2020 was anything but predictable. Thankfully, the constant for me remained writing about what I love: country music. While the year brought about a lay-off from Billboard in April, I began freelancing in May for Forbes, Sounds Like Nashville and CMA Close Up before joining Country Insider full-time in October.
Interviews looked a little different this year between Zoom and phoners due to COVID-19. Before the world shut down in March, I was able to do a few in-person interviews including my first of the year with Dierks Bentley’s alter-ego Douglas D. Douglason of his ’90s-influenced band Hot Country Knights and shadowing Lainey Wilson as she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
Here’s a look back at my favorite interviews from 2020.
1. Dolly Parton
While I’ve attended press conferences of Dolly’s before, getting 20 minutes of one-on-one time over the phone was added pressure. What has Dolly never been asked before? How do you cover everything she’s been working on in 20 minutes? I tried my best! From her giving heart to writing in graveyards and not giving up her publishing of “I Will Always Love You” to Elvis Presley, Parton shared a lot of her journey and career with me for Sounds Like Nashville’s December cover story. She also touched upon why it’s important to give back following her $1 million donation to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center to aid researchers studying COVID-19.
“It’s better to give than receive, but it’s just as important that once you get into a position to be able to help that you really should,” she tells me. “It really helps a lot of people and it makes you feel good about yourself. I love being able to be in a position to help. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ I always think about that. I’ve been given so much, so why not give back?”
2. Brett Eldredge
I’ve followed Brett’s career since the beginning and have been interviewing him over the past seven years. We’ve grown up in the country industry together and our chats about songwriting and Nashville have always been my favorites. (Here’s a photo of us after a chat in 2013!) His 2020 album Sunday Drive shows his growth as an artist and songwriter. During our conversation for Sounds Like Nashville’s July cover, he opened up about signing off from social media and stepping away from the spotlight to write his fifth studio album and shared many of the stories behind the songs on the project.
“As soon as I started giving myself the time to feel things and to be vulnerable, it was the most empowering thing. It was also the most creatively, supercharging thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “All these lyrics and all these melodies, all these things were coming up in my mind and in my heart because I was not distracting myself with phones or with anything. I was just being and that’s a huge thing to do.”
3. Hot Country Knights
My first interview of 2020 was one I’ll never forget. I spent nearly an hour with Douglas D. Douglason – aka Dierks Bentley’s alter ego and lead singer of ’90s-influenced country band Hot Country Knights – for Billboard. Mullet, ’90s attire and all, Doug kept me on my toes with his comical stories of his band’s escapades and how the Hot Country Knights planned to shake up country music.
“Look, the ’90s are hot right now,” Douglason says matter-of-factly. “[Bentley is] pretty much riding our mullets to the finish line on this one. He wanted to get involved with us and produce us and [we] wrote some original songs. It’s been awhile since I’ve done that—writing. Just using a pen. I don’t read or write much. He wrote most of them but stole most of my ideas.”
4. Sam Hunt
Sam’s sophomore release Southside was the album country fans had been waiting six years for. With the coronavirus at the forefront of everyone’s minds, our normal chats about the story behind the song and evolution of the project turned into album release plans in the midst of a pandemic for an article in the April 25 print issue of Billboard. At the time, a tour in support of Southside was up in the air but there was no doubt in the singer’s mind about releasing his much anticipated second album.
“People are at home on their phones entertaining themselves with music and videos — it’s a perfect time to release an album,” he says.
5. Nashville songwriters
I have been fascinated with songwriters for as long as I can remember. How do they walk into a room with nothing and several hours later leave with a three-minute song that can change a person’s life? For months I had worked on a story about the Evolution of the Nashville songwriter which published on Forbes in May. Quite possibly the longest feature I’ve written to date, it was a look into how Music City’s songwriters have changed since the ’90s.
Since the article published I’ve continued writing about songwriters for both Forbes and my monthly column for Sounds Like Nashville. This year I’ve been fortunate to interview the genre’s most revered country songwriters including Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley, Nicolle Galyon, Hillary Lindsey, Kent Blazy and Ray Fulcher. I could probably fill up another Top 10 list with all these chats! Maybe next year!
