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Jewel: from country girl to country star

Pop star Jewel may be new to the country charts — her CD Perfectly Clear debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album chart last June — but she's got a lifetime's worth of country cred.

Jump to:
Q&A with Ty Murray
National Day of the Horse resolution

Pop star Jewel may be new to the country charts — her CD Perfectly Clear debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country Album chart last June — but she's got a lifetime's worth of country cred.

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By Kurt Markus
Jewel

She grew up riding horseback in the wilds of Homer, Alaska. The story of her rags-to-riches success in the music world has all the angst of a classic country song. And she just happens to be married to retired rodeo superstar Ty Murray, a seven-time World All-Around Rodeo Champion. So it should come as no surprise that Billboard critic Chuck Taylor hailed Perfectly Clear as "not only persuasive, but down-home, old-school country." Jewel is the real deal.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Jewel — as she is widely known, on a first-name basis — is the folk-pop phenom who first grabbed attention in 1995 with an enormously successful debut album (Pieces of You) and a stranger-than-fiction personal history. It wasn't just that she grew up in Alaska. Rather, it was how she grew up — with her father and brothers, without indoor plumbing, burning a coal stove and curing her own salmon in a cabin tucked into a remote spot near Kachemak Bay.

About six years ago Jewel took Murray to her hometown of Homer for the first time. "I wanted to show him where I grew up," she says. "And he was shocked. He said it was like going back in time about a hundred years. And it is, I guess."

Jewel's family had "maybe 30 cows and anywhere between 10 and 20 horses at any given time. Just saddle horses, for dude rides," she says. Her aunt had a dude horse operation, and Jewel helped with the horses and the tourists.

The family tended a vegetable garden and a five-acre potato field. "We'd butcher maybe two cows every fall," she says, "and we'd catch salmon, make our own jams and jellies. We were raised very, very poor. But the land will take care of you. It's much easier to be poor in the country than it is in the city."

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By Kurt Markus
Jewel and Ty Murray, seven-time World All-Around Rodeo Champion. They met in 1999 and married in 2008.

It was in this hardscrabble country that Jewel began her musical career. In her early teens she performed in honky-tonks and lumberjack bars with her father, Atz Kilcher, a folk singer and elementary-school teacher and former local rodeo champ. Kilcher taught his daughter how to yodel, and with that vocal skill in her repertoire Jewel eventually decided to take up opera, moving to the lower 48 to major in operatic voice at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan.

Also online:
Watch Jewel sing "Perfectly Clear" on Youtube
Download the album on Myspace

Jewel may have been a diva in the making, but instead of wealth and fame, she got tears-in-my-beer hard times. She ended up in San Diego with a job answering phones at a computer warehouse, barely making enough to pay the rent on a small apartment. Bad went to worse when the rent was due and her boss refused to pay her. Out of money and far from family, Jewel wound up living in her car for the better part of a year. She originally thought the makeshift accommodations would be temporary — just until she could find another job and save enough for her first month's rent — but she became seriously ill and was forced to spend every penny she could make on medication. "Actually," she says, "I almost died in the parking lot of an emergency clinic because they didn't want to see me because I didn't have insurance."

During this tough stretch, Jewel fell back on her musical talents. She began to play at small clubs, coffeehouses, and anywhere else she could pass the hat or, when she was really lucky, receive payment based on the size of the crowd she attracted. "It wasn't like I had delusions of grandeur," she says. "I never thought I was going to make a career out of this. Signing with a record label was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just hustling, trying to get a local gig."

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By Kurt Markus
"I was a songwriter, I was a storyteller. I was a throwback to the types of music I like, which are — I don't think serious is the right word, but lyric-driven."

She began composing her own songs. "I just started writing my tail off to have enough material for an act," Jewel says. Then she made the rounds of the venues open to eager nobodies. She remained resilient after repeated rejections. And even after she began to land the occasional gig, she continued to sleep in her four-wheel domicile, showering in beach-access facilities used by surfers. But, she says, she rarely complained.

"To tell you the truth," she says, "I was raised sharing a room with my brothers and using an outhouse and a coal stove. And now I was living in one of the best climates in the nation, with my own room — my car. So I felt like, well, I'd been raised a lot harder than that."

Over the course of a year Jewel slowly accumulated a small but enthusiastic following in San Diego. The folks at a local radio station were so impressed that they broadcast a bootleg tape of her singing at a small club. Suddenly limousines filled with record company executives began to pull up in front of coffeehouses where the unsigned unknown was performing.

Still, Jewel refused to set her hopes too high. In fact, she refused to hope at all. She figured even if some miracle did occur, and a record company rep did ask her to sign on the dotted line, the rep likely would get fired before Jewel ever saw the inside of a recording studio. "I wasn't doing popular music," she says. "I was a songwriter, I was a storyteller. I was a throwback to the types of music I like, which are — I don't think serious is the right word, but just lyric-driven. Nobody thought I had a chance in heck. Including me."

