Singing competitions are always a fickle path to stardom, or one-hit wonderdom. Ever since American Idol became a hit more than a decade ago, several other singing shows have cropped up in hopes of producing — or more accurately, manufacturing — the Next Big Thing™ in music. Though Idol's main thrust is popular music, it has provided no shortage of fresh new faces in the country field, most prominently in winners Carrie Underwood. Heck, rival show The Voice, besides showing some promise with Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery, even has a country singer (Blake Shelton) as a judge.
The singing competition genre even had a handful of entries tailored specifically for the country market. The most famous is of course Nashville Star, whose most successful artist, Miranda Lambert, placed third in the first season. (To be fair, its second most-famous artist, Chris Young, was actually a winner.) The other such show was Can You Duet, a two-season wonder on CMT. Its first-season winners were Caitlin & Will, who broke up only months after their only single, an amazing ballad called "Address in the Stars." Winning the second season was Steel Magnolia, a duo consisting of Louisiana native Meghan Linsey and Illinois native Joshua Scott Jones. The two had already been boyfriend and girlfriend for a while before they auditioned, and their victory included a deal with Big Machine Records.
Steel Magnolia's first release was "Keep On Lovin' You," an absolutely rock-solid introduction: catchy guitar work (one of Dann Huff's less bombastic efforts, and proof that he does know his way around a good riff), a big chorus with an interesting chord progression, and a sultry groove. (And, at least for me, the fact that it was co-written by the extremely underrated Trent Willmon was a plus.) The two's voices complemented each other well enough: Joshua being the laid-back soul man, Meghan being the soulful belter, both harmonizing quite nicely.
Upon reaching its peak in June 2010, "Keep On Lovin' You" was in the midst of one of those weird, transitory years in country music. Not unlike, say, 2003, 2010 was a year without a singular discernible trend. Such years often lead to an interesting mix of musical styles and, at least based on playlists around Michigan (where I live), virtually no recurrent rotation. (I can't remember the last time I heard, say, "The Boys of Fall" on radio.) The week that "Keep On Lovin' You" was at #4, the Top 20 was indeed a mixed bag: Miranda Lambert' stripped-down "The House That Built Me," a sweetly sentimental look at an old childhood house; "Unstoppable," certainly not the worst, but one of the least memorable of Rascal Flatts' endless barrage of bombastic power ballads; a momentary comeback hit for Clay Walker in the form of "She Won't Be Lonely Long"; Jerrod Niemann's super-catchy, acoustic "Lover, Lover"; and "Pray for You," a playful yet vengeful ode to an ex from Jaron and the Long Road to Love, aka Jaron Lowenstein, one-half of the former pop duo Evan & Jaron.
However, one thing that was noticeably absent was an album from this hot new duo was a full album. Oh sure, they'd had an EP out since February, and sure, the song was on the Valentine's Day soundtrack — but nope, no full album despite a Top 5 hit. Still, hopes were high that the next song would take off. Unfortunately, that next song was a bit of a misstep. "Just by Being You (Halo and Wings)" was a sweet enough ballad, and while not a bad song, it seemed to undercut the duo's vocal strengths: Joshua sounded more like the brooding Jimmy Wayne, Meghan sounded like she'd just chugged some Zzzquil, and the harmonies were all but nonexistant. Not helping were the monotonous melody of the bridge and the string-drenched overproduction. As this song fizzled out at #25, the album only got pushed back even further.
Single number three, "Last Night Again," should've had the right mix to get the two back on track and rebuild the momentum that "Just by Being You" sapped. I gave the song a very positive review back in late 2010 ( http://www.roughstock.com/blog/steel-magnolia-last-night-again-single-review ), and my feelings have not changed. But as is often the case, every song that I predict will be a hit always manages to bomb, and "Last Night Again" got only one position highter than its predecessor. Still, it was at least enough to finally get the full album out. Finishing off the single releases was "Bulletproof," which mixed things up by being a feisty breakup song. Unlike the last three songs, it was sung entirely by Meghan — albeit in a slightly overdone, sharp delivery that harmonized poorly with Joshua, but still didn't detract fully from its solid lyrics. With no momentum, though, it fell short of Top 40.
In the years afterward, Steel Magnolia just seemed to fade away, outside an announcement in late 2011 that Joshua had entered rehab, and that James Otto would be filling in for him. Afterward, Joshua and Meghan broke off as a couple, Big Machine dropped them, and the duo was unofficially done. Linsey made her solo bow with a OneRepublic cover, and Jones entered the trendy "songs about hot girls" fold with "Honk If You're Tonky," which sounds like something Billy Ray Cyrus would've cut 20 years ago.
Steel Magnolia, to me, is yet another example of wasted potential. Sure, the trend of male/female duets had already taken off a few months prior when Lady Antebellum had a smash hit with "Need You Now" (a song that I will never get tired of as long as I live), and it would only become more of a trend when Little Big Town, Gloriana, and Thompson Square tried it. Still, Steel Magnolia at least boasted the potential to make their mark in a crowded field, and the fact that "Keep On Lovin' You" was a hit was proof of that. The mismanagement of their album was certainly a big factor in their lack of prolonged success, but I feel that other factors were in play. Namely, their single choices afterward were questionable — "Just by Being You" and "Bulletproof" both underwhelmed, and the latter seemed quite jarring after three straight love songs. In addition, the aforementioned Thompson Square, whose debut came right on the heels of Steel Magnolia's album release, seemed to take the male/female duo formula a step further by boasting a (generally) much better stack of songs, a more consistently evident chemistry, and equally strong singing voices. Add Jones and Linsey's breakup as the final ingredient, and the short life of Steel Magnolia only became even more of a given. But maybe that short life as a duo was for the better: maybe Joshua and Meghan's talents were more intended to be taken separately than together. And as long as both of them are still out there, then I can't complain too much.