by Lorie Hollabaugh – The Boot
Jo Dee Messina has endured more than her share of tests — of both her faith and perseverance — during the past few years, yet the feisty redhead continued to forge ahead, in spite of the many setbacks she experienced during the making and eventual release of her trilogy of CDs, ‘Unmistakable,’ this year. The EPs took six years to be released, during which time Jo Dee stood by watching as her concert bookings continued to dwindle, forcing some of her band members to move on to other gigs. In addition, her savings disappeared right around the time she and husband, Chris Deffenbaugh, welcomed their first child, Noah, born in January, 2009.
Living off of a line of credit while she waited for her album to hit stores, Jo Dee, who turned 40 this year, was forced to downsize her possessions — even selling off her beloved ’57 Thunderbird, a gift from her producer and Tim McGraw during the heyday of her platinum-selling career just a decade earlier.
Oh yes, and then there was the Nashville flood in May, which not only left her basement six feet under water, but also destroyed all of her stage equipment and instruments that had been housed at the Soundcheck storage facility. In what was surely the pinnacle of heartbreak in an already heartbreaking and frustrating few years, she stood by and gazed into the landfill that was overflowing with the remnants of her sets, as a bulldozer physically crushed what was left of her career. And though she has, understandably, spent some time grousing and wondering “why me,” during the past few years, when we caught up with her recently, she was giving thanks — along with her time and love — to some inner-city children through a charity near to her heart, Harvest Hands.
As children run up to hug her, it’s easy to see that Jo Dee receives as many blessings from her involvement with them as they do. Just before her Harvest Hands concert, she sat down with The Boot to relive about the most trying time in her life, revealing how being a first-time mom didn’t come so easy, and why she feels the most blessed during this holiday season, at a time in her life when she could easily feel just the opposite.
You helped raise $30,000 at last year’s holiday concert for Harvest Hands. How did you first get involved with them?
I heard about it from my manager’s daughter. She had volunteered for them during high school, and it’s such a great organization. I work with both types of charities, big and small. I do a lot for St. Jude too, and do the [St. Jude Music Road Fest] every year, but I believe it’s important to pay attention to the small charities because they’re the unsung heroes out there. People don’t hear about them but they do so much good, and they just need a little help. So the first part [of the event], I’m speaking about the things that have happened in my life and then the second half we’re doing Christmas music.
Are the holidays a favorite time of year for you?
If you drove past my house, it looks like the Christmas monster threw up all over the front yard! I love Christmas, I’ve loved it since I was a child. I love the magic of it, the whole reason for it. Christmas is more our gift; God sent his son for our salvation, and it’s like who’s getting the gift here? We are! It’s always been a happy time of year. I come from a very strong, very large Italian/Irish family. I’m half Irish and half Italian. My family, we would jump in front of a bus for one another!
Was your mom always into the holidays, too, while you were growing up?
My mother was a single mom and made every holiday as big as she could. My son Noah gets it. He’ll see the wreath or tree and lights and he’ll say, “Christmas.” But he doesn’t quite grasp the whole story of Santa Claus and the whole story of Jesus being born.
Have any other artist friends given you motherhood advice?
No, and I’d love to reach out to some fellow artists and figure out how to do some stuff, but I’ve been so locked away in my own existence since he was born, that I haven’t really had the contact. Sheryl Crow’s nanny helped me out once, to help me find someone to watch him. But I haven’t had a chance to sit down and say, “What do you do, or how do you handle this, or how do you do this?”
Has it been instinctual for you at all?
No! It gives you a new perspective on your parents. You spend your whole life blaming them for stuff, and then, all of a sudden you realize they were just people trying to get through life, and then we showed up!
Are you and your husband thinking of having another one?
We know eventually we would like to have two kids. And whenever it happens, it happens. Of course, that’s what we said about the first one, and lookie here!
Your trio of EPs came out this year, ‘Unmistakable.’ But it was a long, arduous journey to getting them released.
It took six years! [But] it’s done, it’s over, and the fans got to hear it, and so that’s great. But it will not be another painstaking process like that again. For me, it was more a relief that the fans could finally get the music. I’d been performing the songs for years, so it’s gonna be fun to move on to new stuff. It was supposed to be available in 2007, so we started performing the songs off the record three years ago.
