Owen Bradley lay awake one night last July, watching a videotape of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The legendary 72-year-old record producer, who had worked with such country-music stars as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, was recuperating at his home outside Nashville from a massive heart attack.
Doctors insisted on total rest as his only chance for recovery. But Bradley recalls that one of Carson’s guests excited him so much that he sat right up in bed. The performer was Canada’s k. d. lang. Although Bradley had heard the eccentric country artist’s second album, the giddy, up-tempo Angel With a Lariat, it was not until he saw her perform an aching rendition of Cline’s ballad Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray on Carson’s show that he realized lang’s full potential. Defying his doctors and recovering quickly, Bradley— who had retired in 1980—went back to work to produce her new record, Shadowland. As he writes in the record’s liner notes:
“After working with k.d. for awhile, I didn’t need to take my pills. She was medicine, invigorating therapy.”
Since she burst onto the Canadian music scene three years ago, the 26-year-old singer from Consort, Alta., has been a bracing breeze from the West who has helped to invigorate country music. Already, she is a Canadian sweetheart who stole Anne Murray’s crown as queen of country music at last year’s Juno Awards—and was the pride of Canada last February when she led a rousing square dance at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Now lang, who is currently based in Vancouver, is stirring up excitement in the United States as well. She recently teamed up with another musical legend, Roy Orbison, to sing a stunning version of the rock veteran’s classic ballad Crying. Their record has sold more than 50,000 copies in the United States. And since her debut appearance on The Tonight Show last May, lang has become almost a staple of American television: Carson has had her back three times.
She also recently appeared on the new Smothers Brothers program, and next
week she will be on First Choice, the Canadian pay TV network, singing alongside such top stars as Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello as Orbison’s backup group in the concert special A Black and White Night. Said
lang in a recent interview with Maclean's in Los Angeles, where she was making her TV appearances: “I am quite happy with what I have accomplished. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Still, radio airplay in the United States has so far largely eluded her. And while her wacky humor and boyish looks—as well as the lowercase letters
that she insists on using for her namehave confused some observers and led a few to doubt her artistic commitment, Shadowland (Sire/WEA) is likely to change all that. The new album is a major turning point in lang’s career. With Bradley at the helm, she has found both a flattering showcase for her exceptional vocals and a way to come to terms with the late Patsy Cline, who has been her longtime musical inspiration. Until now lang has combined comical theatrics with an almost obsessive admiration of the 1960s singer, whose songs she has recorded. But by working with Bradley, who produced all of Cline’s hits—among them Crazy, Sweet Dreams and I Fall to Pieces—lang has pushed her artistry to new heights.
Although none of the songs on Shadowland is her own, they demonstrate lang’s interpretative skills and the full range of her vocals. A collection of mostly emotional ballads—known in country music as “weepers”—the album has a rich nostalgic air. One track, Honky Tonk Angels' Medley, even features country stars Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells—all former Bradley protégées and contemporaries of Cline. According to lang, it was an extraordinary experience. She added: “Those are the people who have most influenced me. It was like working with the teachers.”
Shadowland has emerged at a time when country music is rediscovering its roots. Currently, some of country’s top stars, including Randy Travis, The Judds and Dwight Yoakam, are topping the country charts with § traditional sounds and drawing I attention to the music’s pioneers. In fact, Cline is undergoes ing a strong revival—at least in part due to lang. This week Cline’s label, MCA Records, is rereleasing her greatest-hits collection on compact disc—and issuing two previously unreleased recordings.
For lang, whose last two albums gained only sporadic airplay on rock and country radio, Shadowland appears destined to become a hit. Canadian country-music stations quickly picked up the first single, the anguished ballad Pm Down to My Last Cigarette, and disc
jockeys say that they are keen for more. Said Doug Anderson of Ottawa’s CKBY: “My listeners are enjoying the first single, and when I play the Angels ’ Medley, they go wild.” Added Larry Donohue, music director of Edmonton’s CFCW: “With this album, she has finally found
her niche.” That sentiment is largely echoed in Nashville, where lang is becoming a rising star. Said Michael McCall, music critic of the Nashville Banner. “She is one of the most exciting new artists to come around in a while.”
Despite lang’s association with respected country-music veterans, some observers seem to be suspicious still of her offbeat image. The youngest of four children of drugstore owner Adam Lang and his schoolteacher wife, Audrey, she showed signs of a strong personal style even before she enrolled in theatre arts in high school in the town of Consort (population 672), 240 km southeast of Edmonton. Her first ambition was to be a roller-derby queen. To earn money in the summer, she drove a three-ton grain truck for local farmers. And when she launched her music career, she performed with such props as wigs and a rocking horse and claimed to be the reincarnation of Cline.
Robert K. Oermann, music critic for Nashville’s morning daily, The Tennessean, says that while he recognizes lang’s performing abilities, he has doubts about her artistic orientation. Said Oermann: “She is in some kind of weird place between artsy new wave and country.” Oermann also says that lang’s new look—she went from wearing colorful square-dance skirts to dark pantsuits—may also be a stumbling block for her. “The country audience
tends to be a little more conservative than that,” he said. “It’s pretty extreme for them to accept.”
The contrast of lang’s mannish appearance with the pronounced femininity of many country artists is rarely more apparent than in the video for An-
gels ’ Medley. In it, lang’s short-cropped hair and male attire clash with the bouffant hairdos and high-heeled shoes worn by backup singers Lee, Lynn and Wells. But lang says that it would be absurd for her to adopt the ultrafeminine look of her colleagues, adding: “They have a persona that they developed in their prime. I am a woman of the late 1980s and have been influenced by punk and Boy George.” Meanwhile, Lee, Lynn and Wells have embraced lang’s strong sense of identity. “You’ve got to have something that’s all your own if you want to stand out,” said Wells, 67. “And she has an originality that makes her unique.”
In keeping with her androgynous image, lang refuses to wear makeup. In fact, earlier this year when Chatelaine magazine chose lang as its 1988 Woman of the Year, the singer posed unadorned for the cover photograph. But when the magazine’s January issue appeared, lang said that she was surprised to find that the cover featured her with red lips. Chatelaine’s editor, Mildred Istona, denied that the photo was doctored, and she explained that the rouged appearance may have resulted from an excess of red ink on the presses. Still, lang remains good-humored about the incident.
Even without makeup, the artist seems assured of major success in show business. This summer she takes her live show on a tour of Europe and the
United States, where she will perform in venues ranging from 1,500-seat clubs to 9,000-seat arenas. As a result of her effort to make a breakthrough in American country circles, lang will appear only briefly in Canada this summer: on July 15 at the Big Valley Festival in Craven, Sask., and for a twoweek tour of the Maritimes in August. Then, she returns to the studio with a new, as-yet-unnamed producer and her band, The Reclines, to record an album of original compositions. And while that schedule leaves her little time for a personal life, lang—who is single—says that she is committed to her career. She added, “I plan to put in a few good years of hard work and retire early.”
While lang dreams of an early retirement, Bradley credits her for bringing him out of his. As he writes to lang in the notes to Shadowland, “Well, k.d., I love you for digging me out of the woodwork and getting me involved in music again just for the music. It’s what my whole life has been about.” Bradley is proof that the outrageous singer from Alberta is a talent to be reckoned with. Indeed, with her vocal skill and inimitable style, k. d. lang is changing the look and sound of country music.
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