Normally, when an artist releases a new record they want the whole world to know about it. Sulphur Springs native Chelbie Bolton Birdwell is a little different. Her first record, “Tequila Mockingbird,” came out with little fanfare.
“I’m sneaky about my music,” the 25-year-old said during a telephone interview from her home in Krum, just outside of Denton. “Not telling anybody about it is not the best marketing tool.”
Birdwell, who graduated from Sulphur Springs High School in 2005, is the daughter of Terry, the preacher at Crossroads Baptist Church at Coke, and Sonja Bolton, a transitional first grade teacher at ECLC. She is the granddaughter of former Sulphur Springs ISD superintendent Patsy Bolton, who retired in June.
She is currently employed by Krum ISD, but she is not in the classroom – by choice.
“My mother is a teacher,” she explained. “Two of my aunts were teachers. My grandmother was superintendent forever. I’m married to a teacher. I never wanted to be a teacher.”
She received a degree in public relations at Hardin Simmons University.
In her job as public information officer, Birdwell’s responsibilities include maintaining the district’s website and acting as their media liaison.
“I have the same schedule as my husband,” she noted, “without being responsible for 30 children. That would not be best for anyone, including the children.”
A healthy sense of self and a quick wit will serve Birdwell as she works on breaking through in the music business.
She started playing piano by ear when she was small.
“My mother and grandmother both play,” she said. “During my junior year of high school, they said, ‘You play great by ear, but it would be nice for you to learn to read music.’”
So, she took lessons.
She also plays the violin, getting started through the Strings Program in the third grade.
In addition to her solid music background, Birdwell also has a keen love of reading – an essential tool for anyone who wants to write.
“I love, love, love to read,” she noted. “I also loved writing. Coming from an education background, I couldn’t just draw pictures. I had to create a little book, staple my papers together and have a whole distribution of it throughout my family.”
Bad behavior was responsible for Birdwell’s first song.
“I was put in time out when I was young,” she said with a chuckle. “I wrote a song about the rain and entered it in a PTA talent contest.”
It’s the rain.
It’s the rain.
And it makes the world so green.
“It was pretty good for a 4-year-old,” she said. “I’ve never stopped.”
Before she made the move to country music, Birdwell was totally involved in church music.
“It was always Christian and church and gospel music,” she explained. “I love all those old hymns and Dottie Rambo songs.”
She sang in church and at the Fall Festival Songfest every year, and also performed at all the little oprys around Northeast Texas.
She also recorded some of her songs with a friend of her father’s who had a small studio in Jacksonville.
Performing, however, was over for a while.
“When I moved to Abilene, I just stopped,” she noted. “I didn’t really know what I was doing with my writing. I won a few songwriting contests, and I didn’t stop writing, but I stopped singing.”
She didn’t really know anyone in Abilene, but she found a small studio and did a little recording. But it was an expensive proposition.
“I was a poor college kid,” she said with a laugh. “And before that I was the daughter of a preacher who had three kids in college.”
She met and married her husband, Sonny, graduated college and found a job, but the music still called to her.
“This is the time to do it,” she reasoned. “I don’t want to wait until I’m 75 and wish I had.”
With hundreds of songs in her catalog, Birdwell, whose professional name is Chelbie Laurel, and her mom took a road trip to Nashville this summer to record some of the tunes.
“That’s another story,” she said with a laugh. “But we got there and into the studio with some great musicians.”
She also thought it would be easier to pitch her songs if several were available in one place. Having 10-11 songs on a record made sense economically, too.
She could lay down one song at a time for the rest of her life, “but if I don’t come up with a better plan, I’m going to be $1 million in the hole with nothing to show for it,” she realized.
She was looking for a good studio with good people to get behind her songs and she found it. The piano player who worked on “Tequila Mockingbird” played with Clint Black for 10 years. The bass player had toured with Lee Ann Womack.
