It wasn't the sort of career move anyone saw coming. Jessica Simpson: pop pinup, reality show princess, tabloid celebrity and country singer?
Truth to tell, Simpson didn't exactly see Nashville as part of her star journey, either. But believe the transformation. When Rascal Flatts returns to Rupp Arena on Friday, Simpson's latest entertainment guise will be as the opening act.
“I didn't set out or say to myself, ‘I'm going to make a country record,' or anything like that,” Simpson said in a recent phone interview. “There were just songwriters in Nashville I wanted to write music with. And what we did ended up being country. It's just more of who I am.
“I never looked at country as being too far removed from what I had been doing. But then I never really felt that, in the pop world, I owned everything I was doing. The music was a bit more scattered. I would have five or six producers on a record, which didn't help the consistency or the flow. For me to do a focused record, to really tell the story of the experiences I've been through in life, was important. Going to Nashville and writing with those writers helped me dig into a deeper side of myself.”
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The country version of Simpson seems to be a solid sell. Her debut country album, Do You Know, hit No. 1 on the country charts and No. 4 on the pop charts upon its release last fall. A convincingly contemporary Nashville single called Come on Over has won considerable airplay.
But then Simpson, 28, is used to big numbers. The four pop albums that the native Texan has released in the past decade have all achieved gold or platinum status. The country conversion, it seems, was as much a cry for credibility as anything else. Her music has always been a hit, but it paled next to the profile that Simpson created offstage, beginning with the 2003 MTV reality series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica that chronicled the early days of her marriage, which eventually failed, to pop singer Nick Lachey. Since then, her celebrity romances have gained as much attention in the tabloids as her music has on the charts.
“I don't know if you ever get used to tabloids and people making up stories about you and writing about you when you're not really attached to it, like you would be if you were giving an interview,” she said. “You never get used to that. But there is a way to not allow that to be your focus. I really just have to detach myself from the world of gossip and preconceived ideas.
“They've been writing about me for a long time. And for some reason, people still want read it all. Sometimes it definitely gets frustrating. But that's why I write music: so people can get to know the real me.”
One of Simpson's first major public stabs at country nose-dived, however. At a December 2006 taping of the Kennedy Center Honors, Simpson performed as part of a tribute to lifelong idol Dolly Parton. But after botching the lyrics to 9 to 5, and then being dissatisfied with a second recorded attempt for the broadcast, Simpson withdrew from the event.
But the silver lining to such a public and professional humiliation was Parton herself, who befriended the singer, offered encouragement and penned the title tune for Do You Know.
“Dolly really helped me become secure about being onstage again and secure with who I am as an artist. She is obviously a mentor. She is an incredible songwriter, an incredible singer and an amazing woman. I mean, people don't know much of anything about her personal life. That's something I'm absolutely jealous of. I don't know how she did it. I've got to get some tips.”
Another member of country- music royalty, Kentucky native Loretta Lynn, also has stood up for Simpson. In the January issue of Marie Claire magazine, Lynn said, “People ought to give her a chance. She's got a great voice, she's beautiful — I don't know what else they want.”
Simpson said, “When people like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton believe in you and want to help people catch a glimpse of the talent God has given you … well, I just hope to be able to do that for somebody else someday.”
Not everyone in Nashville welcomes Simpson's country incarnation, however. In his Sept. 18 Nashville Skyline column, CMT editorial director Chet Flippo quoted an e-mail, which he did not credit, that was widely circulated to the city's music executives shortly after SoundScan figures confirmed Do You Know's No. 1 status.
The cryptic message: “Country has lost its soul. It's never been clearer that we're now a marketing system for failed pop acts.”
Simpson said, “Anybody that second-guesses me, any of the skeptics out there … they just present a fun challenge for me. I truly believe in myself. I didn't really have any fear going into this project. Whenever you feel like you have failed at something, you want to pick yourself back up and just try harder the next time. That's very empowering.”