Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones like to do everything together. Living, loving, rockin' and rollin', writing music, singing songs, even finishing each others sentences while double-teaming an unsuspecting interviewer trying to keep a three-way conversation going.
The duo that forms equal parts of the country group Steel Magnolia seem like a rare pair. Linsey is a bright-eyed, 25-year-old blonde bombshell with a bubbly personality and some nitty-gritty pipes. Jones is a dark-eyed, curly-haired 30-year-old man of mystery with the prettier, higher register. Guarded and reserved initially, he answers questions thoughtfully, pragmatically, before revealing a dry sense of humor. You can almost see the wink in his wry.
Like their voices, they seem nothing alike. Put them and their blended vocals together, though, and Linsey and Jones seem perfectly suited for that new NBC comedy.
Only their too-good-to-be-true story is better than good, and more authentic than anything documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore or Ken Burns could develop. Here's your reality TV, pardner.
Get this: A down-on-his-luck, "bird-dogging" guy from Illinois meets a blues-beltin', balls-to-the-wall babe from Louisiana ripping through Susan Tedeschi's "It Hurts So Bad" in a karaoke bar in Nashville, gets blown away with the voice, then stops "everything I was doing."
They try out for one of those made-for-TV talent shows, fall in love, win the contest, earn a big-time country recording contract, release their first album and become overnight sensations, give or take a few months or so.
Are they for real? Yeah, man, they'll say, almost simultaneously. And, as corny as it sounds, they make beautiful music together.
All the guy-walking-into-a-karaoke-bar story lacked was a punch line. Maybe they'll eventually write that one, too. "It's funny how the story in hindsight ... I'm kinda starting to enjoy it because it seems from a movie but it's completely ... it's the way it was," Jones was saying on his cell phone from New York on the eve of their debut album release on Big Machine Records. Of course, Linsey was there, too, via speakerphone. The band and the album of the same name -- almost three weeks after its launch -- have made a sudden impact after the duo waited nearly a year for their passion player to come out.
"We've been through a lot," Jones adds, knowing the rest of the story might seem just as hard to believe.
To know their story, you must first get to know Steel Magnolia. Linsey grew up in the Deep South, first in New Orleans, then Ponchatoula, north of Lake Ponchartrain. Her parents were supportive of her career, with mom helping 14-year-old Meghan put together a band that would play country radio-sponsored festivals before she let her daughter take trips to Nashville to start writing songs and recording (that's Linsey, right, with Jones).
Jones was brought up in Charleston, Illinois by an adoptive family that didn't take his music career seriously. "I'm not saying they weren't supportive in the way parents need to be supportive," he says now. "But as far as that went, my dad was just like, 'Go down to the factory and get a job.' "
Right on cue, the first of many playful exchanges takes place.
Meaghan: "Yeah, I've worked at probably every karaoke bar in Nashville (laughs). It's kinda what I did for like five years when I first moved to town, that was the first job I got. It was a good place to just go in and sing all the time ..."
Josh: "And at the time, it was a good place for me to go in and drink for free." (And they both laugh.)
Meaghan: "He got to know the bartender."
Josh: "I would say it was our introduction into live performance on a different level. Because, by midnight, everybody gets pretty rowdy and they don't play any slow songs. And you get up there, and we put in songs and just really get into character. It was kinda crazy, really."
It wasn't until late in 2008 when their professional partnership finally paid off, though. That was after some tough times sleeping in the car with their two dogs, Patti and Rufus. Or, when they finally did find an apartment, turning on the oven to provide the only source of heat.
Meaghan: "We're not like the kids who had parents with tons of money to put into our career. We've really had to, you know, work to ... "
Josh: "We had to get on a reality show, you know." (laughing)
Meghan (still laughing): "Yeah, so it's just been a journey, you know. And we've done a lot of it together."
It took words of encouragement -- and a temporary home -- provided by Nashville singer-songwriter Bekka Bramlett, the daughter of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, to make Jones and Linsey feel wanted in the Music City.
After introducing himself to Bramlett at a Blue Monday Writer's Night, Jones, who had previously seen her perform at the Bluebird Cafe ("I had broken down crying three different times when I head her sing because she was so powerful"), found the courage to ask if the three of them could start writing songs together.
