By Katharine W. Poole
Dana Radford Sits on the back deck of her East Nashville home. It is a sanctuary of color and nature. Her haven is a covered, open-air room with a rainbow of tapestriesblowing in the autumn breeze, birds singing and puppies playing - she captivates the space with a joyous energy. Dana is truly delicious - her favorite word - she is full of sweet and savory energy. Her voice, even in conversation is lyrical and vibrant - a combination of deep resonant sultry alto tones and high pitched enthusiastic notes. Her journey to Nashville is a unique and unusual tale.
“We had been living on Martha’s Vineyard and winter rolled around - as a musician you can only work six months of the year there - and we were like - ‘Oh boy want are we gonna do this winter?’ - we’d been writing country songs so we thought ‘Well, let’s give Nashville a shot.’” December 2005 Dana and her husband Judd Fuller arrived in Nashville and rented a place. Within three months Judd had a gig playing bass for Rodney Atkins. And here they remain. Ten years later. This may sound like a typical transplant, but Dana’s story is anything but typical.
Dana has never been one to follow “the norm.” She moved out from her family home at a very young age to perform. When asked about college she shrieks: “No I’m Canadian. We don’t go to college! I was a singer at 15, in a band called The Advocates, with my boyfriend who was the guitar player. I finished high school early, in December. [I was] living with my boyfriend in his parent’s basement, in 1979.” That boyfriend begged Dana to move to Vancouver with him but at 16 Dana did not feel ready; she encouraged him to pursue his dream. “I then went on the road with another band, Noise and the Boys . Played in that band for seven years on the road, all around Saskatchewan, in a van. It was crazy. All my education was ‘street smarts’ being a chick singer in a band with a bunch of boys. My education was the real world.”
All that “real world” experience has been an asset to this power house singer. She brings to the stage, and her writing, a depth and presence that are infectious in the best possible way. “I was living in Toronto when I got scouted by an agent to go to New York. I worked for them for ten years. I’ve had lots of lucks.” Dana moved to Martha’s Vineyard when she was offered a gig singing for the summer season. She went because it would more than pay the rent and would also get her out of the sweltering city. During that time she traveled back to NYC every three weeks to collect a change of wardrobe from her apartment and pay her bills. It was during that time that she met the love of her life, Judd. The two had a great thing going on the Vineyard, a close-knit community, paying gigs and a large following of fans.
“It was hard coming here, because I knew first and foremost that there are no paying gigs. Every one plays for the hat. And I’ve never done that. I’ve been a singer for hire my whole life. I’ve made a living as a singer. When I lived in New York, I was a jingle singer. I’ve always sung for my supper. So, coming here I knew I had to put my ego in my back pocket, and I knew that I wasn’t going to make a living as a singer.”
“With that being said, I really focused on songwriting. I hired a song plugger, we started writing. To this day, ten years later, I am still doing that. And that’s fabulous, but I’m so used to being a singer for my living that it has been very emotionally difficult for me because I don’t get to sing every night.” “When I lived on Martha’s Vineyard I sang five nights a week. I could have sang seven nights a week, but I needed a couple of nights off. I was big fish, small pond - even in New York City, believe it or not. When I got to New York I was little fish big pond, but within the first six months I was singing in 6 original projects, singing on records - the way of the world in those days, I guess it was part my hunger - I was hungrier - my drive and my thrust for success - I was really hungry - and I was really active. I was really involved in the community. I sang every night in New York. And then I got to the Vineyard and I was big fish, small pond. And it was wonderful. Then I get to Nashville and I’m small fish, bigger pond - you know, that much later in my life.”
“It’s hard getting older with the influx of younger women coming up and wanting to take your spot, trying to stay hip, stay pretty, stay cool, stay funky…but, I’ve got a voice like nobody else, so my competition with other women in this town is very different, because I’ve got a different sound. I don’t have a little country girl voice. I’ve got a very big, rock and roll soul voice that can sing country. So I’m kind of lucky in that sense, where there’s not a lot of competition for my sound. And I was that girl in New York too - I was a contralto female vocalist - a lot of my friends were sopranos - so I never felt like there was a big competition. I’ve been lucky that I can market that.”
“When we first got here it was still a small town. I had said to myself I am never living in another big city, because I had moved from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard and I was loving my small town lifestyle. I was ready to be an old lady on the Vineyard.” Dana is the furthest thing from ever becoming an old lady. “So we get to Nashville and I was like - oh great it’s not a big city - it’s a little town - it was truly ‘little big town.’ It’s funky. Every one knows everybody.”
