#LetTheGirlsPlay: Ella Mae Bowen Finding Comfort in Being an Outsider
Ella Mae Bowen has shared a few cups of coffee with fame. She was a breakout star on the Footloose movie soundtrack in 2011 and once had an artist deal with the Big Machine Record Group. She has a cut on Reba McEntire's new album that has suddenly become a very compelling listen in light of recent events. Drive down Music Row in Nashville and you'll see her face on a poster.
Music is a well-arranged pattern of notes and rests however, and in between the chord changes of her young life Bowen struggled to deal with significant downtime and frustration. The record deal fell through. She took over a year off, working as a nanny or at a coffee shop. So many young artists approach a media opportunity with a coat of polyurethane that covers scars, old battle wounds and insecurities. Bowen's emotions are as clearly visible as the cherries on the black sun dress she wore during an hour-long sit-down with Taste of Country.
Fitting in, or Not
Bowen, September's #LetTheGirlsPlay artist of the month, says she wasn't cool in school growing up, but she wasn't bullied either. The 20-year-old was raised in an Appalachia mountain town called Walhalla in northeastern South Carolina. It's pressed against Georgia and North Carolina, with Greenville, S.C., being the nearest "big" city. Her dream was to play the Handlebar, a now-shuttered bar and music venue where she watched Needtobreathe a number of times when she was young.
I’ve loved people who didn’t love me back and I had to find a way to say, ‘You go this way, and I’ll go this way and we’ll both go on,’” Bowen says on what inspired the song she wrote for Reba McEntire. “That was kind of a theme in my teens.
“Looking back, I think a lot of people through my life just haven’t known quite what to do with me,” she says, arms crossed, eyes panning back and forth as she talks. “And sometimes that has caused me to have hurt feelings because I’ve felt rejected.”
“I’ve learned to not let it bother me as much, but it still does.”
Moving to Nashville required both parents to quit their jobs and her little brother to leave everything he'd known. It meant leaving family for a big city she knew, but hadn't grown to love. Scott Borchetta, founder and president of Big Machine, urged her to make the move after she signed at age 15.
“Actually, this may surprise people,” she explains, “They (her parents) were excited and I was actually kind of overwhelmed by it all. I really loved the South Carolina music scene … I felt like I wasn’t fitting in the Nashville mold so I was actually apprehensive about moving.”
If you're looking for a fairytale ending, you won't find it here. She describes the Footloose song as her "15 minutes" and less than two years after signing her record deal, the two parties split before any music was released to radio.
“I just kind of got chewed up," she says. "There were more engaging females that didn’t need as much work as I did. They believed in my music but I don’t think I had the total package.”
Meanwhile, the act of living in Nashville had become a grind. For financial reasons Bowen's family moved to Columbia, Tenn., an hour south of Nashville on I-65. She was a 16-year-old joining the rush hour commute four days a week for writing appointments while she finished school at home.
“I’ve always loved it here, but I felt like an outsider until sort of really recently,” Bowen admits.
Ella Mae Bowen is named after her great, great grandmother, a woman she describes as a "mean, little, feisty German woman."
"And she was a moonshiner! She had moonshine back in the woods and she sold it under the cover of being the Avon lady. She would deliver little brown bags to people."
Musically, Bowen remembers writing her first songs to cope with the death of her grandfather, a man she sings about on a tender mountain ballad called "His Name Was Sam" from her Ella Mae Bowen EP. His memory comes to life during the song, one of three standout tracks from the 2014 project. Granddad is the first person she mentions when asked how she knew to chase this crazy dream. The handyman was an old bluegrass picker she spent every weekend with until he died when she was 10 years old. She wrote him poetry and silly songs, but got serious about it in the years after his passing.
Bowen didn't want to be a star then, and in many ways, she still doesn't. It's difficult to imagine her filling arenas, and her aspirations are more personal. Labels like "singer," "songwriter" or "artist" don't quite fit.
“Performing has never been my strong suit," she says. "I consider myself much more of a creator.”
“I just loved to write, I loved words," she adds, slowly warming to the Nashville night. Diesel trucks and a Chris Stapleton record fill the air around her. "I loved singing making noise, I loved creating. So I kind of did need a push from my family to come here."
The Reba Song
John Bowen is an old military guy who Ella Mae describes as a jack of all trades. Growing up her father would sing songs like Elvis Costello's "Alison" to her and share his record collection. She's as familiar with Led Zeppelin as she is Suzy Bogguss; Paul Simon is as good a friend as bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s.
At one point she was a labelmate with McEntire, and as fate would have it, the two would cross paths years later. "I'll Go On" from the legend's most recent Love Somebody album came from Bowen's own experiences with love and rejection. She remembers getting the call that it was cut for the album.
“I was babysitting twin boys at the Omni Hotel for my part-time nanny job when I heard, and they were asleep and I was just in the hotel bathroom like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” At the time, she was still a writer without a publishing deal. That status has since changed — hence the sign on Music Row that Bowen says she fought "tooth and nail" to get — and she's left wondering why McEntire cut it.
At first, this wasn't a question. But in light of the singer's failing marriage it's impossible not to wonder if these lyrics didn't pull her through some dark cloud. Was a 16-year-old's musings the shoulder McEntire needed?
"I'm pretty sure it's not the end of the world tonight / Even though down deep in my soul it feels like it might / I'm pretty sure I'll wake up tomorrow still breaking inside / And I'll go on missing you / I'll go on wanting you / I'll go on with or without you / I'll go on."
“I’ve loved people who didn’t love me back and I had to find a way to say ‘You go this way, and I’ll go this way, and we’ll both go on,'" Bowen says of what inspired her version of the song. "That was kind of a theme in my teens, not just with boys and relationships, but with rejection in the industry. For me it wasn’t about one breakup, it was about having to go on.”
Bowen says she still doesn't want a record deal with a major record label. Growing up she didn't dream of being Shania Twain. Even now, stars don't fill her eyes as she looks across the Cumberland River at an empty Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans and any superstar artist big enough to fill it. She's more at home at a place like the Listening Room, home of the weekly Song Suffragettes round. It's about the size of the Handlebar, she says, and between sets you're more likely to hear a full side of that Stapleton album than you are songs from the country Top 40.
“I’d love to be a fun old grandma with long gray hair like Emmylous Harris that maybe lives in a cabin and tells people to eat more,” Bowen says when asked where she wants to be when she's 70 years old. Writing songs for commercial radio is her passion, but along the way she says she hopes to cut a few albums with songs that a loyal fanbase holds like a secret.
“I’d love to have a couple Grammys if I could have my druthers about it,” she adds.
There's more than one way to become a superstar, after all.
Watch Ella Mae Bowen Sing "I Don't Wanna Watch"