One of the first recording studios Charla Corn ever set foot in was Norman Petty Recording Studios in Clovis, N.M., just across the state line from Farwell, the tiny South Plains town where Corn grew up. The studio is best known for being the place where Buddy Holly recorded, and Corn met the real-life inspiration for Holly’s Peggy Sue during her visit.
But it was another artist who captured Corn’s attention.
“I remember walking through that studio on a tour, and seeing LeAnn Rimes’ CD — it was, like, a demo of hers,” Corn says. “I was like, ‘No way, Mom, look at this! It’s a girl about my age! And she’s got a CD!’ It was called All That [recorded when Rimes was 11] . I still have it. It’s just a cheesy little CD, but I was so fascinated that a girl that young could have a CD. That was one of the first moments I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, because if she could do it, I knew I could do it.”
Some 20 years later, Corn has released two CDs, 2009’s More Than I Should and Stella in May. She was named best female artist at the 2011 Texas Regional Radio Awards. And she’s on radio not just as a singer, but as co-host of the morning show with Justin Frazell on Fort Worth’s KFWR/95.9 FM “The Ranch.”
With charisma to spare on both sides of the mike, camera-ready looks and a country queen’s singing voice, Corn is that rare combination of style and country-music substance. Stardom, it would seem, is only a hit song or a viral video away for Corn.
But after giving it a shot in Nashville, she’s back in Texas — the small-town girl with big dreams hoping she can rise to the top of the male-dominated worlds of Texas Red Dirt music and country radio. She’ll tell you God makes things happen for her, but she’s also doing plenty to propel her career forward — including getting up at 3 a.m. each weekday to be on the Ranch by 5:30, and hitting the road on weekends to play gigs with her band the Trainwrecks.
If she doesn’t make it big, it won’t be for lack of trying, says her brother, Clayton Corn, an Austin-based music producer/manager who played keyboards for Pat Green for seven years.
“There was never anything she couldn’t accomplish,” says Clayton Corn, who also produced both of Charla’s albums. “She was so cocksure when she went to Nashville that things were going to happen, and when they didn’t, she just didn’t take no for an answer. She just changed the venues and did it again in Fort Worth and in Texas. It was just kind of a matter of fact that it was her destiny to be successful in the music industry, one way or the other.”
Wide open spaces
Farwell is in a part of Texas known for flat land, big skies and maverick singers such as Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. For Charla Corn, who has been singing as long as she can remember, it was a great place to grow up. She performed at the town’s Border Town Days festival every year, and in high school, she started playing guitar, singing at church and competing in beauty pageants.
She began honing her songwriting skills at South Plains College in Levelland, less than 90 miles from home and about a half-hour west of Lubbock. “It’s a commercial music college, where you can actually get credit for singing songs and going onstage and recording,” Corn says. “So that was a really, really cool school. And it was a great way to get experience up onstage.”
Corn also got broadcast experience with Thursday Night Live, a student-run TV show. And she was part of a touring band that went to regional high schools and acted as ambassadors for the college. All that training gave her the confidence to take the plunge and move to Nashville after college.
“I went and just threw myself out there,” says Corn. “I’d [play] at The Bluebird and go to writers’ rounds. That was probably the first kind of big, on my own, just me and my guitar, not knowing what people are going to think [shows]. You don’t have the safety net of your vocal coach or your fellow students; it’s just you and the mike and your hope that people are going to like it.”
She spent eight years in Music City, even scoring a gig hosting shows for cable’s CMT and its website. A friend who was a production assistant for CMT’s Wide Open Country helped get her an audition.
“I just sat down and did a quick little interview,” Corn says. “That was on a Thursday, and by Tuesday, I was on the television screen. It happened so fast.”
That led to other things: When popular CMT personality and CMT Insider host Katie Cook went on maternity leave, Corn was asked to fill in. She also co-hosted a show called Karaoke-Dokey, and worked as a network correspondent.
