Not Your Normal Country Girl is the debut album by Stephanie Beck Williams, but millions have already heard her voice.
As an ad-jingle singer, Stephanie has a nationwide audience in spots for McDonald’s (“Have You Had Your Break Today”), Toyota (“Life Is a Highway”) and other products. As a backup vocalist, she has recorded with Dolly Parton, Isaac Hayes, Darryl Worley and other celebrities. The award-winning independent film Folly Island features four of her performances on its soundtrack. And this year, more than 1.2 million votes made her the winner of CMT’s first on-line talent search Music City Madness. Her song and video “D-R-U-N-K” are being heavily promoted by the cable channel.
The playful “D-R-U-N-K” is a standout track on Not Your Normal Country Girl. The collection showcases a refreshingly distinctive singer-songwriter whose style incorporates a variety of influences that Stephanie sums up as simply “Southern.” The native Mississippian salutes her state’s famed Elvis Presley and Bobbie Gentry on her debut album. But the CD’s most impressive songs are Stephanie’s own. “Destiny” is a swooning love ballad. “Even in Mississippi” has a bluesy hue and a meaningful lyric. “Her Idea of Fun” and “PhD in M-E-N” are party-girl rockers.
Husband Dan Williams is the writer behind the lovely, wistful “The One That Got Away” and the rhythmic “Time to Do Some Changin.’” The sultry, dreamy “Fall at Your Feet” comes from the repertoire of the acclaimed Australian pop band Crowded House. Adding a special Deep South vibe to the collection are Stephanie’s self-penned “interludes,” musical fragments and spoken-word instances that enliven the spaces between the songs.
“I really wanted to have that Mississippi flavor in it,” comments Stephanie Beck Williams. “I did the record to remind me of my artistic journey and of who I am. Even though I knew it would be very ‘different,’ I wanted it to be me. Whether it is somewhat rock or somewhat country or somewhat pop, everything about me seems Southern.”
That merging of styles has been with her since childhood. Stephanie Beck Williams was born in Texas, but was adopted as an infant and raised in Cajun-flavored Biloxi, Mississippi. Her parents had a large country record collection, but from her earliest years, Stephanie studied other styles as well.
“The first time I sang in public, it was gospel,” Stephanie recalls. “I did a church solo at age three of ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’ I started collecting records when I was really young, 5 or 6. I’d take my allowance and buy 45s with it. The first record I bought was ‘Jive Talkin’’ by The Bee Gees. My dad bought me my first two albums, The Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits and Paper Roses by Marie Osmond. So right from the get-go I was into that pop-meets-country flavor.”
The piano-playing teen sang standards in the Biloxi High School traveling entertainment troupe. At the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, she was a member of The Southern Dolls.
“It was an all-girl trio. We all wore red dresses and traveled around representing the university. We did everything from The Judds to The Pointer Sisters to The Andrews Sisters.”
The Southern Dolls visited Nashville on tour. It was the most cosmopolitan city Stephanie had ever seen. She was inspired by the diversity of its musical culture. With her marketing degree in hand, she moved to Music City on January 1, 1992.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know how you did it. I didn’t know how to say, ‘I sing, and I want to write, and I might be a little bit different. So how do I find somebody who will work with me? Or how do I do it on my own? What do I do?’ I did sense that when I was around real musicians and writers for the first time, I felt like I was in my group.”
To teach herself show business, Stephanie took jobs at MCA Records, Glen Campbell Music Publishing and the Studio 19 recording studio. She began writing songs. By the end of that first year, she was in a studio singing a jingle for a bank in Cookeville, Tennessee. In 1993, she signed with Milsap Galbraith Music as a staff songwriter.
In 1997, the publishing company issued a four-song CD sampler of her tunes. One of them, “Elvis Movie,” became her first single and video. As a result, Stephanie was invited to perform during Elvis Week festivities in Memphis for the next several years and was featured on CNN Headline News and on TNN’s Live From the Wildhorse Saloon series. This led to a recording offer from a Memphis label in 1998, but the company went out of business. The following year, the exact same scenario occurred in Nashville. Right after that, she fell in love.
