'Nashville Star' Melissa Lawson on her 'Idol' past, Katie Cook's cleavage, and that songwriting controversy
On Monday night, Melissa Lawson, a 32-year-old mother of five from Arlington, Texas, triumphed over fellow Lone Star Stater Gabe Garcia to win NBC’s country music talent competition Nashville Star. Her first single, “What If It All Goes Right,” is already at the top of the iTunes country chart; next, she’ll record an album with show judge John “Big &” Rich, head out on tour with her fellow Nashville Star finalists, and travel to Beijing, China, to sing at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. We grabbed her at dinnertime on the day after her big win, and hassled her with all our burning questions about the finale, the kind of album she’d like to make, and why she thinks she’ll be the first Nashville Star to actually, like, succeed.
EW: Did you swallow enough confetti last night?
Lawson: [laughs] Yes, I did. I’ve had enough confetti for a lifetime.
Let’s talk about the finale a little bit. Whose crazy idea was the “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” duet?
[Laughs.] Well, the duet idea, I have to take credit for. I’d been asking the whole season if we could do a duet night, ’cause I think it would be really neat and kind of challenging. The actual song selection…the network was involved in that one.
Ah, the network.
Next burning question: Was the plan always to have those Jessica Simpson-lookin’ backup dancers out there for just Gabe’s part of “Achy Breaky Heart”—
[Lawson starts giggling.]
— or were you and Shawn like, “We are NOT singing with that going on behind us?”
It’s kind of funny. Actually, the original version of the song that they arranged because of the time constraints of the show, we had the dancers out with just Billy [Ray Cyrus] alone. And then the dancers left, and it was Gabe singing, and then Shawn, and then me. But ultimately Billy said, “This is my song, this is the way I’ve been singing it for 15 years, and I feel like the fans will be confused if we change it up.” So they rearranged it back to the way it should have been in the first place. Because of that change, the dancers had to come out at a different time. Gabe would say that he got to benefit from that. [Laughs.]
addCredit(“Melissa Lawson and John Rich: John Russell”)
What did we think of what [co-host] Katie Cook was wearing for the finale?
I thought it was sassy, actually. We had a wardrobe conversation where I was like, do you ever get tired of the people poking and prodding at you and putting whatever the heck they want on you? And she’s like, “You know, at this point, I’m comfortable in whatever they give me.”
It was rather boobalicious.
That it was.
But I guess if I could pull that off, I’d do it, too.
She definitely pulled it off.
Let’s talk a little about NBC, while we’re somewhat on the subject. What did you think about some of the contestants—I won’t name names—who were clearly on the show because the network wanted them there, not the judges?
You know, it is television. And I think everyone in the world realizes that reality TV isn’t always all reality. [Chuckles.] I’m sure there were some amazingly talented vocalists that were passed up because they weren’t all that interesting, but overall, I was really happy with the choices, because I made some really good friends. Whether they’re great singers or not—you know, maybe not so much. But they all worked hard.
There was some talk about “pageant face” on the show this season, and you took the occasional hit for scrunching up your nose and whatnot. Were you ever in a pageant?
Where’s your stage presence from?
A couple places. I started singing on the Opry circuit when I was 13, all these little small towns around Dallas/Ft. Worth, which is where I got my start with a live band. And then when I was 15 I went to the performing arts high school in Ft. Worth, and every student had to take drama, art, dance, and music. So that really prepared me.
Speaking of stage presence, please answer the biggest question of the summer: Is Coffey country?
I think he’s a country boy. Whether he’s a country singer? I don’t know. Possibly with the right material. But it’s not something that just happens when he sings a song. You could give Gabe any song, I don’t care what genre, and it would come out country. He can’t help it. Coffey, it’s not the same thing. He’s got a little more of that pop influence, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s very talented.
So be honest—did you think you had it in the bag?
No, I actually didn’t. When I was standing up there I was telling myself, You know what? It’s okay. Top two is great. It’s a great place to be. And I really thought Gabe was gonna win. So it was kinda shocking when they called my name.
Why did you think Gabe had an advantage over you?
The thing that really psyched me out the most was hometown week. Because when he went home for his concert, he had 10,000 people show up, and I had about 1,100. So obviously that’s a huge difference. [Laughs.] Two, I think he’s obviously a great vocalist, and I think he’s grown a lot this season from beginning to end. I was really kind of keeping tabs on the audience throughout the final show itself and seeing how they responded to me versus Shawn versus Gabe when we performed, and they were just really excited about Gabe. And I thought, Okay. It’s okay. Second place, I can’t cry over that.
