Before Her Time
Country music recently lost one of its brightest, if most unheralded, stars. Amie Comeaux, a petite, perky blonde who released her debut album on Polydor Records in 1994, was killed in a car wreck near Baton Rouge, La., on Dec. 21. She had just turned 21 a few weeks before.
Those who worked with Amie knew for certain that she was destined for stardom. She began performing publicly at age 3 and became a regular performer at the New Orleans Saints’ halftime and pregame shows by the time she was 9. “Amie always wanted to sing,” says her mother, Carmen Comeaux. “She never led a normal life like most kids. Most kids were out in the backyard playing. Amie was looking at what nursing homes she could get booked in to sing.”
Veteran producer Harold Shedd discovered the 10-year-old Comeaux when she was singing in the musical Annie; six years later, he signed her to a deal with Polydor. She released her first album, Moving Out, at age 17.
The tiny Comeaux had a flawless, powerful voice with virtually perfect pitch; her range could be compared to Whitney Houston’s. She also had the beauty and energy of Shania Twain and Mindy McCready, but it was her bubbly, irreverent, and infectious personality that won over critics.
During her brief life, Comeaux helped to shatter one of the most pervasive clichés of the recording business: It’s all about the music. She taught us, rather, that it’s all about the person; the music is secondary. True to her nature, Amie had no ego about her voice; it was merely a part of her. I’m sure she was amused by singers who took themselves too seriously and considered themselves “artists.”
Since I worked at Polydor as a publicist, I spent a great deal of time with Comeaux over a nearly two-year period. When I first met her, all I saw was a five-foot tanned girl with a floral-print dress and her hair pulled back in a headband. She certainly didn’t look old enough to drive, much less to warrant Shedd’s several-hundred-thousand-dollar investment.
Comeaux quickly proved me wrong. When she discovered I hadn’t heard her sing, she immediately belted out the latest Whitney Houston hit. In no time, I became an Amie Comeaux fan for life.
Helping Amie promote her album was like viewing Christmas through a child’s eyes. Innocent and excited, she relished every opportunity to sing and meet new people. But she was a teenager in every respect. We spent hours giggling at the ridiculously tight Wranglers and large belt buckles donned by her male counterparts. Later, when those same singers greeted Comeaux by name backstage, we would look at each other with a knowing smile.
Amie and her mother shared the tightest mother-daughter bond I’ve ever seen. Carmen Comeaux lived for her daughter. “My whole life, everybody’s whole life was around Amie,” says Carmen, who also has two sons. “They were never jealous of her. It was an excitement every day around here.” Carmen was the antithesis of the stereotypical stage mother. She stayed in the background, never pushing, always ready to support her daughter.
Unlike LeAnn Rimes, Comeaux was essentially dismissed by country radio because of her age. Conscious of her youth, Polydor had the singer record songs about first loves and first apartments, and the label only released photos that portrayed an innocent-looking girl. Comeaux hated the teenybopper image with which she was saddled; she wanted to tackle more mature songs, and she wanted to wear hip, adult clothes onstage.
Fellow Polydor artist Toby Keith promised to help Comeaux with her second album, even offering to write a song specifically for her. “I remember her saying, ‘Momma, Toby told me he was writing a slut song for radio for me,’ ” Carmen says with a laugh, quickly turning serious. “Right now, they are making the rave over these girls. Amie was like, ‘I was 16, but nobody noticed.’ She said Harold brought her into that industry...and brought the teenagers back to country music. She might not have been recognized for it, but it gave the [other labels] the idea to do it.”
Comeaux lost her deal when Polydor folded in 1996 (by which time the label’s name had changed to A&M). After a brief return to Brusly, La., she came back to Nashville last year in hopes of landing another deal. She was booked for a month of shows in Sweden and England, so she put everything she owned in storage here, only to have it all stolen. Despite her setbacks, she was still hopeful and planned to relocate to Nashville this month.
Shortly before her death, Comeaux had recorded 19 songs that were to be shopped to Nashville labels. The music now remains as her legacy. It also gives her mother a mission: “We are going to go ahead and release the single first and see what happens,” Carmen says. “I know it’s unheard of to do this, but I’ve just got a good feeling about it for some reason. These songs are too good not to be heard. I am not letting her dream go.”
Respected journalist Dan Daley has just released Nashville’s Unwritten Rules: Inside the Business of Country Music, which explores the inner workings of the country-music machine. Not only does Daley explain the four major power centers in musicthe producers, publishers, songwriters, and musicianshe also explores the history and culture behind the making of music as well.
“I was hoping to achieve some kind of model that said, ‘This is the way the business here works,’ ” Daley says. “To do that, I had to look back and see where the business came from. The model that I came up with was the medieval feudal society. It’s patriarchal, and it’s an apprenticeship-based society, one in which skills [are] in essence passed down from one generation to the next, with no true breaks in between. Each new cohort adds something to the stew...but they’re still playing by the same rules as their predecessors in terms of record-making and songwriting.”
Daley says the feudal system is self-sustaining because the more time people spend learning how the industry operates, the less willing they are to change things. “The long apprenticeships and residency requirements serve as a weeding-out process,” Daley says. “The country music business wants people who are in it for the long run, and that’s why careers last as long as they do down here, much longer than in pop music.
“The corollary to this rule is that the country music business tends to take care of its own somewhat better than its larger siblings on the coasts. The recent upheaval at Capitol, I think, illustrates that. If that had been New York or L.A., I don’t think Scott Hendricks would have gotten the face-saving Virgin deal offer.... In L.A. or New York, you come back from lunch and the locks have been changed.”
Daley, who writes for Billboard, USA Today, and other publications, will sign copies of his book 5-7 p.m. Friday at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
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