“It has changed a lot since we got here. The way I see it has changed mostly is the influx of people moving to town, looking for work. I swear. I think that the word is out that Nashville is the cool place to be. And, it really wasn’t when we first got here. Lower Broadway is still ‘Lower Broad,’ - but we’ve got all kinds of restaurants and night clubs and everything is just more chi-chi. We’re like a baby, little New York City. Everything got fancy. It was a little simpler in 2005. The big pop culture of Country Music hadn’t hit yet. Bro Country hadn’t broken yet. Taylor Swift hadn’t made a name yet. We were still in the world of Shania and Garth. The world of Country Pop hadn’t cracked yet. So I watched that blossom and evolve.”
The conversation shifts to passion behind her own music. Dana shivers, smiles and squeaks in her contagious way: “Oh my God, that just gave me goosebumps down to my ankles - asking me that question - because nobody’s ever asked me that question before. Honestly, my passion, I love, love, love nothing more than to get on stage and rip out a tune. I love to connect with people by voice. For me it is so incredibly emotional. For me it is not just standing on stage and singing for somebody. It’s standing on stage and sharing something that God gave me for an audience and having them absorb my sound. That for me is delicious.” And there it is. The word that encompasses this divine woman. It’s as if, when she is singing or speaking that the flavor of words and sounds permeate from her entire being.
“I [expletive] love being able to give that to people - because people really connect with me on that level. But then, flip side the coin, I absolutely love, nothing more than being able to sit down and write a song - let me tell the world what I have to say. These are my words. Like when I wrote Be Mine for Juddie, I wrote that song in ten minutes, and it just happened. There’s nothing more fun and fulfilling than to know that that just comes from inside of you - to share that with people and it’s yours. There’s nothing more beautiful. They’re [singing and writing] both very intimate” she reflects. “But one might be more dramatic and theatrical than the other - one more introverted, one more extroverted. They find a happy balance inside of me. Truly.”
Her advice to women pursuing a similar career is clearly thought out. “First and foremost, follow your dream. I followed my dream, went on the road with my band. Follow your heart. It doesn’t matter what your parents say! Exclamation Point. Secondly, just know that there’s gonna be a lot of ‘Nos’. There will be a thousand ‘Nos' to one ‘Yes.’ You have to have thick skin. Be prepared to pound the pavement. Be prepared to keep smiling, even when there are tears in your eyes. AND…Get a day job. With no disrespect.” She repeats this emphatically. “Or you’re gonna spend your trust fund or all your dad’s money. You have to be able to balance. Unless you go on the road and tour, you cannot live in Nashville. You have to play writer’s rounds and go out and be your best cheerleader, and promote yourself and support other people.”
“That’s a big thing in this town - the support that you get when you support others. It’s so fun like that! The second you are friends with three other chick singers, you’re friends with twelve other chick singers…it’s like: ‘and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…’ It’s really amazing! In Nashville, chick singers are friends with other chick singers. We’re a really, really supportive group of women. I love that about Nashville.” Dana pauses to reflect that there is competition regarding publishing deals - “I don’t want to be competitive, because I want to be genuine. I want people to like my songs, and like me, because I am a good person. I feel like you get closer to the prize when you have sincerity and understandings and a good attitude.”
Her goals? “I thought I would have a cut by now. I honestly thought we had a chance in the game, and I still do after ten years.” When I first got to Nashville they told me it was a five year town. And now, they say it’s a ten year town!” She is tentative to express the next thought. “I really felt I was unique enough in my sound and in our writing that we would have gotten cuts and gotten a publishing deal.” That was their goal, as a couple, as writers. “Judd’s goal was not to be on the road playing. But,” she continues, “the beautiful thing is, he’s had a wonderful career. Has been able to tour all over the world and has a great gig.”
“I really thought I would have a career in the music business by now - the way it is these days, is that no one really has a career in the music business in this town any more. Everyone fights, strives and struggles to do what they love. Does that really equal career? I don’t know…when we say career, we think that comes with a paycheck. The paycheck is not what I see when I write songs, right now.” She smiles and winks. “They always tell me: ‘Put it out to the universe’ - songs equal paychecks!” She holds her arms up to the sky, sending it out there. “I’m putting it out there right now!”
“I still love this town. Have I cried? Yes. Have I been frustrated? Yes. Have I made amazing friends? Yes. Do I love my life here? Yes, I do. Do I wish that I had more successes? Yes, I do. Of course I do.” It is a calm and peaceful statement of the truth. “Success for me would be to be able to write every day with other writers. Get songs cut. Enjoy mailbox money. And hear my songs on the radio. Go to number one parties…The little successes for me are that I can call friends of mine that are writers in this town and say let’s get together. I can make that appointment. I can show up at a gig and they say: ‘get up and sing with us.’ I can be that girl. People want me to sing. Those are little successes. People wanting to know where I’m singing, when I’m singing, wanting to hear new songs. Those songs may not be cut, yet, but people get excited.” Invitations to write, writers rounds and parties, these are some of the things that keep Dana driven. “I always feel at the end of the day that I’ve checked off a few things on my yes list - if I can keep doing that every week, that’s a little success.”
