She has championed country music tradition on two continents, secured TV stardom in Los Angeles and even landed a role on Broadway. So what is missing from the career of Sherrie Austin?
How about a crystal ball? Since her primary artistic vocation is songwriting, such a device might come in handy. Maybe then the Sydney, Australia, native would get advance word on what country celeb would be next in line to cut one of her songs.
So far, her track record has been impressive. Artists who have cut her material include George Strait (Where Have I Been All My Life), Blake Shelton (Good at Startin’ Fires) and Tim McGraw (Shotgun Rider). But forecasting how far any artist can go with her music is impossible. And if anyone thinks they can pinpoint a hit before it happens, Austin has some choice Aussie words for them.
“Anyone who says they know is, well… see, I’m Australian. I use a lot of curse words. So I’m thinking now, ‘How do I put this?’ People will want to tell you that they think they know. But they don’t know if it’s a hit. No one does.
“I write with a lot of artists, so you try to structure songs for them in a way that will get them played, that will offer them the most possible opportunities to be heard. So that’s a whole different kind of mindset than just sitting down and writing for yourself. But sometimes those end up being the commercial hits, too. So there is no real rhyme or reason to any of it.”
Austin had her own run at the charts. She chalked up a Top 20 hit in 2003 called Streets of Heaven. But the records and occasional performances she puts her name to (including the one she will give on Monday to close out for the current concert season at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville) are more stylistically spacious.
The songs on her most recent album, 2011’s indie-produced Circus Girl, open up into areas of folk, Americana and pop while her Monday show will present Austin in a trio format with guitarists Shane Hines and Will Rambeaux.
“I love doing the acoustic trio show. I did a lot of band performances through my recording career. But this is the most fun way of performing because you get to strip the songs down and then tell the stories behind them.
“You also tend to attract people with these kinds of shows who are real songwriter fans themselves. So the whole thing centers around listening crowds. It’s different from playing a honky tonk with a full band. That is one kind of experience. But this is my preferred way of performing.”
But Austin is equally versed in more elaborate stage productions. Between the success of Streets of Heaven and release of Circus Girl, she spent 18 months in New York performing on Broadway in the Johnny Cash tribute revue Ring of Fire.
“It was wonderful,” Austin said of the experience. “I grew up doing musical theatre. And I needed just a little break from Nashville at the time to go do something new. I met some people who said, ‘Hey, would you like to come do this?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”
Ring of Fire was far from Austin’s first connection with Cash’s music. She opened Australian concerts for the Man in Black while still in her teens.
“I was only 14 at the time. So it was an opportunity I appreciate more the older I get. It becomes cooler with time. Johnny Cash was as huge a star in Australia as he was here. Those shows introduced me and kind of catapulted me to the next step of my career. They were a healthy part of bringing me to the United States.”
So was another show that had nothing to do with music. Austin auditioned for the ‘80s sitcom The Facts of Life while still in Sydney and eventually won the role of Pippa McKenna.
“I was very young and it was a very heavy experience,” she said. “But the show brought me to the United States. My whole family moved. It was kind of the beginning of my career in TV and film and put me in the right place at the right time.
“Being an entertainer is all I’ve ever done. I never did a regular job. I just always acted and sang and wrote. Now, I’m very much concentrating on writing. That seems to be where my heart really is. It’s all kind of tied together in a way. There’s a pattern running through it, but of course you don’t see it until you look back on it. But I’ve been very fortunate to have always been able to do what I love in my life.”
Sherrie Austin Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. May 6 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $30. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to Nortoncenter.com.