Pieces of You, her first release for Atlantic Records, hit the charts in 1995 when Jewel was just 19, and went on to become one of the biggest-selling debut albums of all time. It spawned three Top 10 hits: "You Were Meant for Me," "Foolish Games," and "Who Will Save Your Soul."

Jewel has always acknowledged a wide range of influences, including Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, jazz artist Nina Simone, and poet Charles Bukowski. So it's not altogether surprising that what she did as a singer-songwriter in the 1990s was not terribly easy to label. The Atlantic higher-ups "didn't know if I was country, or pop, or folk," Jewel says. "And at some point they had to make a decision about where they were going to send my songs because radio does make those decisions in terms of categorizing styles of music."

Jewel's music was ultimately classified as pop. "I never could understand why they couldn't get me on pop radio and country radio. But they're very, very specific and different formats," she says.

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"I don't feel like I've changed. I feel like what's changed, really, are the lines that radio has drawn in regard to where I fit in."

At first, that wasn't a major impediment. "My first song, ‘Who Will Save Your Soul,' was played in between Nirvana and Soundgarden. It makes no sense, I know. But I never cared. I was flattered."

Her next single, "You Were Meant for Me," which she describes as a country song, got played on pop radio. "It played longer there than anything by any act at the time except the Spice Girls, which made absolutely no sense because I was the opposite of the Spice Girls," Jewel says. "But my music was able to find a way to an audience."

Despite her absence on country radio playlists, country music fans gravitated to her concerts. "They would hear my music because I was on television. They'd see me on Leno or Letterman," she says. "So they'd find their way to me, and I would find my way to them."

Jewel was fortunate enough to break through at a point when pop radio "was pretty wide open," she says of a career that has thus far earned her 12 platinum albums. "You'd have me and Sarah McLachlan along with Nirvana and rap music all being played on the same station. It wasn't until pop music began to narrow, to where it was mostly urban music, that I began to not be able to have a place even on the fringe."

Jewel may not have had a place on the fringe, but she definitely had found a home on the range. She met Ty Murray [see the Q&A] at a rodeo in 1999 and went on to set up housekeeping with him at his 2,200-acre ranch in Stephenville, Texas. (They were married last August, in the Bahamas, after 10 years together.) The place is a cow-calf operation: "We have about 250 momma cows at any given time on the ranch" Jewel says, and the couple spends a lot of time there on horseback.

So even though Jewel is new on the country music scene, she doesn't see what she's done during the past year or so — a stint as a celebrity judge on TV's Nashville Star; several tour dates with Brad Paisley; and, most importantly, the release of her largely self-produced country-flavored album Perfectly Clear for her new label, the Nashville-based Valory Records — as any sort of reinvention. "I don't feel like I've changed," Jewel says. "I feel like what's changed, really, are the lines that radio has drawn in regard to where I fit in."

And where she fits in perfectly is anywhere she turns her songwriting talents. Jewel "is just one of the best singer-songwriters in any genre," says Valory Records founder Scott Borchetta, noting that a move to country is "a natural progression for her."

Greg Frey, music director for KILT-FM, one of Houston's leading country radio stations, agrees: "[Jewel] has always been an acoustic-based singer-songwriter and that fits right into the country format. In fact, if you go back to her first album and listen to some of those cuts — like ‘You Were Meant for Me' — they probably would be pitched to country radio if they came out today."

Perfectly Clear makes it perfectly clear: Jewel's at home in the country. "The nice thing with this record is that I didn't have to shy away from my country influences," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, I've been writing country music my whole life. I've just been writing my version of country music."

Just like she's been living her version of her own life. "There are a lot of times when I look back at my life and I think it shouldn't have worked out this good," she says. "It's been a really interesting life. So far."



A TALK WITH TY

We cornered the kid for a conversation about the life he and Jewel share away from rodeo arenas and concert venues.

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By Kurt Markus
Jewel and Ty

Cowboys & Indians: You were born in Phoenix, grew up in Arizona, and then went to college in Odessa in West Texas. Now you live with Jewel on a 2,200-acre ranch in central Texas. When did you get the ranch, and how did you decide on Stephenville?
Ty Murray: I bought the ranch about 13 years ago, which was before I met Jewel. When I was rodeoing while I was Odessa, I had to get on planes every day. I was having to take connecting flights all the time, so I wanted to get closer to Dallas. First I ended up in Benbrook outside of Fort Worth. I wanted to be out of the city, and I had some friends who went to college in Stephenville. I liked the country and bought a small place down there in '91 and then bought this ranch in '95. Texas is a great central location to rodeo from. And Stephenville is a nice happy medium if you're getting on planes all the time: It's not too terribly far to the airport, but you're not living in the city.

C&I: What's the land like?
Murray: I really like it — it's good cow country. The area is one of my favorite regions of Texas. It's a happy medium between East and West Texas. It's hilly with lots of big trees — live oak, burr oak, post oak, red oak, and giant wild pecan trees. There's lots of water — rivers, creeks, two lakes, nine ponds. So for a boy from Arizona who isn't used to that much green and water, it's something.

