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Monday, January 16 2017 @ 07:52 AM EST

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By Bob Doerschuk
© 2014 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Mary Sarah may keep her last name secret, but she’s no secret to the legends who guest on her first album, Bridges, produced by Kent Wells, executive produced by Freddy Powers and released July 8 on Cleopatra Records.

She nails stratospheric notes with Ronnie Milsap on “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life,” matches Tanya Tucker sass for sass on “Texas When I Die,” swaggers with Merle Haggard on “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” soars while also digging into the lyric with Dolly Parton on “Jolene” … and, in a surprising coup de grâce, channels Connie Francis, complete with teary teenage angst, on “Where the Boys Are,” with the song’s co-writer Neil Sedaka chiming along.

And she makes it all sound easy, as if all these folks had been her babysitters as she grew up. In fact, Mary Sarah had a normal upbringing in Richmond, part of the Houston, Texas, metropolitan area. When she started singing at age 8, though, things started to change. Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys caught one of her YouTube performances and immediately invited her to sing with the group at their next show. Equally impressed, songwriter Freddy Powers alerted Lynn Anderson, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Ray Price and other friends to check her out. All ended up joining her in the studio for this remarkable project.

This is a tough debut album to follow, but at 18, Mary Sarah is ready to sail on her own.

For more on Mary Sarah, visit www.CMACloseUp.com
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Artist BiosNEW ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Charlie Worsham
By Bob Doerschuk

© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Born in Mississippi, Charlie Worsham learned enough banjo by age 10 for bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin to invite him onstage at the Ryman Auditorium. Two years after that, he joined Mike Snider on the air at the Opry. After attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he headed to Nashville and eventually earned himself a deal with Warner Bros. Records.

On his new album, Rubberband, released today, Worsham distinguishes himself by his unerring taste and musical subtlety. As co-producer with Ryan Tyndell and co-writer on all 11 tracks, he knows his way into each lyric. He does play some burning leads, but most of the album is toned down, rich in acoustic texture. His banjo stays in the background, enhancing the Country flavor. Drums are often muted and minimal.

This gives Worsham room to tell his stories. Starting with solo guitar and vocal, “How I Learned To Pray” (written by Worsham, Tyndell and Jeremy Spillman) points not to church services “with a chapter and a verse” but to small epiphanies in everyday life as sources of redemption. On “Love Don’t Die Easy” (Worsham, Tyndell and Steve Bogard), metaphor mixes with clear-eyed observation to mourn broken souls haunted by love long or recently lost. Worsham finds daylight too, stirring cautious hope for the future during a morning after on the album’s first single, “Could It Be” (Worsham, Tyndell and Marty Dodson). His gift is to be able to whisper intimately one moment and, with minimal effort, rock the house the next — and that’s something they don’t teach at Berklee.
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By Bob Doerschuk
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Counting down the days to his self-titled debut, JT Hodges proclaimed August “Prize Month.” On his various social sites, he invited fans to vie for more than 160 prizes, ranging from personalized handwritten notes to autographed guitars, photos, hats, and Copperpeace guitar straps. Fifty lucky winners got their Twitter addresses included in the album’s liner notes.

Clearly, Hodges knows both sides of the music business. That’s no surprise: His parents met as band members. Their son grew up at their high-profile studio in Forth Worth, where he learned the ropes, from cleaning bathrooms to laying tracks. By the time he moved to Nashville, he was ready and eager to launch his career.

Signed in 2010 to Show Dog-Universal Music, Hodges’ rock-toughened style won notice from SDU President Mark Wright, who shares production on the young artist's debut project, which marries crisp instrumental tracks and high-impact vocals. (One track was produced by Don Cook, Wright and Ross Copperman.)

JT Hodges hits full speed with the opener, “Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely,” penned by Hodges, Mark Collie and Cook. One of the nine songs co-written by the artist, it’s a nonstop four-beat tour de force, with a call to “come on, come on, baby” whisking listeners into an irresistible chorus hook, sung in solid harmony. A similar exuberance permeates the single, “Hunt You Down” (Hodges, Collie and Rivers Rutherford), where a simple I-IV chord sequence gives Hodges space to animate the playful, seductive lyric. “We never talked about tomorrow,” he sings, although people will talk about this gifted newcomer for many tomorrows to come.
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By Bob Doerschuk

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Even as a boy back in Idaville, Ind., DJ Miller was determined and focused in pursuit of his goal of becoming a Country performer. Whatever sparked it, Miller had a dream and he knew from the start he would spend his young years chasing it down.

