Roughstock recently had the opportunity to talk with newcomer Whitney Duncan. Topics discussed include how Whitney got her start in the music business, her writing career, her upcoming album, her friendships with a few folks in town and her tenure on Nashville Star.
Matt Bjorke: how did you get started in the music business?
Whitney Duncan: I started coming to Nashville when I was fifteen. I'm from West Tennessee so it was only a couple of hours drive. So my dad would take off work and drive me to Nashville to write with songwriters here. Actually, the first thing that brought me to Nashville, when I was 13 or 14, I was at a talent show and this guy came up to me and said "I'll produce a demo on you if you'll cut these three songs and I'll try to get you a deal in Nashville." You know there are all kinds of shady people around that want to take your money and my parents didn't know any better. He said "but it'll cost you $10,000 to do it." I was like wow! As a kid I wanted to do it but my parents were like 'you know, this doesn't sound right, I'm not sure." So, at the time I was going to a vocal coach in Memphis and they asked him "should we do this?" and he said, "Absolutely not. If they're asking for your money they don't believe in you. So, I'll hook you up with this Entertainment lawyer in Nashville and he can kind of mentor you."
So I came to Nashville to meet him, at fourteen or fifteen, and he said "Definitely don't do that. I know some songwriters in town here that I do deals for. Try a co-write with them." That started everything off. I started coming all the time. My principal would count it as I was co-opting it as 'work,' that it was my job, to come to Nashville to write. Of course at the age of 16 I was able to drive myself. My manager had a daughter going to Belmont at the time so when I'd come, I just stayed at his house in her room for a couple of days while writing. By 17 I had a publishing deal and then I got a record deal with Capitol as well.
My senior year of school, I didn't go. I only had 2 classes to take so I took them through UT-Knoxville. I didn't understand going to school all day for just two classes. I still walked with my class and everything but I knew what I wanted to do so being here in Nashville made more sense than sitting in a school all day when I only had those 2 classes to take.
MB: How did the Kenny Rogers duet come about?
WD: Well, I had cut four or five songs for Capitol, really early stuff, I was so young and really wasn't sure what direction I was really writing for. So, I had turned these songs that Keith Stegall had produced, and I had cut "MY World's Over" by myself and they heard that song and sent it over to Kenny, to possibly go on his "Ultimate Hits" as a good duet song. He loved it and wanted to do it so he sang it in the studio. It was amazing to hear that legendary voice coming out of the speakers. I heard that legendary voice and I thought, "Oh my God, he's singing my song." He's was the nicest man, we shot the video together; I went on the road with him opening his shows that summer. His band played for me, the nicest guys.
MB: Did you sing any other duets during his shows?
WD: We didn't even play that one! (laughs) You know, he was going through a lot of personal stuff at the time, his wife was having their twins and he had a lot of back trouble, in a lot of pain. You know, when he recorded that, he'd heard the song and learned it that day in the studio, that's how great he is. So he didn't really know the song. I knew it because I wrote it so when we rehearsed it, it was bad. And he wasn't able to remember the lyrics, so we never got around to doing that song. The fans always asked about it and I didn't know what to say. But it was fun, it was great.
MB: You got to tour and record with a legend...
WD: That's exactly right. You couldn't ask for more.
MB: So you've recently had a few of your songs cut by other artists, like Crystal Shawanda and Katie Armiger. So how does that feel have that happen as your own musical career is starting to happen?
WD: It's so exciting because I've been writing for years. I've had so many hold from many artists over the years but never gotten a big cut. So it's nice that when all of this stuff is happening for me, that my other songs are getting cut as well. I was so excited about that Katie Armiger song "Unseen." We looked at it hard for going on my record, but it just didn't work out, it didn't fit. I had too many ballads.
MB: And she didn't have enough ballads...
WD: Exactly, it made sense (laughs). I also got a cut on the new Lee Ann Womack record. It was supposed to be the single but they went with "Last call" instead. It's called "I Found It In You," which I wrote when I was 16. I can't wait to hear her sing that song.
MB: So in a way you were Taylor Swift before Taylor Swift?
WD: Well I don't know about that....
MB: Well, you were signed and writing at that time...
