August Country Rookie of the Month: Madeline Edwards

·8 min read

It’s only been a little more than a year and a half since California-born singer-songwriter Madeline Edwards moved to Nashville from Texas, but she’s swiftly gained recognition for her talents as a vocalist and an artist with something to say.

Much of the country world was introduced to Edwards in November 2021, when she joined Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer for her CMA Awards show debut, as the three Black country artists sang Guyton’s self-acceptance ode, “Love My Hair.” She also teamed with country group The Highwomen to remake “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” on last year’s Lady Gaga tribute album Born This Way The Tenth Anniversary.

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This year, Edwards inked a publishing deal with Sony Music Publishing and is a member of the inaugural class of the 12-month Equal Access Development program, established by CMT and mtheory to provide access and training for Black, Native and Indigenous, Latino, LGBTQ+ and female artists and managers within the country music industry.

On June 24, Edwards self-released her eponymous EP, and has been performing songs from the five-song collection on the road opening concerts for Chris Stapleton’s All-American Road Show.

“It weighs pretty heavily on my heart, because I understand I’m a part of this next generation of women — and especially women of color — who are gonna make a difference in country music,” says Edwards, who is booked by Wasserman Music Nashville and is managed by Sam I Am Entertainment. “There are women like [singer-songwriter and host of Apple Music show Color Me Country] Rissi Palmer, Mickey Guyton and Miko Marks — so many women that have come before me. I’m super grateful, because I wouldn’t have a lot of things if they didn’t lay that groundwork.”

Building upon her previous accolades, Edwards will make her Grand Ole Opry debut on Saturday (Aug. 13). She has also been involved in discussions regarding a possible future record deal.

“It’s been a pretty wild year,” Edwards tells Billboard, noting the forthcoming Opry debut. “I’m really good friends with Rissi, and she was telling me that there have only been, I think, 12 or 13 Black women who have ever performed on the Grand Ole Opry. When I was asked, the weight of it set in.”

Billboard’s August Country Rookie of the Month takes us deeper into her jazz influences, and discusses touring with Stapleton, making her EP, and her on-the-road essentials.

Do you know what you will perform for your Opry debut?

I don’t know which ones from my collection I want to do yet, but I want it to be reflective of my learning of country music history that I’ve been doing the past few years. I want to be respectful of the Opry as an establishment as I enter this world. I would love to do something from my catalog that shows influences of Patsy Cline or Ray Price.

How did the opportunity to perform on the CMA Awards happen?

I had been in Nashville just a few months and ended up making friends with a talent producer at Apple Music, Amara Hall. She is one of our good friends to this day and has been the ultimate connector. But even more, she has really been there for me and my husband. He has Crohn’s Disease, so there have been trips to the hospital and she’s become part of our core group in Nashville, bringing us food or taking care of our dogs.

Amara introduced me to Mickey, and when the CMA asked her who she wanted to sing with her, Mickey brought up my name and Brittney’s name. She FaceTimed with me and Brittany at like the crack of dawn one morning, told us the good news and we were freaking out.

You grew up playing piano and listening to jazz music. How has that influenced your own style of music?

Jazz was my first love. The first time I heard Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Skies,” I just thought it was so beautiful. Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, West Coast jazz was popular. I’m the oldest of five siblings, and my family would play John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and then ‘70s music like The Carpenters or Bread. I’ve been playing piano for over 20 years, and I started picking up drums a few years ago.

But what drew me to country was the storytelling aspect of it, which jazz doesn’t have as much of. I wanted to take these cool elements, jazz tones and chord voicings on the piano and transfer those over to what I love about country. I’ve been working on this EP for about three years, which will give way to an album this fall and it’s this dreamy, jazz-influenced Western sound.

I moved to Houston, Texas just before high school. There are a lot of Texas players who are so well-versed in the country, bluegrass and Western scene. They showed me George Barnes, Ray Price, George Jones — because those three were so brilliant at combining elements of jazz and country. I’ve just been studying the genre because I know a lot of people could be like, “Oh, country music is popular. Let’s try that genre and see if we blow up in it.” I want to show that I have a real respect for the music and its history.

You wrote one of the focus tracks, “Hold My Horses,” with Joy Hanna and Klare Essad. What do you recall about that writing session?

I love that three women wrote this, and it has such an edge to it and just goes so hard. I remember I was just finishing doing radio remotes right before the CMA Awards. I had makeup running down my face from a long day. I met them at my house for a writing session, and we almost didn’t do the write because I was so tired. But they started writing a song, and I thought of how to make it a bit edgier. I walked over to the piano and started playing a riff, and it ended up becoming a whole new thing that we didn’t expect. We talk about that night often, and just how much good came out of it.

Another song on the EP, “The Road,” is special for you.

That kind of tells my story of how I came back to my faith. I had a difficult situation with things in my personal life, whether it be the church, abuse from my dad. There was a time in my life where I was asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s something I’ve worked through in my own heart and with my family and my mom and my siblings. We are a family of survivors. I’m very close with my mom and my siblings and it’s become a part of my story to where I feel like I can comfortably talk about it and sing about it. I just try to encourage other people in their hard circumstances with that story.

And that makes its way into your music.

That’s a consistent theme in my music, making sure to dig into the pain because it’ll make you stronger. I always encourage listeners to embrace pain when it comes, and not to try to run from it. There are so many things in society that distract us from doing the hard work. I’m a firm believer in therapy.

“Why I’m Calling” is a tribute to your mother, who works as a counselor.

She counsels kids who have been through traumatic situations, like abuse or human trafficking. She is a survivor and just a beautiful spirit, practically having to raise us by herself and continue working and making sure we were well-educated and everything. The song is just about calling her and missing her. Since I’ve moved to Nashville I haven’t been able to see her as much, but we try to see each other as much as we can.

What have you learned from being on the road with Chris Stapleton?

It has been the most unreal experience. I can’t believe that my first tour, I get to go on the road with one of the greatest artists—and not just greatest country artist, but one of the greatest artists of our time. He and his wife [and fellow singer-songwriter] Morgane are such perfectionists in their craft, but they also prioritize their family. I’ve always thought that you’re either a really successful artist and you have to sacrifice your family life, or you do your family life and you sacrifice being a great artist, but they’ve shown me that you can have it both ways. I’m just unbelievably grateful to be touring with them.

What are a few of your on-the-road essentials?

I love mezcal, or any type of tequila. I’m hoping that if things go really right with my music career, I would love to have some sort of Madeline mezcal brand. I have to have that, and then I love Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. They are so spicy and amazing. That must be the Texan in me.

What are a few of your all-time favorite albums?

I would have to say Starting Over by Chris Stapleton, and then there is a Houston band called Khruangbin, and they have an album called Con Todo El Mundo. They do a lot of work with Leon Bridges and they are amazing. And then the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out album.

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