That eventually led to the "reality show." Season 2 of Can You Duet, CMT's singing competition produced by the creators of American Idol, employed judges -- Big Machine's president and CEO Scott Borchetta, Naomi Judd and Big Kenny from Big & Rich (pictured left to right) -- who were the lone arbiters in this contest.
With the October 2008 win came a recording contract with Big Machine and life since then, has "Been crazy, man," Linsey says. "We pretty much hit the ground running."
For strategic reasons, the record's release was delayed twice in 2010, for which Linsey sounds grateful. But Jones doesn't hide his frustration.
Meaghan, pointing out that probably at least "15 superstar acts" came out with records in the last quarter of 2010: "I think it was a smart move to move the record to January; it gives us a lot of room to breathe and maybe a chance for people to actually hear it that wouldn't have."
Josh: "I think people get to only hear a certain side of you when you put out a record like this; we were anxious for everybody to hear the thing front to back rather than hearing singles that were picked; I think that was kind of frustrating; and then playing a tour in the summer (opening for Brad Paisley) without having a full record was kind of ... different, you know. But now we're glad. ... (Before that), everybody else has their record out and we're just sitting around, you know what I'm saying? It's like, 'Hey, we want our record to come out, too.' "
Now that it's out, this 12-song collection (seven of which they co-wrote) has received a fair share of critical acclaim, getting a "B" grade from Entertainment Weekly ("Having two equally strong voices keeps them unique.") Steel Magnolia is on the fast track professionally, opening up some shows for Blake Shelton beginning January 28, being featured in a five-page spread in Country Weekly and getting nominated for "Top New Vocal Duo or Group," at the Academy of Country Music Awards to be held in Las Vegas on April 3. (Fan voting began this week and continues through February 24 at voteacm.com.)
So do they dare talk about their personal relationship?
Meghan: "We started out friends and then we started dating and then the music thing kind of came last. We were together probably a year when we started writing and singing together."
Josh, after being asked how things are going personally: "Terribly, man, we're in shambles." (laughs)
Meghan: "Oh, he's lying."
Josh: "No, everything's going good. We're too busy to argue."
Meghan: "Yeah, it's been great, man. We actually kind of like having someone there that understands what you're going through. It's a really hard business, being in the music business. You can try to convey that to other people, but I don't think anybody ever fully understands unless you're in it."
Both Linsey and Jones like to invoke the names of famous country pairings such as Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and George Jones and Johnny Cash and June Carter -- and even the Everly Brothers -- as sources of inspiration.
They both (naturally) realize it's tough to keep a good thing going on stage and off.
Meaghan: "I think our relationship and the connection we have is very rare."
Josh (in measured tones): "Yeah, the circumstances are kinda, you know ... we spend a lot of time together but at the end of the day, we really like each other."
Asked when they'll be ready to take this relationship to the next level, Meghan gets interrupted as she starts to say, "Musically ..."
No, no, personally.
Josh: "Oh, personally, yeah, we plan on making the next record (Meghan laughs) very, very personal; kind of delving into new territory."
And does that include the sound wedding bells?
Josh: "Well, the thing is that we're already married ... to our music."
Meghan (groaning): "Oh, my God. Nah, we'll get married one day, probably. We'll see. We don't like ... I don't know. We get along pretty good and things are going pretty well and we're pretty busy, so we haven't thought about it too much."
For now, they believe in the enduring power of love and the will to survive, telling all in breaking up/making up songs such as "Without You," "Last Night Again" and "Edge of Goodbye," a pull-no-punches, battle-of-the-sexes brouhaha with no clear winner. Coming from a pair who described themselves as "broken-hearted people" at some point in their lives, even the loneliest of the lovelorn should find some hope.
"I think that people want to believe in love stories and that love lasts and I think that deep down ... that's comforting," Jones says.
Maybe they were made for each other ... and at least one episode of Perfect Couples.
• Publicity photo courtesy of Big Machine Records.
• Can You Duet photos by CMT/John Russell.
Follow Steel Magnolia on Twitter.
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