She's still the one: Why Shania Twain's comeback matters

The Oregonian
By David Greenwald
September 9, 2015

Taylor Swift's first single was called "Tim McGraw." Maybe it should've been "Shania Twain."

But by the time country's new darling released her debut album in 2006, Twain's "Up!" was already four years old, and Twain -- the most successful woman in country music history -- had all but vanished from the industry. She still hasn't released a new album, leaving a teenage gap in the career that proved there was a place in pop for country singers.

Now, she's giving the world a chance to remember. Her first arena tour in over a decade is underway, with strong early reviews and a date at the Moda Center on Sunday, Sept. 13. The "Rock This Country Tour" was supposed to be a last hurrah, a final thank-you, but Twain's changed her mind: "I'm not ready to stop," she told the Las Vegas Sun in August.

She shouldn't.

Few artists have reached the heights Twain scaled on just four studio albums. Her self-titled debut was a modest success, but it was her second effort, 1995's "The Woman in Me," that set the stage for her superstardom. That album began a professional and romantic partnership with "Mutt" Lange, a producer known for a career with AC/DC, Def Leppard and other bombastic rockers. The sophomore set showed hints of an edgier sound, with the rest not far from the example set by Garth Brooks, the man who spent the early '90s widening country's boundaries with his own million-selling sets. "The Woman in Me" sold over 10 million copies, but then came "Come On Over," the album that helped reset what country music was capable of.

"Come On Over" was a different kind of record: it has fiddles, sure, but mostly it's backbeats and electric guitar riffs, rock songs that happened to be made in Nashville with a touch of twang. If that seems familiar, it's because Twain tracks -- especially album cuts such as "Black Eyes, Blue Tears" and "When" -- set the tone for early Swift hits such as "Fearless" and "Love Story," not to mention the rock gloss of Luke Bryan and other modern stars.

The album's greatest hit was "You're Still the One," a ballad that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, halted by a four-week run at No. 1 by Next's "Too Close." The song didn't just storm radio: though not youthful enough for MTV's "Total Request Live," it was a regular on VH1's daily video countdown, where it shared airtime with 1998 pop and rock hits including Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" and Matchbox Twenty's "3 a.m." Country-pop was now a category, and LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live," Faith Hill's "This Kiss" and other songs made their way up both the pop and country charts.

Like its predecessor, "Come On Over" sold 10 million copies -- a rare diamond certification. Then it sold another 10. It was an unprecedented success for a country album. Even Brooks, the current best-selling artist ever, had never done that.

Twain has always been uniquely removed from Nashville: she was born in Windsor, Ontario, lived for a time in Switzerland and wrote many of her hits from tropical climes, rather than from within a songwriters' circle on Music Row. So perhaps an attempt to escape country's limits entirely was inevitable, and it came with 2002's "Up!"

The album came in three versions: country, pop and international, marked by the CD color. These weren't remixes, but re-imaginings of the songs for different radio formats and audiences. Unlike Swift's all-out pop transformation on last year's "1989," "Up!" wanted to have its cake, eat it, and throw the rest in the fridge for later.

No song from the album rose as high as "Come On Over," and the 19-track set -- in any rendition -- threw itself agaiinst the wall without enough singles sticking. It would be wrong to call it a flop: the album still sold millions, but the alternate versions may have splintered its audience. Its numbers were surely wounded by the industry-wide sales crash that came in the wake of file-sharing and the bubblegum pop that blew *NSYNC up to a 2.4 million first week in 2000.

Yet "Up!" still awaits a sequel. In the years since, Twain struggled with a "giant, long-term" vocal problem, as she told Entertainment Weekly this year, and a tabloid-chronicled cheating scandal that left her divorcing Lange.

That's all history now. She stepped back into the public eye with "Why Not? With Shania Twain," a reality show on OWN, and in 2012, she rode a horse into Las Vegas to launch the Caesars Palace residency that led her back to touring. She's released a pair of new singles, including a duet with Lionel Richie, and promised an album's in the works.

"I don't feel like I've made enough records in my life," she told Entertainment Weekly . "A lot of artists make a new album every year, and I just have such a sparse amount of recordings, and I've got a lot more to say and to sing in that sense."

It's hard to say what'll come next, but her music will arrive to a world that Twain helped shape. The path she cleared was so wide, a number of her pop contemporaries, from Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker to Sheryl Crow, have followed it the opposite way, back to Nashville's country sound. And then there's Swift, who's released three albums in a row with a platinum opening week. Not bad -- but Twain's diamonds are forever.

Shania Twain, Moda Center, Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $46-$136.