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She’s a Little Bit Country

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Eileen, a 33-year-old country music fan who is sick and tired of all these slick Shania Twain clones. Shaking her head, she asks how the next Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn can possibly be discovered in this era of pure pop disguised in western wear.

“Cookie cutter,” is how Eileen describes the new Nashville mind-set. “They discourage any kind of originality. If there was a young George Jones out there, he might never get a chance.”

Meet Eileen Twain, better known to the world by the stage name Shania. She’s a country star who sounds and sells like a pop singer, but as a fan she longs for Nashville to rediscover the twang and hickory heart that enthralled her as a child.

“As a listener, there’s not a lot of country music today that I like,” said Twain, who opened a three-night Southern California swing Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl, with dates tonight in Chula Vista and Saturday at the Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore. “The classic country is what I prefer. It’s just beautiful songwriting.”

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These opinions might shock members of Nashville’s old guard; it’s no secret that many purists view Twain as a prime force behind the pop push in their genre. But that’s nothing new for the Canadian singer. She may be a titan in the country music industry, but she remains somewhat of an outsider and enigma.

To Twain, the logic is as simple as a Johnny Cash lyric: She grew up singing country songs but never associated it with the boots and belt-buckle scene. Her music is a true synthesis of her wide-ranging tastes, which she says makes her as authentic as any other artist.

“I grew up in freakin’ Timmins, Ontario,” she says. “I’m not a cowboy. We had snowmobiles, not horses.”

Twain is the first female artist in any genre to sell 10 million copies of back-to-back albums, and by most accounts she is the first great video star of country music. That success, she says, is from shedding the view that country music is limited to fans in rural America.

“I’m proof you don’t have to be of the cowboy culture to enjoy country music,” she said.

Twain, who lives in Switzerland, drives a German car and cites a Briton (Sir Elton John) as her favorite performer, says country music should be as international as rock ‘n’ roll. She also views the pop music landscape as a land without borders.

She says the country songs she learned as a child and has performed on stage since age 8 are her “musical soul,” but she did not pledge her heart solely to the genre. She also grew to love John, Stevie Wonder, Abba, the Bee Gees and the Carpenters and even flirted with Def Leppard and AC/DC.

Her youthful career made her a seasoned stage performer by the time she arrived in Nashville nearly a decade ago, but the songs on her demo tapes veered all over the musical map.

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“People said, ‘You have to decide what you are, either pop or country or rock or R&B;,’ but I couldn’t make up my mind,” she said with a chuckle. “And in the end I didn’t have to. I wound up doing a little bit of everything. And it’s wonderful.”

There have been a lot of apologies coming from Nashville powers these days, Twain concedes with a self-conscious smile. Success breeds agreement, after all, and it’s hard to argue with Twain’s commercial success. She still has an edge in her voice, however, when asked if her artistic credibility is now recognized.

Twain is well-versed in country music history and she bridles at the idea of Nashville insiders believing her pop sensibilities and foreign passport mean she’s ignorant about country music.

“They’re out there trying to find artists who are true and real and they’re getting singers who just got out of college and have probably never listened to a Tammy Wynette album in their life,” she says. “But because they’re from, oh, Texas or something, they have a license to be considered a country artist and I don’t. I don’t get it.”

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The crossover success has made Twain huge in a relatively short time. The first of her three albums came out in 1993 and featured only one of her own songs. That self-titled debut got little attention, with one notable exception: rock producer Mutt Lange (AC/DC, Foreigner, Bryan Adams) was smitten by the young singer’s voice and photo. The two met, became collaborators and, in a matter of months, married.

Their labors led to “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and a string of other hits off her 1995 sophomore effort, titled “The Woman in Me.” In all, songs from the album would spend well over 100 weeks on the country singles charts--all without touring.

She managed to eclipse those accomplishments with her most recent album, “Come On Over,” which earned her two Grammys and produced her signature song, a ballad of devotion titled “You’re Still the One.” That song was perhaps more comfortable on pop stations than on some country music playlists, and it clearly introduced her to a vast, general fan base.

Lange’s polished production and co-writing abilities have prompted speculation in many quarters that Twain is a mere instrument, not a creative force in her own music. She sharply dismisses that notion. “We’re each strong where the other is weak,” she says, somewhat distantly. “We’re great partners.”

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A Striking Presence

in Music Videos

Lange does not do interviews, according to his manager, but another veteran of the rock world who works with Twain said the singer clearly possesses talents that go far beyond her voice.

