Have you heard the story about the three young girls who naively left their family and hometown to seek fame and fortune as country singers in Nashville?
Yes, you probably have, but if that sounds like some hackneyed Hollywood script, wait till you hear the rest. Only a few months later they signed a record deal.
It's not supposed to be that easy, and, as it turned out, it wasn't. But the trio known as SHeDAISY, a trio of sisters from that music hotbed of Magna, is staking its claim in the country music world. Three CDs and almost 14 years later, Kristyn, Kelsi and Kassidy Osborn are on the cusp of stardom.
Certainly, they have their fans. During a rare SHeDAISY concert in Utah last month, the fans who crammed into Kingsbury Hall consisting mostly of teenage girls were not only on their feet singing along but doing so at the top of their lungs.
A few weeks later the sisters sang the national anthem at the Orange Bowl and performed one of their hits at halftime. (The rival Dixie Chicks got the Super Bowl.)
They played in 50 cities last year, and they still haven't had their own formal tour. Mostly they play radio gigs and special events, but it has been enough to win a wide range of admirers.
Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler is a fan "I really dig your music," he told them. So does President Bush. The Osborn sisters have performed in front of the president so often that at their last meeting, Kassidy told him, "We're not stalking you."
They have shared stages with Ray Charles, Faith Hill, Michael McDonald, Richard Marx, Patti LaBelle, Reba McEntire, Boz Scaggs, Cher, Huey Lewis and just about anyone else you can name in country music circles. They've played Ford Theater twice. They've played the Astrodome. Their songs have played in the movies "Sweet Home Alabama" and "The Santa Clause II."
They've appeared on Leno, "Donny & Marie," "Drew Carey" and "General Hospital" (as themselves). They have played at the American Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards. They have opened for Terry Clarke, Alabama, Tim McGraw.
"Sometimes I'll say, 'How the heck did we get here?' " Kelsi confesses. " 'Can you believe we're singing with Ray Charles?' "
Their first CD "The Whole SHeBANG" went double platinum and produced five singles that broke the Top 40 on the country charts, three of them cracking the top four. Their Christmas CD climbed into the top 10 of the country charts. Their current CD "Knock on the Sky" has the critics raving, although it has been a commercial disappointment.
Wait a minute, you're thinking three women singing country . . . what are they, Dixie Chicks knockoffs? Don't go there. They've heard it before. For the record, the Osborns have been kicking around Nashville since 1989, years before the Chicks rose to prominence, but the Chicks beat them to stardom.
The Osborns are a long way from home for girls who got their start at Lagoon, Raging Waters, Disneyland, Jazz games, fairs, Hale Centre Theatre, Promised Valley Playhouse, the back of the family station wagon and every church function anybody could think of.
They have strayed far from Utah, but not far from their roots. When they heard their grandfather was hospitalized with a stroke last month, they rushed from Nashville to be at his side and took turns staying at the hospital around the clock. One night, the sixth floor of LDS Hospital was alive with the sound of SHeDAISY. They sang a cappella to their grandfather, "our biggest fan," as he lay in bed. Soon word spread and other visitors asked them to sing for their ailing relatives. Strangers broke into tears as the sisters sang for their patients.
"When you question what you do, when you want to give up, these moments keep you going," says Kassidy. "Afterward, my dad said, 'You'd be crazy not to think you had been given this gift for a reason.' "
"It's not the fame, it's not the fortune, it's getting people to hear the music," says Kelsi.
That's more than lip service to their art. These ladies have staked their careers to delivering the kind of music they want people to hear, even forming their own company to retain creative control of what they produce.
Kristyn swears she could churn out formulaic songs that would be commercial hits, but she can't bring herself to do it. More than three years passed between "The Whole SHeBANG" and "Knock on the Sky" because Kristyn wanted time to write original material.
"We didn't want fluff songs," she says. "We wanted meaningful material."
The reason SHeDAISY hasn't toured is because they didn't have enough original material to fill out a concert and didn't want to play other artists' material, as many groups do.
Unlike the Dixie Chicks, the SHeDAISY sisters don't play instruments in concert they prefer to focus on their vocals. Unlike the Dixie Chicks and many other acts in the business, they write their own songs, or rather Kristyn does. And many of those songs are deep and substantive, especially by country standards.
Intense, serious and strikingly beautiful, Kristyn is the resident songwriter and poet. She attended Weber State for a year on an academic scholarship, and she won the Miss West Valley beauty pageant, so there it is: beauty and brains. She gave up both the tiara and the scholarship to pursue a music career in Nashville.
A self-described bookworm, her idea of a perfect day is rummaging through bookshops and music stores. When she was a girl, she read books under the covers with a flashlight late at night and somewhere along the way developed a passion for Emily Dickinson.
"One day the light went on and I could interpret what she was saying," says Kristyn. "It was like a scripture. I could apply it to life."
During her frequent travels, she packs a tape recorder, notebooks, books of poetry and a hefty compilation of Dickinson's work. SHeDAISY manager Cindy Wunsch calls Kristyn's bag "the Library of Congress" because it's so heavy.