WD: That's true I was doing it at that age, I was writing then but everything's worked out the way it was supposed to. I wasn't ready then.
MB: What was it about Nashville Star that appealed to you, aside from the obvious label deal?
WD: I was just songwriting at the time, not looking for a record deal. So I thought "Hmm, I should go try out and give it a shot." Obviously the deal was an appealing thing. The TV Show and the publicity it gives, you can't pay for that. The reality of the situation of the whole thing, 45 seconds to sing a song that's not even my own song, but you don't take those things into consideration. But it did what I wanted it to do. After the show was over, I opened shows for Sammy Kershaw and people would come to the show because of Nashville Star. They knew my song "Skinny Dippin'" from that show. It was awesome; I got a lot of fans out of it.
MB: Did it help shape the way you wanted your career to go?
WD: No. Not really. It was a great experience. I call it like boot camp for the music industry.
MB: Carrie Underwood said the same thing about "American Idol"...
WD: Really?! It really is. All day you get up, go to the studio, record the songs, work with the band, work with the arrangement. It was fun. Before the show, I got deep into writing. I met John Shanks and we hit it off and wrote a song. We did a demo and he took it back to his studio in LA and sent it back to Nashville to Mark (Bright), My other producer. At that time I was doing the show and was in a sort of bubble. That was what I didn't like about it. I was so involved in the music scene but during that show they kept us in the Opryland Hotel and I couldn't do any of the stuff I normally did.
MB: Isn't this town, the country music industry, built on relationships?
WD: Absolutely, everyone here is so friendly, this town is the nicest town, it feels so small even though it's so big. It came from relationships with me, so when I met those guys, it just started to happen. Mark said "we can't make a record without a record label," while John was like "What are we waiting for, lets make a record. We came to Warner Brothers and I came in and did a little acoustic set for them and they said to go make a record.
MB: And you ended up on the same label that was partnered with Nashville star....
WD: (Laughs) I know! It's odd. I mean, seriously, how weird. I mean, hey, I'm happy with it. I couldn't ask for a better label.
MB: It's about those relationships...
WD: That's right; and excitement and believing in something. That's what's so nice about being with Warner Brothers because I know they're excited and believe in me and the music.
MB: Who's been your biggest champion for your career, so far?
WD: I'd say Mark Bright. I've had alot of people on my side over the years. My booking agent Rod Essig, at CAA, is the one who, at the time I was still with Capitol and I had a few demos and was a bit confused as what to do because they were different than what I'd done before. So we met and he was on board. He's been a constant and hung in there with me until I was able to record this record with him.
MB: So it must have been great to write and record an album with him and John Shanks.
WD: Yeah, when John came into it, it all made sense. It worked. It was a great chemistry with both of those guys, when they get together they're like little boys, it's hilarious, all they can talk about is guitars and music. Writing with John, it just felt right and worked.
MB: What song on the album speaks to where you are right now?
WD: Well, "Open Road" really speaks to where I'm from and what I'm doing now.
MB: Here are a few fun questions...
WD: He was what made me want to sing. From as early as two years old, I saw him and just wanted to sing and perform.
MB: What current artist would you like to go on tour with?
WD: Keith Urban. I really think he's amazing, a songwriter, musician, performer, all around, just really cool. I just think he's one of the best... I think Kenny Chesney's great. Really, I would go on any tour they'd have me on. I'm a new artist, I can't be picky. (Laughs) I can shoot high!
MB: Well you share a producer/friend with Keith Urban...
WD: Yeah, Shanks, that's right. The first country song he ever wrote was "Somebody Like You," a seven week number one. Not a bad start!
MB: What do you like to do in your spare time?
WD: I love to sit on the couch watch TV or read a book. Play with my dog, golf a lot. I like to snowboard but I don't get to do it often. I loved softball growing up, and got to hit around a few balls with my father.
MB: What would you like to say to people who may not know that much about you or your music?
WD: This record I'm so proud of, I just hope that when it comes out, people will listen to it. I hope that they'll really like these songs and listen to this CD a lot. The CD is me, if they like it a lot, they'll probably like me.
All photos used for this article are (C)Warner Brothers Nashville/Jeff Lipsky.
If you'd like to download her single "When I Said I Would," click the image below.