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A 'spitfire' takes it to heart

Alabama-born country singer Tonya Watts radiates an unusual kinetic energy. Impossibly blond, stunningly beautiful, Watts, who begins an every-Thursday-night residency this week at Burbank’s Viva Cantina, specializes in an outspoken and expressive brand of contemporary country.

“My music is real, it’s honest, and it’s rockin’,” Watts said. “It’s a little bit outlaw, and it’s all from the heart.”

A songwriter of graceful precision, Watts’ tunes range from roaring redneck anthems to intensely intimate eroticism but most frequently, and successfully, to penetrating depictions of social misfits, family dysfunction and hard-time misfortune. It’s a strikingly idiosyncratic combination, and one that came into being more by fateful accident than professional determination.

The walking definition of a bombshell, Watts arrived in Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She quickly gained traction with a string of film and television roles, and her crummy day job was as “Baywatch”-era Pamela Anderson’s body double, an almost full-time gig in 1990s Hollywood.

“I came out here for acting. I sang as a little girl back in Alabama, but it wasn’t until after I played Dolly Parton in [1997 TV movie] ‘The Barbara Mandrell Story’ that I really started seriously in music,” Watts said. “Of course I had to sing when I auditioned for the role and the casting director told me, ‘You have a voice. You really should be singing country music.’ That changed everything.

“I started writing around 1999-2000 and doing shows in local clubs. That’s when I met Waylon Payne — he used to come out to all my shows, and he’d get up and sing. He is like a great comfort and a mentor to me.”

Payne, son of longtime Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne and country star Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make it Through the Night”), immediately recognized the dazzling Watts potential, and the pair have worked together sporadically ever since.

Watts drifted from Hollywood back to Alabama and did a long stint in Nashville, where she formed alliances with the likes of David Allan Coe, Hank Williams III and Jamey Johnson, who described her in a 2008 Washington Post interview as “A spitfire... a country girl with kind of a punk-country sound... Her music is completely unique, her heart's in the right place and her talent and energy and devotion is there.”

It’s not all neon-lit good times for any country singer. She married along the way, had a child, divorced and returned to life in the San Fernando Valley five years ago. Now Watts is itching to get back into the groove. “I’m a full-time single mom, and I can’t get out on the road that much,” Watts said. “I really need to keep my foot in the door with music, but I also still have to pay the bills and to balance all that is not easy. The universe takes care of me but, all that aside, I’m so excited to do this every-Thursday residency. Viva is great, I love it. I’ve been performing there off and on for about five years, it’s like a second home to me. I love that back room with the windows where you can see the horses going by. And the fact that it’s free, the kids can come, free parking, is really great.

“I write all the songs, it’s about what I know, and it’s therapy for me. When I play with my band, I just want to rock out. I want to play good music and have fun doing it — it feeds my soul.”

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Who: Tonya Watts

Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank

When: Every Thursday starting May 14, 9 p.m.

Cost: Free

Contact: (818) 845-2425, vivacantina.com

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JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”

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