“I did a red-carpet pre-show for the [Academy of Country Music Awards], and did the CMT [Awards] red carpet and got to interview Taylor Swift, way before she was Taylor Swift,” Corn says. “That’s got to be one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had.”
And yet, Corn yearned to be on the red carpet as a performer.
She made it to Hollywood week on Season 2 of American Idol but was cut before the semifinals. She was almost featured on Season 6 of Nashville Star, but was cut because of a conflict of interest that arose when CMT’s Cook became a co-host. (Some websites twisted her departure into something more negative, which upset Corn and helped lead to her decision to leave Nashville.)
“The moral of the story is, I think God knew that the reality-TV path was not the path that I needed to take,” she says. “The reality was, I needed to get out here, pound the pavement, prove that singing was where my heart was, and that’s what I wanted to be doing, 100 percent.”
So she came home to Texas.
Corn may have gone to Nashville to find herself, but what she found was that she is a Texan at heart.
“I’d come back and visit, and go to shows with friends,” Corn says. “My brother took me out to a Randy Rogers show at ZiegenBock Fest down in Bryan/College Station. There were 10,000 drunk college kids singing every word to every Randy Rogers song. I was like, ‘Wait a second — I’m up in Nashville, and there’s all of this going on? There are thousands of fans here supportive of other Texans and their music?’ I knew at that point I had to figure out a way to pack up and come back home.”
She sold her house and her car and moved to Fort Worth.
Red Dirt girl
And right from the beginning, Fort Worth felt like home, Corn says. Even though she had never lived there before.
“I’ve always been kind of drawn to Cowtown,” she says. “For some reason, more gigs presented themselves, and I was always making small appearances, and one appearance would lead to another.”
But it wasn’t just Fort Worth. She drove all across the state, logging 45,000 miles on her PT Cruiser, often living out of her car as she played gigs wherever she could.
“I worked my a-- off,” she says. “You can’t be above living in your car, you can’t be above scrubbing toilets for a living. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. You have to be the one to put yourself into the sight view of who you want to be seen by.”
Brandon James, the Ranch’s program director, says Corn understands the grassroots appeal of Red Dirt music, the rootsy, down-to-earth country sound rising out of Texas and Oklahoma.
“She’ll go play on the back of a flatbed trailer for five people,” James says. “And all those five people will love her after she’s done. That’s five more people she’s brought into the fold. She gets that. It’s like a campaign trail, connecting one heart and soul and mind at a time.”
Frazell, her co-host on the Ranch, remembers the first time he met Corn. She performed on his Texas Red Dirt Roads radio show in 2010.
“It was just her, acoustic,” Frazell says. “That usually tells a whole lot of the story, how you can perform and sing, just broke down with just you and your guitar. She was wonderful.”
And, as one of the few women on the Texas Red Dirt scene, Frazell says she stood out.
“For the longest time, it was just a boys’ club. Then you get these girls coming along, and why their acceptance hasn’t been ingrained yet, I don’t know,” says Frazell, one of the most influential radio voices on the Red Dirt scene and the host of the recently launched Lone Star Roads on KTXD/Channel 47. “But then you get someone like Charla, who writes great music and is an absolutely wonderful singer, and then, in order to get played on the radio, you have to have a quality production of your CD. And she had all three of those.”
The ‘Ranch’ life
At one of her shows, she met Bryan Barrett, a Texas State University football player, strongman and music fan who became her boyfriend and later her husband. Barrett, who had played football at Kennedale High School, got a job there as a coach and special-education teacher.
“Wherever he was, that’s where I was drawn to as well,” says Corn, who would take breaks from touring to come to North Texas to see him and his family. They married in spring 2012 and have a 4-month-old daughter, Blakelyn Ann.
Around the same time she started dating Barrett, she caught the attention of The Ranch. The station played music from Corn’s first CD and asked her to perform at its popular Ranch Music Series and Ranch Bash concerts. The idea of working for the station, which has its studios in Sundance Square, appealed to her because of its Fort Worth setting.
