‘Sweet Yesterday’ Country music star discusses new album

Published 1:14 pm Thursday, June 21, 2018

By Mark A. Stevens

Special to the Elizabethton Star

On her new album, country music star Sylvia sings of a time long since past that, remarkably, is resonating in the here and now.

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“Sweet yesterday,” she sings, “feelings that tomorrow cannot fade. … Years can’t take away sweet yesterday.”

If the lyrics ring familiar, it’s because they’re from one of 18 Top 40 hits the singer racked up from the late 1970s through much of the ’80s.

On June 8, Sylvia released a unique greatest hits collection titled “Second Bloom: The Hits Re-Imagined,” an album of 10 of her most beloved songs that she’s re-recorded, updated and tweaked.

“I became intrigued with bringing those songs forward into today in the voice that I have now and with all my life experience,” the 61-year-old singer said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to give them a chance to bloom for a second time.”

The compilation includes her two No. 1 hits, “Drifter” (1981) and the two-million-seller and crossover smash “Nobody” (1982), as well as “Fallin’ In Love” and “Like Nothing Ever Happened,” both of which reached No. 2. The album also includes the hits “Tumbleweed,” “Cry Just a Little Bit,” “Snapshot,” “Sweet Yesterday” and “I Love You By Heart.”

Gone from “Second Bloom” is the background disco beats that somehow meshed perfectly with the country-western-prairie songs from her debut album “Drifter,” released 37 years ago and fresh from a country obsessed with the movie “Urban Cowboy.” Faded away, too, are subtle synthesizers that helped vault her 1982 album “Just Sylvia” to Gold and earned the singer a spot on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

She was named the Academy of Country Music’s Female Artist of the Year, was Billboard’s top country female singer and even sang at a command performance for President Ronald Reagan. She had a string of hits and had sold four million albums before her label, RCA, began cutting its roster of female country singers like Sylvia and Dolly Parton in the late 1980s as the industry turned to favor male singers like Garth Brooks and Clint Black.

While three compilations of Sylvia’s best-known work have been released over the years, “Second Bloom” is the first time Sylvia has opted to re-record her signature hits.

“I’ve continued to record and do concert dates,” she said, “but … the songs have evolved and so have I. … Everything in your life shows up in your voice, whether you know it or not. So I have a lot of life experience in my voice now, and I became intrigued with bringing that music into today’s sensibilities and how I like to record now. In the ’80s, it was a fun decade, but there was a highly synthesized sound with a lot of ’80s recordings, including my own, and even definitely some disco-era influences.”

Sylvia said she and her longtime producer, John Mock, recognized that her music was iconic to its era, but they also opted to translate the songs — and the stories they tell — for a “more contemporary dialect.”

“We really looked back at every song that I had released as a single and considered which songs really suited the kind of instrumentation that I use today,” she said. “We looked at which songs really still resonate with me, have meaning to me and felt important to keep alive.

“And those were the 10 songs that really came to the surface and felt like they needed a ‘second bloom’.”

Recording the album, Sylvia said, “was a really nice challenge.” While updated and re-recorded, the songs retain their familiar sound and delivery.

“We didn’t want to do anything crazy with the songs,” she said. “We’ve all heard re-recordings of songs and say, ‘What did they do to the song? It was so much better before!’ Well, I didn’t want that to happen, and I knew if I was happy with the way it was re-recorded, in today’s voice, then I was just going to trust that others would like it, too.

“I wanted to honor the soul of the songs as they were originally recorded. If there was a signature lick in the song, if it was originally done with a synthesizer, we might want to do it with an electric guitar or something that’s more resonant with today.”

Trusting her gut was the biggest challenge, she admitted.

“I’m a big believer in just listening to the songs themselves,” Sylvia said. “What needs to happen just evolves and becomes clear. Does it need banjos? Does it need mandolins? The songs told us exactly what they needed. It was fun and inspiring and never a struggle.”

Inspirational has often been used to describe Sylvia’s sudden stardom when she was in her early 20s. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script, in fact.

After moving from Kokomo, Indiana, she was discovered after four years working as a secretary on Nashville’s famed “Music Row,” and making, she recalls with a laugh, “less than minimum wage.”

“I went from working a 9-to-5 job, basically, to just feeling like I was working around the clock,” she said. “But everything I had ever dreamed of was coming true, so it was great. Not much sleep, but other than that, it was great.”

In 1981 alone, Sylvia performed 323 dates. She describes her early days in the business as “a beautiful whirlwind.”

“I was 21 or something when I signed with RCA,” she said, “and at that age I had tons of energy and my dreams were coming true. It all just felt magical.”

During the summers in the early 1980s, Sylvia was one of the top performers at regional and state fairs across the U.S. A typical season could mean performing more than 70 fairs in a single summer, which included stops in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. She headlined the Appalachian Fair in Gray, Tennessee, in 1982 and 1983.

Nearly four decades later, the singer admits “it’s all a bit of a blur (from) waking up in a different town almost every day,” but she does remember toppling off the Appalachian Fair stage as she tried to shake hands with excited fans on the front row.

“I remember that well,” Sylvia said, as she let loose a giggle of memories. “I think I was singing ‘Snapshot,’ and I remember I fell off the stage but just kept singing. I got back up on stage and didn’t miss a beat.”

Despite all the ups and downs of the music business, Sylvia said she’s always been a storyteller.

That’s very different from a lot of singers that I hear today,” she said. “I don’t know if I would say they’re storytellers, maybe celebrities that have amazing voices and can do a lot of things with those voices. I really love that, and I watch ‘The Voice’ and all those shows, but I feel there’s almost a dying breed of singers and artists and storytellers — in the public eye, at least.

“There are a lot of us independently recording and making great records and singing great story songs, but it doesn’t seem to be what is relevant on country radio today. I miss that. … When you hear songs like Tammy Wynette’s ‘Apartment #9’ or ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’ or Patsy Cline’s songs of heartbreak, that’s what inspired me to be a singer, and I’m not hearing a lot in the mainstream today. But now that will probably change, because everything does. For my own selfish reasons, I miss the great story songs. … Those songs help us learn about our own life’s journey.”

For “Second Bloom,” Sylvia concludes the album with “You Can’t Go Back Home.” The song, itself an ode to the passage of time, might be an ironic choice for the final cut on an album of “reimagined” songs from the past.

But, Sylvia said, she knew it would serve as a perfect conclusion to a new beginning.

“I was so disappointed in the ’80s that it was not released as a single, because I just feel like it was a wonderful, well-written, meaningful song,” she reflects. “At this point in my life, at age 61, it’s a blessing that I get to sing that song with the life experience I have under my belt. It has deeper meaning now than it even did when I was in my 20s. So I think it worked out great to put it on this record, because I believe that everything is right on time.”

Find out more about Sylvia, her new album and tour dates at www.sylviamusic.com.