Stephanie Bentley hopes debut brings chestful of success

Jeffrey B. Remz, January 1996

When most greenhorn artists release their debut, the general response from the public probably is something like "Who's that?"

But Stephanie Bentley has a leg up on the competition. Her name already has been out in the public for a chunk of 1995, especially in the fall. She has Ty Herndon to "blame" for that. The two, of course, recorded the duet "Heart Half Empty," now moving up the charts.

While Herndon already made a name for himself with two previous hits from his debut, Bentley had yet to even release her first album.

But that all changed Jan. 9 when "Hopechest" hit record stores.

"I'm in disbelief," said Bentley, speaking just before the release date from her Antioch, Tenn. apartment. "I can't believe it's finally happening...Yeah, it's wonderful."

Forgive Bentley if she was excited. This was her third go-round with a record company, but the first time she had anything released.

Bentley, a 32-year-old Georgian, combines a strong, at times soaring voice roughly echoing Patty Loveless with a tenderness perhaps associated with Nanci Griffith thrown into the mix of songs, almost all about the hazards of love.

"I think I have my own style, and I think people are sometimes afraid of that," said Bentley. "But I knew if I stayed to that, somebody would like it for what it was." Bentley cited the need to not be a recycled Loveless or any other number of female artists making a dent on the charts today.

"There's a strength in there, but there's always a vulnerability," she said.

Influences include Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, George Jones and Wynonna.

But her biggest influence was from her hometown of Thomasville, Ga. Bentley grew up in a musical family in which her mother sang as did younger sister, Camille, also enjoyed singing. "My mom says I was singing in the crib, but I don't remember from that far back," Bentley said jokingly.

At nine, Bentley, her sister and a friend entered a Kiwanis talent contest, singing "Motorcycle Mama." The trio won.

More importantly, in the audience was Fred Allen, director of the Thomasville Music and Drama Troupe. Following the performance, Allen approached Bentley's mother, telling her he wanted Bentley in the troupe.

About four years later, Bentley auditioned and came aboard. The troupe sang everything from modern day pop to country to Broadway tunes. "I was exposed to a lot of different music from a very young age," Bentley said.

The troupe at one point sang on the White House lawn for President Jimmy Carter. "It was a wonderful experience from a young girl's standpoint who's never been out of Thomasville," she said. "I feel like today I owe a lot to Mr. Allen because he gave me that confidence at a very young age."

She took voice lessons from Allen for seven years.

Bentley apparently got the music bug early. "I always knew I wanted to make records, but how to get from A to B is always the problem," Bentley said.

"My heart just wasn't into anything else but the singing," she said. "I finally decided to go with that." Stints at the University of Georgia, Middle Tennessee State University and a community college did not change her attitude.

She sang with a band, Special Delivery, hitting the road in 1984, singing Top 40 and oldies music with a dose of country thrown in. "We weren't able to get the money that we needed singing country music at the time," Bentley said.

Later based in Georgia, Bentley sang demos and did jingles for such companies as Hardee's. Her first break was meeting Doug Johnson, who had just started working with Doug Stone and later became a Sony executive.

Bentley wanted to get a career going with Camille as the Bentley Sisters. They went to Nashville and signed a production deal with RCA, sometimes a presage to getting signed to a real contract.

"We cut three sides, and they passed it," Bentley said. "It was very disappointing,.. we came back to Atlanta."

Johnson told her she ought to reverse tracks. Bentley said his advice was, "Stephanie, if you really want to do it, you have to move to Nashville and make your way up the ladder.'"

Camille remained, not wanting to move.

"I just wanted to do whatever it took," Bentley said.

Five years ago, Bentley moved to Nashville and began to get demo work immediately thanks, in part, to Johnson. "In a town where they have people they're already using, who cares (about another singer)?" she said. "Even that could be discouraging. I got a little bit of work, which led to more work."

Waitressing paid the bills. "Before I knew it, I quit waiting tables because I sang," Bentley said.

Another break came in doing a demo of "Shake the Sugar Tree," a hit for Pam Tillis. Producer Paul Worley liked it so much, he kept it as a backing vocal for the final version. "I just kind of lucked into that one," Bentley said. "It was so neat when I got the the mail."

Still seeking that elusive record deal, Bentley signed a developmental deal with Liberty (now Capitol Nashville). But Liberty eventually passed on Bentley.

"There was a case of getting lost in the shuffle," Bentley said, referring to changes going on at the label.

"I don't think I had found myself musically (at that point)," Bentley said. "We just weren't capturing that magic."

"I got up, brushed myself off and said let's go back in the studio and cut some more stuff," she said. About four songs from those sessions ended up on "Hopechest."

"Everyone really seemed to like it, " she said, adding, "But it 's a little bit different from the other stuff that's out there. This album is me. This is Stephanie Bentley. This isn't anybody else."

The label shopping continued. During this time, she ran into Worley once again, who was now a label honcho at Sony, the parent of Epic Records. "I think he was so fond of that demo that he definitely kept me in his head," she said. "Who was to know?"

She soon signed a record deal.

And then yet another break came. Worley called Bentley, asking her about doing a duet. "I said, 'That sounds like fun,'" Bentley said. When told Herndon would be the partner, "I said, 'who's that?'" Bentley said.

The three sat down at Sony headquarters one night for a get acquainted session. "I heard him sing, and I knew it was the (best) voice I heard in a long time," Bentley said. "I got very excited about the duet, and we just kind of clicked from the beginning."

That meeting turned into "Heart Half Empty," which appears on both Bentley's and Herndon's albums. "It started out as a duet between two artists that no one had ever heard of," she said. " It turned out be a real wonderful thing. I feel very lucky."

The two have done a number of tour dates together and plan to do another duet for Herndon's second release. Bentley distinctly remembered the charge she got when the crowd at a Kalamazoo, Mich. show started singing along, something she often did at shows she attended. "The first time that they started singing along with the duet, I can't put into words the feeling,"Bentley said. "I always thought what if it was me up on that stage, and now it is. It 's my dream come true. I'm enjoying every little step. I'm happy to be here. No matter what, I'm happy to be here. I'm on cloud nine."

And so with the release of her debut, Bentley already is at least somewhat known.

"I'm still pinching myself," she said. "That was my first taste of it before my album. That was kind of nice to be able to gradually ease into it."

Her disc includes two songs (the closing "Think Of Me" and "the first single "Who's That Girl") she had a hand in writing. She only took up writing four years ago. "I never even thought about it because I didn't grow up around writers," Bentley said. "Finally, I got tired of people asking me if I write... One day, I said, 'Sure. I guess I do. Right. I instinctively know how a song goes."

As for the song topics, most deal with the end of relationships, but Bentley acknowledged most were about emotionally strong women. "It's not depressing," Bentley said of "Who's That Girl," a song about a woman making it on her own at the end of a dead-end relationship with a Houdini.

Bentley was not worried her music would appeal only to women. "I think men and women can relate to that kind of thought," she said. "Everybody has been in a relationship, and it's really hard to move on. 'Okay, I learned this and take the positive and move on.' I think a lot of people can relate to it."

"Every song that I picked was because it spoke to me," she said. "Every song was my baby. If a song touches me, then it can touch people too."

In February, Bentley does a radio promotional tour and hopes to hit the concert trail again in April.

While just out of the box, Bentley has her eyes on the prize. "You have a goal." she said. "You have a dream. Therefore, it's reachable, and you go for it.You don't stop.There's always another mountain on the horizon."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •