What is country music? Is it a slamming backbeat slashed by electric guitar? Is it a big crescendo into the chorus, with the vocals rocketing up an octave? Is it really just about dirt roads, parties and girls riding shotgun? Or is there something missing from this picture? Well, yes. Country music is all of those things.
But it's much more. Just ask Teea Goans. She'll agree that modern country music does tell stories ... "... but not the whole story," she emphasizes. "There's so much more to it than that. Country music has always represented everybody, but lately I think that it's been narrowed down to maybe just one crowd. That means a lot of people aren't hearing songs about their lives anymore."
That's where Teea steps in. Every so often there comes along a young artist who fully understands a genre's musical lineage and brings it full circle for those who may only have been exposed to it in a watered down form. Teea is uniquely positioned to accomplish that feat for traditional country, revitalizing a style often thought to be a mere relic of earlier days, and lighting a flame of enthusiasm in audiences.
From her first to her fourth and latest album, Swing, Shuffle & Sway, she draws from a neglected well to nourish her love for what some folks call traditional or authentic country. There's plenty of variety in that genre--Texas two-step grooves, countrypolitan strings, keening steel guitars, songs of praise, and songs of betrayal. On this project, you can hear that and much more. What's more important is what they share. Tales that touch on real emotion and impart bits of wisdom, based on experiences we've all shared. Melodies that serve the lyrics. In the case of Teea, a performer whose feeling for the songs is complemented by musicians of uncanny skill and empathy.
Let's face it. That's real country music. And no one sings it like Teea Goans. Not anymore. "I've based a lot of my musical career on Ray Price," explains Teea, her Midwestern roots evident in her speaking voice. "I love what he stood for. Of course he had a beautiful voice, but when he sings, it's almost like he's speaking the song to you. You don't hear that a lot anymore. You don't hear interpretation. You can hear plenty of acrobatics -- but sometimes people just want to hear the song."
Teea lists Price and Loretta Lynn among her predominant three influences, but the first of these three she knew best of all. "My grandma, Della Lee Faulkner, had no fear," Teea recalls, smiling. "She was always in charge on stage. She was so open, so relaxed. She'd say whatever was on her mind. That's part of my bloodline." They'd sing together when Teea was a little girl, growing up in a yellow, single-wide trailer on the farm owned by her great-grandmother. Later, when Teea was invited to join the nearby Truman Lake Opry at age 8, they would often share that stage. For nearly 10 years Teea performed there every Saturday night, cultivating her fearlessness as a performer and her skills as a vocal interpreter. When a national headliner would stop by for a special appearance, she'd watch from the wings and marvel at what they did ... Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones, Johnny Russell, Jerry Reed and others.
"I learned so much from them when I was so young," she remembers. "I learned how to stand and hold the microphone. I learned that when the guitar player stars a solo, I should turn around and look at him. So when I moved to Nashville after high school, I was already totally comfortable onstage. I had that part down." Not surprisingly, Teea started attracting attention from music industry bigwigs after resettling in Music City. Just as predictably, many of them suggested that she cultivate a newer sound to help ensure her success. "I had meetings with people who said, 'You'd probably have better luck with your demo if you did a different kind of country.' As soon as they heard that steel guitar, they wanted to pull me into another direction." Boldly, she stuck to her guns. She found a simpatico spirit in producer and publisher Terry Choate. On her albums The Way I Remember It (2010), That's Just Me (2012), Memories To Burn (2014) and this year's Swing, Shuffle & Sway, they finessed a partnership based on celebrating an earlier aesthetic and her emergence as its most prominent young champion.
They've always begun by searching for songs that fit her artistry. Often they're written by the giants of that era -- on Swing, Shuffle & Sway these would include Don Gibson, Mel Tillis ("Heart Over Mind"), Hank Cochran and Moneen Carpenter ("A Way To Survive") and Eddy Arnold with Cindy Walker ("You Don't Know Me"). They keep their eyes open for new material too, such as the stunning ballad "Just Because She Always Has," written by Jimmy Melton and Amber Dotson. They usually give priority to songs written and sung by male artists, so that Teea can offer fresh insights. Now and then they stumble across an unexpected treasure, as when they discovered that the instrumental standard "Steel Guitar Rag" actually had lyrics! Needless to say, that one made the cut right away. Individually and as a group, Teea's catalog paints an unusual picture. Many artists think of each release as a stepping stone toward something new, probably a different musical direction. Not so for Teea. She already knows who she is. Rather than roam restlessly from one sound to the next, her mission is to get as close to perfection as she can with the music she was born to sing.
"I've found contentment by staying true to who I am," she insists. "We all get caught up in trying to please other people, but I'm all about being who you really are. I've never wavered or thought maybe I should do something else. There's only one you. Be you! I've never been about fame or fortune or stardom. I just love this music. I know other people love it too. So let's make music!"
And, we might add, let's treasure those who have that kind of self-awareness. Let's remind ourselves of what country music at its purest has to offer. At a time when country's revered history is as close to being obscured as it's ever been, Teea's mission is a vital one, comparable to the preservationist role Emmylou Harris took on for a previous generation. The songs Teea has reignited with such warmth might just serve to ensure that country's future, no matter how far afield it may wander, will never be rootless. We owe it to Teea and to ourselves as well.