Currently touring in support of her terrific new album Me, which came out at the end of March on her newly formed label Dreambound Records, Jo Dee Messina is an icon in the country music world. But unlike many of the scene’s biggest stars, she didn’t grow up in the South. Rather, she was born and bred in the Northeast. So what made her gravitate toward Patsy Cline and Reba McEntire when she was growing up?
“I think it was the realness and the relatability of the material,” she says. “I was a latchkey kid. My mom worked all the time, and I spent a lot of time by myself, and I listened to lots of music. They were the ones who sang about my life, as crazy as that sounds. I’m sure everyone thinks that when they listen to the radio. But they knew it. They knew what I was going through. I was not alone. I was so young at that point. I loved it.”
She began singing when she was 13. As she emphatically says — “boom, that was my goal and what I wanted.” Moving to Nashville shortly after graduating high school turned out to be a wise decision.
“I packed up my little Pontiac Sunbird and drove to Nashville,” she says. “Culturally, at that time, it was a little bit different. I was from outside of Boston and I was Irish-Italian. They don’t care about that down there. It’s totally different. Sometimes, I do miss that. I love going to cities like Boston and New York and you can see the nationalities and different ways of doing things. I love that so much. That part was missing but it was not my focus. My focus was the music industry. There was a writers’ night. There was an open mic night. It had everything I wanted.”
She released her self-titled debut in 1996 and the album was certified gold. Her second album, 1998’s I’m Alright, yielded three No. 1 Billboard hits, making her the first female country artist to score three multiple No. 1 songs from the same album. Her career continued at a good clip until 2005’s Delicious Surprise. After that album, she was stuck in a recording contract that wasn’t productive, and so she split from the label and started writing the songs that would eventually end up on Me, her new studio album which came out earlier this year.
“After I got released from my label, I started writing songs,” she says. “I would post them online. There was one song called ‘Unbreakable.’ I wanted to do a funny home video for it and I sent out a tweet asking for pictures of fans holding signs that said ‘love,’ ‘believe,’ ‘dream.’ The response was huge. We made a video, and I started doing more and more songwriting. We used YouTube and Twitter and Facebook to get music out to people. We had enough songs, but we didn’t have the funding.”
So at a relative’s suggestion, she launched a Kickstarter campaign. It was so successful that she raised more money than she initially thought she needed. “Thank god we raised as much as we did,” she says.
“The people picked the songs and chose the first song and album title,” she says. “I was like, ‘Thanks a lot.’ But it’s worked out. I have women come up to me and they say it’s about them.”
Songs like “Take It,” a track that features a funky organ and guitar riff (and a spirited jam at song’s end) allow Messina to show off her powerhouse voice. And yet, it’s the album’s content that’s gotten the most attention. The single “Woman’s Rant” starts with a bit of banjo as Messina recounts what her average day is like. “I don’t remember signing up for this,” she sings as she rattles off her various responsibilities. The song actually started off as a journal entry.
“I had a newborn baby who got me up at 4 a.m.,” she says. “My day was loaded. It was one appointment after another. There was no coffee that was strong enough to get me through the day. I had several days like that where I kept running until I collapsed at the end of the day.”
The song has inspired a bit of controversy too as some men have taken the rant the wrong way.
“Some of the lines that men are offended by are the least offensive,” she says. “There’s one that says, ‘I’ll walk a mile in his shoes if he walks a half a mile in mine.’ That was a conversation I had with my husband. I was wearing six-inch Jessica Simpson platform shoes and my husband was wearing flats. I was like, ‘Dude, I will trade shoes with you any day.’ There was another line that I didn’t think would be so loaded. I thought it was funny and not nasty. I’m not buried on the day-to-day news.
It’s about how women do twice the work and get half the pay. We work and then start another job when we get home.”
She says she’s tired of hearing men complain about the tune. “I’m like ‘Stop looking for a reason to be offended,’” she says. “The song is funny.”
For Messina, who reportedly struggled with alcoholism to the point that she checked herself into rehab in 2004, Me serves as a comeback of sorts. So what’s been the key to putting her personal problems in the past?
“I love music,” she says. “It’s who I am and what I do. If you listen to the record, it’s not in a certain box and it doesn’t fit in a certain realm. If I didn’t do that, you would ask me not to breathe. My kids are why I get out of bed in the morning. But music is my love. My husband always says, ‘You don’t go to a chicken store and buy a hot dog.’ The music is what you do best. And we can deliver live. We have a blast.”
Jo Dee Messina 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29, Hard Rock Live, 10705 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $27.50-$49.50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.