Dan Williams is a successful Nashville songwriter whose award-winning tunes include the 1983 Ronnie Milsap smash “Don’t You Know How Much I Love You.” He also owns a thriving jingles business and has penned such national favorites as “Red Lobster for the Seafood Lover in You” and “Mama’s Got the Magic of Clorox II.” Stephanie had sung for him years ago. Now their paths crossed again. They began dating in 2000.
In October 2000, Stephanie founded her Wilhelmina Dan Talent Agency. It is now one of Nashville’s largest and most successful such firms.
“We represent talent exclusively. We place them in music videos, film, TV commercials, as CMT hosts, on shop-at-home channels. We have people for runway modeling, print ads. We do some celebrity booking and some commercial campaigns.”
She gleefully reports that the company practically “runs itself,” without her even being there. Which is a good thing, because her relationship with Dan Williams heated up to the point of marriage on May 19, 2001. While returning from their Parisian honeymoon on September 11, 2001, the couple was unforgettably detained in Newfoundland when their flight was grounded. Son Cole Beck Williams was born November 14, 2002.
“I just stopped writing,” says Stephanie. “It was almost like a long sabbatical,” while she raised her baby.
She began working again when she was tapped to sing jingles for the Tennessee State Lottery campaign, memorably one in which she imitated the voice of Marilyn Monroe. The 2001 Folly Island soundtrack work came about when the director asked her to compose a song on the spot in a Nashville restaurant, and she did. The result was “Her Idea of Fun.”
For the 2005-06 TV season, Stephanie created a Nashville series called Wilhelmina Dan New Faces which aired on the local WB affiliate. CMT selected her recording of “Time to Do Some Changin’” for the soundtrack of its 2007 documentary about Ronald Reagan in its True Grit series.
Meanwhile, “Dan’s company had gone into video production. They had some Jack Daniels TV ads and a few different things here and there. His guys came to him and said, ‘We don’t have a music video.’ So I became their artist for a music video. ‘D-R-U-N-K’ was sitting in a closet at the office until a friend of mine called and said, ‘CMT has a music-video contest, and you have a music video.’ So I entered it, not really knowing what I was entering.
“Ironically, the week that we finished the album, I got a phone call saying that I was CMT’s Pick of the Week. The following week, they announced the finalists, and I was one of those. That was a Big Moment for me, because I felt like, ‘I just finished a record that has taken me 10 years to put together, and here’s some validation.’ Well, I wound up winning. So the time is meant to be that I put my record out now.
“I think God has his timing for things. I don’t know if I could have made this record any sooner than this. Because I’m ‘Not Your Normal Country Girl.’”
Stephanie Beck Williams will celebrate the release of Not Your Normal Country Girl with an appearance on Studio 330 Sessions, CMT’s online performance series. The show coincides with the CD’s release in July.
NOT YOUR NORMAL COUNTRY GIRL CUT-BY-CUT
1.“Not Your Normal Country Girl” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams)
Looking at this album and looking at my experiences, I realized that this is how I have always seen myself, as not your normal country girl. I felt like I needed a song that would explain my style of music and why I am who I am. I wanted a song that would capture the whole album. And I knew I wanted it to be a rocking one. So we wrote this one last. I knew the album was complete when I wrote “Not Your Normal Country Girl.”
2.“”D-R-U-N-K” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams/Jerry Kimbrough)
We were having a bad day. We were sitting on the couch, and our son was playing in front of us. I looked at Dan and said, “I’d love to get D-R-U-N-K,” spelling it because I couldn’t say it with our son in the room. We’re both writers, so we just looked at each other with light bulbs going off over our heads. We wrote the title down and saved it for later.
You don’t hear a lot of songs about how moms feel. You always have to be so politically correct and not say these things out loud. We wrote it with the idea that you can spell it, and you can dream about it, but you probably don’t get to go out and experience it.
