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The Twain Have Met in Shania

A country contradiction, the singer sounds and sells like pop. But she says she treasures the music's 'classic' past.


Meet Eileen, a 33-year-old country music fan who is sick and tired of all these slick Shania Twain clones. Shaking her head, she asks how the next Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn can possibly be discovered in this era of pure pop disguised in western wear.

"Cookie cutter," is how Eileen describes the new Nashville mind-set. "They discourage any kind of originality. If there was a young George Jones out there, he might never get a chance."

Meet Eileen Twain, better known to the world by the stage name Shania. She's a country star who sounds and sells like a pop singer, but as a fan she longs for Nashville to rediscover the twang and hickory heart that enthralled her as a child.

"As a listener, there's not a lot of country music today that I like," said Twain, whose show tonight at the Hollywood Bowl is the first of three Southern California concerts this weekend. "The classic country is what I prefer. It's just beautiful songwriting."

These opinions might shock members of Nashville's old guard; it's no secret that many purists view Twain as a prime force behind the pop push in their genre. But that's nothing new for the Canadian singer. She may be a titan in the country music industry, but she remains somewhat of an outsider and enigma.

To Twain, the logic is as simple as a Johnny Cash lyric: She grew up singing country songs but never associated it with the boots and belt-buckle scene. Her music is a true synthesis of her wide-ranging tastes, which she says makes her as authentic as any other artist.

"I grew up in freakin' Timmins, Ontario," she says. "I'm not a cowboy. We had snowmobiles, not horses."

Twain is the first female artist in any genre to sell 10 million copies of back-to-back albums, and by most accounts she is the first great video star of country music. That success, she says, is from shedding the view that country music is limited to fans in rural America.

"I'm proof you don't have to be of the cowboy culture to enjoy country music," she said.

Twain, who lives in Switzerland, drives a German car and cites a Briton (Sir Elton John) as her favorite performer, says country music should be as international as rock 'n' roll. She also views the pop music landscape as a land without borders.

She says the country songs she learned as a child and has performed on stage since age 8 are her "musical soul," but she did not pledge her heart solely to the genre. She also grew to love John, Stevie Wonder, Abba, the Bee Gees and the Carpenters and even flirted with Def Leppard and AC/DC.

Her youthful career made her a seasoned stage performer by the time she arrived in Nashville nearly a decade ago, but the songs on her demo tapes veered all over the musical map.

"People said, 'You have to decide what you are, either pop or country or rock or R&B,' but I couldn't make up my mind," she said with a chuckle. "And in the end I didn't have to. I wound up doing a little bit of everything. And it's wonderful."

There have been a lot of apologies coming from Nashville powers these days, Twain concedes with a self-conscious smile. Success breeds agreement, after all, and it's hard to argue with Twain's commercial success. She still has an edge in her voice, however, when asked if her artistic credibility is now recognized.

Twain is well-versed in country music history and she bridles at the idea of Nashville insiders believing her pop sensibilities and foreign passport mean she's ignorant about country music.

"They're out there trying to find artists who are true and real and they're getting singers who just got out of college and have probably never listened to a Tammy Wynette album in their life," she says. "But because they're from, oh, Texas or something, they have a license to be considered a country artist and I don't. I don't get it."

The crossover success has made Twain huge in a relatively short time. The first of her three albums came out in 1993 and featured only one of her own songs. That self-titled debut got little attention, with one notable exception: rock producer Mutt Lange (AC/DC, Foreigner, Bryan Adams) was smitten by the young singer's voice and photo. The two met, became collaborators and, in a matter of months, married.

Their labors led to "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" and a string of other hits off her 1995 sophomore effort, titled "The Woman in Me." In all, songs from the album would spend well over 100 weeks on the country singles charts--all without touring.

Signature Song Is a Ballad of Devotion

She managed to eclipse those accomplishments with her most recent album, "Come On Over," which earned her two Grammys and produced her signature song, a ballad of devotion titled "You're Still the One." That song was perhaps more comfortable on pop stations than on some country music playlists, and it clearly introduced her to a vast, general fan base.

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