Of course, plenty of kids aspire toward stardom. What made Miller stand out was his realization that attaining it meant taking charge of making it real. He hit on an important epiphany early, as he notes in his bio: “You can’t be the only one having fun. You have to interact with the crowd.” From studying Garth Brooks concert tapes and Brad Paisley in action to honing his shows at local clubs and state fairs, he learned quickly — and kept learning.

In 2009, producer Johnny Morris made Miller’s acquaintance and introduced him around in Nashville. Miller was already touring hard, but at that point he began building his schedule to allow time to write with the pros. The results can be heard on his debut album, Whatever It Takes, produced by Johnny Morris and featuring four of his co-writes among its 10 tracks.
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Artist BiosNEW ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Lauren Alaina
By Bob Doerschuk

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Lauren Alaina was just 3 years old when her mother was driving her somewhere in their hometown of Rossville, Ga. The Dixie Chicks were on the radio, and when Mom turned it off and heard her daughter singing the song on her own — in pitch and with every word correct — she did what any perceptive parent would do: She bought her a Dixie Chicks karaoke package and encouraged her to keep singing.

Not much time has passed since then, but Alaina, 17, has blossomed into a singer of precocious technique and sensitivity. She has worked hard for this achievement, singing lead roles in school plays throughout elementary school and winning the talent competition of the Southern Stars Pageant at 8. At age 10, she took top prize in Orlando’s American Model and Talent Competition, beating out more than 1,500 participants, and at 12 Alaina made her first of many visits to Nashville’s Lower Broadway clubs — before 6 PM, of course.

But it was “American Idol” that lifted her into national celebrity in 2011. Finishing second to the equally young, gifted and future Mercury Nashville labelmate Scotty McCreery, she was soon at work on her debut album, Wildflower, with Byron Gallimore producing all but her first single, the power ballad “Like My Mother Does.”

Amidst these 12 tracks crafted by some of Nashville’s top songwriters (Alaina co-wrote one, “Funny Thing about Love,” with Luke Laird and Brett James), “Like My Mother Does” stands out. Alaina heard it for the first time during her “Idol” experience and instantly connected with it. Composed by Nathan Chapman, Liz Rose and Nikki Williams, it whispers through verses, soars into the choruses and ultimately rockets skyward, fueled by Alaina’s accomplished and even astonishing performance.

Alaina will join Luke Bryan on Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” arena tour, beginning Jan. 20 in Greeneville, S.C.
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Artist BiosNEW ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Randy Montana
By Bob Doerschuk

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Randy Montana was born into Music City royalty, but he charts his own course. His dad, Billy Montana, wrote hits for Garth Brooks, Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina and others. Randy’s path is different: At this stage of his young career, he’s earning a reputation as a writer too but seems on course to make his main impact as an artist.

On his self-titled debut album for Mercury Nashville, produced by Jay Joyce, Montana wrote or co-wrote nine of its 11 tracks. He sings with a voice that’s just a bit weathered and rugged and a flair for musical drama. On his first single, “Ain’t Much Left of Lovin’ You” (written by Montana and Joshua Ragsdale), he couples the pain of a lost love to a pounding beat and a soaring riff that invites the broken hearted to dance their memories away. Then he switches to an upbeat appreciation of love found on the second single, “1,000 Faces” (Montana and Tom Douglas), which proves equally compatible with his resonant, guitar-driven, exultant sound.

Born in Albany, N.Y., and raised in Nashville, Montana went to Trevecca Nazarene University on a soccer scholarship, transferred to Middle Tennessee State University, and then left to work odd jobs while polishing his writing. Signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2008, he funneled the spirits of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen through his family’s Country DNA.

The results have stirred notice throughout the industry. CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris was among the many who saw promise in Montana’s music, so much so that she joined him on harmony for “Last Horse,” which Montana wrote with his father and Rodney Clawson. The song must have attracted her attention as much as the voice; the lyric sets up a picture that’s both cinematic and intimate, framed by a sweet, sad metaphor. This is mature writing by any measure, sung with tempered, tuneful passion.
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Margaret Durante

Artist BiosMargaret Durante - Artist Bio

With the release of her four-song digital-only “Maybe Tonight EP,” much of the music
world is getting its first glimpse of one of country music’s most exciting young voices,
Margaret Durante. The title track from the EP is a contagiously upbeat look at new love
at its flirty and romantic best. It is also her new single and a great introduction to
Margaret, whose world-class pipes and dynamic stage presence have been wowing
audiences since she was a young girl.