3.“Her Idea of Fun” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams/Ron Galloway)
This is a fun, pop, party-girl song. I really wanted to test out that writing style with this song. Sheryl Crow is a great influence on me, and I like to think that this is similar to the kind of records she makes. Anyway, when I wrote it, I just got in that frame of mind. I was just going to be quirky and funny with what I put together.
4.“PhD in M-E-N” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams/Ron Galloway)
This is a song for girls. I feel like that’s my NASCAR song, because it rocks. It’s the girly version of being a tough girl. Dan and I wrote a lot of those lyrics together, so that was a lot of fun.
5.“Fall at Your Feet” (Neil Finn)
That was the first song that Dan and I recorded together. Knowing my voice and knowing the direction that I wanted to go, he just knew right at that moment exactly what he wanted to do with the song. It’s a real pinnacle for me, because it was my first time to work with him not just singing commercials. For the first time, he was the producer and I was the singer. The song comes from the Australian pop band Crowded House.
6.“Destiny” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams)
“Destiny” was Dan and mine’s song to each other. I guess it’s the most personal song on the album. One of my favorite albums of all time is Dusty in Memphis. One of the things I love about that album is that you’re going through it and all of a sudden “The Windmills of Your Mind” pops in. That’s the way I hope this hits people when they listen.
7.“Time To Do Some Changin’” (Dan Willaims)
Dan took an old instrumental track that he had recorded for another project, but never used. I just loved the track and told him, “I’d love to have a new song for this track.” He wrote 60 seconds of it, sang it and sent it to CMT for a documentary they were doing about Ronald Reagan called True Grit. They loved it and said, “Finish the song.” So he ended up writing a full song out of it, and I wound up on the soundtrack of the CMT show.
8.“Ode to Billie Joe” (Bobbie Gentry)
As a little girl, I remember being mesmerized by a song that played at the end of a disturbing movie. Without knowing who wrote it or sang it, I always kept that song in my heart and mind. After I sang at a music conference in Austin, Texas, many years later, a music reporter yelled to the crowd, “We have the modern-day Bobbie Gentry standing here!” Without realizing who Bobbie was, I went to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop here in Nashville to get a Bobbie Gentry record. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the song that had haunted me for all of those years, “Ode to Billie Joe.”
9.“The One That Got Away” (Dan Williams)
I got so into singing the song that I had to stop myself from crying on “The One That Got Away.” It’s just a real special song. I don’t know what Dan’s inspiration was when he wrote it, I just know that it really means a lot to me.
10.“Even in Mississippi” (Stephanie Williams/Dan Williams)
It’s so Biloxi. It has the sound of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in it, kind of a southern rock-ish sound. We thought about re-writing some of “Even in Mississippi” after Katrina, but we decided to just leave it as it is.
11.“Love Me Tender” (Elvis Presley/Vera Matson)
I had to have my little Elvis tribute on there and my Bobbie Gentry tribute. Those are my two biggest influences. And they are both from Mississippi, just like me.
12.“Don’t You Know How Much I Love You” (Dan Williams/Mike Stewart)
We had decided not to give each other Christmas gifts, because we were buying so many for our son. But I cheated and went into a log-cabin studio and recorded that in one take. I gave it to Dan for Christmas. He started crying. I couldn’t believe it, but he wanted to keep it just as it is. Maybe it was for sentimental reasons.
13.“Hey Women Out There” (Stephanie Williams)
14.“Mississippi Song” (Stephanie Williams/Freddy Weller)
15.“Grocery Store Feet” (Stephanie Williams)
16.“M-I-Crooked Letter” (Stephanie Williams)
These are my interludes between the songs. “Mississippi Song” we now actually have a full song of. I guess because I write poems too, I just kind of liked “Grocery Store Feet.” I played the album for my family, and this is where my Dad started to tear up. My dad calls me Ladybird, so when he heard that, you should have seen his face. It was really sweet for me. I call “M-I-Crooked Letter” my O Brother track. Again, I just wanted that feeling of what it’s like to be in Mississippi. I sang these for Dan. I thought he would think I was crazy, but he thought they would add some charm to the album.