Shannon Brown may have been one of the biggest winners at the 2004 CMT Flameworthy Awards, and she didn't take home one trophy. Her reward came when the stunning country singer from northwest Iowa and her husband were escorted to incorrect seats, which happened to be next to country duo Big & Rich's John Rich and Big Kenny, who were also in the wrong seats.
Brown and Rich, who are longtime friends, began updating each other on their careers and Rich mentioned that he had a song that would be perfect for her. "I call it divine intervention," says Brown. "By the end of the night, we were nose-to-nose intensely talking about going into the studio together and just doing something great together. When I heard the song "Turn to Me" the next day, it blew me away."
Brown realized instantly that she had found a musical kindred spirit, a fellow singer/songwriter who had tremendous respect for traditional country music yet refused to be contained by the formulaic boundaries the industry had placed on contemporary country songs. Thanks to the success of Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and other country innovators who have broadened the styles and sounds accepted in country's mainstream realm, the timing couldn't be better for the unveiling of Brown's Rich- produced album, Corn Fed, which artfully blends the authentic vocals and heart-rending lyrics of country music with soul-drenched blues, Memphis grooves and rock guitars. The result is the most personal and powerful album in her career.
"I got to make the album I wanted to make," she says. "Even though this record is edgy, it is still very country. You've got Bob Wills' twin fiddles mixed with Michael Jackson beats. That is just the brilliant mind of John Rich. He said, 'Let's do it; it's not wrong.'
Brown is from Spirit Lake, and cut her teeth performing at area events in places such as Albert City and Schaller.
"I wanted it to be true to my roots-meaning where I come from and what I grew up listening to. I wanted the album to reflect all of those grooves that I grew up loving as a kid," she said.
But after a decade that brought professional upheaval and personal fulfillment with her 2002 marriage to Shaun Silva, a Nashville video and film director, she found she had some serious topics to address as well. Corn Fed is truly Brown's musical autobiography, a sonic sketch of the sojourn she has experienced as her dream has taken her from a small town in Iowa to Music City USA.
"The album starts with 'Corn Fed' and ends with a song called 'Small Town Girl,' which are two songs that I co-wrote," she says. "I wanted it to be a beginning and an end because to me, they are bookends. One starts out with who I am, where I am from, how I was raised and how proud I am of that. It shows my integrity, just who I am as a person.
"'Small Town Girl' talks about how when you have dreams, you dream to leave the nest and go fulfill those dreams. But in the end, after your journey, you realize that you just want to be who you were when you left, and never let that go. I've come full circle, knowing I love to sing but it doesn't make me who I am."
Nestled in between those songs are irresistible selections that run the gamut musically, from "Big Man," a rocking, tongue-in-cheek song that is a cross between country and AC/DC, and "Lightning," a saucy song that pays homage to female strength, to emotional ballads such as "Turn to Me" and "Why."
'The common thread is that these are all experiences and personal journeys that I've taken," says Brown, who co-wrote seven of the 12 songs on Corn Fed, including "Big Man," "Amen," "Something Good," and "Pearls."
The journey began in Spirit Lake, a resort town built along three natural lakes where her mother and father, a guitarist/band leader, owned several clubs and restaurants. "I would go with my mom when she was cleaning the disco and I would dance on the dance floor with the lights going," she says. "I was always onstage, I was always performing, whether it was for me or my pretend audience. I was that typical kid with the hairbrush, always singing in the mirror or bathtub, just a little ham."
Although she sang in choruses, show choirs and pageants, she didn't dare dream of a recording career. "There has never been a time when I didn't sing," she says. "But I was never the girl who looked in the mirror and said, 'I'm going to be a superstar one day.' I lived in a little town in Iowa and I just truly never thought it would be a possibility."
That all changed at age 17, when she began singing on karaoke nights every Thursday at her parents' club. Her father asked her to sing just to get the crowd going, but pretty soon, the crowd was returning just to hear her. "One night, my dad came up to me and said, 'You could do it. You could be a professional singer. I think you have what it takes.'"
Her parents believed in their daughter so much that they dedicated their lives to helping launch her career. For nearly six years, her father ran sound and her mother handled lights as she performed about 180 one-nighters annually.
She moved to Nashville in 1994 and soon began singing songwriters' demos. For two years, she would work in Nashville for two weeks and then make the 15-hour drive to begin a three-week tour, and then return and start all over. She signed a record deal in 1997 and her deep, soulful voice quickly became a Nashville and industry favorite. Like many other artists, however, she suffered from corporate restructuring and the fickle nature of the music business.
Unwilling to compromise her artistic integrity, she persevered, believing that it would all eventually come together if she just remained true to herself. The strategy proved successful after the fortuitous awards show encounter with Rich, who ultimately co- wrote seven songs on the project. The two hit the studio and recorded a three-song demo of "Turn to Me," "Pearls" and "High Horses." Warner Bros. executive Paul Worley heard the demo, loved it and quickly offered her a deal, as well as complete creative freedom in the studio.
"I am convinced that it is all about timing and my past experiences, and what I went through were stepping stones to get me to this place today," she says. "I have no regrets. I wouldn't change a thing."
Editor's Note: Visit shannonbrown.com on the web to link to a free AOL video preview of the making of the singer's new "Corn Fed" album on Warner Brothers, which is due out later this year. The first single and video from the album have just been completed.