Kristyn keeps a tape recorder handy at all times, ready to dictate song and lyric ideas. Her song writing covers the gamut, from the fun "I Will" to the heavier pieces such as "Keep Me" and "Repent," many of which come from personal experience.Kristyn turned the pain of her divorce and initial separation into one of her most popular songs: "I Wish I Were the Rain."
. . . Wish I could dance outside this windowpane/Oh I wish I were the rain/'Cause it can fall as hard as it wants to/Gingerly drip down a lover's face/Cry for hours and weeks on end and never/Feel a bit out of place/It can feed a field/Put out a fire/And never feel the pain/Oh I wish I were the rain.
"That's pretty much a true story," says Kristyn. "It was a moment."Then there is her song "Keep Me," which isn't exactly your-cheatin'-heart kind of country material, either:
This can't really be what life is all about/learning how to live just to live without/the travesty's the irony and the irony is you/I've traded in my sanctity for a cheaper shade of blue. CHORUS: On your porch, on your tongue/Beating in your chest, or coming undone/Folded neatly in the cover of your favorite book/(Will you keep me)/At a distance, in your maze/Fumbling through a contemplative haze/Or tucked away/clandestinely where no one else will look/(Will you keep me)/Where my broken sky reaches to your velvet sea/Will you keep me.
Says Kassidy, "I don't even know what some of the words mean in our songs. I feel like we should hand out dictionaries with our albums."
While Kristyn was reading her books and pursuing her interest in creative writing, her sisters headed another direction, pursuing singing careers. Little did they realize that the three of them eventually would team up, uniting the words and the music in the process.
They were part of a large Mormon family raised in Magna in a house behind their father Dave's sports-apparel factory, Cobblestones Activewear. Dave likes to tell people that he and his wife, Robin, raised their six children on "the three B's Beach Boys, Beatles, Beethoven." Actually, there was another B basketball.
Dave played basketball for the University of Utah in the '60s and coached the basketball team at Salt Lake Community College in the '80s, and Robin was an avid singer and pianist. The two boys Cade and Clayton became basketball players like their father; the girls became musicians like their mother, except for Karli, who became both a singer and a basketball player.
The Osborns required their children to take piano lessons until they could play church hymns, and they took them to symphonies and plays and musicals to expose them to a variety of music and art.
Kristyn, who at 32 is the oldest of the children, showed a mild interest in singing and performing but gave it up in high school to be a cheerleader at Cyprus High. Cade and Clayton, 30 and 19, respectively, were all-state basketball players who served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Cade played a season of basketball at Utah State and finished his career at Mesa State. Clayton is serving a mission in Missouri.)
Kelsi and Kassidy, 28 and 26, performed in theater and sang. Karli, 18, played basketball for Cyprus. (She now plays for Lipscombe College in Nashville and is considering a career in music. On some nights she sings the national anthem before the start of a basketball game and then plays in the game.)
Kelsi and Kassidy were the most musically driven in their youth. They took singing lessons in grade school and began singing together at retirement homes, churches and even their own neighborhood, once selling tickets to neighbors for a backyard performance.
"We even made little bags of popcorn and had punch and sold tickets," says Kelsi.
Kelsi and Kassidy performed in plays and musicals at the Hale Centre Theatre, Cyprus High and Promised Valley Playhouse. Kelsi played the starring role of "Annie" at the Sundance outdoor theater at 12, and she and Kelsi played orphans in the Promised Valley Playhouse version of the same musical. Kelsi played a part in the video "Saturday's Warrior."
The girls competed in singing contests and began performing together at any place that would have them Disneyland, Lagoon, Raging Waters, fairs and always in the back of the station wagon.
"I can remember about '87 or '88, we were driving to Los Angeles and late in the evening an oldies station came on at about Las Vegas and 'Going to the Chapel' was playing," recalls Dave. "The girls were intrigued by the harmonies. They started singing that song and doing their own harmonies. They sang all the way to L.A. It drove us nuts. But they did it until they got some creative harmonies. From then on I had an inkling that they had something different."
The catalyst for their Nashville dreams was a nationwide talent hunt for kids to host a children's TV show on the Showtime cable network. Kelsi was one of four winners. Dave decided that while he was taking Kelsi to New York to tape the show, he would also take Kristyn and Kassidy along to expose them to the business.
"Kristyn got the bug to perform again on that trip," says Dave.
A short time later, Kristyn and Dave flew to Nashville to attend a seminar about the music business, and a few months later the three sisters two of them still in junior high moved to Nashville. It was the summer of 1989.
They lived there full time in the summer and one week each month during the school year, with either Dave or Robin flying out to stay with them.
In those days they were known as the Osborn sisters, and Kelsi was the lead singer. Later, Kassidy became the lead voice and the group changed its name. Their brother-in-law, Rourke McDermott, who had served a mission among the Navajo Indians, nicknamed one of his sisters "shedaisa," Navajo for "little sister." The sisters decided it was a good name for a sisters band.
Dave made a demo tape of his daughters singing and sent it to several agents and record labels, "but they couldn't believe the girls could sing that well without doctoring in the studio." A live audition convinced them otherwise. Against all odds, RCA signed the girls to a record deal in the fall of '89. They completed their first album in 1991 and RCA never released it. The Osborns consider it a blessing.
