I let it sit, and I never said another word about it. And when I walked in the room with Stephanie and Deana, I set my guitar down and they said, “We know that you recorded with Johnny Cash. And we know that you knew Johnny and June and you spent a little time with them and got to know them a little bit during the last five years of their lives. What about writing about that?”
Stephanie had sort of the skeleton of that beginning melody, that riff that said, “Oh, there’s somethin’ ‘bout a man in black . . . ” And we just took it from there and started . . . ”that makes me want to buy a Cadillac, throw the top back . . . and roll down to Jackson town . . . ” My eyes like popped out of my head. I looked at the girls and said, “This is so meant to be. I’ve had this idea forever. Clearly, you’ve brought this up, so this was meant to be today.” We wrote it mainly that day and ended up re-writing the entire second verse and the ending—and tightening up the bridge . . . the day I went in to sing the demo. We literally thought, “This could be better. It’s a great song. It needs to be even better.” We didn’t want there to be a weak moment in it, so we sat out in the front at this little studio. And we brought our pens and paper out there and created another second verse and tightened up a line or two in the bridge. And it did make it better.
I looked at the girls when it was all said and done and I said, “Are you guys feelin’ the same way I am about this? Is it just me? Because I have goose bumps all over me and hairs raising on the back of my neck. And I just feel like this is something special and something unique and important. They both looked at me and Stephanie said, “I’ve written a lot of songs. And I’ve gotten this feeling maybe once or twice.” And Deana said the same thing. We knew we had something special.
And when I played the demo for Tony and my management, we all looked at each other and I said, “I’ll lay down on the tracks for this one as my first single. This is how I want to come out and reintroduce myself to all the good people. This is the song.”
Because we had never put a ballad out with Trick Pony. I always wanted to, because we never showcased the softer side. The cool thing about this ballad is that it’s written with such reverence for a great love. But it really uses them as an example for the type of love, the type of staying power that we all aspire to have. This song is about you, it’s about me, it’s about—whether you’re married or you’re single, whether you’re young or old—it’s about love. It just happens to use the magnet-and-steel kind of love of Johnny and June, the undeniable kind of love of theirs, as its muse.
CW
The line “they don’t make love like that anymore” . . . do you think that’s true? Do they make it like that anymore?
HN
Absolutely. There’s no doubt. I do believe in love like that. I absolutely do believe they make love like that anymore. Here’s what I think they don’t make anymore. I think they make it so easy to get in and out of marriages that people oftentimes don’t take the commitment as seriously . . . there was a day and a time when our grandparents . . . there really wasn’t an option. It was till death do us part, and we’re gonna hang in there. I honestly don’t believe that people should stay in something so miserable and so unhealthy or dysfunctional and unhappy for the sake of a contract. I don’t believe that. But I think the times have changed. People can jump in and out of love like the swimmin’ pool. I think that’s what’s changed.
I do have that mentality in me. I do have a great love. And my attitude toward marriage is, on those rough days, we’re gonna work this out. And we’re gonna make this work. Some days are easy and some days are tougher than tough. But you have to want to work it out.
CW
Did you play this for John Carter, Rosanne or anybody else in the Cash family before it came out?
HN
I personally didn’t get to play it for John Carter, but Tony did, because Anastasia [Tony’s wife and a respected music industry executive in her own right] was working with John Carter on the Billy Graham movie that’s being shot here in Tennessee. In fact, oddly enough, I slept in the bed that Billy Graham slept in—that June made extra long because he’s such a tall man—that he slept in in Jamaica, when I spent Christmas in Jamaica with them in 2000.
Anastasia was making this movie and she and Tony played him “Johnny and June,” and his response was, “My mom and dad would’ve been honored, and we are honored as a family.” I believe that he loved it. I wanted him and the family to hear that and know that it was written with the utmost respect for their parents.
CW
Your first few shows as a solo artist, was it a combination of feeling “I can sing whatever I want whenever I want now” and also feeling all alone onstage . . . maybe missing the support?
HN
Easily again . . . all of the above. In the beginning, particularly, I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared. I used to be able to look to my right and look to my left and always have these two characters to play off of. The chemistry for so long was so good and we always worked off of one another. To walk up on a stage and still have a great band, but not have that support that I had with the two guys, yeah, it was scary. It was a transition, that’s exactly what I was going through, a transitional phase. It was stepping out of the past and into the present. That attitude also gave me a lot of drive and an excitement level. So that drive and that excitement, to be able to step up there and do my own show and show what I can do and build something that is just getting better and better and tighter and tighter, that far outweighs any kind of fear of being on my own.
Now, I step on stage and it is a blast. I have a smokin’ band, and everybody is there for the right reasons. We all love this music. I’ve learned a lot in this whole process along the way, this journey so far I’ve been on. So I’m taking that experience, particularly on stage, and putting it to use now. I know when a show’s starting to drag. I know how to put together a show fairly well now and keep a crowd excited and rock ‘em out. The number one thing for me right now is to introduce this new music. And it is a little departure from what I’d been doing with the boys. So, that’s my biggest challenge right now, stepping out doing new shows and doing quite a bit of new material people haven’t heard yet. So they’re hearing this stuff for the very first time live, and they can’t go get it until Aug. 5 [the day her album went on sale]. That’s kind of a cool feeling, and it’s also a cool sounding board for me.
CW
Seeing a lot of familiar faces in the audience?
HN
A lot of familiar faces. That’s one of the most cool things about all of this, too. A lot of Trick Pony fans . . . so many Trick Pony fans have continued to support me and encourage me, and shown up at these new shows. And what’s even more fun is, along with those established fans, I’m seeing a whole new crop of new faces out there. A lot of young girls, a lot of kids who are screaming “Johnny and June!” And that makes me feel on top of the world. Because, as a writer and an artist, you want your music to be heard by the largest audience possible. And it feels like, with every show, even if I have to get ‘em one by one, I feel like I’m building more and more fans. And the Trick Pony fans have continued to be supportive.
CW
I saw Ira at his showcase recently, and he was great . . . and I’m wondering if he now views your departure as liberating in some respects . . . think he does?
HN
I hope so. Here’s what I hope for both of those guys. I hope they find freedom, if you will, joy and happiness in music. Because I know we had begun to lose that. All I wish for them is that they find that again, however they do that. I want those guys to be able to know that kind of joy again. I wish that for both of them.

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