READY TO FLY: Blount County songbird Laurel Wright eager to take the next step with her music
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If Laurel Wright’s life were a “Star Wars” movie, she would be Luke Skywalker: young, brash and ready to take on all of the Darth Vaders of the country music industry.
By contrast, her manager and career svengali, Lewell Molen, would be Yoda: sage, methodical and advising against haste.
Wright — who performs on Saturday night as part of the April Foolies fundraiser for The Gate and New Hope at the Clayton Center for the Arts — understands that breaking into country music isn’t something that happens overnight. Despite her accomplishments — a massive fanbase across Blount County and beyond, airplay and adoration from country radio giant WIVK-FM, winning the Texaco Country Showdown national talent contest in 2012 — she still has a long way to go. But she’s ready to get there, she told The Daily Times this week.
“I’m not frustrated — it’s just that the music business is such a slow process, and I’m the most impatient person you’ll ever meet in your life!” she said with a laugh. “We’ve been recording a bunch of stuff, and I’m just basically trying to get prepared for what’s to come. We’re not trying to push anything. I’m still writing every day, whenever I can, and I play small gigs here and there.
“I’m ready, but I have a lot more to learn. I don’t want to push anything — it’s going to happen when it happens, which is in God’s time.”
The 17-year-old wunderkind tries hard to follow the advice of Molen, who runs Mojo Music out of his Greenback home and studio. The former guitarist for country star Lorrie Morgan, Molen and his son, Josh, are shepherding Wright’s career with the help of her parents, Ronnie and Lori. As the guy with his hands on the pulse of the country music industry, he often gets asked by local residents who may be a bit puzzled about why Wright isn’t a Nashville country star just yet.
Like he tells Wright: It’s a process, and patience is a virtue.
“I try to tell people that in order to get played on WIVK in the rotation, you’ve got to have a record deal,” he said. “We’re working every day to try to get her better at her craft, and we want to do quality dates, not quantity dates. When we do a date and set up a concert, we don’t want people to be used to seeing her all the time because she’s playing local restaurants. We want people to say, ‘Let’s go see Laurel Wright!’ We want it to be an event. We’re building up the arsenal, so to speak.”
In some ways, Wright has been building up her arsenal for her entire life. She started singing at the age of 4, back at her family’s former church: Centenary Baptist in Maryville. (They now attend Kagley’s Chapel Baptist.) When she was 10, Taylor Swift — to whom Wright is often compared — was starting to explode as a country star, and Wright became fascinated with her new role model. She started writing her own music and learned to play the guitar, writing her first song about her great-grandfather.
She performed it for her family, most of whom were in tears over its simple beauty — “he has peace up in Heaven/he’s made whole again/there’s no more hurting within.” It was more gospel than anything else, but the words and the music weren’t as impressive as the sounds coming out of Wright’s mouth. This girl, her parents realized, could sing.
Subsequent subject matter wasn’t nearly as serious. Boys were (and are) a frequent topic, and although some of the songs she wrote back then reflect a 10-year-old’s perspective and use of the language, others have held up, and she still sings some of them today. And no matter what she sang, when she started doing it in public — performing for the first time as a seventh-grader, at Maple Lane Farms — she turned heads.
Word began to spread, and other venues and organizations began asking her to perform; before long the girl with a voice like honey was in demand. WBIR-TV’s “Live at Five at Four” came out to Blount County and did a segment on her, and she soon realized that being a “normal” teenage girl is a subjective thing. These days, she’s finishing up her home-schooling courses (she’s a high school senior) and still doing typical teenage stuff, she said — hanging out with friends, spending time with her boyfriend, doing homework — save for one: writing songs.
She writes. And writes. And writes some more. She talks to Molen every day, and keeps up with fans on Facebook and Twitter. And she fields a lot of questions about when she’ll be playing around here next.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Why aren’t you playing right now?’ But we have to be choosy about it,” she said. “We have to pick and choose our gigs and be wise about it. I think some fans get frustrated because I’m not playing as much, even though I’m doing a lot in the studio — every time I write a song, we go into the studio and lay a track down — and doing benefits here and there. These are important things, and it feels like we’re right there on the edge of something really big.”
If ever there was a wake-up call that stardom wouldn’t be handed to her on a silver platter, it was after last year’s Texaco Country Showdown win. Many artists have claimed the title in the past, including Brad Paisley, Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert, but the victory — which gave Wright with $100,000 and the title of “Best New Act in Country Music” — was ultimately a blip on the radars of their careers.
“Did it help us? Yes. Did it seal the deal? Well, there were a bunch of people there — people from record companies, A&R people, but nobody came up and said anything to us other than congratulations,” Molen said. “She out-sang everybody and did really well, and over the past year, she’s only gotten better and more comfortable on stage.”
Last fall, Wright performed at The Meeting Place in Friendsville, and Molen and his team set up the venue to capture it all on high-definition video. The concert was a success — the venue was packed, the performances exceeded expectations — and now Molen and Wright are putting the final touches on edited videos from that show. The plan, they said, is to send the footage to Nashville labels as sort of an introduction to Wright — her talent, her songwriting, her potential. The next step would be to arrange for a showcase for Wright for labels that express an interest.
The video will be done — soon — but every day of waiting isn’t an easy one for a young girl with big-time dreams and a lack of patience. It’s not that she wants to get out of Blount County and set up camp in Nashville; it’s not that she wants to become the next Taylor Swift. It’s just that she wants to get to a level where doing what she loves so much — singing and playing the songs that come from her heart — touches just as many people outside of Blount County as it has here at home.
“I want to be able to give back as much as I can,” she said. “I don’t want them to just be my fans; I want them to be my friends. I want a personal relationship with each of them. And I want it to be done overnight! But Lewell’s taught me a lot about this business, and sometimes he has to sit us all down and calm us down, but we trust him 100 percent.
“After the Showdown, I thought things were going to happen. I thought they would see me there and say, ‘We want to sign you!’ But Lewell’s helped me to understand how many other people are out there, wanting to do the exact same thing as me, and they’re working just as hard or harder than me. But I have to believe it’s going to happen. It just takes time, but I believe that hard work pays off.”
It’s like building a house, Molen added: The foundation has to be solid and strong before the walls can be raised and the roof can be put on. Her talent is the foundation, and the forthcoming videos will show the rest of the world what Blount County already knows: That the girl with the big voice has what it takes to be a star.
“The question is, is she going to be an Alan Jackson or a George Jones, or will she be a one-hit wonder? That’s what we don’t want, and that’s why we’re taking our time,” he said. “Right now, she’s only 17. Her songwriting’s getting better, and we want her to stay rooted and grounded in her faith. She’s getting better every day, and that’s what we’re striving for. We’re trying to build something, and we’re trying to do it in a way that’s smart and best for her.”