If life is a carnival, Sherrie Austin's career in Nashville is a three-ring circus.
Daring, unpredictable and scary, her time under the big top has had its shares of thrills and spills. But with the deft touch of a skillful acrobat who long ago overcame her fear of heights, Austin is achieving a delicate balance. Her high-wire act runs between commending and criticizing a business that's contributed to her emotional and professional highs and lows.
After an eight-year hiatus from making records, it's no wonder her new album is named Circus Girl. Finally back as a performing artist, Austin's youthful appearance, delightful warble and twinkle in her eye make that "1970" on her birth certificate look like a misprint. And even if the Music City and the music industry have changed since her earlier recordings, Austin's hopes and dreams remain the same with album No. 5, released on Nov. 15, 2011. A brazen but breezy exploration into the female mind, the independent release includes 13 songs she wrote or co-wrote and co-produced.
In relation to Austin's career, though, it's best to avoid the "C" word -- comeback.
"For me, that's a weird term to use," Austin said last week over the phone during a rainy day in Nashville, her permanent residence for 17 years since arriving as a 5-foot-1 bundle of energy imported from Down Under. "I mean, I never went away, so 'coming back' always sounds slightly strange."
In fact, Austin did leave Nashville temporarily, achieving a goal to work on Broadway. Asked about her departure, she initially cited exhaustion and the desire to take a break.
Upon further reflection, Austin admitted the industry confronted her with a line as dreaded as "Bring your playbook" is in sports: Your time as a relevant performer has come and gone in Nashville.
"In the sense of coming back and making a record again, well that happened, you know, as an artist -- I can put this in a nutshell -- I think as an artist I felt that, for me, the circus had left town," Austin said. "That had already gone."
Drilled into her head that the window of opportunity stays open only so long, Austin started to believe it. "It's not even something people necessarily say," she added. "It's just something that you kinda feel... I have to say, in defense of country music, it is a little different. And that's what I love about country music.
They believe in second chances, but... you're told that youth is the new hot thing and that maybe you had your shot and that was your time and that was your season and you're done. I didn't realize that until making this record, by the way, that I might have actually bought into some of that. And, uh, I don't know if that's just a load of crap. (laughs) It's only true if you believe it to be true.
When the music business got in the way of the music, that was the ultimate beat-down for an effervescent entertainer who just wanted her own words and music heard.
"When you were a kid and you're dancing around your house singing with a hairbrush, that's all you're doing is expressing yourself in absolute innocence and free abandon," Austin said, that adorable Aussie accent never corrupted by Southern living. "Then you get older, and all of a sudden it's, 'How are we gonna sell this?'... and that's what kinda used to shut me down."
Still a successful songwriter, with cuts by A-list artists like George Strait, Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins, Austin needed encouragement from friends such as Shane Stevens, co-producer and frequent collaborator Will Rambeaux and Doug Merrick. There also were loyal fans who reconnected through Facebook and Twitter and convinced her to take the plunge.
A record that started two years ago as a quiet, acoustic project turned into a no-holds-barred personal testament to female empowerment, even though Austin often enjoys writing from the male perspective and boasts that her songs have been cut by more men than women, including her favorite, Strait's "Where Have I Been All My Life."
Having the the freedom to do it her way, Austin never once thought that "I was making a record for anyone other than myself."
While incorporating the attitudes of strong country influences such as Lee Ann Womack and Tammy Wynette, Austin also relies heavily on the opposite sex to shape her sound. Growing up a fan of Tom Petty, George Harrison (her favorite Beatle) and their Traveling Wilburys amalgamation, Austin engages the listener with tasty "Handle With Care" hooks on the opening title track followed by "Tryin' To Be Me."
While she revisits her biggest hit, "Streets of Heaven," other stirring cuts already have been recorded by artists such as Kristen Chenoweth (whose live version of "I Didn't" on the American Country Awards last week should be renamed "You Shouldn't"), Danielle Peck ("Bad for Me") and Emily West ("That Kind of Happy"). But Austin obviously wanted to attach her own voice to them and give them another shot to be heard.
