One of the finest (and rather underappreciated) vocalists of our time is the ethereal Kelly Lang. As the offspring of Conway Twitty's influence and road manager, Velton Lang, the songbird first got her start at the tender age of 15 with the release of her first Billboard single "Lady, Lady," which catapulted the ingenue into the limelight. She went on to star on such TV features as Music City Tonight, with Crook & Chase, and Ralph Emery's Nashville Now (on TNN) as well as become a finalist on Ed McMahon's Star Search.
From there, she's released four studio albums, including the searing collection Iconic duets, alongside her husband and living legend TG Sheppard. With 21 No. 1 hits to his name, including "Last Cheaters Waltz," "I Love 'Em Everyone" and "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven," his markmanship and passion fueled a creative rennaissance for both artists–something that is rare these days. "TG and I are finally in a place in our lives that we have nothing to prove," Lang shares, quite frankly, with NashvilleGab, exclusively.
"We aren’t trying to get out and compete with mainstream radio right now. We have a fan base that we’ve grown over the years, thank goodness, that have been really loyal and supportive of both our careers," she continues of the project, released independently. "Then, when we joined forces and went into the studio together, it basically doubled our pleasure and the value of what we were asking for."
She notes that the project was long-in-the-making, "We put it off for a long time. The reason being is I really wanted to get some groundwork under my own career built before people assumed that we’d record together. We had been asked to do that for many years. It just didn’t feel like the timing was right. I had just come off a really fun year of my own. I felt like I would have something more to add to the project if I waited a bit longer. I’m so thankful I did. Nobody can take it away from us. Our kids can always say, ‘yup, that’s what mom and dad did.’ When we work on the road together, people had always asked us to sing something together."
On the 10-track set, there are quite a few surprising treats, including a re-imagined version of "I Got You Babe," originally recorded by Sonny and Cher. Lang admits that it was such a "balancing act" to determine the direction to go in and how to tackle such incomparable vocalists. She explains, "We struggled with ‘should we keep it all classic country’ or ‘should we keep it with the biggest duets of all time.’"
She adds, "Being that we’re in the country music industry, the country ones were obviously more familiar to us. We honestly went with our gut and what friends of ours had requested in concert. Of course, ‘I Got You Babe’ is just a fun one to do for audiences. We just decided on that title ['Iconic Duets'] and not be stuck in one certain type of music."
"Music is just universal, and if it makes you feel good, it doesn’t matter how it evolved or where it came from or who recorded it originally. That song, in particular, was the last one we really decided to throw on their, because it was so diverse. I think we had a great time."
When Lang and Sheppard officially set about to do the project last spring, it didn't take long before it began to take shape in a fun way."I had done a project last November called ‘Shades of K.’ I went in with an engineer names Buddy Hyatt. Him and the musicians who played on it kept seeing TG and I in the studio while I was recording that. They were the ones that kind of nailed the deal down," she recounts. "They said, ‘we’d be honored to play on a TG Sheppard project. When are you going to sing together?’"
"Finally, we decided last April," she describes. "We started the recording project in July. It took us a few months to get the song list down. We honestly reached out to the fans on Facebook to see what their favorite duets of all time were. This is kind of a compilation of a lot of people’s input."
On which track was the hardest to tackle and what the duo learned about each other: "I think it was the first [‘Jackson’]. When you begin anything, you think, ‘what direction is it going to go in?’ He and I had never really worked together. We learned a lot about each other. We had been together forever, and we learned that we have two totally different ways of doing things in the studio. He’s more technical. If it’s written on the paper, he’ll sing it exactly like it is. I’m more emotional. I don’t even go in with lyrics. I sing what comes from my heart. I might be wrong. I’d rather sing just how it feels. The first song in itself was the hardest to do because we had to learn one another’s techniques and personalities."
On "Islands in the Stream," Lang reveals that there was a special visitor in the studio. "The writer Barry Gibb was actually in the studio with us when we were doing some of the vocals. That was a charge. It was exciting and nerveracking at the same time," she laughs.
While Sheppard and Lang have only been married since 2007, they've known each other their whole lives, which certainly helps their energy when working together. "We play well off each other. I’ve known him all of my life, and I have great respect for his judgement," she says. "I tended to have an opinion about what songs we should do. Ultimately, I really let him make a lot of the decisions, not only as my husband, but as leaning to his wisdom. He’s had [so many] #1 hits, and it be beneficial to anybody to listen to his experience."
