No Rules says it all. As the title of Rebecca Lynn Howard’s debut album, handpicked to launch the new Saguaro Road Records label, these two words sum up this songwriter’s approach to music in general.

This extraordinary release is not surprising, for fans have come to expect the unexpected from the young woman who has accomplished so much so soon.

Established in Nashville as a writer whose catalog has been mined by Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, John Michael Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood and other headliners, and in demand as a guest vocalist on sessions with the likes of Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, Howard has above all been celebrated as an artist in her own right since hitting the country music Top 5 with her album, Forgive, in 2002.

From the start, Howard has taken inspiration from the broad vista of American music. True, she was raised in Appalachia, but there was more music around her in eastern Kentucky than the bluegrass and country with which she has been associated. Gospel also flowed through that world in more than one stream. And Howard drew nourishment from it all.

Work on the project began several years ago when Howard began feeling the urge to explore.

From its earliest moments, the album embraced the idea of letting the music set its own direction, without category or preconception – with no rules. And the more freedom she allowed herself in her writing, the more this side of her creativity began to emerge.

The feeling in her music was evolving, reaching back to untapped parts of her past to invigorate her established sound. Howard rode this current from the writing stage to the recording studio, too.

It meant taking a few risks – but with no rules at play, these were risks worth taking.

Howard wound up heading out of Nashville to record in the remote neighborhood of Muscle Shoals, Ala., whose place in R&B history mirrored the directions she was mapping out for No Rules.

With producer Michael Curtis, a fixture on staff at the legendary Fame Music Company, she assembled a band that knew how to enhance great songs with a backup that’s both raw and tight.

Then, over the band’s steamy grooves, she laid down the most emotional performances she’s ever committed to disc.

Recently, Rebecca Lynn Howard spoke with O&AN in an exclusive phone interview about the new album.

O&AN: No Rules is a definite departure from some of your earlier work. What made you want to pursue this direction instead of a more traditional country sound?

RLH: I took a few years off from recording and touring to focus on my songwriting so that I could try and build my catalogue back up. It really just seemed like a natural evolution. My songs were starting to sound more soulful. I was writing songs that were completely unfiltered.

There was a kind of newness to my writing that as it evolved and I was writing more and more of that raw, truthful vein it seemed that my voice started to follow. I was starting to develop more of a blues or neo-soul sound that was a strong part of my childhood.

I grew up in the Pentecostal church and our sister church was an all-black Full Gospel church so I was around those sounds a lot as a child and that was what I felt was being birthed inside of me and finally coming out after all these years.

O&AN: What were some of the ways that you worked to imbue this album fully with the sound you were after?
 
RLH: When it came time to make this record I had all of these songs that were similar in feel that had a very strong soulful undertone and we were recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where so many great soul records were born.

The producer for the record was from that area and we hired musicians who were also from the area and who had played on a lot of those old hit records. A lot of the people from the Muscle Shoals area also sang background harmonies on the record so we were trying to keep a common thread running through all of the songs that resonated with that feeling of being in the middle of history and paying tribute to that history with the music.

O&AN: As much of a change in sound as this album is for you was there any fear that some of your audience might not get it?

RLH: My fans have always been very responsive to me taking chances with my music. Some of the most common comments I get from fans is that they appreciate how flexible as an artist I am and that I can pull off a number of sounds from pop to country to soul without loosing what it is they like about me as a performer, so I wasn’t afraid at all to go in this new direction.

I have always been blessed with fans who want to come along for the ride and see where I was headed. For the most part they knew it was already in me and it was only a matter of time before it got out.

O&AN: Many people may not realize that you had made your name as a songwriter long before you became a well-known performer. Which aspect of your career do you prefer more: writing or performing?

RLH: As a songwriter I feel very validated when another artist takes one of my songs as their own because as an artist I know how difficult that can be to find something that comes from outside of yourself to make it fit somewhere inside of you that makes sense.

It’s a real honor because it is always easy for someone to record their own work because they are the ones who love it. It’s a little harder to find your place in someone else’s world with recording your work. Writing is a very big part of who I am because it is my therapy. It is how I deal with everything that happens to me from day to day. It’s how I help my friends deal with what they are going through.

I get a real rush from performing but it is over in an hour or two. The song lives forever and that is the amazing thing for me about being a songwriter. At the same time it’s an amazing thing to bring your music to people and share it with them

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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