Getting ahead without a hat

Michelle Wright, the latest Canadian to follow in the footsteps of k d lang, knows that it takes more than talent to make it these days. Pantihose can come in handy, too; She is prepared to hunker down and get her hands dirty. This ain't rock 'n' roll;

In Canada, where she comes from, Michelle Wright is a platinum artist. In Nashville, where she lives, she's gold. In this country, where she's been on tour, they don't have a metallic element by which to measure her unit sales. But she's only just started over here, and will plainly leap through all the hoops it takes to get her name up in lights.

Between songs, she'll announce an autograph-signing session after the show (which is still in session an hour beyond the last encore); she'll remind her audience to invest in the tour T-shirt; she'll admit on her promotional fact-sheet that at home she likes sewing and quilting. Even by stringent Nashville standards, where they only give record deals to crooners with business degrees, Michelle Wright is especially prepared to hunker down and get her hands dirty. This ain't rock 'n' roll; this is needlework.

She's always been "as ambitious as they get". Her determination crystallised when, after years on the road with bands called things like Gold Rush, Solitaire and Wild Oats that broke up whenever a key member unplugged the amp and went back to his family, she took a loan from her mother and bought a truck and a PA system. "That way when anybody left I was the boss. Not that I'm a control freak or anything but I recognised how crazy it can be when people come and go and there's no real leadership."

And when the truck broke down, this practical farmer's daughter from small-town Ontario would dive under the bonnet and "get a pair of pantihose around a tube if it was leaking". Over the border in Detroit, which influenced the soulful inflections in her rich, deep voice, you can bet Diana Ross didn't have to do that to get to the top.

Unlike a lot of stars in Nashville, Wright's roots are as country as they get. She drove tractors and her parents performed in local country bands. She's even been an alcoholic. She's a great evangelist for the music, in the way that salespeople often are. And yet she is mildly afflicted by the narrowing focus that obsesses Nashville in its commercial pomp. Female performers, in particular, are suffering from the fact that the predominantly female listeners request male artists. Her accomplished third album, The Reasons Why, has not yet been released in the States. Her new single, "He Sure Does Crank My Tractor", is meant to kick down some barriers.

If her rural compatriot, k d lang, can conquer Nashville and then the planet, the thinking is: so can Wright. She looks like a more wholesome version of k d, with a sensible black crop, deep brown eyes and a strong honest bone structure. The chin is particularly Canadian. The boots are rhinestone, the top the same bodice she wears in the interview, with a long, lacy bow dangling from her solar plexus. There's no hat: she gave that up 10 years ago.

Unlike lang, who opened up America for Canadian country, she doesn't compose many of her own songs. "I didn't realise the significance of songwriting until I got a record deal and started looking for songs. I'm in a bit of a dilemma because I don't write typical country music stuff. I write unusual stuff. Right now I'm trying to find format songs: I have to be able to get on the radio in America to have the type of career that I would like to have."

She's already having that career in Canada, where she recently completed a 40-city national tour and has won most of the awards that her country gives to country singers (which is a lot, because no musical genre is more fixated on gongs). Over here, she's still changing her own spark plugs. After playing stadiums with a three-level stage and ramps to throw herself around on, welcome to the Borderline, holding an infinitesimally small portion of London, England. Once the six-strong band have squeezed on, there's no room for gymnastics, but it's a good chance to see her rare stage charisma in close-up.

From the evidence of the last show, in a tour that also spread the word to Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester, her ear for a good song is sharp. Apart from the boots, the show delivers a broader range than you'd find in the same space of time on any of Nashville's umpteen country stations. There's an outbreak of blues, and the steel guitarist is from north London. The best songs scarcely have any twang at all - the tub-thumping "Safe in the Arms of Love" and "Take It Like a Man", "One Good Man", which generously celebrates the male sex, a sulky ballad called "Cold Kisses". "He Would Be Sixteen", a touching melody about a teenage mother who gave away her child for adoption, came well outside country's normal frame of reference.

To close, she dismissed the band, strapped on a guitar and sang "I Will Always Love You", written by Dolly Parton, appropriated by Whitney Houston and a prime example of what she calls "the goose-bump factor", which she likes in a tune. Sadly, there was no return to the drum-kit, which she bashed as a 12-year-old in a garage band consisting of her brother on guitar and her mother on bass. That, perhaps, would be a hoop too far.

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