Is it tough as an artist to stay motivated when your album gets pushed back like that?
Yes, absolutely! It sucks the life right out of you. I was bitchy and lashed out at my label. I got really upset and angry at the folks at the label, half of which are no longer there. But I think standing here at this moment knowing what I have lying in front of me, let’s talk in 2011. You will see that God is a gracious, loving God. There are amazing things on the horizon.
Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus produced some of your latest album. How did he get involved with it?
Oh my gosh, Rascal Flatts opened for me. That was their first tour. He was really supportive. I haven’t seen him in forever, though, beause I had a kid, and he’s been out touring. I don’t see him every day, but I consider him a dear friend. When I see those guys, I love to hang out with them. They’re so funny, and so quick-witted, and they’re amazing guys. Jay is insanely creative. It was great to work with him. You can hear all of his creativity shine through on those [tracks]. I’m really proud of those.
He and his wife are getting ready to have a baby, too. Maybe you can give him some good parenting advice?
I didn’t know that. No, I don’t really have any good advice to give him! Sleep when the baby sleeps, that’s what I tell everybody! I used to be like, “Oh yeah, right,” when someone told me that — until you’re comatose after the first three or four weeks, and then you get it.
‘That’s God’ seems like a particularly poignant track for you. You said nature had inspired you so much and made you realize God is all around us. Have you been able to keep that mindset more since you had that revelation and wrote the song?
Oh yeah, which is why I can sit back and say I was bitchy and lashed out at the label; because it’s true. It is a human reaction. But I can’t really say everything happens for a reason or there’s a purpose, because this will be one of those things I’ll have to wait until after it’s much later, hindsight being 20/20 and going, “What were you thinking?” But that song was really that “a-ha” moment of: you’re never alone, God is always here, if we just slow down enough to listen and look for Him, we’re gonna find him. He’s right here. Not that I was some wretched beast, off dealing crack or something, but I got lost in the world and the things that were so unimportant. When it’s all said and done, you ain’t packing your car in that casket. You’re not going to be able to take it to Heaven. I think the reality of me losing everything in the flood this year really reinforced that.
We know you had lost a lot of instruments and equipment, but how did your house fare in the flood?
My house got flooded in the basement, five-and-a-half feet of water. I lost all the heating and air, hot water, all that kind of stuff. But I also lost all of my stuff at Soundcheck. Everything that I had worked for for the last 13 years is sitting in a landfill. It was really difficult to remember, but it’s just stuff. The chair on the stage [at tonight’s show] is from my front porch. It’s about 110 years old. It has holes in it. It was the first lawn furniture I bought when I moved out on my own. I had a lot of revelations happen in that chair. I always say, “It’s just stuff,” and now I’m being tested. This is the test. I saw sets roll off that were just destroyed. I saw a Christmas tree with ornaments the kids from Oak Hill School had made just destroyed. There is an image that will forever be etched in my mind, and that is the image of my set being rolled over by a bulldozer. The set list from our last show was still taped to it. But to really put it in perspective, my husband is fine, my baby is fine, everybody is fine, my family is intact and I still have my home. I pray for God to help me keep my home because I feel like that’s where I’m closest to Him. It’s like a piece of Heaven, it’s removed from the craziness of every day, it’s wicked old, but I love it so much.
Now that you’ve done it, how do you like the concept of recording EPs versus doing a whole album at once?
I love that idea. Because that gives the consumers a chance to buy some new product at a lower price. I think the retailers are liking it, too. We came up with the idea to do it right after Blake Shelton did it, because I didn’t want to have a 10-sided record come out and 14 sides never be heard. So I said, “Hey, look what Blake did, we could make three of those.” That’s where we came up with the trilogy. I think it’s a good thing. It’s a faster turnaround, you get fresher material, and it’s a good price-point for the consumer. The trilogy was just seven years worth of work, though. Hopefully next time let’s just do one project and get it done!
What’s on the horizon for the New Year for you all? Does Noah go out on the road with you when you tour?
Yes, we always keep the family together. We’ll be touring, we’ll be recording for a new project. There’s a big sponsorship deal we’re going to roll out next year. There’s so much happening that, unfortunately, we can’t reveal just yet, but it’s one of those things where it will help ease the pain of the last year, for sure. We’re looking for material and writing material for the next album. So, it hopefully will be a great year.