"I really appreciated that he let me have a voice, and we really grew together. We laughed more than sang."
Of course, Lang wants to be clear that they are not trying to copy the originals in any way, shape or form. She clarifies, "There’s another thing about this project that I’m really hoping people can pick up on: we would never want anybody to think we recorded the songs to improve upon the original. There’s no way you can do that. We did want to honor the writers and honor the artists that came before and hopefully throw a new twist on something and allow our fans to have something new and yet familiar."
The process of re-working through each song can be quite daunting, though. "The musicians of today, compared to those of yesterday, have a fresher ear, perhaps. Of course, technology is also newer. No matter how you’d intend to go in and do a song, there’s no way to perfectly emulate what’s already been done," she asserts of how the industry has changed over the years. "It automatically has a fresher sound to it. You don’t want to take too many liberties because the human ear enjoys hearing the melody a certain way. It was a balancing act."
She goes on, "When we decided to add banjo to ‘Jackson,’ I just thought it sounded more bluegrass. We wanted to add a crispy feel to it. That was TG’s idea, which I thought was really great. It’s simply technology and the musicians took it in a direction they wanted to take it in. We followed."
On March 15, Lang was inducted into the North American Country Music Hall of Fame, something that still blows her mind. "It feels like a form of acceptance," she confesses of the experience. "When your peers honor you with something like that, it makes you feel like you are on the right track and what you’ve been doing your whole life matters. I felt very loved and appreciated, like I hadn’t wasted my time."
That's just a small nugget of some of her hopes and dreams for her career. "I would love to be in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, too, of course. That’s the pinnacle of anybody’s career. I’m all about celebrating all the little details, too. If I make a connection for a concert I want to do or play a venue I like, I find those [rewarding]. I like to celebrate the past, not just the getting there. I have a lot of little hall of fames in my head. That was one of them that was definitely a pinnacle. It was a little bit of a surprise."
With such an impressively lengthy career, there are things baout the industry that are bound to change. "Well, I’ve been in it since I was so little," she recalls, fondly. "My dad was Conway Twitty’s road manager, from the time I was one till 25 years later. I don’t feel there have been any surprises. The music industry has changed a lot, and it’s not necessarily easier."
She adds, "You’d think it would be with social media and being able to put so much in your own hands. I like a lot of that change. I am just so surprised (and saddened a bit) by how mainstream radio doesn’t allow the fans to call in and request their favorite this or that. Fans have lost a lot of their voice at radio. Again, with social media, fans have the opportunity to find their music elsewhere. That’s been good and bad. It’s a double-edged sword with that."
Do she listen to the radio nowadays? "Honestly, I really don’t. I know that sounds bizarre. I don’t like being influenced as a writer as to what is going on. I like to write from the heart and write what is inspired to me, instead of who is cutting that week."
"If something is being inspire upon me to write it, it may sit on the shelf for 10 years, but I feel like it was put to me for a reason, maybe for later. What’s going on on radio right now, I don’t have anything against. I listen to it periodically. I think music comes and goes in waves with things I’m more attracted to than other times. Right now, I find myself more attracted to more romantic, maybe more pop–as in Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers-kind of pop, a softer kind of love song kind of thing. I don’t hear a lot of that on radio right now," she says.
Having grown up around Twitty, she admits that she never really thought it was a big deal, at the time. "Conway was always very good about letting us hear songs that he was writing or was getting ready to record before the national audience got to hear it. Sitting around at his feet watching him sing me songs, that was pretty remarkable. At the time, I honestly didn’t think it was that big of a deal."
"Going into the studio with him and watching him do his magic, I thought everybody did that," she laughs. "It didn’t dawn on my that that was really historical and magical at the time. I actually wrote a song about my friendship with Conway, and it’s called ‘Goodbye Darling.’ It’s all about we wasted some time; I assumed he would be here forever. You can’t take people for granted."
For 2014, Lang has her sights set for the skies. "I’ve come off a really great fun year, and I couldn’t imagine anything bigger than what I was able to do. I really enjoyed playing the Ryman last year. I would like to do that again. I would love to do more television. I’ve got a pilot under my belt. I would like to pursue that and maybe have some TV things. I want to do Fallon and Letterman this year. You might as well dream big, right?"
Don't forget to grab Iconic Duets on iTunes now!
Photos courtesy of Kelly Lang
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