There are two sides to every story, as the old adage goes, and there are certainly two sides to the story of singer-songwriter Laura Bell Bundy’s daring Mercury Records debut release, Achin’ and Shakin’. Laura Bell bypassed the tried-and-true Music Row approach usually taken on country albums and instead created a bold concept album that is essentially two separate albums within one project.
The album’s title aptly describes the project’s division: Achin’ is a collection of slow and sultry country songs and Shakin’ is a group of sassy songs that are equal parts humor, confidence and attitude. One side presents a modern-day mixture of Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw; the other unveils country’s answer to Norah Jones. The debut single, “Giddy On Up,” is an irresistibly upbeat and saucy kiss-off to a cheating lover, while the romantic “Drop On By” oozes sensuality as she beckons a lover to visit. Both sides pay homage to traditional country and soul music with a reinterpretation featuring modern production. “’Two records, one woman’ is my motto,” jokes Laura Bell, who penned all but one of the songs on the album.
“I have two different sides of my personality,” she explains. “I have a crazy, wild, humorous, outspoken personality, and then I have a depth that only opens up when I am alone or with one other person, and that is captured with this album. I really couldn’t do one without the other.”
“I listen to music depending upon the mood that I’m in. If I want to chill out, I will listen to certain music and almost make a playlist for it. If I am running or driving and want to hear up-paced music, I listen to different songs, so I created a two-sided album.”
It’s no surprise that Laura Bell shattered the usual industry formulas because nothing about her entertainment career has been normal. Like two of her idols Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, she traveled the musical highway that spans from Nashville to New York’s famed Broadway.
She originated the lead role of Elle Woods in the Broadway musical Legally Blonde, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. She also originated the role of Amber Von Tussle in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray and played Glinda in the smash hit Wicked. Prior to that, she originated the role of Tina Denmark in the successful off-Broadway production Ruthless, The Musical!, for which she received the Outer-Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk nominations. (Her understudy, Britney Spears, also pursued a recording career.) Her professional career, which began at age nine, includes numerous network TV shows (Cold Case, Veronica Mars) and touring productions of Gypsy (featuring Betty Buckley) and The Sound of Music (featuring Marie Osmond). Her movie credits include Dream Girls, Jumanji, Life with Mikey and The Adventures of Huck Finn.
Her theatrical career has been a wonderful life experience that was a natural extension of her original dream of having a music career. Indeed, her time on Broadway propelled her pursuit of music, exposed her to a community of talented creative people and helped her become a better writer and performer.
After moving to New York at 18, she formed a country duo with roommate Amber Rhodes and they wrote and performed songs in various New York clubs. “In the meantime, I got Hairspray and Wicked, and honestly, that’s how I supported myself.”
“People can look at it and go, ‘You went from Broadway to doing country,’” she says. “I actually went from the country to Broadway. I’m from Kentucky and I always listened to country music. When I started writing songs, it all came out country.
“I moved to New York and my intention was to have a music career, not to do Broadway. For me, it was like I had two different baskets of eggs and one was the acting basket and the other was the music basket and the acting basket of eggs hatched first. The others were incubating, and honestly I’m glad because where I am in terms of the emotional place I am in my life and my ability to express myself is much better now that I’m a bit older. I have more life experience to talk about when I write music and I’m a better performer now that I’ve been doing it for so long. My ability to put on a good show is stronger now, and I’m more in tune with who I am.
“It wasn’t until I was on the Broadway radar that Nashville noticed me. Isn’t that ironic? My showcase was my show, in some ways.”
Born in Lexington, her father is an electrical engineer who owns a manufacturing plant and her mother manages a Victoria’s Secret. Growing up, she had two older half-sisters, and at 16 her parents divorced and later remarried, so now her extended family is like a modern-day Brady Bunch.
Her father was raised in Sheffield, Ala., which is near musical hotbed Muscle Shoals (where his friends started Muscle Shoals Sound and Fame studios), so he introduced his daughter to 1960s soul, while her mother played country music in the house and car. “When I was three or four, I distinctly remember listening to ‘Islands in the Stream’ in the car and thinking it was the best song ever written,” she says. “My mom kind of looked like Dolly Parton, so I thought Dolly Parton was my mom.”
The strongest influence, however, was her grandfather, who was a radio DJ and newscaster who had a voice that was reminiscent of Bing Crosby and introduced her to Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra, Pearl Bailey and Willie Nelson. “For me, being in Kentucky, the world was country music, and as I got older, I listened to country and oldies. It’s all in this album.”
At a young age she studied at the Town and Village School of Dance in Paris, KY. She landed her first professional job at age nine, requiring her to move with her mother to New York to be in Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular. A year later, she was appearing in Ruthless, which helped hone her comedy chops, and two years later began acting in movies and touring the nation with musicals.
She returned to Kentucky at age 14 so that she could have a normal high school experience. She ran track and cross country and limited her performances to school productions. “I started high school and within two months, my parents separated, which was heavy,” she says. She began writing poetry in high school that she wouldn’t show to anyone, and soon began creating melodies for her words.
After high school, she returned to New York, this time to attend New York University and run on its track team. But she landed the recurring role of Marah Lewis on The Guiding Light from 1999-2001, so her college plans were put on hold. It was during this time that she formed the country music duo with Amber. “Everything we did, our Kentucky came out. We were in the middle of New York singing country songs, which was kind of our gimmick in some way. We took it very seriously. Then we decided to do our own thing.”
After a successful run on Broadway, she moved to Nashville in the fall of 2008 and has spent 18 months doing her own thing in her own unique way. Achin’ and Shakin’ is a culmination of her experiences on and offstage combined with her musical experiences, songwriting and Southern heritage.
“Songwriting and recording is my passion; this is my love,” she says. “There’s a part of myself that has come out that I really like and it’s very important to me.”
“This is a dream,” she says of releasing her debut album. “It has been a dream since I was a kid. I think I always wanted to be an entertainer. There’s an element of that at the Grand Ole Opry, where you can be funny and also be a singer. That is what I really want, that full scope of being a true entertainer.”