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Kristin Chenoweth comes home for country album

Sep 6, 2011, 5:31 a.m.
Actress Kristin Chenoweth hosting the 15th Critics' Choice Movie Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, January 15, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Mike Ayers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - She has played a witch in "Wicked," a lush on "Glee" and a deputy press secretary on "The West Wing," but actress Kristin Chenoweth's latest project is nowhere near a Broadway stage or TV screen. She is returning to her Oklahoma roots, singing country songs.

Due September 13, "Some Lessons Learned," is comprised of 13 songs that cast the pint-sized blonde into a musical genre that makes perfect sense for her signature high pitch voice. Country music, she told Reuters, fits her "naturally."

"It's the closest to home that I could get," she said. "Someone asked me 'why a country record, why now? ' Well, it's because it's been going on since I was about five."

Born in and raised in the Tulsa, Okla. suburb of Broken Arrow, Chenoweth's earliest experiences with country music came from watching her great uncle play bluegrass. From there, she sang country songs in church and at rodeos. She idolized Dolly Parton and even spent a summer when she was 19 years-old at Opryland in Nashville.

Prior to "Some Lessons Learned," Chenoweth dabbled in other genres, including a Christmas album, a Christian album and logically for the Broadway star, a collection of show tunes. But here, she shows more of a variety and flare for the country music's long history.

In doing so, she teamed with veteran songwriter Diane Warren for a handful of songs that show off a pop-country approach. She tackles a Dolly Parton song, "Change," as well pays homage to her idol in the tongue-and-cheek "What Would Dolly Do" -- one of two songs she co-wrote.

DOLLY, MADONNA, JULIE ANDREWS

Anchoring the set is Chenoweth's high-pitched voice, which flows through different country factions effortlessly. Her stage training lends itself to the ballads "Fathers and Daughters" and the folk-leaning "God and Me."

Her quirky side comes through on "I Didn't," about a break-up stemming from a guy's God complex, as well as the album's first single, "I Want Somebody (Bitch About)" -- a song recalling the country pop of Shania Twain or Trisha Yearwood.

"Growing up in the '80s, I loved Dolly, Madonna, Julie Andrews," she said. "If we had iPods, that would've been on mine. In picking the material, you show who you are. I hope that's what I've done."

Country musicians whose careers start in Nashville and its environs have it easy compared to Chenoweth, who is trying to break into a genre without alienating her fan base.

That is something she experienced firsthand last year, when she took a dramatic role on Broadway in "Promises, Promises," versus the numerous lighthearted and comedic musicals such as "Wicked" that had come before.

"A lot of people didn't want to see me in that role, because it wouldn't make them laugh," she said. "But there's no growth" as an artist.

While TV shows like NBC's "The Voice" have recently shown the crossover potential of country music with other genres like R&B and pop, Chenoweth's ties to acting might have lumped her into a category of actors who just want to make record.

But the Broadway star's long-established voice gives her the bona fides to deflect any criticism and "Some Lessons Learned" holds its own against other country albums.

Chenoweth is cautiously optimistic about her future in the genre, She hopes her fans connect with the music and that she also collects a few new followers along the way.

"I just want more than anything for people to listen to the record and be moved by it or surprised by it in some way," she said. "I think challenging yourself and changing up is what's fun about this business."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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