Was part of that just you trying to keep low expectations?
Sure. Absolutely. I think–I know I’ve had a lot of disappointment, been knocked down a lot of times, and I’m sure there was a part of it that was just trying to prepare myself to not be so disappointed if I didn’t win.
Give me an example of one of those times when you’ve been knocked down and you can now look back and say, “Okay, that was just a step in my getting here.”
You know, probably one of the ones that people would relate to most is American Idol. I competed Season Four and made the top 75, but after going through all of that, I never got airtime at all. It was almost a slap in the face, and it just made me feel like there was no validation there at all, no respect for the time that was put in. It just made me feel horrible. That’s one of many. Overall, I’ve paid a lot of dues to get where I’m at today, and I feel very, very fortunate to have won last night. Time is ticking in such a weird manner right now, I can’t believe it was just last night.
What did you do all day Tuesday, the day after your victory?
We did a radio tour. Started first thing this morning and we had that all day long.
That’s something you have to get used to in Nashville, putting in the time with those radio stations. They’ve told you that, right?
I was prepared. And I enjoyed that. You know, every Friday during the Nashville Star process we would have a media day, and we’d talk to radio stations across the country, and for me that was really fun, getting to know people in different areas: Seattle, and Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, and California.
Do you feel prepared to take on that side of the business now, all the promotion and whatnot?
Definitely. And today, John [Rich] was with me on the majority of the interviews, and even though most of the talking was done by me, he’d pipe in every once in a while, or they might ask him a question cause they know he’s on the phone. But he would always bring it back to me and the reason that we were on the call. That’s a great learning experience, to know how to bring these calls back around to the reason that you’re talking in the first place.
Many of the people who make it in Nashville have been striving for years and years, gigging in tiny clubs to get to the top, and people might perceive Nashville Star as you having walked through the back door.
I can see how they might think that, but of course, they don’t know. I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been playing since I was 13. It’s been a process for me of almost 20 years. So they just have to get to know me a little better to know that I have paid my dues as much as they have.
Let’s talk about the album you get to make. Are you worried at all about working with John? He’s a big fan of yours, but he also tends to want things the way he wants them.
He does. I have to say, I was worried about that when we cut the single. Obviously I trust him and respect his opinion and what he’s done with his career, but as a producer I wasn’t really sure what to expect. You know, Gretchen Wilson [who Rich has also produced] is a complete 180 from me. But once we got in there and he started discussing music, it was really what in line with what I had in mind. And when we got down to the actual recording and laying down the vocals, I liked it. John pushes me. He was like, You know what? That was good, but you can do better. And he knows the limits I can stretch to. I’m pretty critical of myself, especially in the studio. I want to be sure it’s gonna be perfect. You have to live with it the rest of your life. So I appreciate that about him. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re gonna have moments where we butt heads, since we’re both very strong personalities. But we’re both adults, too, and we can deal with it and move through it.
Is he gonna make you rap with a dwarf?
[Laughs.] Hopefully not.
Tell me a little about what you have in mind for the album.
I want to tackle real life issues that women around the country have to deal with, that anyone who struggles and has a dream has to deal with. If the song doesn’t speak to me on a lyrical level—that’s crucial. The music is equally important. If you don’t have the mix of both, it’s not worth singing. There are some great songs out there where the music is so awesome and gets you going, but if you really stop to analyze the lyrics, they’re not so great. I want to find a good balance.
Will you be writing?
Absolutely. Not only will I be writing myself, but John and I will be collaborating, and Jeffrey [Steele, another judge] is also asking to do some stuff as well. I’ve heard there are many others knocking at the door. But to work with John and Jeffrey alone is a tremendous opportunity with the success and track record they have.
Is there an artist you could point to and say, That’s the kind of album I’d like to make?
I’d say Trisha Yearwood. With maybe a Martina McBride and Faith Hill flair to it. And a little attitude from Wynonna [Judd].
So, nothing too major.
[Laughs.] No pressure.
What was your favorite album when you were 15?
Probably Debbie Gibson. Isn’t that funny? I just had that thought of sitting in my room with the actual record playing on my player.
You definitely have a lot of pop crossover in your voice.
Country music has always been my foundation. I always have country music. But I have those pop influences.
And what’s your favorite album right now?
