How Shania Twain Broke Barriers in Country Music
Wide Open Country
By Jeremy Burchard
Shania Twain changed music forever. And not just country music, but the entire mindset of what’s possible for an artist to accomplish in the commercial world.
When Twain released The Woman In Me in 1995, the idea of what “is” and “isn’t” country music flipped on its head. Impeccably produced, songs like “Any Man Of Mine” captured pop, rock and country effortlessly.
Now, that’s not to say country, pop and rock didn’t always intermingle before. In fact, what makes country so “American,” in addition to the storyteller lyric format, is its ability to be a melting pot of genres. (Let’s not lose ourselves in the irony that Twain is Canadian). But nobody did it with attitude like Shania Twain.
And by the time she released her next two albums, Twain cemented herself as a legend and the best-selling country female artist in history.
Twain documented her rough upbringing in 2011 autobiography From This Moment On. And unlike her 1990s albums, nothing about her early life felt polished.
Born Eileen Edwards until she took her step-father’s last name, Twain lived in abject poverty, part of a turbulent household where violence often reared its ugly head. She told ABC News of terrifying moments, like when her dad almost drowned her mom in a toilet. “I’d gone through the shock and experience of really believing my mother had died at that moment,” Twain says. “Also, through the humiliation of how I thought she had been killed, by drowning in a toilet seat. It was very, very obviously very hard to take.”
And yet she feels she also learned her work ethic from him, something she admired. “It was the Jekyll and Hyde in him that was the greatest torture,” Twain says. She worked in her step-father’s reforestation business, living in the woods, carrying trees for miles every day and stripping herself of even the most basic amenities like shampoo. That’s also where she first really began writing.
She struggled to break out for years, eventually making her way to Nashville in the mid-1980s. There, she sang background vocals on a few projects and forged a few connections in order to really start building her career.
But as soon as things started taking off, tragedy struck. On November 1, 1987, her parents died in a car crash. So at 22, she returned home and raised her three siblings. What was once a promising career became nightly performances at the Deerhurst Resort in Hunstville, Canada to afford food for her two brothers and two sisters.
After her siblings all grew up and flew the coop, Twain fully committed herself to music. She made a demo tape and eventually landed a deal with Mercury Nashville, where she changed her name to “Shania” and released her self-titled album at the age of 27.
For those familiar with Shania Twain’s music, most know her 1993 record sounds way closer to what you’d expect of early 1990s artists. And while the record eventually sold millions of albums (after the success of her others), she didn’t move the needle much in pocketbooks.
But she landed some early critical love, and the ear of one man in particular — producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who heard something in Twain’s music. Up until that point, his work mostly centered around rockers of the day, like AC/DC, Foreigner, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams.
For those who know how their relationship ended, calling Lange and Twain the “perfect pair” seems counter-intuitive (Mutt cheated on Twain with her best friend; they’re now married, while Twain in turn married her friend’s ex-husband).
But the truth is, few people who make a serious mark in the industry do it on their own. And even fewer do it with other peoples’ songs.
The dynamic between Lange and Twain unlocked something in the singer that helped her create truly fearless music. While Shania Twain didn’t write a single song from her first album, she co-wrote every single song she released after with Lange, except for two — “You Win My Love,” which Lange wrote himself, and “Leaving Is The Only Way Out,” which she wrote by herself.
Lange’s rock production background brought an edge to The Woman In Me that frankly surprised most country audiences. And the personality in Twain’s vocal created something simultaneously adventurous and sweet.
Seriously, just listen to “Any Man Of Mine” with headphones. Pay attention to the “ooh, ahh” laid over the Queen-style “We Will Rock You Beat.” And to the electric guitar flourishes and textures that swirl in and out. Notice how the fiddles feel almost more like a featured synth part. Listen to the overlaid vocals that pop in and out throughout the verses. And then listen to the chorus, which feels like its own country song.
The song is a masterclass on careful, deliberate production decisions that country music simply hadn’t seen before. And it primed the industry for future decisions Twain made that truly expanded her global phenomenon.
Part of country music’s allure to its audience is a perceived sense of community. Country singers can use vernacular and colloquialisms other genres couldn’t touch. They can sing as if they’re really just speaking to you. And indeed, Twain literally “speaks” to her audiences on plenty of songs.
The trait inherently makes country music a harder sell for international audiences, where phrases like “walk the line” don’t translate. Not to mention women in pop and international music circles still, at the time, capitalized more on a sexual provocation that relied on innocence and submissiveness.
Twain was having none of that. She championed strong femininity, herself an example of just that. Countless songs in her catalog preach respecting women, not to mention women taking the reins in a relationship. “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” and “Honey, I’m Home” may feel like fun pop country anthems, but they’re as much feminist rallying cries as anything else.
But her focus on the hook and strong pop sensibilities translate well in Europe, and Twain embraced that from an early stage in her career. So much so, in fact, that she, Lange and her label made the conscious decision to release three separate versions of her stratospherically successful fourth album Up!.
The “green” version featured her typical pop country production sounds. But the “red” version replaced fiddles, banjos and mandolins with sweeping synths and guitars. Then, the “blue” album targeted specifically Indian “Bollywood” trends. And if you haven’t heard it, take a minute to listen. Because while we may find it truly painful to listen to, the strategy worked. To this date, she’s the only female artist to hit diamond status (at least 10 million copies sold) on three consecutive albums.
The strategy obviously sent country purists reeling. But Twain still managed the rare feat of selling historically well (40 million copies of Come On Over is *insane*) while also consistently winning over critics. Just imagine if Taylor Swift had chosen to release a “country” version of 1989.
Twain bowed out in 2002 for a variety of reasons — most notably years worth of rehabilitating her voice after doctors diagnosed her as having “dysphonia,” a condition which wreaked havoc on her vocal chords. But her mark inspired a whole new world of genre cross-pollination.
Keith Urban’s 2002 smash album Golden Road follows much of the path Twain laid, incorporating clear rock and pop influences (including drum tracks). Similar to Twain, Urban won over critics on the strength of his writing and technical prowess (vocals for Shania, and guitar for Urban).
Modern artists like Maren Morris and Sam Hunt — two more people who write all of their genre-bending, award-winning, top-selling material — owe much of their influence to Twain. They’re too busy making something they enjoy to listen to critics who say they’re “not country.”
And the commercial implications implore industry gatekeepers to take a shot on music that may alienate disciples of Hank Williams. Put simply, country music needed the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks to survive. Without their willingness to bring outside influences into country music successfully — in other words, acting like rock stars — country likely would not be the worldwide success story it is today.