“They’re the best of the best,” she said. “They played and then I laid down the vocals, and we called it an album. I’m proud of the sound.”
According to Birdwell, the majority of the album was cut at Studio 515 (Formerly Nashville Demo Studio) and produced by Chip Hardy, a Nashville industry veteran who has had his songs recorded by Dionne Warwick, Dean Martin, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire and Stella Parton. He was a production assistant on multiple projects by George Strait, Reba McEntire, The Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, Roger Miller and Glen Campbell.
“Waking Up Alone” and “Willie for President” were cut at Reeltime Audio in Denton and produced by Grammy winner Eric Delegard, who has worked on several Grammy award-winning records and with notable artists including Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, Fair to Midland, and Bowling for Soup.
“He Won’t Smell Like Perfume” was recorded at Big Note Recording Studio in Abilene and produced by Terry Mashburn, who has worked with country artist Johnny Rodriguez and up-and-comers in the Texas music scene like Zach Harmon and the Hogg Maulies.
The first cut on the record is “He Won’t Smell Like Perfume Anymore.” It’s a down and dirty get even country song, in the vein of Miranda Lambert’s power tune, “Gunpowder and Lead.” Birdwell even sounds a little like Lambert on the cut and on “Mama Knows,” which doesn’t surprise her.
“I tend to take on someone’s voice when I sing a song like that,” she acknowledged.
Birdwell’s love for Reba McEntire comes through in the lovely ballads “Me and Oklahoma” and “I’m Not.” Sure hope these tunes find their way to the superstar’s management. Either would be huge hits for the former cowgirl.
The title cut is the saga of a woman who spent a lot of time looking for love, while Birdwell shines a humorous light on the state of politics in “Willie for President.”
There’s a sweet love song for her husband with “Living in the Sad Part (Sonny’s Song).” There is some lovely harmony here. Happy wife, happy life.
She comes into her own, however, with “Motel Key.” She’s simply telling a story with music and rhyme. Any country singer worth his or her boots could make this one a hit. It’s that good.
“‘Tequila Mockingbird’ is my favorite and then ‘Living in the Sad Part’ just because it is personal to me,” Birdwell said. “But beyond those two, ‘Motel Key’ is definitely on the top of my list. I love ‘Perfume,’ but did I mention to you that I wrote it when I was 15? So I’ve had it in my head for a while and I’ve moved on. But I do love the arrangement of it! It’s so swampy.”
Cutting the record and getting it ready to send out has taken a lot more effort than Birdwell expected.
“I’m exhausted,” she admitted. “Taylor Swift is not sitting in a room somewhere typing out her lyrics and putting bubble wrap around her CDs.”
Birdwell’s had several “bites,” as she calls them, on her songs. With the advent of digital technology, she is only a click away from being in touch with anyone who shows interest in her music.
“I went from being sneaky to being a full tilt,” she said. “I’m talking with a producer in California and checking my email every 30 seconds.”
While she’s thrilled at the reception the record has received, Birdwell ultimately wants other artists to do her songs.
“I have never gotten over the point where I wasn’t terrified [to perform],” she admitted. “After it’s over, I enjoyed it, but I’m always 10 seconds away from being sick.”
She knows she’s written better songs than what she hears on the radio.
“I have a totally different take on a song than the average listener,” she confesses. “I think, ‘This person is making millions of dollars and this is the worst thing I’ve heard in my life.’ It’s become so much about the money and not enough about the actual music.”
While she waits for a big break, Birdwell is content to perform at festivals and talk to potential producers.
“In addition to being a writer and a reader, I’m a talker,” she admits. “Right now, there’s not a lot to talk about. My mom and I call it ‘non-news.’ It’s a big waiting game.”
But when the call comes, she will be ready.
“I’m past the sneaky part,” she said. “Now, it’s ‘Hey, world, I’m here.’”
To listen to clips of songs from “Tequila Mockingbird,” or to purchase the record visit her website,
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