Change of Direction : Fate Puts Linda Rae in Breakheart Pass

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If her career had progressed as originally charted, Linda Rae might have been either belting out Puccini or Mozart in one of the country's opera houses last Saturday night, or contributing the descant soprano part in a major chorale.

Instead, with the setting sun as a backdrop, the vocalist and front woman of local country band Breakheart Pass, was exhorting several hundred people to dance the Texas two-step on a barricaded side street of the Gaslamp Quarter.

By winning "Best Country" honors in the recent San Diego Music Awards, the band had earned the privilege of sharing the "Country" stage at the Michelob Street Scene with such heavyweight recording acts as Highway 101 and Diamond Rio. It made the most of the opportunity with a highly entertaining set of originals, country standards and country-basted rockers that had people singing along and kept a large group of line-dancers in constant motion.

But the Street Scene gig was only the most public of Breakheart Pass's recent triumphs. Since forming five years ago, the quintet of Rae, guitarist Mike Sherman, bassist Bill Noble, drummer Dale Hardy and guitarist and steel guitarist Kevin Ryan (who joined two years ago) has become the predominant country group in town. And they've been gaining almost as much recognition outside of San Diego.

However, if Breakheart Pass appears to be on an upward arc toward big-time success, stylistically that arc is a 180-degree departure from what Rae at one time envisioned for herself. The courses of musical careers are infamous for their sharp turns, but in an interview this week, the 28-year-old Rae allowed that the change of direction that brought her to this juncture was perhaps more radical than most.

"I was trained in classical music," she said during a break from her day job as an administrative assistant for an East County insurance company. "I studied classical music at Santana High for four years, and I was very serious about it."

The same quality that gives Rae her commanding stage presence also comes through in conversation. She speaks in the friendly but assured tones of one who knows she is playing from a strong hand.

"I had a great music teacher, Mrs. Good, who wanted me to apply to Juilliard. My singing got me into the 'Who's Who of American High School Students,' and I fully intended to have a career in opera or singing classical music."

The turnabout began unexpectedly one night in 1980, when Rae and a girlfriend wandered into a bar in El Cajon.

"I was 17 and underage, and I don't

even drink," Rae recalled. "But we walked into the Country Pump out on Old Highway 80. I don't even remember the name of the band that was playing, but they said their girl singer was quitting, and they asked me if I wanted to get up onstage and sing with them. Now, at the time I only knew two country songs--'Silver Thread and Golden Needles' and 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain'--and that was only because my older sister was always singing them around the house. But I said 'Sure.' "

Due to her limited knowledge of the band's repertoire, Rae mostly sang harmony that night, but the bug had bitten. Although she was born in San Diego, the second-youngest of seven children, she had been planning to move to Arkansas with her parents and younger brother. The opportunity to perform professionally changed her mind.

Rae decided to stay in town and finish school. Because of her enrollment in a special program at Santana, she actually earned work credits toward graduation by singing in the country band, which later changed its name to Country Comfort. But Rae also began a process of self-education in her new field.

"When I was growing up, I really detested country music," she said. "My sister was always listening to country on the radio, and it just seemed like all this whining and heartache, and, you know, when you're a little kid you don't want to hear about that stuff. I'd always try to change it to a pop or an oldies station.

"But, by the time I was a junior in high school, I found that certain country songs really got to me. I was still selective, though; I didn't like the really twangy songs, and I still don't care too much for the hard-core Nashville sound. But even when I couldn't stand listening to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette and all that 'singing through the nose' stuff, I loved Patsy Cline. My dad's from Ohio, and my mom's from West Virginia, so subconsciously I guess I was moving closer to my roots."

Rae's 1980 foray into country music was fortuitously timed. Thanks to the then-current film, "Urban Cowboy," city slickers were at least feigning interest in the form, and the sudden popularity of this populist music brought a lot of female vocalists front and center. Rae backtracked through the music's scrapbook to learn such women-oriented country standards as "Crazy" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

As Rae's confidence grew, so did her ambitions. Her experience in Country Comfort encouraged her to form the Gravel Canyon Band, and eventually, Breakheart Pass. By Rae's admission, the current outfit tries to give its country a bit of a rock 'n' roll edge, which might account for the band's across-the-board popularity in local, state and national circles.

Since its inception, Breakheart Pass has won "Band of the Year" and "Vocal Group of the Year" honors from the local chapter of the California Country Music Assn., and each player has won the top instrumental award in his respective category. For several consecutive years, the CCMA has named Rae the "Best Female Vocalist" and "Entertainer of the Year." In 1989, she was also named "Entertainer of the Year" by the national Country Music Assn. of America.

If Rae's ascendance as a country vocalist has delighted almost all who know her, one person was a little slower to warm to her musical change of heart.

"I was still at Santana when I first started singing country music," Rae said. "I'd come to class the morning after singing with the band, and I'd sing these soprano parts, and Mrs. Good would say, 'Linda, you're singing with a twang!' and the whole class would bust up laughing. But I ran into her the other day at the MDA benefit we did down on Harbor Drive, and she loves what I'm doing; she's very proud of me."

Breakheart Pass has the usual goal of a young band that's focusing its energies on a career in music. It has recorded an album's worth of original music with which it's trying to woo the industry powers in Los Angeles and Nashville, and they'd like to see it released on a major label.

Rae's only written contribution to the batch is a mid-tempo ballad called "Daddy's Blue Eyes," which Breakheart Pass performed at the Street Scene to good response. Last year, the tune won the nationwide Patty Loveless Songwriting Competition, and this year it won honorable mention in the third annual Kentucky Fried Chicken/Billboard Magazine Songwriting Contest. For all the kudos, however, the band knows it faces formidable odds.

"We're realistic enough to know what's stacked against us," Rae said. "But we think we have as good a shot at this as anyone. I'm convinced I could have had a successful career as a classical singer, and I'm just as confident that this will work out, too. In the meantime, we're going to continue to have a good time because, more than anything, we're having a lot of fun making good music."

Linda Rae and Breakheart Pass are performing Wednesdays through Saturdays, through November, at the Circle D Corral, 1013 Broadway, El Cajon.

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