Dynamic Duo

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Ponchatoula’s own Meghan Linsey tops the charts as one half of country music’s Steel Magnolia

Call it one of the most fruitful karaoke nights ever: Five years ago, struggling musicians Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones met each other at a downtown Nashville bar and the chemistry was undeniable. They became a couple and gave it a go as the musical duo Steel Magnolia. Skeptical that anyone would ever appreciate their unique sound, they were ambivalent about a cattle call audition for season two of CMT’s Can You Duet?. But they took a chance and the rest is country music history. Steel Magnolia won the show, landed a record deal with Big Machine Records and have thus far proved to be the next great thing in modern country music. Their bold, powerhouse vocals are magnet and steel, bending and banding together to reach spot-on harmonies, distinctively contrasting yet always complementary. Their first single and top five hit, “Keep on Lovin’ You,” became the highest charting debut single from a coed duo in Billboard history. It has been downloaded more than 1 million times and has found a place on the soundtrack of major motion picture Valentine’s Day. Before their debut album could even hit store shelves, Steel Magnolia scored nine major music award nominations in 2010. And lo and behold, the golden-haired, poutylipped girl with the formidable vocal chops and retro style is a proud product of New Orleans! Linsey was born in New Orleans and moved to Ponchatoula with her family at age 12. She began playing music all over the state and has continued to evolve musically as she hits the country music circuit. New Orleans Living spent some down time with Linsey over the holidays, when she finally got the chance to relax with her family in Ponchatoula after a wilder than wild year of award shows, concerts, country radio appearances, video shoots and the like. The release of Steel Magnolia’s selftitled album last month debuted impressively at No. 3 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and No. 7 across genres on the Billboard Top 200. With their nomination for the 2011 Academy of Country Music Awards’ Top New Vocal Duo or Group, this year is shaping up to be another whirlwind one for Steel Magnolia.

Hey, Meghan! It’s so cool having a New Orleans girl’s music moving up the country music charts!

Well thank you so much, Christine!

To say last year was exciting is an understatement. Nine major award nominations before your debut album even came out, like the Academy of Country Music Awards’ Top Vocal Duo of the Year? That is wild!

It’s crazy! It’s been absolutely amazing. We’ve gotten to do a lot of cool stuff. We did our Grand Ole Opry debut; I can’t say enough good things about the past year. Obviously it’s been a lot of hard work, but we feel really blessed.

Steel Magnolia’s first album dropped last month, and I can only imagine how pumped you are about it.

Yes, we actually finished the record in February 2010, so to finally have it come out almost a year later is great. We really worked hard on the record. We went in with producer Dann Huff, who’s produced Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts, and pretty much anybody in country music who’s a big deal. So to get to work with Dann and do seven songs that we actually co-wrote on out of twelve songs on the record is just exciting. Finally we’re getting some music out there for the fans.

Definitely. I know Dann Huff is highly regarded in country music, but it’s refreshing to hear that Joshua made a comment to him in the beginning, something to the effect that he didn’t want to be Dann Huff-ed out, or something like that! It’s important because artists need to stand their creative grounds and defend their sound as much as possible.

Yeah, it was funny; I was kicking him under the table as he was saying it! But I was really glad he did, because I feel like a lot of the time these new acts come out and they get swallowed up and get told what to do and how to sound, so it was cool to go in with our vision. We had a hard time trusting people because we had been kind of beat up around Nashville for the last couple of years, so I think it was good that he put that out there. And obviously, once we got working with Dann, it was all good. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and definitely one of the most humble, so it was an amazing experience.

Tell us about the night you met Joshua, and if the chemistry between you two was instant.

I was working as a karaoke host in downtown Nashville, and Josh came in just to hang out and sing, and we met and we’ve been together ever since. We were kind of a couple before the music. It was an instant thing, because we really haven’t been apart since that day five years ago.

I guess both of you had the same dream to come to Nashville and play music, and then you wound up forming a duo.

We definitely had the same goal to be in Nashville, write songs and perform them for a living. And when we met, it upped the ante; it really gave us a direction. I think both of us were dead set on being solo artists and then when we met, there was this chemistry with the way we sang together, and it really changed our lives completely. I think what we’re meant to be doing is singing together.

You were discovered on the reality singing show Can You Duet?

Yeah, it was funny because we actually didn’t want to try out; we got talked into doing it by a friend last minute, because you don’t know how they’re going to portray you on TV. That’s kind of scary to jump into. Obviously we’re really glad we did it now! It ended up being a great experience. The show allowed us to be ourselves. We got to play the music we wanted to play and wear the clothes we wanted to wear and do our thing as artists. I think that was really our hesitation in the beginning, like are they going to dress us up in a bear suit and make us do something we don’t want to do, you know? [Laughs]

I love the gutsiness of “Ooh La La,” the first cut on your album and a song you performed on that show. That’s a really fun, great song that you wrote together.