The EP, culled from her forthcoming debut album, is a compelling collection of songs
that showcase the sheer talent Margaret brings to the table as a vocalist and as a
songwriter who can hold her own in a room with Nashville’s best. From the title-track
and the moody and melodic “Paper Chains”, both of which were co-written by
Margaret, to the pain-drenched “Better” and “Whiskey And A Gun,” a jaw-droppingly
tough look at revenge from one woman’s point of view, it’s a collection that highlights
the power and intimacy of her vocal performances and the connection she has always
made with her audiences.

"I really want listeners to feel like they are my confidantes," Margaret says. "I want
them to feel like they have someone to commiserate and celebrate with when they
hear my songs."

The project is for Margaret the culmination of three years of work honing the crafts
she has nurtured since childhood. Collaborating with a group that includes co-writer
and co-producer Stephony Smith and legendary producer/label head James Stroud
made the excitement of making her first record all the more thrilling.

"I knew I had material that I loved and believed in and I couldn’t wait to share those
songs with other people,” says Margaret. “Then, when James and Stephony wanted to
be involved to the extent they were, that sweetened the deal even more."
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GREG HANNA - Artist Bio

Artist BiosGREG HANNA - Artist Bio

When Greg Hanna sings about hopping down off of the tractor after a long, hot day in the sun on the farm, it’s not just a line in one of his songs. It’s a scene from his life and the very essence of who he really is. The Eastern Ontario native grew up on a dairy farm, and is just as happy fixing a fence or working cattle as he is performing on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. And the songs on Greg’s new self-titled album aren’t just products of his immense talent, they’re also a glimpse into his very soul – little snippets of his life painstakingly sewn into an audio patchwork. It’s a country life tapestry, and one he understands well.

A bundle of fierce determination and can-do energy, with a twinkle of fun always glinting in his eye, Greg plotted the course for his life as an entertainer early on. From the first time he laid eyes on that old Sears guitar hanging in his aunt’s cold storage room back in Canada, he knew he had to be on stage. Greg had plenty of time to work on his dream, growing up in a quiet farming community of 450. The life he often sings about and weaves into his songs is one he cherishes: sit-down meals together for breakfast, dinner, and supper, an honest, hard-day’s work on the land, and plenty of time centered around family and friends. “I am country music. I didn’t know much about rock and roll growing up…country was all I knew.”

Greg debuted on the American Country Radio Charts in the Summer of 2008 with his debut single; "She Means Everything To Me" which was co-written by good buddy, David Lee Murphy; ran it's way into the "Top 10" list of many Stations across both America, and Canada. 2009 had kept Hanna running out of the gate with..... a brand new American single (It’s A Man’s Job) , an article in Country Music Weekly, a guest appearance on CMT/GAC special; "Our Song", (with long-time buddy Brad Mates of Emerson Drive), a new Record Deal with MegaForce/Sony Red(home of rock giants Metallica, Anthrax, and the Black Crowes to name a few), a tour with Jeff Foxworthy, and an honor of walking the Red Carpet at the 42nd CMA Awards in Nashville. 2010 heated up even more as Hanna was honored as the CMA debut spotlight artist for January and Feb, his second radio single and music video hit the airwaves in both USA and Canada, and he went on the road in the Fall of /10 with Toby Keith and his American Ride Tour as an opening act, while promoting his new CD. 2011 is here and running “full tilt boogie” as Hanna is gearing up for a huge touring season, and a Spring full of “LOVE” as he releases his first love song to radio titled; Makin’ Love Real”.

Greg was introduced to the American Country scene with his first radio single and music video; “It’s A Man’s Job.” The sexy, sultry grooving tune is catching fire all over the country. It’s one of many barn-burners on his debut CD: those who like to crank it up will also love the high-octane “Bump In The Road,” the fun, rollicking romp “Hillbilly Heartattack,” and the pure, uptempo fun of “Singing To The Radio.” And just try to forget the melody to the ultra-infectious, “Song In My Head,” once you’ve heard it once. As much as he loves a great rocker, Greg also has a way with a heartfelt ballad. From his beautiful, sweeping testimony to that one great love, “Makin’ Love Real,” to the gorgeous “In Between Dreams,” that exults a life and love so good it beats the dreams you have when you sleep, Greg proves he can go the vocal distance at both ends of the song spectrum, tackling power ballads and scorching up-tempos with equal fervor. That fervor definitely carries over into his personal life as well. Whether working hard or playing hard, Greg Hanna rolls up his sleeves, digs in, and gets it done. To him, if it’s not fun, or something you love, why do it? Like the lyrics in one of his songs, “Live For Today,” says, ‘you can sit on the beach, I’m riding the wave!’ It’s a philosophy that has served him well all along his journey towards superstardom, and one he definitely lives. “That’s what it’s all about, you know, just like the song says, riding the wave. I’m not waiting for anybody, and that’s why we started Pheromone. It’s kind of a theme song for me in a way, because that’s essentially what I’m doing. And it’s a life I love.” Keep your eyes and ears peeled....cause here comes the HANNAMAN!
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Riders In The Sky - Artist Bio