“She is a wonderful artist, very thoughtful with a lot to say,” says her manager Jon Landau, famous for guiding Bruce Springsteen to stardom. “She has a real vision and she works tirelessly to realize it.”

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Twain’s vision may be most powerful in the realm of videos. The current tour is her first, but the 20 videos she has made--a very large number for an artist with only two hit albums--have captured the attention and imagination of her fans.

“She’s the preeminent country music video star, definitely,” says Chris Parr, programming director for the CMT music channel, which reaches 42 million U.S. homes. “She’s the most prominent, most visually impactive artist on the country scene. . . . Her image is as important as her music.”

Her videos are dramatic and stylized, whether they show her vamping in a tight leopard-skin outfit in the desert or cavorting in an elegant evening gown among dusty cowboys in a roadside cafe.

Twain has become the cover girl of country music--indeed, Cosmopolitan magazine named her the “fun, fearless female of the year” for 1998--and the videos may be the key reason. She says the glamour in the videos, however, have very little to do with her true persona.

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Leaning forward on a plush couch in the sprawling suite of a Beverly Hills hotel, Twain says glamour and luxury are trappings she still finds somewhat foreign. She is a very wealthy woman, of course, but she considers herself durable and non-flashy, like her well-worn blue jeans.

She has not learned to spend money on superfluous luxury, she admits in a voice suggesting that is a weakness. A day earlier, she passed on a purse during a shopping trip because it was $500. She recently bought her first expensive car, a BMW Sportster, which will replace a creaky GMC Jimmy. Her husband fought her plea to pass on the BMW and buy a used car instead.

Twain says she is “really working” on enjoying wealth, but she finds it difficult to think of money as a currency for fun. The reason is Twain’s background, a life that, as has often been pointed out, seems to be pulled from one of those old hard-luck country ballads that Twain loves to hear but never seems to sing. Her parents were of modest means, and in rough times the family hovered near poverty. Twain and her four siblings went without meals and a grim shadow often hung over the household’s future. The money Twain made as a child singer often helped pay the rent.

At age 21, while on the road performing, Twain got a call and her life was upended: Her parents had been killed in a car crash. She became the sole support for her three younger siblings, and her career was sidetracked.

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The role of celebrity has required Twain to be candid about these events, which she says she does not resent. Even here Twain has taken criticism; some have questioned whether she overstated the facts of her background to milk sympathy. Like her music and her stage persona, her personal life was subject to a credibility check. If anything, she has responded, she has understated the facts of her past.

“There are people in the Nashville industry that will never like what say or what I do,” she says.

She makes that declaration with an easy shrug that suggests she could not care less what her critics think. Yes, she says, she is in a wonderful spot in her life, a fact that is in sharp focus when viewed through the lens of her past. “I’m soaring,” she says. What if this turns out to be the peak moment her career, a bar that is set too high to reach again? “That would fine. Really, that would be OK.”

Petite and private, Twain in person seems far smaller than her video personas--which veer from ethereal beauty to lusty underwear model, and she answers that, yes, that is her “stage Shania.” The “at-home Shania” loves cooking, playing with her dog and kicking around in sweats. Her stage persona loves “running around and feeling fun and sexy,” but real life, she points out, is “not a music video.”

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The videos have defined Twain, which is a mixed blessing. To fans, they show she is a beautiful, curvaceous woman whom the camera loves. To critics, they bolster the thought that she is all sizzle and no substance, a pop singer who, as far as country music credentials are concerned, is all hat and no cattle.

The singer describes herself as “a control freak” when it comes to the videos--not just as a performer, but in the editing and concept process--and other aspects of crafting her persona, but she also claims to be powerless when it comes to fighting the marketing machine. Glossy, sexy eye candy sells music these days, she says, and she is in the business of selling.

“Of course it looks slick and glamorous and wonderful,” Twain says with a growing edge in her voice. “That’s the nature of it. That’s marketing. None of us can escape it. If I could do it without all that I’d love it. It’s a lot more work. I’d rather just be the artist and not have to be the star.”

* Shania Twain, with Leahy, today at Coors Amphitheatre, 2050 Otay Valley Road, Chula Vista. 7:30 p.m. $26-$66. (619) 671-3600. Also Saturday at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore. 8 p.m. $25-$65. (909) 886-8742.

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