Tornados are common in Oklahoma, but nobody out there had ever seen a whirlwind like Katrina Elam until she hit that stage at the 4-H talent show.
She was all of nine years old -- a head-turning, smart, determined young lady. She's still that way now at twenty. But in an instant on that day, when she belted out her first notes with a conviction so unexpected that her mother burst into tears, Katrina's world turned inside out.
And as she ran back to her mother, afraid that somehow she had upset her, Katrina already knew what she would do with the rest of her life.
She had, just like that, become a singer.
The story begins at that moment and runs through countless performances in her home state, diverts to Nashville, where she started chasing her dreams as a seventeen-year-old on her own, and leads to Katrina Elam, one of the strongest debut albums in recent years.
Her voice -- sassy and strong on the up-tempo cuts, intimate and heartfelt on ballads -- draws from a deep country well; and blends into a sound that's both classic and contemporary. Her songs -- she wrote or co-wrote all but two -- are personal and universal. The playful infatuation of "I Want a Cowboy," the assertiveness of "Normal," the bruised innocence of "The Breakup Song" ... each offers glimpses into moments from her life.
But to really savor this album, you have to look beyond the obvious. Her clear-headed determination, her willingness to challenge herself, to follow the footsteps of her heroes, to conquer the music business on her own terms, are just as important as the talent and beauty that Katrina brings to the table.
That competitive streak, those high standards, trace back even further than the talent show -- back to when, by her own admission, Katrina had no interest in singing at all.
"I have videos of me goofing around and trying to sing when I was little," she laughs, blushing as she remembers. "It was terrible. I was just screaming. Up until that talent show, I'd never really sung a single note."
Instead, she had cultivated "normal" interests at home with her parents and older sister in Bray, a tiny crossroads in the middle of oil country in Oklahoma. Downtown was a school, a gas station ... and that's it; there wasn't even a stoplight within sight. Pastures, trees, horses, and open, empty space stretched in all directions. A visit to Wal-Mart, thirty miles away, was an adventure.
Katrina's dad was an oil worker, gone each morning at five and back at three. Mom stayed at home. Dinners were shared at the family table. Music was a part of the picture, but no more than in any typical household: There was a grandmother who played a little piano, an uncle who strummed a guitar, and a radio that played in the background.
In this nurturing climate, Katrina somehow developed a precocious, take-charge personality. Even at four or five she took the lead when playing with her friends. "They'd come over and say, 'Hey, let's play Newscaster. And I would always say, 'No. We have to have a script. We have to practice. We have to get the video camera and record it.' Even if we were just playing with dolls, I had to make sure that we did it right."
And so it was with her singing. Not only that: With all the seriousness she had mustered into organizing doll dramatics, she began getting hold of albums. Seated by the speaker, she'd play each track again and again, taking notes. She got herself a little karaoke machine, recorded her versions of those same songs, and played them back, this time critiquing her own renditions. "I'd draw big circles around the parts I needed to fix and then I'd record it again until I got it where I wanted it to be."
Word spread about the preteen chanteuse. People started calling her mother, asking if Katrina could sing at their party, their wedding, their corporate event. The calendar filled with dates: On a typical day, after school, Katrina would play softball until her mother picked her up and they hit the road to some gig in Oklahoma City, ninety minutes away. Katrina would change clothes and put on her own makeup in the car. Afterwards, they'd drive back to Bray, arriving as late as three a.m.
The next day, they'd do it again, as often as five times each week.
With each month Katrina and her parents widened their territory. Honors rolled in: The Oklahoma Country Music Association and the Oklahoma Opry both named the fifteen-year-old Female Vocalist of the Year in 1998. Later she became the youngest artist ever -- and the first female in 21 years -- to win the Oklahoma Opry's Entertainer of the Year award. Superstars caught the buzz: Reba McEntire invited her to join her during a concert with the Tulsa Philharmonic, and Vince Gill jumped onstage and played along during her appearance at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Her name traveled back with them to Nashville. Incredibly, when Katrina wrote her first song, the demo made its way through the labyrinth onto the desk of Cris Lacy, A&R director at Warner-Chappell Music. That song alone clinched a publishing contract for Katrina when she was just sixteen years old.
It also began the process of drawing her away to Music City. Katrina started coming to town for writing sessions so often that her mother took over her schooling in her senior year, at home and on the road. Just a year after that, her education completed, Katrina watched from her new apartment in Nashville as her parents said goodbye and drove back to Bray.
She was seventeen ... scared ... and exhilarated.
"I knew what I wanted to do," Katrina remembers. "I didn't do showcases. I tried not to do demos because I didn't want industry people to make judgments yet. I didn't pitch my songs to other singers; I just kept my head down. I just stayed at home or went to Warner-Chappell and wrote. I just wanted to stay under the radar screen until I knew I was ready."
And when she was she called Cris Lacy, who began shopping her music around town. Suddenly Katrina was performing for executives all over Music Row. Within the space of one month she had sifted through a pile of contracts and signed the one offered by Tony Brown and Tim DuBois at Universal South. Typically, she had gotten what she wanted all along.
"When I was nine I read the credits on all of Reba's records. I remember saying to my parents, 'I don't know who this Tony Brown guy is, but I'm going to work with him someday.' So when they offered me a deal it would have been silly to pass it up, because that's what I had been bound and determined all those years to achieve."
She knew exactly who she wanted in the studio for her debut album too: Brown, of course, and as co-producer Jimmie Lee Sloas, best known for his work with Switchfoot, PFR, and other Christian music headliners. "I had written some of my favorite songs with Jimmie Lee," she explains. "He and I have the same musical vision. So even though this was his first country project, Tony agreed to have him come in. I don't know if any other label would have let me do that."
On the other hand, not many could resist this determined young charmer. Since that talent show long ago, she's wanted to sing like the best in the business, write songs that weave her story into melodies that thread through infectious hooks, work with a legendary producer and be in control of her fate before she was even old enough to vote.
She's accomplished all that already. But there's more to come. With Katrina Elam, it's all just underway.
--- from the official Katrina Elam website