Well, Trisha’s got a new one, so I have to say that.
Before I forget, while we’re talking about songwriting, do you want to clear up once and for all the thing with your original song “Ready to Stand”?
What am I going to clear up?
I think there are some people saying because you co-wrote it with Margi Howard, it shouldn’t have counted.
Are you kidding me? Lemme just tell you, and Margi will tell you, too: We co-wrote it, but before she came over I had the entire verse, chorus, and all of the melody already written. It was pretty much done. So gosh. I didn’t even know anybody had said anything about it. To Margi’s credit, we definitely wrote this thing together. But at the same time, it came from my heart, from my experience, and it’s totally my song.
I’m fine with it. But some of our readers were talking about it on the message boards.
It’s so funny. I just wonder what kind of person takes the time to write something like that. Are they a songwriter? I guess I’ve had so many naysayers in my life, you wonder where these people are really coming from.
I think you’re about to find out there are a lot of strange people in the world. And they all tend to live on the internet. “Don’t read message boards” would be my first piece of advice to you.
Well, I think that’s why they kept us away from it. We’ve had no internet and no access to phones at all. So I’m sure when I do get back to email I’ll take the time to read through some of the encouraging notes, and at the same time toss away the bad. Because at this point in my life I really feel like I know who I am, and so for someone to make a comment—they don’t know. They weren’t there when I wrote the song, and when we sat together and collaborated to finish it. So to make a comment, it’s just really ignorant. It’s not that they’re mean, or that they’re stupid. They just don’t have all the information.
Who have you heard from in the business? Did you get any good phone calls today?
Let’s see—[she asks her publicist] Did I get any congratulatory phone calls? Oh, Kim Carnes, who did “Bette Davis Eyes.” I think that was it. But I just got my cell phone back today, and the battery is dead, so I haven’t checked my own personal messages. It’s gonna be crazy trying to go through my voicemail.
What will you be performing on tour?
I don’t know yet. We haven’t even talked about those details. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out, cause I’m not sure if we get input, or we have to do things we did on the show.
And if you could go out there and open for anybody right now, who would it be? And you can’t say Trisha Yearwood.
Hmm. Kenny Chesney.
All right, I’m gonna let you go, but there’s one last thing: I’ve been watching this show and seeing the winners go absolutely nowhere for a long, long time. How are you going to keep yourself from being yet another Nashville Star who never does anything?
Well, several things. For one, there’s the NBC platform we had this year. Today they told me that there were approximately 5 million votes to choose the winner. That’s a LOT of people, a lot of people loving country music. Number two, no one else had the opportunity to release a single the day after the finale. And at the start of the day, when it was released, it was number 74. At two o’clock it was number one in the country section on iTunes. Crazy. That’s almost an unreal sensation for me to even say out loud. And Warner Bros. has just come in all day long and talked to me about how behind me they are, and how much they believe in me, and I so appreciate that, and I’m gonna work very, very hard to make sure that I get to ride this and stay on top. I want a long career. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.
Is there an aspect of this that absolutely terrifies you?
Obviously traveling to China is a little terrifying.
Oh my god, I forgot! You have to do the Olympics!
I think the longest plane ride I’ve been on is about two and a half hours, so. It’s a little intimidating.
I think the bigger problem for me would be the billions of people watching.
That’s a little crazy, isn’t it?
Does your husband get to go?
He does not. He has to stay at home with the kids. I’m sure there will be some moments in time when he’s like, “Oh, I wish I could go with you,” but I figure in the end he’ll get to see a lot of the world, so that’ll be good.
The concerns about taking you away from your family to set out on tour—do you want to just address that one more time?
Sure. Obviously, there’s a gazillion single parents out there who are working their butts off at several jobs and having to leave their kids in the hands of other people in order to make a better life for them. This isn’t that different. My husband’s going to have to take the reins for a while, but believe me, any time that I can bring them with me I will, and any time I can be home I’m gonna be home. It’s very, very important to me that one or both of us are with them at all times. And there have been times when my husband’s had to go out on the road for months at a time and work, and I’ve been the one with the kids. Nobody ever says that about the dad. They only say that about the mom. But it’s not any different. We are both their parents. And we’re going to handle it. If I thought it would be detrimental to the children I never would have done this in the first place.
Do the kids have any concept of what just happened?
No, not really. Their biggest thing right now is that we won a truck. So they’re all about the truck. When do we get it? What color will it be?