It was with a smidgin of trepidation I approached this project, as I read the track list first and gulped, immediately thinking, ‘Oh dear, that’s a list of songs I’ve heard murdered at talent quests six ways to Sunday for four decades… and I am not sure I want to hear them again EVER.”

However, giving it a spin I was pleasantly surprised, and soon delighted. Firstly because the treatment was sensitive and the production flawless, plus I recognised every tune on the opening note and it was quickly apparent that these were old friends whom it was a little bit wonderful to revisit – some had not come to mind in eons yet remained indelibly rooted word for word in the memory vault.

Great Women Of Country And The Songs That Made Them, is the brainchild of two of Australia’s premier country divas, Melinda Schneider and Beccy Cole.

Containing 22 classic country standards, it is their heartfelt homage to the songs, the creators and the singers who shaped them, and focussed their ambitions to pursue the career of singer-songwriters, a calling from whence both have carved impressive niches.

Beccy talked about the project and the song selections with Country Update.

I have no trouble believing you have sung a number of these songs all your life – the veneration is palpable in the delicate delivery you lavish on them; especially ‘Coat of Many Colours’ – you really do sound like you’re singing in the Cathedral of Country Music!

(‘9 To 5’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ also owe their existence to the inimitable Dolly Parton)

“Thank you, and I did enjoy singing those songs more than I thought I would. It took a bit of arm twisting as I wanted to concentrate on my own songs, but I ended up loving it despite my misgivings. It can look like a hackneyed karaoke list on paper, but I think the old but new again treatment is so subtle. Jeff McCormack has the best ears in the business and while Mel and I produced it ourselves, he’s the guy that made it sound so good and the band was incredible.”

Can you describe how you chose the songs as I was as intrigued by what was left out as much as what is on the record?

“They had to be authentic in so far as being songs that influenced us as artists and not songs from a catalogue. And may I say straight up that there was NO way in the world I was singing ‘Stand By Your Man’!”

Laughter subsides… I am curious that there is no nod to Brenda Lee 1950’s Decca Records artist and ranked fourth Artist of the Decade 1960s behind Elvis, The Beatles & Ray Charles – which was pretty heady stuff for a time when women were used to being sidelined and not many rose to prominence. Similarly, Kitty Wells et al.

“That is so true and Tammy, Dolly, Bobby Gentry and Loretta (even though the particular song here wasn’t written by her) they were absolute trail blazers to write their own material, and the fact that they stood their ground and demanded to be heard and recorded, as Nashville was not home sweet home to women songwriters. And I did want to do a Brenda Lee song as she was my Mum’s biggest influence, but it was more rockabilly oriented and just didn’t make it over the line in the final cut.”

There are some classic story songs on here that still stand up after decades, ‘Ode to Billy Joe,’ ‘Fancy’ and ‘The Night the Lights Went Down in Georgia’ is a killer song. I wasn’t sure that was originally a woman singer but it was. 1972 Vicki Lawrence released it and it was pitched to Cher but then husband/manager Sonny refused it, Tanya Tucker hit with it in 1981 the year a movie of the same name was released, and again by Reba McEntire in 1991.

“I love ‘Lights Went Down in Georgia’ and I’ve started doing it live now, as I’ve always wanted to do it but wasn’t good enough on guitar to play the chords – but now I’m a big girl I can!”

The album homes seven duets and the remaining tracks are divided into solo tracks for each of the girls.

“‘Harper Valley PTA’ (Jeannie C Riley) I insisted on being on there as it’s a ‘gutsy girl’ sort of song and unusually outspoken and controversial for the era, and with ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ I love that Bobby Gentry had so much to do with it. People love that song and its only two chords and it’s quite intricate nonetheless and for her to play on it she was a trailblazer.

‘I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t’ is one of the standouts for me. It is brilliant, Melinda just slays it and that was Bonnie Raitt?  Again, I would have thought your guitar chops would make you the Raitt fan?

“Ah, well, as we were compiling the list and it was adding up, I said to Melinda, ‘Is there one song that made you want to be a singer? Is that on there? And she said No, and I said ‘Well it has to go on there! What is it?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely the first song I was ever so in awe of that I thought I can’t rest until I can nail that, was, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t’ So I said she had to add it, and mine was ‘Grandpa’ from the Judds which was the first song I brought of my own (that wasn’t one of Mum’s) to sing with Mum’s band, and I still love it and people always just seem to melt when they hear it.”

Tell me about the Olivia Newton John medley? Olivia was such an enormous pop artist here I don’t know if she never rated as a country artist? Her career was all US based until she came home later I think. I know she won the Grammy for Female Country artist in 1973 and in 1974 she won Album and Female Vocal but for Po music, while simultaneously winning CMA and ACM 1974 Female Vocalist.

“Melinda is the Olivia fan, and she has of course since worked with her and they’ve done a duet together and Olivia was stoked when Mel told her we were including that tribute. For me, in 1974 I was 2, and when I was growing up if Mum didn’t have the music or sing the song, I didn’t know it, so that was before my time, and I first sort of “got” Olivia with the movie Grease.”

And no Australian choices aside from Olivia? 

“That generation of  Australian female singers were a different style of music to what we were attracted to back then I guess. The similarities Melinda and I share are that both of us started singing with our Mums and largely developed our personal style from theirs from a really young age. I should also add that both our Mums are very chuffed and proud that we’ve done this.”