Austin also didn't like what she was hearing from her fellow musicians.
"I have felt for the longest time that a lot of our female artists right now in country music are not necessarily -- I'm trying to think of the best way to put it -- it's almost like they're afraid to be the age they are right now," said Austin, whose co-writers on this album include up-and-comers Mallary Hope, Charity Daw and Jaclyn North.
I'm missing someone singing to me about some stuff that is real and honest and, you know, tears running down your face, heart on your sleeve, this is how I'm feeling kind of song. I've missed that as a listener. So with this record, I was trying to express myself in a way that I couldn't before... now I can just say whatever I want because I'm not necessarily trying to fit into any box.
Austin understands the The Facts of Life. The teenager, known as Sherrie Krenn even had a recurring role as Pippa McKenna on the last two seasons of the hit TV show from 1987-88. She realizes showbiz wields a double-edged sword, whether it's in New York, Hollywood or Nashville.
"It's really the same rules apply," she said. "But for me, I've just learned to navigate through the treacherous waters of the entertainment business no matter where I am. (laughs) I've just become a really strong swimmer.
"I've had my years of bitching and moaning. I never really did that out loud. It was always in private, because I tend to be a very private person. But I had my years where I wanted to, you know, just scream and go, 'What the heck do you have to do around here to make something work?' "
Country gets a facelift
Austin moved to Nashville in the mid-1990s, when country was in the midst of a facelift. Pop infiltrated the traditional genre and sexy, video-friendly crossover acts such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Sara Evans made waves. Others followed, led by Allison Moorer, Chely Wright and Mindy McCready.
For various reasons, some professional, others personal, they all hit career lulls while either nearing or reaching their 40s, with only Hill among those mentioned firmly entrenched in the Nashville community the entire time.
The incredibly gifted Moorer, who gladly left Nashville behind after she married Steve Earle, moved to New York and started a family, has a perception that the Music City is less than kind to performers who write their own material. The Grammy-nominated artist who also was up for the Academy Awards' best song in 1999 ("A Soft Place To Fall") didn't hold back her resentment in my 2010 interview with her.
"It's no place to try to be a singer-songwriter, let's face it," Moorer said. "They just don't like you very much. ... They don't take very kindly to artists who want to sing their own songs 'cause it doesn't feed the beast in the way they would like it to."
In this case, Austin sides with Nashville.
"Well, in my experience, I haven't felt that," she said. "I have to say I've always ... that's never, at least as far as I know, been a negative. I was always encouraged. Every single I put out, I wrote. So I have nothing to bitch about in that department.
"I think everybody's story is different. We all have different personal experiences. Allison may have felt that in her career. But, for the most part, for me, I think the town's been pretty encouraging. I don't think we always pick the right singles, but that's a whole other story."
Austin believes Nashville is even more welcoming to singer-songwriters now, making it considerably tougher on the ones who only write.
"Artists don't make the money they used to in touring and merch," she said. "They're having to give so much away. Everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie because the pie is getter smaller, it's shrinking... the poor writers are going, 'Helloooo. What do I do? I'm just a songwriter, I'm not a singer. I need somebody to record my songs.' "
If that also helped push Austin back into the artist arena, applaud her for making the best out of a shaky situation.
After a four-year absence, she recently returned to the Grand Ole Opry stage at its original home, the Ryman Auditorium, to sing two Circus Girl numbers, and hopes to get invited back.
Austin plans to tour in 2012, something she said, "I wasn't sure I was ever gonna do again." A date already is scheduled in her homeland, where the Sydney native (who grew up in Tasmania and Queensland) hasn't been for 12 years. She will perform at the CMC Rocks the Hunter festival that also includes Wynonna Judd, Dierks Bentley and headliners Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
With a rebooted career path based on "the build-it-and-they-will-come business plan," Austin's goals include singing in front of thousands of people again and hearing her songs regularly played on the radio.
