Callie McCullough Interview

Callie McCullough Interview

by Nigel Sharpe for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

A modern songwriter inspired by timeless bluegrass and old-school country music, Callie McCullough has chased her unique muse for years, making contemporary roots music that nods to the legends who came before her. It’s a sound anchored by intimate ballads and McCullough’s gorgeous voice, whose Alison Krauss-worthy tone and Dolly Parton-sized beauty stand in contrast to her dry humor and larger-than-life personality.

With 2020’s After Midnight, McCullough makes her debut as a solo artist. The six-song record was tracked in her adopted hometown of Nashville, where she resettled after spending nearly a decade on the road with other projects. Emotional and eclectic, After Midnight also features first-class picking from members of the Grammy-winning bluegrass band Union Station and western-swing super-group the Time Jumpers. The result is a collaborative and intimate EP that laces McCullough’s voice with touches of dobro, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar, mixing the fresh energy of a rising star with the finesse of a hotshot backing band.

Years before she cut her teeth playing the honky-tonks and listening rooms of downtown Nashville, McCullough was raised in the Canadian countryside of Southern Ontario. Born third generation in a musical family, her childhood home was filled with inspiration, and it wasn’t long before McCullough was contributing to the family business, landing gigs at 14 years old, and forming a duo with her Mom at 16. Armed with an unforgettable voice, she headed to Europe skipping the college graduation ceremony, to play festivals for oversized crowds night after night. While touring California’s folk-music circuit with her mother not long after, though, she felt an unshakeable urge to make original music on her own terms. Inspired and invigorated, McCullough bought a station wagon and drove to Nashville, where she built a life in the same city that had influenced so many of her heroes.

“When I first moved to Nashville, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” admits the singer/songwriter, whose love of expressive, swooning ballads was inspired by artists like Krauss, Parton, Eva Cassidy, Keith Whitley and Don Williams. “I was writing songs for other people and playing gigs so I could pay the rent. I was taking time to figure out who I was.”

Her path became significantly clearer once McCullough teamed up with a friend to write “Five Dollar Pearls,” a warm, gently-rolling song about not fitting in. The song helped lay the foundation for After Midnight’s sound, inspiring McCullough to plant one sequined high heel in the territory of her influences — including Appalachian music, Canadian Folk Music, bluegrass icons, and classic country singers — while pointing the other toward modern, unexplored territory. Working with co-writers Scotty Kipfer and Ryan Sorestad, she expanded her catalog of original material, penning songs that were sweet, mellow, and rich with melodic hooks. “Feathers,” with its train beats and fiery dobro solo, fused her bluegrass foundation with Edgar Allen Poe-influenced lyrics, while the snowy title track evoked the quiet, easy-listening elegance of after-hours Paris. Meanwhile, the waltzing “Three Quarter Time” told the story of McCullough’s time in Nashville, ultimately ending with the songwriter’s pledge to continue making music on her own terms.

To bring those songs to life, McCullough turned to Nashville-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Dustin Olyan, who helped assemble a top-tier studio band whose members included Grammy-winning banjo/guitar player Ron Block, upright bassist Barry Bales, dobro player Brent Burke, drummer Billy Thomas, accordion and piano player Jeff Taylor, and celebrated fiddler Stuart Duncan. Individually, those instrumentalists had backed countless legendary singers. In Callie McCullough, they found something new: a legend-in-the-making, armed with the vocal chops of an established pro, the fighting spirit of an independent musician, and quick-witted humor that belied the sad tone of her ballads.

 

 

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