Dames breaks into country music through back door

by Jordan Green

When she walks into the Starbucks in Quaker Village on a simmering Thursday evening, Lisa Dames is the vision of late ’80s-early ’90s Nashville feminism, when spunky, headstrong and independent women broke onto the Nashville charts by the score. It’s in her brown locks tinged with blond and tied back in a ponytail, her jeans and white blouse, and especially in her playful eyes and palling nature. Lisa Dames is nobody’s fool, but she’s surely a bit of a romantic given the quixotic nature of her quest. Her whole being seems calibrated towards strategically maneuvering into place to take advantage of new opportunities. She seems to genuinely enjoy the company of those who hold the levers of the various cogs in her line of work – the radio programmers, distribution agents and magazine editors – even when they say no. She’s seen some of the edifices begin to crack, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before these too will begin to crumble. “My two years of persistence is starting to pay off – my two years of not being a bitch,” she says, sipping from a glass bottle of cold tea. “I made it clear to WTQR: ‘I understand your hands are tied. You know I’m here, and I want to work with you whenever you’re ready.’ They’re like, ‘Wow, we’re not used to an artist understanding.'” She’s been keeping up with this radio music director named Brian Hatfield. First she got in touch with him at a Clear Channel station in Asheville and he politely declined to put her song in rotation. Then he transferred to a bigger station, WTQR, in Greensboro. She saw him in a parking lot doing a promotion for Alltell and went up to introduce herself. “Today, just before you called, I just got off the phone with WTQR,” Dames says. “They’re doing the Lexington Barbecue and Guitar Pull. They called me today and asked me if I would play…. It’s basically ‘save the date for us.'” Other things have already fallen into place: a distribution deal with select Wal-Mart stores in North Carolina, an opportunity to open for John Michael Montgomery this fall, and steady progress on what’s known in the industry as the secondary market country music charts. Dames, a mother of growing girls and a wife as well as an actor who cut her teeth musically portraying Patsy Cline in dinner theater musicals, is not exactly like those Nashville starlets who score a string of hits in their mid- to late-twenties and grace the billboards of Music City. She’s more of a seasoned fighter, an outsider who takes on the establishment with relish, though not so proud that she won’t take her place in it when it accepts her. For her debut CD, No One Like Me, Dames teamed up with Nashville producer David Grow. “We’ve got two Greensboro songwriters who contributed songs – Kristy Jackson and Mary Lyon,” she recounts. “The rest were Nashville songwriters. ‘I’d Leave Me’ is by Hillary Lindsey and Brett James. They wrote ‘Jesus Take the Wheel’ for Carrie Underwood. ‘Your Love’ is by Victoria Shaw. She wrote ‘The River’ for Garth Brooks. The players on my album you’re going to see on Kenny Chesney’s album. My husband and I used our money. We released the album ourselves. I’m going to be forty next month and there are very few record labels willing to give a forty-year-old woman a shot. “I had to find a photographer and a publicist,” she continues, later adding: “I have a team of radio promoters out of Nashville. I have five people who are calling radio stations. They’re calling the same station sometimes.” “I’d Leave Me,” the eighth track on the CD, is currently charting at No. 42 on the Music Row Breakout Chart, which serves as a kind of playbook for programmers at small-market radio stations. “Once we reach the Top 40 it’s a whole new ballgame,” Dames says, “because there’s a lot of stations that won’t play me until you reach Top 40.” The next evening she’s performing in the parking lot of the Friendly Center down the street from her home in west Greensboro. The free weekly show attracts a crowd of lawn-chair sitters, many of them elderly. There’s a Second Harvest Food Bank box truck opposite the stage with several cardboard bins set out nearby to collect canned good donations. In another corner of the lot a Toyota minivan wrapped with the cover art for No One Like Me sits behind the singer’s merchandise table. After a short introduction by a Friendly Center bigwig, Dames and her band – with Sam Frazier on guitar, Snzz on bass and Mike Chiusano on drums – launch into the single she’s currently promoting. The band plays with tight polish, pulling off a rocking twang. Dames kicks back her heels and rules the cordless microphone. Her voice modulates between sultry and playful as she pours her heart into these songs about considering the charms of an attractive stranger in a bar, starting fresh after a romantic breakup. About a young woman with a child whose father is snatched away in a tragedy, and a woman cajoling a man on the verge of walking out with stubbornness and seduction. “We went to number forty-two on the country charts yesterday,” Dames tells the crowd in a drawl thick as Southern honey that is more country than her natural speaking voice. “Two more spots to the Top Forty.” Later, she launches into a charming patter: “If y’all want to dance, we’ll letcha. That’s why we leave this area open. It’s not because we smell. Well, Sam does….” And she begins to laugh in a relaxed, mirthful cackle that invokes both Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton from a time when country music ladies presented an image more innocent of the world. Then the band strikes Patsy Cline’s classic, “I Fall to Pieces,” and an elderly couple obliges by spinning around on the asphalt dance floor.

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