Back on TV
Selling a few records would be nice, too. As a single woman of independent means, Austin wondered after getting back in the studio in February how in the world she would be able to publicize the new record. Then, an edgy TV documentary fell into her lap two months later.
The second season of Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, a 30-minute, 12-episode series on the Sundance Channel, takes an uncompromising look at four straight women and their best gay male friends. Based in Nashville this season, it airs each Friday through January.
Austin and her close friend Stevens, a Nashville singer-songwriter who formed their relationship when she was on Broadway six years ago, were approached after being recommended by Vanessa Davis, Austin's publicist at the time.
"We turned it down two or three times, I do believe, before we decided to do it," said Austin, whose "audition" with Stevens was one Skype interview. "I was very protective of Shane and wanted to make sure he was seen in the best light... I was like, am I ready to venture out and discuss this subject which is still somewhat taboo, especially in the South? And then we decided, hey, maybe we can do some good with this show. It's time to start having this discussion and we're just the ones to do it.
"So we said, OK, we're gonna loosen up the buckle of the Bible Belt with this one, but we'll give it a shot."
Tackling heavy subjects such as infidelity, divorce, religion and acceptance of gays in a conservative red state, it remains to be seen if it produces the desired results for Austin. And while she isn't playing the dating game ("It's probably time to venture out into that world but, I don't know, I'm not feeling it yet," she said), the Circus Girl is pleased with her Best Gay Friendship.
Austin believes she and Stevens are even tighter as a result of the series. Stevens, who wrote Lady Antebellum's "American Honey," shares a campy Christmas number with Austin called "Naughty or Nice," that closes the album. The making of the just-in-time-for-the-holidays video is featured on this week's episode. (See the video below.)
"I call him my gay husband," Austin added. "Because we have to make so many decisions together and have spent so much time together in the last five months shooting it, we can't help but become closer."
Austin said she received an endorsement of the show via Twitter from fellow 41-year-old singer-songwriter Chely Wright, who came out as a lesbian in a highly publicized and well-orchestrated media display in 2010. Known primarily for "Single White Female," Wright ditched Nashville, moved to New York and married her girlfriend, Lauren Blitzer, in August.
Wright's tension-filled months leading up to her life-changing decision are the subject of Wish Me Away, a gripping feature-length documentary. But Lifted Off the Ground, her excellent but overlooked Rodney Crowell-produced album released in conjunction with her coming-out announcement, barely cracked the Billboard 200.
While she is devoting more time to gay rights than country singing, Wright performs occasionally in small clubs like the Walnut Room in Denver, where in November she detailed a conference call "intervention" her label held over the record's dark subject matter.
"Seriously, if you don't write something positive and hopeful, we're going to have to put a warning sticker on your album so people don't kill themselves. It's a sad, sad little album," was the message given to a now seemingly happier Wright, who shared that story with her concert audience. The sad irony was lost on many who also attended the Denver Film Festival and saw the movie, which includes the singer recounting a rock-bottom moment when she contemplated committing suicide.
"I know Chely fairly well," Austin said. "I haven't talked to Chely in a while kind of to know how she's feeling about things now. I'm sure her life changed when she came out of the closet, so to speak, and would love to have a conversation with her about that actually, considering this TV show that I'm on."
Austin's thoughts turn back to Nashville, the sometimes claustrophobic and paradoxical "little big town" where horror stories might outnumber success stories.
"Yeah, I have had artist friends that have left. It can be a tough town," she admitted. "I'm not saying that it's not. It's a very tough little town. I just always, for me, found a way somehow to evolve, even if it meant leaving. And there were times I had to leave Nashville because... I had a love-hate relationship with it.
"I have come to a place where I understand Nashville now. And I love it for what it is. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to get out every now and then and go chase another dream."
Without jumping through too many hoops to finally make another record, Austin sounds like she's merrily back where she belongs, walking that thin line between love and hate.
Just don't call it a comeback.
Publicity photos courtesy of Sherrie Austin.
Watch the video for "Naughty or Nice" by Sherrie Austin and Shane Stevens: