Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Shania Twain: Why Not?

No question about it, Shania Twain is a star. Though she has released very few albums, she remains one of the top selling artists not just in country music, but in wider ranges of music as well. Though she set part of the country music business on its ear by stretching bounds both musically and in her videos, she won awards in Nashville, too, and whether or not they cared for her choices, many country music fans and insiders agreed that Twain had a major pull in which brought in new listeners to the country music, people who not only listened to her music but stayed to explore the work of other artists as well. She has not, however, given public concerts for seven years.

Twain is the subject of, part of, presenting -- I am not quite sure what to call it -- a series of programs on the OWN Television Network. The shows are called Shania Twain: Why Not? . The programs trace part of her journey to get back to the point where, both personally and with her singing voice, she feels ready to be on stage again. You may wonder why a professional musician who’d been performing for people since she was eight would have problems with this sort of thing, or why, if she did, she couldn’t just get over it on her own. Twain, actually, wondered some of those same things, and that’s one of the things that makes the show engaging. She has the money, the time, and most importantly, the will and the courage to take on sorting that out, and to choose to invite viewers along for parts of the journey.

I am not usually one to like the sort of quasi documentary that focuses deeply on people’s personal lives, I’ve never watched the Oprah show (OWN is the Oprah Winfrey Television Network) and also do not enjoy the somewhat related genre of reality shows. shania twain book coverI like Twain’s music, though (that always comes as a shock to many who know my own work in music ) and I had always known her to discuss her personal life, which had its share of hard knocks, with dignity and reserve. So I was interested to see what these programs would be like.

It is proving an interesting and creative journey. Twain is having trouble with her voice -- feeling choked, as she describes it. Even if you are not involved with music you’ll know what she means, and if you are a musician you’ll hear it both when she speaks and when she sings. She also feels that she is not comfortable performing in front of people again, though she loves singing and needs to sing.

These may seem, in some ways, fairly high class problems, and Twain knows that. They are also basic ones: an artist struggling with how to make her art, how to live her life, when that life has been knocked apart by personal circumstance . That’s one thing - and another is finding out that the personal resources and strengths one has relied on to get through hard times just don’t work any more. That’s a whole other aspect to wrestle with. Been there, done that, and it is, among other things, disorienting.

The precipitating event in Twain’s life for all these changes was the end of her fourteen year marriage, and the discovery that her husband and her best friend were having an affair. Early in her life, Twain had learned to handle quite a few tough circumstances, growing up poor, and with hard family situations. Then when she was a young woman her parents were killed in a car accident, and she had to provide for and parent her siblings.

Twain and her younger sister, Carrie, both now in their forties, revisit two of the houses they lived in as young children during the show’s early episodes, and this is thoughtfully presented. The conversations between them there, and later at their parents’ grave site. seem natural and unforced, as do most of the conversations in the programs. It’s a nice balance between being aware of the camera, being aware that what everyone says is going to a wider audience, and making a real story out of real events without going over the top into personal experiences and emotions. As someone who has worked behind the scenes in both television and music, props to all those involved, including especially the editors. Thus far, the shows and the story line are working well.

As I write this, I’ve seen four episodes of the show. A few things that stand out: Twain’s visit to her songwriting cabin in Ontario, where she used to go when she was first beginning to make it in country music, her standing on the stage at Caesar's Place, where she’s been offered a gig, and scenes in the first show of her playing and singing with just her sister, her cousin, and one of her long time band mates. Twain’s comment, at the songwriting cabin, that growing up as she did, making it big didn’t mean having a big lifestyle, it meant just being able to eat well, and her comment later on, in conversation with Gladys Knight, about not giving up on the gift one has been graciously given. The fact that she wants sharing her journey to healing to help others, but that she’s not being hokey about it. Her well honed sense of humor.

That sense of humor is one thing I’ve always enjoyed about Shania Twain. I’ve had the chance to see her in concert several times, and it’s been clear that she takes her work and her professionalism and her music seriously, but she does not take herself too seriously. That is part of Twain’s gift in connecting with audiences. As a songwriter, she distills things down to create accessible catchy hooks. They may not be the most complex songs I’ve heard or written about, but in mainstream popular music, being able to use that sort of gift, and choosing to use it, in service of writing songs that are uplifting and engaging at the same time is no small thing, and Twain has done that well. Her album The Woman in Me is, to my way of thinking a gathering of many her best songs thus far. She has also had the excellent taste to perform with Alison Krauss, and to choose the Canadian Celtic band Leahy to open for her during several tours.

That, and she can surely sing. She has the gift of a fine voice, and it is one she is determined to use again. Shania Twain: Why Not? is proving an engaging look at her journey to doing that.

you may also wish to see

if I were going to suggest an album for Shania to listen to on her journey, it’d be this one. graceful songs about living through changes, especially when the way is less than clear Carrie Newcomer: Before & After


if you enjoy reading about television, film, and dvds check out Reel Life With Jane

Twain’s autobiography
From This Moment On

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Blogger Anjuli said...

I do like Shania Twain and had not known about the show- I'll try to catch up on it.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Casey said...

I read about this show in the NYTimes and meant to watch - thanks for the reminder! Even though I'm not necessarily a Shania Twain fan, it does seem very well presented.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous sarah henry said...

Wow, life has provided that gal with plenty of material. I appreciate how you write about it in a matter-of-fact (and non-sensational way).

9:57 AM  
Blogger BIKE LADY said...

I'm such a fan of Shania Twain. I'm sure she'll get her voice back. It seems as though her body/mind/spirit were telling her to place her attention elsewhere. But when she comes back, I trust she'll do very well. Sorry I can't see this show; I don't have the new Oprah channel on my basic cable format. But you make it sound worth the time.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Living Large said...

I'm not a big fan of such shows either, but you make this one sound intriguing and I'm not even one of her fans!

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Sheryl said...

I am glad you wrote about this. It's something that would not have otherwise appealed to me, but hearing the back story and all the struggles she's had to deal with makes me think that it would be worthwhile to tune in.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Jane Boursaw said...

Thanks for the link to Reel Life With Jane! You know, I've had so many publicity emails come in on Shania Twain's show, and I still haven't seen it yet. I'll make a point to check it out. I'm not usually one for reality shows or life-of-a-celeb shows, but sometimes they can be really touching and personal.

12:49 AM  

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