Thank you! We actually wrote that song in Louisiana. We had been struggling musicians in Nashville, and we came down here one summer. Josh actually worked driving a truck around, and we were at my parents’ house in Ponchatoula and we started writing that song. We finished it up in Florida, but it’s kinda weird we started it in Louisiana. I think a lot of my music sensibility and part of our sound definitely comes from me growing up in New Orleans. There’s some great music there; I got to play with amazing musicians as a kid in bands and stuff, and I picked up a lot of different influences and learned a lot. I was probably about 14 when my mom helped me put a band together. We played all the festivals, like the Strawberry Festival in my hometown of Ponchatoula and Country on the Bayou, and some bars and stuff. So I just really hit it at a young age playing music around New Orleans.

And I guess all your band members were much older than you …

Oh, much. They’re all probably old enough to be my dad! But I played around New Orleans for years and I definitely learned a lot from them. We actually just hired a piano player from New Orleans. He lives in Hammond and his name is Jared Morvant. He’s going to come out on the road with us.

What are some of your favorite memories of New Orleans?

Definitely those things that you just can’t do here in Nashville; Mardi Gras was always fun. My dad and mom used to take me to the Zulu Parade as a kid. Oh, beignets and the food, there’s so much culture and stuff that you just can’t get anywhere else.

Has New Orleans inspired you to write?

Yeah, there’s just a feel of art in the air in the French Quarter. Anytime you hang out there you can be inspired. There’s definitely a certain eerie feeling, but in a good way, that you get there. We actually wrote a song recently about New Orleans, called “The Big Easy’s Been Hard on Me,” and it’s set in the French Quarter, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s very specific to New Orleans. Hopefully we can put that on a record one day and get it out there.

Your family must have been supportive of your singing. What do they think of you today?

Yeah, definitely, I think I’m where I am today because of that support system. My mom was always driving me to talent shows or to sing in church or do whatever I could get into. My dad and my sisters, they’ve all been really supportive. My mom probably wasn’t crazy about me dropping out of college the first year and staying in Nashville—what parent would be—but I think they are probably comforted by the fact that it’s all working out. That was one of the best things that I ever did, because if you have a backup plan, you’ll fall back on it. It definitely drove me, and it was nice to have the support of my parents to fall back on too.

When you attended Belmont, were you planning to finish college or were you really just there trying to break into the Nashville music scene?

Oh, I was maybe using school as a front a little bit! I was definitely there to do music. I mean, I got a job there running karaoke singing every night, and I was meeting people. What’s key is the friends you make in this town, plus it was good practice.

How do you hope to be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?

We’ll be on the Blake Shelton tour around that time, so my guess is we’ll probably be playing a show. We’ve hung out with Blake and Miranda [Lambert] a few times, and they’re real cool, so maybe we’ll just hang out with them.

You toured with Brad Paisley last year.

Yes, we were on the H20 World Tour all last summer and that was an amazing experience. Brad Paisley is just so talented and such a cool guy to hang out with. He was gracious enough to let us come out on the tour with him, and I think we really built our fan base for sure and met a lot of really cool people. I think we got a little spoiled with that being our first tour.

Your style has been recognized. You’ve been featured on different best-dressed lists in People Country and Style Bistro and the like.

Yeah, it’s been funny. I didn’t expect that, especially with us being so new, but it’s been really cool. I’ve always loved clothes and shoes, so it’s sort of my other thing besides music. It’s fun to dress up and do the awards shows and stuff. I do have a really amazing stylist who helps me pick out clothes, so that’s a big help.

Do you like to cook, and if so, do you have any New Orleans specialties you do?

Well, it’s funny because I don’t ever, ever cook, but I was actually in Illinois with Josh’s family for Thanksgiving, and I made bananas Foster, so that’s one thing that I can actually pull off. It’s impressive to everyone else because they don’t know how easy it is. They’re like, “Ooh! Aah!”

Let them be impressed! Your current single, “Last Night Again,” is moving up the charts as we speak.

Yeah, radio definitely is responding. I think they’re digging it. We did a cool fifties-style, Grease-type concept for the video, and it’s very personality driven. It’s one of my favorite videos for that reason. It’s only the third video we’ve done, but it just feels like us. We finally get a chance to put out a song we’ve written and to feel the buzz that we’re getting from radio and the fans. We’re just really excited to see where’s it’s going to go.

What’s it like working with your significant other every day?

You know what? It’s really awesome! People probably think that we’re crazy because we’re together all the time. But it’s nice to have someone to share all this with, because I don’t think anyone else could understand what you go through doing this. It’s just such a crazy concept. Of course we fight and have our tense moments just like any other couple, but I think overall we’re best friends at the end of the day, and it’s really a blessing to have each other.

You’ve performed at the Opry, and you performed at the 2010 American Country Awards in Las Vegas. How is it doing these big-time live shows?

It’s certainly humbling being in front of all of your peers; you just don’t want to mess up! You try not to look anyone in the eye. You’re like, “I’m not going to look around because Rascal Flatts is sitting there looking at me!” [Laughs] It’s more pressure, but we enjoy it, and it’s nice to feel that butterfly feeling in your stomach. It makes you want to do good.

So how do you know you’re a New Orleanian in Nashville?

Well, I’m probably the only person in Nashville who’s ever sucked the head of a crawfish! They probably think I’m a freak! [Laughs] Nashville is way calm compared to New Orleans, that’s for sure.

-CHRISTINE FONTANA