Last week, Cracker Barrels all across the country released 'Best New Nashville,' a compilation of tunes put together by artists hand-picked by Alabama's Teddy Gentry. New country duo SouthWind are among the 12 artists featured on the new CD. Fans now have the opportunity to cast their vote for SouthWind as the Best New Nashville Artist by logging on to the album's website (polls for the voting close on June 19).

SouthWind's Brandon Beyer and Mark Zell have been making music together for over a decade, and they are currently putting the finishing touches on their debut Six Pak album, slated for release later this year. Taste of Country sat down with the hot duo creating a big buzz in Music City to introduce you to them.

Give us the background on how you two met and the road that has brought you to this point in your career.
Mark actually taught me how to play guitar when I was 15. I'm 38 now, so that was a long time ago! He was a volunteer at our church's youth group. That's actually how we first met. He taught me how to play guitar, and then I helped lead worship. That's how the whole thing started ... in church.
Zell: We kind of hit it off. We led music for the high school group and things like that. Over the course of the next few years, we got to be close friends, and we have been close friends ever since. We started playing music together right away, and we got serious about things around 2000. We spent a little bit of time in different bands, but for the most part, we pretty much played exclusively with each other for the last 11 years or so.

How did you wind up meeting and working with Teddy Gentry?
I was in a band that Mark wasn't in. We were playing at a resort in the Ozarks near Branson, Mo. It was like 50 degrees in May, about two years ago. There was literally like six people there. For some reason, Teddy was with the owner of this club, and he walked down. We were outside. He pulled up a chair and listened to our entire first set. After that, he came up and introduced himself to me, and he thought I had whatever it was that would work with the sound and the songs and everything. That's when he said to come on down to Nashville and let's start talking.
Zell: Over time we all developed a good friendship. When he started doing the 'Best New Nashville' project, he pretty much had already selected all of the artists. We kind of got in late on that. It was a weird thing ... as soon as I met Teddy, it was like, 'My gosh, what are we doing here?' [laughs]. We had been doing this for 10 or 11 years, and we hadn't given up by any stretch of the imagination, but we were just doing our own thing. Then this whole deal came up with Teddy, and it's really roller-coastered since then.

What is something that you've learned from working with Teddy or watching him handle his career?
The guy is definitely all about the best song wins. He's very, very big on pairing the right song with the right artist. I'll also say that the guy does what he says, and you don't meet very many of them -- at least I haven't -- in Nashville. He follows through on everything he says. That's been a breath of fresh air for me, personally, just because I've been burned so many times. To be with someone like Teddy who actually will say it and do it and now it's happening is cool.
Zell: Being a background singer for the most part, I really learned a lot watching him arrange songs and figure out how best to work out background vocals. Instead of just singing what comes natural, kind of doing something maybe a little bit different than what you'd think of right at the beginning. Obviously Alabama's famous for being one of the best harmony bands of all time, so it's been really neat watching him work with the songs we've brought him and things like that.

Talk about your first single, 'So Called Life,' which is featured on the new Cracker Barrel album, 'Best New Country.'
We had actually tossed around a couple of songs that we had written. Then when we heard this cut, Teddy was really excited about showcasing the energy that we have in our live shows on this song. We heard it, kind of fell in love with it and recorded it. It's so much different than any other song on 'Best New Nashville'. It kind of makes us stand out a little bit.
Zell: This song we just fell in love with from the very first time we heard it. 'So Called Life,' for lack of better words, is a real a--- kicker. That wasn't really present in anybody else's track on the album. There's a bunch of great songs on the record, but we really wanted to stand out as being different a little bit. There was just something about the song. We fell in love with it. When it turned out that this was going to be the song on the record, we realized what a blessing in disguise it was that the first song we were going to cut didn't quite work out. Now we have a song that really sets us apart from everyone else. As far as the record itself though, there is some talent out there and it's really, really an honor to be featured with such artists.

What's the story behind your name, SouthWind?
The name kind of means people from the South Wind, which is kind of like the Kansas Indians. They were called the people from the South Winds. They kind of migrated to Kansas, so that's kind of where the name came from.

What can you tell us about the new SouthWind project in the works?
Right now we're working on a Six Pak with Teddy. We've definitely narrowed it down. We have another song that we recorded that we're excited about. We need four more. We have a couple that we've written that are going to be on there.
Zell: I sing background vocals [on the songs], and it's real easy, especially with someone like Teddy there. You'd think it might be intimidating, but it gives you such a sense of confidence in what you're doing because you know that he came up with a lot of the parts and everything. You know you're singing the right things. The studio's a real comfortable environment for me. It doesn't bother me a bit. As far as the six-song EP, it's really exciting to see that on the horizon. It's been a long time coming for us because we've worked so hard for it.

Listen to SouthWind, 'So Called Life'