She becomes seriously reflective when asked whom her influences are other than other musicians and songwriters. “That’s a very interesting question,” she starts, “because when you think of someone you’re going to think of somebody who is either a singer or a writer. I think that I am influenced by strong women of the world. My mom is a great supporter and a great believer, and a great understander. She’s also a singer. MyGrandmother was a singer. My Grandfather was a singer. My Great Grandfather was Vaudeville. So, I mean I come from a long line of entertainers, but I don’t think I draw any influences from that.”
“I truly believe that most of my influences are from musicians and are musical. I have been very influenced my whole life by - obviously The Rolling Stones - The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. The Sixties and Seventies - that’s my era. And all that AM Pop Music from the Seventies - that really, really taught me harmony. Taught me melody. Taught me the love of singing along. All that music I just really respect - it’s still in my heart and it’s still in my head. Sadly, I look and I say: You know it’s 2015, Dān, and your still stuck in 1976 - and I’m like - Well, is that a bad thing? No!” she squeaks again lyrically. “I’m so motivated and moved by songs that I knew as a kid. My dad was a big country music guy - so I got all my country stuff from my dad. My mum was Rock and Roll. So, I’m a little bit Country, I’m a little bit Rock and Roll.” She laughs. “In the words of Donny and Marie!”
“Growing up, we had records, you know, we had Buddy Holly…my dad was Kris Kristofferson and my mum was The Beatles. The influences that we grew up with, those are what I still hang on to. If you were staying for dinner, I’d put on old records. My dad just came here from Canada and brought me a stack of old records, because he knows I’ve been collecting vinyl. I’m inspired by tones.”
“When I write, I don’t really find inspiration from the records I listen to. I really kind of just tune into myself and my history. And whatever that is that day, that’s what I get. I’m not like - I’m gonna write a song like that today. I don’t do that.” Dana writes melodies vocally. “That’s why I married a guitar player.” She smiles a wide silent laughing face and then cracks up. “I married a guitar player, because you don’t want to hear me play guitar! Judd will play a chord and he’ll say: ‘Okay, Sing something.’ Literally, he’ll play a G chord, and I’ll sing. And he’ll say: ‘Keep going.’ Then he’ll try and follow me. It’s really fun!”
The best and worst musical experiences for Dana are clearly shared. “I have two and they’re complete opposite spectrums…I got to sing the ACMs and the CMAs with Rodney Atkins as one of his back-up singers. I got to be on TV, big stage, big stadium and that was really delicious! Then on the other hand, some of the best Nashville moments that I’ve ever, ever had are singing on a bar stool with my husband - singing songs that we’ve written at The Listening Room. How do you gauge the best? In my heart, singing songs that we’ve written, with the man I love is the best. Being on a big stage, with a big star is really pretty cool too.” The worst experience for Dana, is something many songwriters can relate to. “Sitting on a bar stool in a sports bar and nobody’s listening.”
The Nashville 7:
The final questions posed to Dana (inspired by James Lipton’s approach to interviewing for Inside The Actor’s Studio.)
1 In one Word describe Nashville: With a slight hesitation: “Drunk.”
2 Your favorite food experience in Nashville: “Oh my God. You’re gonna laugh. Capt’n D’s Grilled Wild Alaskan Salmon Sandwich.”
3 One word that describes your music style: “Honest Roots”
4 Who is the one person you want to meet in Nashville: “I would love to meet Shania Twain, because I am Canadian.”
5 If you could ask (him/her) one question what would that question be: “Would you write with me? Or, or - will you cut one of my songs?”
6 What is your favorite Nashville venue: She makes a loud guttural “hmmmmm” sound, but after clarifying: “You mean music venue?” the answer is easy: “Dan McGuinness.” She continues, “It reminds me of the Wharf Pub [On Martha’s Vineyard] - and” she looks, as if asking permission to add her other favorite - “The Five Spot.”
7 Your favorite lyric from a song you wrote: “If love is an ember he turned me into flame - from Danny Angel.”
That flame burns brightly with the voices of angels in the Radford family. Every Christmas they meet at home in Canada and sings songs around the campfire, drinks in hand. When she returns to Nashville, after the holidays, you can catch the delicious vocals of Dana Radford at Dan McGuinness on Tuesday Nights.
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*The material included in this article is the sole property of the writer, (Katharine W. Poole,) and the photographer and President/Founder of WMMW, (Cilene Bosch.) All elements may be used in other publications as determined by the owners. Permission must be obtained for reproduction.