"It would have been a mistake," says Kelsi. "It would have turned people off. We would've been branded the bubblegum girls of country. We weren't ready."
They blame the failure partly on managers who exerted creative control over them, insisting they do other writers' material that wasn't right for them. When their contract with RCA expired, the girls dug in. For five years they survived without a record contract. Their real education had begun. They shared an apartment and a car. By day they worked in department stores at a mall, and by night they played the club scene in Nashville, honing their act and material.
"This is where our parents' support came in," says Kassidy. "They never said, 'Why don't you get real jobs.' It was a fun time. It was freedom."
At a time when group acts and female performers hadn't found a niche in the country scene, the girls believed they could make it, which they credit to sheer naivete.
"We didn't have a clue," says Kassidy. "It worked to our benefit because we had no fear."
In 1997, they were signed by Lyric Street Records, and in 1999 their first CD sold 2 million copies. Critics panned them as Dixie Chicks clones, but it wasn't fair.
"It was hard to get past that perception," says Kristyn. "We didn't even open our mouths, and as soon as people heard we were a female trio we were criticized for ripping off the Chicks. When they realized we were a distinct sound, it still took a year to get through that."
"The first time out, they got flogged left and right in the press," says Brian Mansfield, a national music correspondent for USA Today and a freelance music writer. "A lot of it was timing. There had never been a female country trio before the Dixie Chicks, and then to have another one. It was perception. I used to go see them in every possible setting just to see if they would screw up. People didn't think they could sound that good outside a studio. Nobody realized they were actually very good."
Mansfield continues, "I have always liked them more than a lot of people in Nashville have. It's been interesting to watch because I think with their Christmas album and with 'Knock on the Sky' more people have begun to hear the promise, especially in Kristyn's writing."
The girls are prepared for the long haul. They have become savvy businesswomen, especially Kristyn. When the group's first CD wasn't released, she began attending classes at Middle Tennessee State to learn every aspect of the music business recording, management, demos, engineering, publishing.
"I learned how we had been taken advantage of," she says. "The first album was missing something and it taught me a lesson. We did what we were told. We didn't stand up for ourselves because we were so young. We were told to do a song and we did it. There were only three of our songs on there. . . . Now I enjoy the business side. I love negotiating and contracts and dealing with lawyers."
Sitting around a table in the LDS Hospital cafeteria, the three sisters exchange stories about their lives and the music business for 2 1/2 hours. Their enthusiasm for music has hardly been dampened by the realities of the industry. In the words of Mansfield, "They're all music junkies. All artists have to listen to a lot of music, but they're the kind of people who raid music stores, and there aren't a lot like that."
Kristyn confesses her biggest expenditures are on books and CDs, and Kassidy notes, "I get nervous before I go into a CD store because I know I'm going to be in debt when I come out of there."
The Osborn ladies are driven to reach people with their music. They can still recall the pleasure they experienced the first time they realized that fans were singing along with their songs. It was just four days after their first album was released and they were performing in Detroit.
"We thought, this is weird," recalls Kassidy. "When we got on the bus afterward we were saying, 'Kristyn, how does that feel?!' "
"We've had people crying in the audience," says Kristyn. "That's hard to watch because you've got to sing, and you're afraid you're not going to get through it. I remember once when I was having a real bad day and I received an e-mail from a girl whose friend had been killed, and she was thanking me for a song. I thought, these bad days are part of the sacrifice to get there."
The Osborns are three distinct personalities and faces Kristyn, serious and moody and subdued; Kelsi, happy, mature and nurturing; Kassidy, playful and fun.
"Kelsi gets the marriage-advice letters," says Kristyn. "Kassidy gets the proposals. I feel like an advice columnist. People are analyzing the lyrics."
The first thing people ask when they hear the sisters are from Utah is you guessed it are they Mormons? All of them are active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Kelsi is in charge of the Young Women's organization in her ward.) Before every show they gather backstage to pray together. They have discovered that even some of Nashville's wilder, good-ole boy bands cut the swearing when SHeDAISY is around.
"It's interesting," says Kristyn. "People don't touch us. We've done a lot of shows with (a wild men's group) and they are really subdued around us." On the other hand, Kristyn notes, "We didn't think we would get as much scrutiny about our religion as we have. I can't tell you other artists' religion."
They all hope to raise families someday. Kelsi is married and Kassidy and Kristyn are single, the latter still recovering from a year-old divorce from another musician, a divorce that she blames in part on the music industry, which kept both of them on the road.Comment on this story
"I'm disappointed that life ended up the way it has," says Kristyn. "I'm at the age when you think about having children. Motherhood is important to me. If I had to choose (between music and family), I'd choose motherhood. I don't know if either of us wanted the divorce. I'm a hard person to live with. I'm very intense. I have to feel something. I had a part in (the divorce). . . . I'm like a lump of clay that hasn't been shaped yet."
Sounds like the start of another song."We think we can open people's minds," says Kristyn. "There is so much music. I've gotten so many letters about this latest album. And that drives you."