C&I: Has it changed the ranch to have a woman around?
Murray: Yeah, well, we're working on it. We've been together a long time and Jewel's been there at the ranch for a long time with me. I guess to everyone else it seems like we're newlyweds, but to us it seems like we've been married for a long time.

C&I: What's a typical day on the ranch like for you?
Murray: We get to spend a lot more time there than you'd think. When we're together on the ranch we really have the whole day. We don't get up and go to the office from 8 to 5. Both of us have unique jobs. Sometimes Jewel is with me — she's with me right now [he was on the road in Las Vegas as a TV analyst for Versus during the PBR Finals] — and sometimes I'm where she is. But when we're at the ranch, we're away from it all. The ranch is really nice and real private. Jewel has a recording studio there where she works on her music and art — writing and painting. And she does songwriter retreats. There's always plenty to do on the ranch — we've got 18 head of horses and 250 mother cows. I get up early and get outside and check on what needs to be done to keep the ranch running. We try to get together and spend time outside. We usually find time to ride in the evenings or go flying with a powered parachute rig.

C&I: Who cooks dinner on the ranch?
Murray: We both do. Jewel mostly does. She's a real good cook. She's actually a gourmet chef. She makes a lot of homemade things — breads and cakes and desserts from scratch. She loves making a lot of Mexican food because that's my favorite.

C&I: Other favorite pastimes at the ranch?
Murray: We like to camp quite a bit. I have a cabin down by the river that runs through the ranch. We like to get down there away from everything — away from the phones. We stay at the cabin and we'll just camp and fish and enjoy the country and each other's company. The cabin has no running water or electricity. We cook out over an open fire. We have a fire pit and a propane stove. It really slows life down when we go down there.

C&I: You met Jewel at a rodeo in Denver in 1999, so you've been together a long time. What's your secret to making it last?
Murray: I think we really love and respect each other, and at the end of the day we're each other's best friend. We're around each other more than we're around anyone else. Over the last 10 years we've formed a real bond and become really good friends, and I think that's the most important part.

C&I: You even wrote "Till We Run Out of Road" together, right?
Murray: I don't really write. Jewel is always writing — poetry, songs, short stories. That song came about one night when we were camping in the cabin. It was a really cold night on New Year's Eve. She had a guitar and was plunking around. She said we should write something together: "I'd like you to see what the process is like and see what my job is." We were just kind of goofing around and she was showing me how she writes a song. I didn't really contribute much. I just put in a few of the cuss words, but I got half the credit.

C&I: Do you have a favorite Jewel song?
Murray: I like them all, so I'd say you should get everything and then just put it on mix. I like "Thousand Miles Away" a lot. When she does it solo acoustic, it's amazing.

C&I: Is it true that you and Jewel are in the running for the next season of Dancing with the Stars?
Murray: They've come to us a couple of times, but we're not very good dancers. I think our main priority is getting our lives slowed down and trying to start a family. That's where our focus is. We've both been going 90 since we were kids. We're both ready to take it down a couple notches. We've done the things we wanted to do professionally. Now it's time to slow down and start focusing on enjoying our marriage and our life together and having a kid and reaping the rewards of what our lives have been.



WHEREAS THE HORSE ...

If you love horses, you may have been one of the signers of the petition to designate December 13, 2004, as the National Day of the Horse. Initiated by horseman Dennis Reis, the petition was endorsed by Jewel; her husband, rodeo great Ty Murray; and actress Bo Derek (a horse owner herself, Bo is a spokesperson for the Animal Welfare Institute and a Gov. Schwarzenegger appointee to the California Horse Racing Board). With its celebrity support and the congressional sponsorship of Sens. Ben Night Horse Campbell of Colorado, Michael De Wine of Ohio, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the resolution was successfully passed by a unanimous vote on the Senate floor. Next December — or any Day of the Horse for that matter — have an extra muzzle nuzzle with the special equines in your life in honor of all they do and are.

Resolution

Designating December 13, 2004, as National Day of the Horse and encouraging the people of the United States to be mindful of the contribution of horses to the economy, history, and character of the United States.

Whereas the horse is a living link to the history of the United States;

Whereas without horses, the economy, history, and character of the United States would be profoundly different;

Whereas horses continue to permeate the society of the United States, as witnessed on movie screens, on open land, and in our own backyards;

Whereas horses are a vital part of the collective experience of the United States and deserve protection and compassion;

Whereas because of increasing pressure from modern society, wild and domestic horses rely on humans for adequate food, water, and shelter; and

Whereas the Congressional Horse Caucus estimates that the horse industry contributes much more than $100,000,000,000 each year to the economy of the United States: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the Senate —

(1) designates December 13, 2004, as "National Day of the Horse," in recognition of the importance of horses to the security, economy, recreation, and heritage of the United States;
(2) encourages all people of the United States to be mindful of the contribution of horses to the economy, history, and character of the United States; and
(3) requests that the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States and interested organizations to observe the day with appropriate programs and activities.

S.Res. 452 ATS

Issue: January 2009

 

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