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Country show: Shania Twain's Greatest Hits arrives Tuesday; later that night, she performs at the Country Music Association awards. Mercury Records
Twain's greatest hit: Her stunning success
By Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY
NASHVILLE — A decade ago, nobody in Mercury Records' Nashville division quite knew what they had in Shania Twain.
The Canadian brunette recently had married Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who had produced multiplatinum albums by the likes of AC/DC, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams. Even in a day when Garth Brooks extolled the virtues of Kiss and Queen, the music Twain and Lange created didn't sound like anything a country label had ever released. It certainly didn't resemble Twain's Nashville-produced middle-of-the-road debut, which hadn't managed to get a single cut into the top 40. Twain's blend of kittenish lyrics, in-your-face fiddles and massive drumbeats was enough to make everyone nervous — and very, very excited.
"Everybody was sitting around going, 'How many records do you want to sell?' " Twain, 39, recalls. "I'm thinking, 'I don't even know what other people sell!' So I said, 'How many records do the top artists sell in country music?' They said 3 million. I said, 'OK, well, three. If I could be up there with the best, that's what I say.' "
In retrospect, that goal seems a bar set far too low. Each of Twain's previous three albums — 1993's The Woman in Me, 1998's Come On Over and last year's Up!— have been certified diamond for shipments of more than 10 million. At 19 million, Come On Over is both country music's top-selling album and the best-selling album by a female singer. Songs such as From This Moment On, That Don't Impress Me Much and You're Still the One became hits in a variety of formats. Those singles appear on Twain's Greatest Hits album, out today, along with three new songs, including latest single Party for Two. Like many Twain singles, there are separate versions for the pop and country radio formats, one featuring Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, the other country newcomer Billy Currington.
Twain and Currington will perform the song on tonight's Country Music Association awards show, which airs at 8 ET/PT on CBS. On the day of this interview, she's sitting in a luxurious room in Nashville's Hermitage Hotel, munching on guacamole and tortilla chips.
"I don't really like Americanized guacamole with all the onions and tomatoes," the vegetarian singer says. "I prefer just avocado, lime juice and maybe some garlic." But on a busy day and an empty stomach, it must taste good, because Twain wraps it up and takes it with her to finish during downtime of her rehearsal for a Good Morning America concert that aired Friday.
Q: You and Mutt have been married almost 11 years, and January marks the 10th anniversary of your first big hit, Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? How have those years changed you and your music?
A: When Mutt and I were putting Greatest Hits together, we looked back at all the old music we hadn't heard in so long and realized just how consistent it had been. You could pluck songs from different CDs and place them on each other. I think it's because we've been the same team the whole time.
In Mutt, I felt for the first time that I had somebody who really made my record. Even though I came in as a nobody, he always respected me. He made me sound the way I wanted to sound and turned my songs into something I was really proud of.
Q: How did working with Mutt change the way you wrote songs?
A: It didn't. That was what was so amazing. We were just that compatible. I still write exactly the same way I ever did.
I'm a better writer with him, because he pushes me and knows there's more there. He's the gauge. He says, "That's not good enough. Go think of something else. You've got to find another angle." He'll tell me what he thinks is wrong with it. So I just keep coming up with things. But he's the guy who says, "OK, that's it. That's a great idea." Would I know when I really have it? Creative people don't really know, I don't think. They just do it, and then other people tell them how (good) they think it is.
He has never matched this success with any other artist. When I realized that was happening, that started giving me even more confidence in myself, realizing, "OK, I'm pulling my weight here."
Q: Do you remember when you learned that Come On Over had passed Garth Brooks' No Fences as the best-selling country album ever?
A: I think what I remember most is it being the biggest-selling album by a female singer. Numbers don't mean as much to me. But when you say things like "biggest-selling female," I start thinking about all these other artists, and it's hard for me to believe that.
Q: What one thing told you you had succeeded far beyond anything you had imagined?
A: I think when I did the (VH1) Divas (in 1998 with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan and Aretha Franklin). I was humbled by it. And I realized that, wow, if nothing ever happens, ever again in my career, this has really stamped some great level on success (for me).
Q: Any Man of Mine was your first No. 1. What made that song work?
A: That song is one of the best examples of our collaboration. It's got the country roots from my childhood. It's got that rock sound that Mutt brings to it. It's got every element that people can relate to, and it represents everything that followed in my career.
Q: From This Moment On was your first record that crossed over to pop radio. Was that always your intent?
A: We knew from The Woman in Me that there were a lot of people listening to me who weren't listening to country radio. They didn't even know any of the (other) country artists. It started multi-formatting among the fans before it started getting on multi-format radio.
I've never been a one-dimensional artist. From my very youngest years of singing, I never could sing just one style of music, ever. And I couldn't write just one style of music. I needed to be diverse.
Q: One of your three new songs on the album, Don't, will appear in the forthcoming Robert Redford/Jennifer Lopez movie, An Unfinished Life. Did you write the song for the movie?
A: Mutt had the thing, Don't, for a long, long time. Since the last album. And I had this melody that I was singing. He had this chord progression. But the sentiment of the song had not reared its head. What do you do with Don't? So the movie dictated where we went with it. The movie is really all about the struggle of relationships — forgiveness, anger, some really deep things. So we had to dig deeper.
Q: I Ain't No Quitter is your most traditional-sounding country song in a long time.
A: It's going to be one of my favorites, out of all the stuff I've done. I really love that very traditional, straight-ahead country stuff, and Mutt does, too. Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? was really the only other one. And No One Needs to Know, too, had that sort of swinging feel, but this is real barroom, classic stuff.
Q: Were Billy Currington and Mark McGrath your first choices to be the duet partners on the versions of Party for Two?
A: No. I don't even know if we had decided at the beginning that we were going to have two versions. We knew we were going to do country for sure. We fished around for a lot of different options. Time was a big issue for so many people we thought of. I asked Toby (Keith) if he would do it. He said yes, but then it interfered with his record. He's probably the only other person I approached.
It was getting complicated to find somebody who was going to have the right timing. So Luke (Lewis, Mercury Nashville label chief) said, "Maybe we should look at somebody new. It's not like you need the name. Just find the right voice." He said, "Listen to this guy Billy Currington."
I wanted to have somebody who was a strong contrast to me. He's got the real deep, Southern voice, couldn't be more opposite from me.
Q: What's with all the exclamation points in song titles like Up! and Man! I Feel Like a Woman!?
A: I guess because when you're singing it, you're thinking about it in an expressive way. It just doesn't sound right to sing, "Man, I feel like a woman." (You want,) "Man!" I don't know.
Q: How did you get the cameo in the movie I Heart Huckabees?
A: I was written into the script before I even knew it. They called me up and said, "We wanted you to know that you've been written into our script a zillion times. Are you OK with that?" Then they asked about using some images. I eventually got personal letters from some of the cast, from the director, one of them from Jude Law, saying, "Would you come and be in this for a few seconds with us? Because you're in the script so much, and we talk about you so much on set, that it would just be so cool if you actually showed up for a second." So I did.