NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They’ve got a Top 5 hit under their creative belts, a slew of award show nominations, and a self-titled debut album that hit stores Tuesday. But Joshua Jones and Meghan Linsey, who make up the country duo Steel Magnolia, are also a young couple who live, work, and yes, argue with each other as they navigate the early stages of their career.
“Josh. Josh!” Linsey yelled out of the car window at a gas station somewhere between Illinois and Nashville during a phone interview. “That’s diesel. You’re putting diesel in my car. He’s putting diesel in my car,” she said. “We are a mess.”
Whatever’s in their tank, they’ve come a long way and show no signs of slowing down. Their position today as one of country music’s most promising new acts is a far cry from where they were a couple of years ago — struggling singer-songwriters using their kitchen oven to heat their apartment. The couple’s luck shifted in 2009 when their sassy stage performances, contrasting harmonies and liberal interpretations of country classics landed them a win on CMT’s country music talent search and reality show “Can You Duet.” A recording contract with current label Big Machine Records was part of the prize package.
Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group and a judge on the series, said he was “blown away by their vocal uniqueness and their on-camera charisma.”
“Those are things you can’t teach,” he said. “You can teach the business, how to do an interview, etc., but you can’t teach that vocal blend.”
But Borchetta’s attachment to the show and presence on the judges panel was initially enough to make Jones want to walk out of tryouts. Steel Magnolia was sitting in line on the floor sharing a ham sandwich when Borchetta walked out of the judge’s room talking on his cellphone. Jones didn’t recognize him, but when Linsey pointed Borchetta out, Jones was ready to go home.
“I was like, ‘Get up, let’s go. We’re leaving. I’m out of here. I don’t want to go in there and be judged by some suit whose going to turn us down anyway,’ ” Jones said, explaining the couple had already played for multiple executives on Music Row. “So I tried to leave and I kind of got angry and she had to settle me down. It was total attitude on my part.”
The couple, who first met as solo artists, sailed through their audition. And when Jones looked at the panel of judges, Borchetta had a smile on his face. The singer called it “one of my biggest surprises in Nashville, ever.”
They made it onto the show, and as Jones and Linsey progressed through the weeks, they discovered they needed a place to rehearse. Sequestered at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center during filming, the couple had to get creative about where and when to practice their weekly numbers. They discovered the main restrooms at the hotel made for an excellent performance space. The full-length mirrors allowed them to practice their choreography, which wasn’t a focus for the duo before the show. They would wait until the middle of the night when the hotel was empty, head downstairs and then take over whichever set of restrooms they could get in.
“We could see what we are doing,” Jones said. “We really wanted to put on a show for that two minutes out there, and we would stay (in the restroom) for hours rehearsing. We started taking it seriously, and really started trying to dig deep for each two minutes we got up there on that stage, and ultimately it paid off.”
They won the show, then faced a new set of challenges — they had to agree on songs for their first album, and constant time in the studio and on the road left them completely immersed in country music and spending every waking moment together.
“We try to keep a little separation from (career) and normal life,” said Linsey, a New Orleans native. “But it’s hard to balance because it’s what you do and it’s what you love and it’s all you really talk about at some points.”
What helps significantly, she said, is that they don’t hold grudges. “At the end of the day, we are best friends and we’ve always kept that at the forefront.”
It was their partnership as artists that came into play when choosing songs for the album. The couple included seven songs they had written or co-written on the project along with a few outside cuts from some of Nashville’s most successful songwriters including Chris Tompkins, Hillary Lindsey and Keith Urban. Linsey said inside songs including “Without You,” “Glass Houses” and “The Edge of Goodbye” provide intimate insight into the couple’s relationship.
The cuts from other writers — including Top 5 hit “Keep on Loving You” — often cover emotional ground the couple didn’t touch on in their own songwriting.
“It was our very first time (making a record) at this level and we wanted it to be right,” Linsey said. “It is a hard thing. ... It was just a matter of sticking to the best songs and making them work on the record. We’re songwriters, but we know a great song when we hear it. It’s about making the record be the best it can be.”
The result is an edgy, soul-infused 12-song collection that delves into almost every angle of a romantic relationship. Linsey and Jones divide the vocals evenly on the project, sometimes showcasing their harmonies on verses and other times bantering back and forth over the course of the song. That skill is on display in their new single “Last Night Again,” a song that highlights the tension in a new relationship, which they co-wrote with Hillary Lindsey.
“It’s a really good representation of our sound and of us,” Linsey said.
Now that the album is being released, the two are trying not to worry about it. Linsey said they were so busy last year they didn’t have time to think about anything and that kept them from obsessing about career issues they couldn’t control. She’s hoping for the same luck in 2011.
The best news yet: Steel Magnolia has earned enough money to finally turn up the thermostat at home, and they no longer rehearse in hotel bathrooms.
“It’s funny,” Linsey said, laughing. “We had no idea. They actually have rehearsal places you can rent in Nashville.”