6. Kip Moore
It’s no surprise that Kip would end up on my year-end list. He’s long been my favorite interview for his honesty and fresh perspective on country music, songwriting and life. (Above is a photo of our first chat in 2014!) I had the pleasure of interviewing him three times this year for three separate publications. In March, Billboard announced the date of his fourth studio album aptly titled Wild World.
“My first hope at all times is that it does something to your soul when you’re listening to it,” Moore says. “I never want it to be fodder and just words and melodies. I hope that it somehow applies to other people’s lives and brings them a little peace with questions they have and their own internal struggles they’re having. I’m always hoping they can feel my heart as far as that goes. My heart was put in the project.”
In May, I caught up with him for Forbes where he detailed releasing music in a pandemic and why he hopes Wild World serves as escapism for his fans. “My hope was that new music would offer that to anyone needing to immerse themselves in something outside of everything that is happening for a moment.”
Several months later I hopped on Zoom for Country Insider to discuss Kip’s music video for “Don’t Go Changing” and why it was important to raise awareness and money for Nashville’s struggling music venues after they were forced to close their doors in March due to COVID-19. He urged those who had the means to donate via Music Venue Alliance Nashville’s website.
“If we can’t make society get back to that stage, then we have to take care of our own. You can’t just walk around in a fog and expect everything to be normal if you’re not doing your part to take care of these people,” he stresses. “Those venues that you think you’re just going to walk back into at some point — they’re not going to be there. It breaks my heart when I think about it.”
I’ve interviewed Cam several times over the years and after every chat I walk away with a new perspective. This year’s conversation for Sounds Like Nashville about her sophomore album The Otherside was no different.
“I think because I came from a psychology background I always think of songwriting as pulling out something from the subconscious,” she says. “That’s something that I feel in my gut. I have to say it, I have to wrap it up in a story so that I can face it and heal from it. ‘Redwood Tree’ is definitely poignant right now with how you spend your limited time here, what amount of that you get with your parents and your family.”
8. Lainey Wilson
Watching an artist make her debut at the Grand Ole Opry is always special but being asked to shadow her throughout the process is an experience like no other. I was lucky enough to spend Feb. 14 at the Opry as Lainey rehearsed for her debut later that night. Surrounded by friends, family and industry executives, Lainey shared with me her backstory and journey to the famed stage from her first trip to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 9.
“I knew eventually I would have this opportunity; I just didn’t know when. This is the ultimate goal for anybody that does country music. When you play the Grand Ole Opry, you’re on the right track,” she says.
9. Carly Pearce
Carly Pearce went through a lot in 2020. “It’s no secret that I’ve had the worst yet best year ever,” Pearce told me over the phone during a chat for Country Insider. “Anything that I’m releasing right now is obviously reflective of that.” The singer finds her songs under the microscope following her divorce from Michael Ray earlier this year and was honest about the music she’s releasing.
“I’m the type of artist that I don’t know how to not write what I go through, regardless of if that’s about somebody that everyone knows or not,” she says. “Not to say that every single song I’m putting out is about this person or this relationship: It’s about relationships in general. But I had to make the decision and I don’t know how to not do that.”
10. Martina McBride
Martina has played a big role in my career as a country music journalist. She was one of the first country acts I interviewed during my first trip to Nashville in 2009. She also served as my first live coverage for Billboard back in 2011 when I covered her performance atop the Empire State Building.
It was only fitting that she was my first artist interview for Forbes in May when I began contributing to the publication. We discussed the recording of her latest single “Girls Like Me,” featured on Songland, during the pandemic.
“It’s challenging,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Nashville. “Studios are closed, and you’re not allowed to have musicians congregating together to record. So even before this pandemic happened, I started sitting with the song. I knew that I wanted the producer to be Nathan Chapman, who I’ve worked with before. I went to his house and played him the song and talked about it.
“After that, we never spent a second in the same building together throughout the whole recording process,” she continues. “Luckily, he’s an extremely gifted musician and producer so he was able to play all the instruments and record from his home studio.”