Back to School 

Down and out performer finds her crowd

Down and out performer finds her crowd

When country performer Teresa lost her record deal several years ago, she decided to go back to school—not to earn a degree, but to earn a living. In the midst of finishing and promoting her debut album when she got dropped from Sony, the Warner/Chappell singer-songwriter was determined to keep her career alive. So she hit the road and took her music to an unlikely audience for country music: college kids.

Now performing 100 to 200 dates every year, Teresa has been named the National Association of Campus Activities’ Country Music Entertainer of the Year for the last three years. Her schedule, which includes a July 1 performance at Gibson’s Caffè Milano, takes her to such far-flung schools as Eastern Oregon State, Lewis and Clark, North Idaho College, and the University of Alaska. She has released two albums on her own and has her own fan club Web site at http://www.teresa.com.

“I suppose mine is not the typical country-music story,” she says. “It’s really common for the REMs of the world to develop on college campuses, and for folkies. But country acts? Of course, country artists play colleges once they’re established, but as far as I know, I’m the first one who’s come from the college scene to Music Row.

“It’s a huge market, and people are beginning to capitalize on it now, but when I initially started, it wasn’t a country market at all. Somehow, because I played acoustic guitar and sang original songs, and my covers were of people like Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, I wasn’t pegged as a country artist at all. I was just a singer-songwriter.”

Indeed, Teresa’s background contradicts virtually every country-music cliché: Raised in an Italian-American family in Connecticut, she didn’t learn to sing in church, and she never wanted to be Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton. She’s never waited on a table in her life, and when she moved here, she was already a successful touring artist and business owner. And at 17, she was—gasp!—a rock singer. “My repertoire was Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Heart, and Styx,” she says. “The closest I came to country was Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Linda Ronstadt.”

Teresa didn’t simply happen onto the college circuit after she was dropped from Sony. A decade ago, before she even tried to make it on Music Row, she was playing college gigs. In the years since, she has built a steady following. So when her label deal went sour, she simply picked up where she’d left off.

“The venues are anything from a cafeteria to a beautiful theater,” she says. “I’ve opened for comedians and played parents’ weekends and things like that. This is definitely not a gig for a person who is accustomed to the Bluebird audience, where everyone just stays attentive and listens to you. I do gigs called nooners, where I play while [students] are eating lunch.

“At a noontime concert, I’m not just trying to sing ballads to these people—I have a gimmick. I’m wireless, so that I can walk around the audience. The only place I don’t do it is Nashville, because the first time I did it [here], people were saying, ‘Who are you trying to be? Garth Brooks?’ College kids love it. I wrote a song called ‘The Little Girl in Me Loves the Little Boy in You,’ and if I go up and sing that to some guy, they go nuts.”

Teresa’s crowds range anywhere from 30 to 3,000, but a typical audience consists of 100 to 200 people. “This is a campaign I was hoping to do with Sony,” she says. “For 10 years, I’ve toured, and I’m at the peak of that arena. Our plan had been to engage those college students because they have a vested interest in seeing this artist who has played their campus forever.

“I can only imagine having a video on CMT and some former college students seeing it and saying, ‘Oh my God! That’s the chick who played that nooner and sang to me.’ I have no idea what seeds we planted. I think it could be huge.”

More recently, Teresa has planted another seed with overwhelming possibilities. Last year, as she was laying the groundwork for an album project, she approached Nashville songwriter Adam Mitchell, who happens to be friends with Linda Ronstadt, one of Teresa’s idols. “I asked him, ‘How crazy would it be if you and Linda produced me?’ ”

Mitchell sent a copy of Teresa’s tape to Ronstadt, who loved the recording. She agreed to produce the singer and invited her to Tucson, Ariz., for a session last fall. The resulting five-song project, which features Ronstadt singing background vocals, has already piqued the interest of several Nashville labels and managers.

“She was the nicest person,” Teresa says. “She is very opinionated and well-read; she’s brilliant. I knew that if she committed to doing it, she would do it wholeheartedly, and she did.”

Spreading the word

Nashville-based Reach Radio Networks, which provides Southern gospel programming to 111 cities, is celebrating the second anniversary of its two Nashville stations, WVRY and WBOZ. This Thursday through Saturday, the network is hosting Summer Fest at the Municipal Auditorium; 35 acts will perform, including Gold City, the Kingsmen, and the McKameys.

Former Disney executive Jim Cumbee purchased Reach Radio Networks nearly three years ago and moved its headquarters to Nashville. At the same time, he purchased radio stations WVRY-105.1 FM and WBOZ-104.9 FM, converting their formats from country to gospel. The two frequencies now serve as the network’s flagship stations; billed together as SolidGospel 105 FM, they simultaneously broadcast the same programming. “Since 105 is right between them on the radio, it gives us a big signal from Hopkinsville to Monteagle, from Lebanon to Jackson,” says Jim Black, vice president of network development. He estimates that the signal reaches 1.5 million listeners.

In addition to providing programming via satellite for more than 100 stations across the country, Reach also sends out a weekly syndicated show to nearly 250 stations, nearly one-third of which are country.

Black says the network’s two Nashville stations “have had 11 record-setting months in a row. We have taken what were two country stations trying to compete against the No. 1 and No. 2 country stations in the world, and increased the bottom line at least seven-fold.” The stations, which were ranked 16th in recent Arbitrons, have reported ratings two times higher than those of Nashville’s two contemporary Christian stations combined.

According to Black, when the two stations first made the Arbitron book together, “We were No. 1 in time spent listening, which for an advertiser is very important. The audience for this music is a 42-year-old college-educated female, married with one or two kids and a $42,000 annual household income.”

While contemporary Christian music has received much mainstream attention of late, thanks to bands such as DC Talk and Jars of Clay, Reach sticks to the traditional Southern gospel music of Bill Gaither, the Cathedrals, and Gold City. “The people who love this music have gone through a metamorphosis,” Black says. “They loved it growing up as kids. They got away from it in the ’70s and ’80s, [when] the industry kind of stepped to the side and contemporary Christian took over. It was more hip and cool to be contemporary Christian, yet the audience of people who loved the music was still out there; just nobody was reaching them.”

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