Artist BiosRiders In The Sky - Artist Bio

Riders In The Sky are truly exceptional. By definition, empirical data, and critical acclaim, they stand "hats & shoulders" above the rest of the purveyors of C & W - "Comedy & Western!" For thirty years Riders In The Sky have been keepers of the flame passed on by the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, reviving and revitalizing the genre. And while remaining true to the integrity of Western music, they have themselves become modern-day icons by branding the genre with their own legendary wacky humor and way-out Western wit, and all along encouraging buckaroos and buckarettes to live life "The Cowboy Way!"
Riders In The Sky are exceptional not just in the sense that their music is of superlative standards (they are the ONLY exclusively Western artist to have won a Grammy, and Riders have won two), but by the fact that their accomplishments are an exception to the rule as well.

That Riders In The Sky was even formed is a feat of improbable likelihood. What are the odds that a theoretical plasma physicist, a wildlife manager - galvanizer - Life Scout, an English major - shot putter - Bluegrass Boy, and a Polka Hall of Fame member would collectively become "America's Favorite Cowboys?" And even more unlikely is that 30 years later, the original members are still "bringing good beef to hungry people" while putting up Ripken-like numbers! The Rolling Stones only made it a few years before replacing Brian Jones; the Sons of the Pioneers constantly changed personnel; even the Ringo-era Beatles only lasted 8 years. (Perhaps Too Slim, as a sophomore writer for the University of Michigan Daily, had an ulterior motive in 1969 by propagating the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead! It's true, go ahead and Google "Paul is dead rumor" But the key to keeping the same founding members intact for three decades on the road is more easily explained: "Separate hotel rooms," cracks Ranger Doug!

Riders In The Sky's first official public performance was Nov. 11, 1977, at the erstwhile Nashville nightspot "Phranks & Steins." Taking the stage that night for a crowd of eight or nine (counting Herr Harry behind the bar) were Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth) on arch-top guitar and baritone vocals, and Too Slim (A Man Aging Like Fine Cheese) on bunkhouse bass, face, and tenor vocals. A chain saw may have been in the mix somewhere that night, but was soon retired. Replacing the chain saw was Woody Paul (King of the Cowboy Fiddlers) on fiddle, tenor vocals and rope tricks, and the launch was successful! They subsequently added the "Stomach Steinway" stylings of Joey the Cowpolka King on accordion and baritone vocals, much to the delight of Polkaholics' everywhere.
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The Oak Ridge Boys - Artist Bio

Artist BiosThe Oak Ridge Boys - Artist Bio

Theirs is one of the most distinctive and recognizable sounds in the music industry. The four-part harmonies and upbeat songs of The Oak Ridge Boys have spawned dozens of Country hits and a Number One Pop smash, earned them Grammy, Dove, CMA, and ACM awards and garnered a host of other industry and fan accolades. Every time they step before an audience, the Oaks bring three decades of charted singles, and 50 years of tradition, to a stage show widely acknowledged as among the most exciting anywhere. And each remains as enthusiastic about the process as they have ever been.

“When I go on stage, I get the same feeling I had the first time I sang with The Oak Ridge Boys,” says lead singer Duane Allen. “This is the only job I've ever wanted to have.”
“Like everyone else in the group,” adds bass singer extraordinaire, Richard Sterban, “I was a fan of the Oaks before I became a member. I’m still a fan of the group today. Being in The Oak Ridge Boys is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

The two, along with tenor Joe Bonsall and baritone William Lee Golden, comprise one of Country's truly legendary acts. Their string of hits includes the Pop chart-topper Elvira, as well as Bobbie Sue, Dream On, Thank God For Kids, American Made, I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometimes, Fancy Free, Gonna Take A Lot Of River and many others. They recently covered a White Stripes song, receiving accolades from Rock reviewers. They've scored 12 gold, three platinum, and one double platinum album—plus one double platinum single—and had more than a dozen national Number One singles and over 30 Top Ten hits.

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