#LetTheGirlsPlay: Kalie Shorr Knows What It Takes to Break
When Kalie Shorr left home for Nashville two years ago, she brought her dog, a few personal belongings and money awarded to her on a music scholarship. The $2,500 covered the gas to make the 1,200 mile drive, a deposit on an apartment, some of her first month's living expenses and not much else. Vanderbilt and Belmont would take her, but Shorr had a dream. She had the itch. But first she needed a J-O-B.
If a hotdog stand was good enough to start Tim Mcgraw and Kenny Chesney's country careers, why not hers, right? Granted, those two men were singing for tips along Music Row. Shorr had the late night shift serving up meat to drunk revelers on Lower Broad.
"I would sell cigarettes, hotdogs, snowcones ..." she says. "A lot of creepy guys. It's three in the morning and I look like I'm 12, so I get weird comments."
There’s a lot more pressure on female artists, but I don’t think it’s something that girls can’t do.
Shorr was 18 and kinda knew one person when she left everything comfortable to move to Tennessee. You've seen this story before. Hollywood may sensationalize it, but in real life it usually ends after a few months and a 1,200 mile drive back home on a borrowed dime and McDonald's coffee.
Now 20, the Portland, Maine girl continues to defy the odds — although that's not quite accurate. The odds don't take into account work ethic, drive and pure determination.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money," Shorr says, sitting tall with legs crossed in a noisy coffee shop on 8th Ave. in Nashville. Her jeans are fashionably ripped and her shirt is colorful. It's 9:30AM, but Shorr is a morning person. Seconds earlier a deafening "POP!" silenced the room. Shorr jokes that she thought about hitting the floor. But this is Nashville. When a country boy's truck backfires, it does it big.
"My mom was a single mom and it was always like, ‘Don’t let circumstances hold you back, because you can accomplish what you want to if you put in hard work.’ So I worked really hard in school. I worked really hard on my SATs and I worked really hard in music just because I didn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars that some people have to put into their kids, to develop them," she says.
Don't mistake work ethic for bitterness. There's no visible chip on her shoulder — if there was she wouldn't have been chosen as ToC's first #LetTheGirlsPlay artist. The hotdog stand job was ideal because it left mornings for her to write, at first alone, but soon with friends. But it wasn't enough. A retail job followed. Then a gig helping customers at a West End Marriott. This month — one year after helping start Song Suffragettes — Shorr was able to quit her job. She's "making it" in Nashville, but she knows she's not yet "made it."
Shorr's parents were surprisingly supportive when she announced she'd be leaving home at such a young age. She's the first in her family to chase music as a career. An older sister is a lawyer on Capitol Hill. Much of the rest of the family is in politics.
The decision was anything but rash, however. In 2000, a 6-year-old Kalie Shorr penned her first song. It was a "party song," scribbled on Powerpuff Girls paper. Of course she still remembers it.
“My parents were kind of hippies, as far as it was all organic food," Shorr says. "I wasn’t allowed to have soda, so I wrote a song about drinking soda without my mom knowing at a sleepover.”
From there she sang the National Anthem locally before picking up a $100 guitar at 13 and forming a Nirvana cover band in middle school. A boyfriend was involved, so she was game. Listen to songs she sings live or those recorded on her The Nashville Sessions EP and you'll find her past willingness to do anything for a guy.
Despite her knack for writing desolate love songs, her heart is still wide open, and she kind of likes grunge rock. Nirvana and Pearl Jam are influences, in addition to the expected classic rock and country artists (“I like to say if Michelle Branch and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes were the other two members of the Dixie Chicks,” Shorr says, describing her sound today).
“My senior year of high school, I finished school early … and then I got a full-time job while I was finishing school," she recalls. "So I’d go to school in the morning till like 11, and then I’d go work till like 11PM. And I got my own apartment when I was in high school because I wanted to figure it all out before I moved to Nashville because I didn’t want to be naive to the world.”
