"When I was still just a baby, I'd tell my mom, 'I'm going to be a country-western star, I'm going to have a bus, and I'm going to be just like Dolly and Porter,'" laughs Leslie Satcher. "So, from the time I was a little tiny kid, I knew what I was going to do. I've gotten sidetracked a bunch in life, but I always knew in my heart that was what I was -- not what I was going to do, but what I was."
It's a measure of Satcher's talent that what she calls a "sidetrack" would make a fulfilling career for a lot of people -- she's written songs for some of country music's biggest stars, like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and George Jones -- but today she is, indeed, a singer, with a stunning new album ("Love Letters," Warner) that offers convincing proof that she's her own best interpreter.
Though the mainstream country radio jury still seems to be out, the disc's combination of acoustic-flavored ar-rangements, outstanding material and soulful vocals have already found favor with roots-leaning audiences, lifting it into the Americana Top 10 within a month of its release.
"I wrote a lot of poetry when I was a kid," Satcher says of her childhood in Paris, Texas, northeast of Dallas, "but I didn't really start writing songs until I was 16 and lovesick. That will produce some of the worst, tackiest songs on the earth, and I'm guilty of about 20 of them," she adds with a laugh.
She studied for a while at Texas A&M before returning to Paris, but eventually headed for Nashville in 1988.
"When I came to town," she recalls, "it was on a Saturday, and on Sunday morning I went to church and kind of fell in with the whole Judds bunch; they all went to that same church. Don Potter, who had been working with The Judds, befriended me and became interested in my songs. I remember sitting in the studio one day crying, and I said, 'I don't want to be a songwriter.' Don asked me why, and I said, 'because if I'm a songwriter, they won't let me be an artist.' He said, 'Girl, first of all, who is 'they?' And and second of all, two words for you: Paul Overstreet.' At the time, Paul was a big artist as well as a songwriter."
"Don told me, 'If you write great songs, that'll pave your way to every dream that you have. They can't stop you from being an artist.' And it was like a light bulb came on. He said, 'You have a gift for this, don't deny this. Write songs, and then you can do anything you want to, you can own this town.' And boy, he was right, because when I saw the power of a song and how it can literally change lives and turn careers around -- all kinds of things -- then I realized where the real power is. It takes the voice to be the vehicle to get the song to the people, but the song -- if it's there, a scarecrow can sing it and it can move mountains."
With Potter's advice in mind, Satcher concentrated on songwriting.
Breaking into the tightly-knit Nash-ville writing scene wasn't easy, but she says she got some important early help from Larry Cordle, who had al-ready placed songs with everyone from Ricky Skaggs to Garth Brooks.
"When I realized that I had a gift but I didn't have the craftsmanship for songwriting yet," she recalls, "I started going out to the Bluebird Caf and places like that to listen to great writers. When I wandered in and heard Larry and Carl Jackson and Jim Rushing and Jerry Salley in the round one night, I felt like I'd been hit by a Peterbilt truck. From then on, I went every time I could hear them. Then, I started asking them to write with me one by one, and they were all busy and didn't want to write with some kid they didn't know or whatever."
"Larry called me out of the blue one day and said, 'I'm Larry Cordle, and I've heard a couple of songs that you wrote, and I wonder if you want to get together.' And we've been fast friends ever since -- in fact, we share an office now. Since then, I've gone on to write with all those guys, and I love them dearly, but if it hadn't have been for Larry, I'm not sure what would have become of me."
One outcome of that friendship -- "Goin' Down Hard," a hard country ballad co-written by Satcher, Cordle and Don Poythress -- is central to "Love Letters," though the singer says that getting it on the album wasn't easy.
"I sweated blood over that song," she recalls, "because I knew when we wrote it, that that was my song, and at the time, I didn't have a record deal. So, I felt deeply that it was mine, but I couldn't say to the publishers 'don't pitch it,' because I didn't have any reason to - and of course, they were pitching the fire out of it. Sara Evans almost cut it -- Sara was at the mic, about to sing it, when they dropped it off hers -- and they called me from Los Angeles to tell me that it had been dropped. My publisher was saying 'Leslie, I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, butÉ' and in my heart I was just cheering."
"I've threatened to whip people over that song because they've pitched it, or they've cut it or whatever. While we were cutting it in the studio, I heard that it had been recorded by another artist (for an album that never came out), and I called this particular fellow involved with that and said, 'I don't know how you got hold of this song, and I don't know where your office is, but if I could find your office and I could find you right now, I'd be over there speaking with you, buddy.' I was ready to fight for it, just because I knew that was my song, and it was important to me that Cordle be part of this album because I believe this is an important album for my career and my whole life and maybe for this industry."
Satcher laughs when asked where she fits into that industry. Though "Love Letters" has a distinctly contemporary sound, it still leans far more to the traditional side of the country spectrum than to the pop one; after all, she says, she hasn't changed her ambition.
"When Jim Ed Norman signed me to Warner Brothers," she says, "he said, 'What kind of record do you want to make, Leslie?' I said 'country-western,' and I just know that somewhere inside of him, he went 'ooohhhhh,'" she chuckles.
Still, Warner has given the album plenty of support, and Satcher herself has been active in promoting its music.
In the end, though, what Satcher ultimately relies on is faith in herself and her abilities.
"I've finally found the peace that only comes when you realize you can't turn with the tide," she says. "You have to be what you are, and accept it whether anyone else accepts you or not at that time. I've just accepted the fact that I'm a country-western singer; I'm from the west, and I love country music."