“I really became a part of the Ranch family as an artist,” she says. “But I knew their program director, Kevin McCoy, and I called one day and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you guys are working on up there, but I worked for CMT, so I can do on-air stuff. Are you guys looking for somebody during the week, where I can put my feet on the ground for at least four days out of the week?’”
As it turned out, the station was getting ready to launch Texas Music Interactive and looking for a host.
“I had an opportunity to get to know her a little bit through her music,” says McCoy, who now works for Corpus Christi-based Internet station Badlands Radio. “It just seemed like having Charla — with so many tools as an entertainer, and a name that was established in the national market as well as across the state — was a natural fit for us.”
But her brother Clayton, who says he was “pseudo-managing” her at the time, says he had his doubts.
“I was a little bit against it, just because I thought it might tie her down to one location,” Clayton says. “But she was pretty sure that was what she wanted to do, so I got behind her. And she just killed it. She’s incredible at it.”
McCoy said that he had worked with artists who wanted to be air personalities before, but it didn’t always work out, because they were too focused on their music careers or thought they had a bigger name than the radio station did. But he says Corn was willing to learn, and was such a quick study he soon moved her into the afternoon-drive shift.
“She works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen in radio or music,” McCoy says. “Charla had a desire to be, technically, a good radio personality. As a program director, one of our challenges and obligations is to help coach talent. She’s one of the few that would come to me early on and ask technical questions. She’d listen back to tapes of her shows and try to get into deeper waters and take a risk and put her personal life on the air. She was not afraid of being real.”
When Frazell’s co-host Taylor Scott left in 2012, station management decided to pair Corn with Frazell, and they clicked right away.
“He’s like my brother,” Corn says of Frazell. “He had me on his Texas Red Dirt show before I was even working for The Ranch. So he’s always been a Charla fan and a big supporter of my music. We were both excited to start working that first day together.… And it’s just been a blast ever since.”
Unlike morning shows at some larger stations, this one is just Frazell and Corn, acting as their own producers as well as hosts. Frazell says they meshed pretty quickly because they have a lot in common.
“We both are very fortunate to be in the position that we’re in,” says Frazell, who has also worked at KLIF/570 AM and KPLX/99.5 FM “The Wolf.” “We have very strong encouragement and backing from our families, and we both have a very strong faith in our Christianity. It’s just a natural chemistry. It’s nothing that’s thought out, or contrived or produced.”
James, the program director, says Corn connects with radio listeners in much the same way she connects with her music fans.
“She has that natural foundation of her personality that makes her a ray of sunshine on the morning show, or wherever she is,” he says. “People tend to be drawn to her. I don’t know if it’s the blond hair, the white teeth, the personality. But it’s all put together honestly. She came in with no [radio] experience, but a lot of it comes from her having to interact with an audience. She’s onstage, she’s having to talk in a microphone and connect. All that certainly helps in translating to radio.”
That potent combination, it would seem, is exactly what a country queen needs — whether it’s in Texas on the Red Dirt scene, or back in Nashville on country music’s grandest stage.
“With her work ethic and her brand that she’s worked so hard to build, I think she has what it takes to be one of those who can last for quite a while in this industry,” says McCoy. “For Charla, it’s not quite picking or choosing. She’s going to be involved with what’s happening and staying on top of everything. After every show, she’s shaking hands and passing out CDs and giving fans hugs. No matter where this industry heads or goes, I think she’s going to be OK.”
For all her ambition and country music dreams, Corn says, right now, she couldn’t be happier.
“Monday through Friday I do the radio show, and on Fridays and Saturdays, I’m up in the van with the band and driving or meeting them someplace,” Corn says. “I love being able to have the day to spend with my baby and be a wife and mom. And then on the weekends, to be able to drive around the state of Texas just because I can.”
“There’s no telling what the good Lord has in store for me,” she adds. “But right now, I am literally having the time of my life.”