Two giants are featured in Patsy and Tammy.

“The Patsy Cline medley works as a mini-tribute, and she is an obvious choice as it is inarguable that she’s still a major influence for female singers to this day. You know, she was killed before I was born and I imbibed her music like it permeated my very being, from my Mum. And I never knew she was dead – I was twelve years old when I learned she was dead and I was completely flabbergasted when Mum mentioned it; I guess I never imagined she could be dead when she was so much a part of my life through her music. It was quite devastating.”

“From Tammy Wynette we have ‘Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,’ and ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ – I was on cringe alert with the latter – that song is the definitive song that people use to take the p%#s out of country you know… the knockers… always with a really exaggerated redneck drawl, but when we got into it I realised it is a beautiful, sad song with much more substance than a first glance suggests. And Melinda and I have both been through divorces so it was apt.”

“At one point when the record was nearly done, I was worried that there was something left out, something missing. Stuie French said ‘Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,’ and I remembered Tammy doing it with Dolly on Dolly’s TV show and that’s how we came to do that as a duet. It’s a cute retro contrast of the 60s mindset for women…sort of Stepford Wives in a protest song!”

As Melinda puts it “both Beccy and I had always thought about doing an album like this individually … but I woke up one morning and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, so I called Beccy and asked: Wanna do it together?”.

Beccy was initially a hard sell on the idea, and gradually came around as she thought of songs that deserved another run and how they had been profound influences on not only her personal soundtrack growing up, but her career influences.

Beccy Cole is the real deal; a working single mother, a successful career woman, an explosive, edgy and hilarious live performer and as honest in the lyrics of her songs as she is about her private life. This honesty led to Beccy’s revelation on a ratings winning episode of ABC-TV’s ‘Australian Story’ that she is gay…after ‘keeping it under her hat’ for 15 years.

In 2014, Beccy Cole has been taking the audience on a journey through the trials and triumphs of a woman living the dreams of a little girl. Beccy extends her generosity from the truthful and sometimes very funny lyrics, to the stories behind the songs.

“Now that the cat is out of the bag, I can not only be myself, but reveal the true meaning of some of the songs… and you just have to laugh at yourself sometimes!”

In double decades, the sassy Country Queen has shelved 9 Golden Guitars, 3 Gold records, 2 Entertainer of The Year awards, 7 song writing awards and has peaked at Number One on charts a whopping 14 times. Beccy has dedicated her life to touring her own country with an occasional break for entertaining Aussie troops in overseas conflicts.

For well over a decade now Melinda Schneider has been a leading light of the ‘new-breed’ of Australian singer-songwriters. In a career which began with a stage debut at the age of three (appearing with her mother, the legendary Mary Schneider) she has kept her family tradition alive to become a sublime singer and popular live performer who is not afraid to branch out and test her mettle in other spheres of entertainment. But it is through her assured and accomplished songwriting that she has really discovered her true voice.

With nine albums under her belt, she has earned two Gold records and awards include six CMAA Golden Guitars – featuring 2008 Top Selling Album for Stronger, 2005 Album Of The Year with Family Tree, APRA Song Of The Year for the song ‘Real People’ and Female Vocalist Of The Year in 2003 for ‘The Story Of My Life’.

2008 brought with it an exciting new phase in Melinda’s career, with the launch of her own independent record label, Be Music. The label’s first release was Melinda’s fifth studio album Be Yourself in July 2008, which garnered her second ARIA nomination for Best Country Album.

Melinda was awarded a 6th CMAA Golden Guitar for Vocal Collaboration of The Year in January 2009 for her heart-warming duet ‘Still Here’ with Paul Kelly. Melinda’s songs have also been recorded by artists as diverse as John Farnham, Billy Thorpe, Jimmy Little, Olivia Newton-John, Ricky Skaggs and Paul Kelly.

As 2010 unfolded, the career dimensions of Melinda Schneider broadened dramatically. She dazzled on TVs Dancing With The Stars, and put her country music recording career on pause for a moment to indulge a passion for Doris Day that goes back decades. This passion resulted in the release of her shimmering tribute album Melinda Does Doris – A Tribute To Doris Day, which debuted at #1 on the ARIA Jazz and Blues chart, remaining there for 9 weeks.

Melinda then starred in her brand new stage show DORIS, Doris Day – So Much More Than The Girl Next Door. Co-written by Melinda and David Mitchell (of Dusty/Shout fame), this musical tribute to Melinda’s idol, could very well be the universal story of women, set to the music of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Meanwhile, in October 2011, Melinda released her 9th album Life Begins At 40 – The Ultimate Melinda Schneider Collection. The double CD release marked her milestone birthday and three decades of recording.

Melinda entered another belatedly beautiful phase of her life with the birth in August 2012 of her adorable baby boy Sullivan. During 2014 she has been learning to juggle motherhood and touring while performing 28 warmly received return theatre appearances of DORIS throughout eastern states.

Look out for tour dates for Great Women Of Country And The Songs That Made Them and maybe they’ll return with Vol2 to do the B-sides and rediscover all the great songs that weren’t hits. There is undoubtedly a cache of real gems gathering dust in the archives. But in the meantime, surprise yourself and feast your ears on this CD and let it take you back to the best and worst of times and a flood of memories or if you’re younger than that, an audio history lesson!