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Saddlin’ Up to Fame

by Danielle Burrows

Springsteen who? Three South Jersey women defy the state’s reputation as a feeder system for rock, stage and pop talent, setting their sights instead on country music careers.

Liv Devine not only recognizes the irony, she sings about it.

“Pickup trucks are not my style/I’d rather jog the whole damn mile,” she belts out in her first self-written country music single, 2009’s “Not So Country Girl.”

True, the 23- year-old Washington Township native and resident—who has opened for the likes of Wynonna Judd, Hunter Hayes, and Little Big Town—is more likely to meet friends in malls or diners than in low places. But as her lyrics attest, she sees no reason why Garden State talent and country twang can’t make harmonious bedfellows.

“Country music originated in the American South, but it’s a legitimate genre now—so it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. It’s just a musical style.”

In other words, no spurs or 10 gallon hats necessary. And Devine isn’t alone in efforts to musically merge both sides of the Mason-Dixon: She’s one of a handful of South Jersey women making names for themselves within country music, upending notions that country singers hail strictly from down South or out West.

“Fans don’t care so much what the song is about,” says 16-year-old Payton Taylor, who, along with her parents and younger sister, relocated from Washington Township to Nashville in January to pursue her country music dreams, “as long as you can sing it honestly and tell a story that you’ve lived or can relate to.”

Speaking of stories, country music is still writing its own: Crossover artists like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood were the first to mainstream the genre in the early ’90s.

Add the accessibility afforded by social media and iTunes, as well as its popularity among contestants on American Idol and America’s Got Talent, and country music has risen like a flannel-clad phoenix, infiltrating not only Billboard charts, but pop culture as a whole. Last year’s CMT Music Awards guests included Barack Obama and Jon Bon Jovi. Lady Gaga released a country version of her pop hit “Born This Way.” And market research shows country has displaced classic rock as America’s listening format of choice.

“My friends and I weren’t listening to country music back when I was young and in middle school—we were listening to pop, Q102,” Devine remembers. “By high school, though, everyone was blasting country out of their cars and going to WXTU concerts.”

As the genre expands, so does the crop of talent hoping to lasso it—resulting in some country stars being, well, not so country: Taylor Swift grew up in Pennsylvania’s Berks County and spent summers vacationing not in Mayberry, but in Stone Harbor—a nod to the reality that neither country roots nor country boots are prerequisites for accessing the scene.

For South Jersey’s aspiring songbirds, that’s a good thing.

“I love wearing tall, black leather boots,” Devine says. “So when I wrote my single ‘Boots,’ I was inspired by those four-inch heels—even though the audience probably assumes it’s country boots I’m talking about.”

Raised on a steady diet of jazz, pop and musical theater, Devine’s introduction to country came when she was a teen, and at the hands of her vocal instructor.

“Everything I sing naturally has a country inflection,” she says. “And I think that’s why, when I heard Martina McBride for the first time, it just resonated. It was like finding the perfect pair of shoes.”

For Taylor, the choice to pursue country music was more of a two-step outside her comfort zone.

“When I first started singing country, my mom was like, ‘This sure isn’t ‘I Could’ve Danced All Night,’” Taylor says with a laugh, recalling the My Fair Lady tune that’s characteristic of the style she was accustomed to performing.

Incidentally, it was local musical theater that first brought Taylor to the front door—almost literally—of country music. When Gloucester Township’s Mainstage Center for the Arts took teen performers to Nashville to sing outside the iconic Grand Ole Opry in 2009, Taylor returned home changed. “I fell in love with the city—with its culture and its music.”

She started reconsidering her Broadway aspirations, going as far as shooting video of herself performing country songs and show tunes back-to-back for comparison. “Country felt more natural, even though I was resistant at first. I was like, ‘No, I want to go to New York City!’”

Ultimately, the proverbial bus did a U-turn and headed southward. Taylor recorded her debut CD, Shine, in Nashville in 2011, and in the past year, in addition to moving to the city, she’s performed at its Country Music Association Music Festival.

Her forthcoming album, produced by Lynn Nichols (whose credits include The Band Perry, Amy Grant and Switchfoot), exclusively features songs written by Taylor herself—though not without the influence of writers’ rounds she’s attended since making Nashville her home.

“I learn so much by going to those. There’s so much talent down here. It seems like everybody from songwriters to custodians plays guitar.”

Devine also benefits from collaboration. Since recording her EP at Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studios, she’s worked extensively with North Jersey-based country station Thunder 106, frequently performing at their events. She also writes music alongside friends Michael August and Tyler James, who collectively bill themselves as Sweet Angeline. The trio recently collaborated with famed songwriter Jason Blume, whose songs have been popularized by the likes of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

“We sent Jason an idea for a song we had, and he loved it. So we wrote it with him, went down to Nashville, recorded the demo, and he continues to pitch it while we perform it live.”

Devine makes the trip to Nashville about once a month. “The goal is to have meetings and shows lined up whenever the band travels down,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve really begun to feel like I belong there. Now, I bump into people who ask my band to come play with them, or just hang out. It’s great to see how things are progressing.”

And while South Jersey has served as a launching pad for her and Taylor, it’s a destination for another singer-songwriter with sights set on the country charts. Doreen Taylor (no relation to Payton) was born and bred outside Buffalo, but settled in South Jersey while attending Temple University for vocal performance—maintaining residence here even while traveling as Christine Daae in the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.

Since shifting gears from theater to country, she’s decided to stay put—a choice that helps on both the creative and practical fronts. “Mullica Hill reminds me of where I grew up. I see tractors and farms from my house, which helps me lyrically. Plus, it’s so close to New York and Atlantic City.”

On May 23, Doreen kicked off her Summer Magic Tour at World Café Live, showcasing the singles that comprise the album she recorded at Optimus Studios in Newtown Square, as well as in Los Angeles.

But even if Nashville comes calling, don’t expect this songstress to leave South Jersey in the rearview. “My original roots are in rural New York, but my new roots are here. And I could not leave these new roots and the family I’ve made here. This is home.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July, 2013).
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