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Jill King: another singer from Tootsie's makes good

By Rick Teverbaugh, May 2003

Not only is Jill King's music steeped in traditional country, but her path to Nashville and a national stage is also similar to those artists she followed so closely while growing up in the small town of Arab, Ala.

King just released her debut, "Jillbilly," for Blue Diamond Records, but she took no easy paths to get this opportunity.

"Arab is a small town just about 30 minutes south of Huntsville," says King from her current home in Nashville. "I grew up on a small chicken farm. It was like a lot of small towns. Everybody knew everybody else. It was a safe place to grow up."

It was also a place where she established much of her musical taste and began singing in a very common way.

"I listened to a lot of country and a lot of gospel," says King. "I developed a real appreciation for traditional country music. I did start singing in church. It was a church that my granddaddy helped build."

That experience helped her learn to be comfortable on a stage in front of a group of people. "There was already a community there giving me support and acceptance for what I was trying to do," says King. "It probably had an impact on the way I feel about getting up on stage now. I wasn't nervous back then because I didn't know to be nervous."

Her home provided yet another stage on which she could practice. "I lived in a small house growing up, and you'd just step up on one end of the living room to the kitchen. It had a linoleum floor. I would stand up there as my stage with a hair brush for a microphone."

Another exposure to live performances came as her mother took her to various pageants, one that would earn her the title of "World's Little Miss" in 1984. Eight years later, she graduated high school and left the comfortable hometown for Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University.

"I had some culture shock," admits King. "In college, they pair you with someone you don't know. My roommate was from Chicago. I was from the buckle of the Bible Belt. She had a tougher edge on her. That set me back a little bit."

But being in Nashville also opened up a wealth of musical opportunities. Five years after entering college, she secured publishing contract as a songwriter with Gate to Gate Publishing.

A couple of years later, she heard of a spot opening up for a performer at Tootsie's, a historic night spot that has been home to many performers on their way to stardom like Terri Clark. The audition went well on that Monday morning, and she was invited back to play that night. When she arrived that evening, she got a big surprise.

"When I got there, I was asked if I could do the entire set," says King. "When I asked how long the set was, they said it was four hours. So here I was with a new band I had never played with before, but I told them I could do it. I started making a list of every song I've ever sung in the shower or heard on the radio that I thought I knew most of the lyrics to. I got through it. I think the ghosts inside those old walls helped me that night."

Since then she's become a weekly fixture at Tootsie's. "Quite honestly it's my favorite gig ever," she says. "I've developed an intense appreciation of all the talented people who came before me. Tootsie's helped me develop a style. I like a lot of different music, but country's always been my love and what defines me as an artist."

As a songwriter there was temptation to fill the debut disc with her own songs. But that didn't turn out to be the case. "I had an opportunity to get songs from so many songwriters that I have so much respect for," says King. "I look for songs I liked that I thought I could deliver with conviction and style."

So the challenge became to whittle down the number of songs to which she felt an attraction. "If was difficult," she acknowledges. "Any of the last 20 or so songs I would have been proud to have on my album."

Just three of her own tunes made the cut. The album has an upbeat feel to it with a couple of slow, moody numbers.

"People listen to music in a number of different contexts," says King. "I wanted the CD to be one that you could put in the car player and go from beginning to end and then start again without getting tired of it. It's mostly toe tappers. But there are some slow songs. I've always said that you have to have rain to appreciate the sunshine and sunshine to appreciate the rain. The songs spoke to me, and I hope they speak to other people."

If the disc does become popular and a lengthy tour follows, King will likely be up the rigors from a physical standpoint. She keeps in shape in a rather unusual way - kickboxing. "I've always loved playing sports, but I don't get much time to do that now," she says. "I don't like the treadmill. I have a vague memory of my brother kickboxing. I was surprised at how intense it is. But it is real liberating to be able to take out your frustrations on a big bag and to be able to defend yourself."