I would sell cigarettes, hotdogs, snowcones … It's three in the morning and I look like I'm 12, so I get weird comments.
So yeah, Shorr is 20 and looks like she's 12. She has the kind of big blue eyes that old women adore on babies, and her fare skin looks to have never known the sweat that comes with a hard day's work. Conversely, she's ultra-focused, and respectful of the dreams of others. Her presence and attention when one of the other four girls is singing during the Monday night Song Suffragette rounds is remarkable. She has the soft skills that are as important as voice and artistry.
Roses Are Red ...
“Roses are red / Eyes are blue / I still remember loving you,” Shorr sings on "Roses are Red," one of three songs she performed two weeks ago. She penned the song with two Song Suffragette singers, and it shines a light on who she is on and off the stage. She experienced heartbreak, but has now found love that she's sure is true. She doesn't talk to her father, but speaks with her mother daily. Those first few months ... they were truly difficult.
“I was sitting there in my apartment with like no furniture. I just had pillows on the floor. I didn’t even have a couch because I moved down here with nothing," the girl voted Most Likely to Become a Millionaire in high school admits. However, she tells the story as if she knows now and knew then that the experience would lead to something great. She tells it with as much enthusiasm as stories told about opening for Sam Hunt, singing with Jamie O'Neal and Matraca Berg and finding an unlikely fan in Perez Hilton.
"I remember forever / Your lips on my neck, every word you ever said / There’s some things I’ll never forget / As long as roses are red." Even the pain tastes sweet.
Song Suffragettes gave Shorr a stage, and time on that stage gave her confidence. Only within the last six months has she been able to identify what a Kalie Shorr song is, and isn't. She doesn't have a record deal or publishing deal. In fact, she just has one EP as physical evidence of her career. But there's a savviness that artists 10 years her senior could borrow. The conversation turned to the state of women in country music, and who's to blame. The answer is complicated, but women are not blameless.
“You gotta have the right songs. I think that for so long a lot of females — like, I’m the biggest Taylor Swift fan, but there’s already a Taylor Swift. Nobody is going to do it better than her.”
“I think right now people are realizing that you have to do something different. You have to show who you are, not who radio or record labels want you to be. And I think that’s why Mickey Guyton and Kelsea Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark … all the girls who are hard hitting right now, I think that’s why they’re working because they’re not afraid to be who they are," she says.
Shorr is a radio junkie, so songs she writes naturally come radio-ready. She has great appreciation for the organization, compactness and general efficiency of a well-written country song. And she knows a great song has to be relatable.
Beyond that, the challenges are different for women then men. If a male artist wakes up sleepy, depressed or hungover and blows off radio programmers during a visit, he's mysterious. If a female does it ...
“You gotta be nice as hell,” Shorr says. “People want to say, 'That a girl is a bi--- or she’s catty' … and so if you give them a reason, you go on your radio tour and flip your hair and brush people off, they’re not going to want to play your song.”
"There’s a lot more pressure on female artists, but I don’t think it’s something that girls can’t do."
This summer Shorr is going to return home for the first time since moving in 2012. She'll play a few New England shows, as well as CMA Music Festival for the first time. Beyond that it's one-off gigs and her regular spot at the Holiday Inn on Broadway. You'll also find her at the Listening Room Cafe on Monday nights, helping build Song Suffragettes and the #LetTheGirlsPlay movement. The five girls that take that stage each week are talented and committed. They need to be independent on stage, which means they need to play guitar.
"I (also) play mandolin. I play piano very badly. And I like to shake," Shorr says. As for why she was chosen to be the first artist featured in this monthly series? The redhead gives a very diplomatic answer — something about right place, right time.
Watch her. Listen to her. Follow her. You'll see it's because "Roses are red / Eyes are blue" and women with big hearts, talent and confidence can't be held back.
Want More Kalie Shorr? Listen to "Nothin' New"