Just ask Jana Kramer and she’ll tell you she’s: “Just getting started.”
And it’s that drive and love for music that has been the driving force behind her career. After all, in just a little over three years, she has become one of country music’s brightest new stars. Her platinum debut single, “Why Ya Wanna,” rocketed to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2012 making her the most played new artist of that year. Her self-titled debut album hit No. 5. In 2013, the Academy of Country Music honored her with its Top New Female Artist Award, and this year she’s up for her first Female Vocalist of the Year award. That’s a lot to have accomplished in just a little time. And Kramer is grateful for the success that has come her way. ”I still have a lot to prove,” she insists. “I’m better at what I’m doing than I ever was before. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Kramer, you see, was already a star when she broke into country music, with a massive fan base she had built as an actress in numerous films and TV shows.
What few knew was that long before reciting her first scripted line, Kramer was a passionate lover of country music. In fact, she ended her high-profile, two-year run on The CW’s “One Tree Hill” to focus on her singing, songwriting and onstage performance.
Her bona fides were confirmed on Jana Kramer. “But that first album was an introduction,” she explains. “This new one, is my baby album. Not that I don’t love the first one, but the second album really represents who I am and where I’ve been throughout all of my life.”
That’s clear from top to bottom, from the pulsing beat and affirmative message of the opener, “Boomerang,” to the aptly titled “Last Song,” a wistful but resolute farewell to a lost love.
Strength, sass and sensitivity, romance, regret and maybe a bit of revenge — a rainbow of emotions illuminates thirty one. Whether she’s playfully laying out her boundaries to a prospective boyfriend on “Don’t Touch My Radio” or savoring the innocence of romance on “Love,” it’s tempting to ascribe Kramer’s insightful way with a lyric to her history of inhabiting roles as an actress. But once again, she is quick to point out, it’s the music that came first and continues to define who she is. In October of 2015, thirty one debuted with career-best sales numbers, landing in the Top 10 of the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart and at No. 3 on the Country Albums chart.
“The only way that acting helps me with music is in my videos,” she says. “Because these songs are so real to me, that’s why I feel them so deeply. Acting is as real as it can be, but music is so personal. It’s my life.”
That’s especially true on thirty one, where Kramer shows she can craft a narrative and a compelling melody as well as anyone in her genre. “When I first got to Nashville, I was so shy and timid, knowing that I was writing songs with people who had written a million Number Ones,” she admits. “But then I realized I have stories to tell too. So I came into the new album knowing exactly what I wanted to write — and it had to be 100 percent about my life.”
If anything, Kramer admits, this means being even more country than much of what defines that genre these days. “I didn’t want to follow what other people are doing,” she says. “Of course, I love a lot of what I hear on country radio. But I definitely feel that Scott and I did a great job of bringing in elements of today’s sound while keeping that country element I identify with too.” Producer Scott Hendricks and Kramer had worked together on her first album. Each harbors respect for the other; both also have clear ideas of what they feel works best in the studio. That meant that as they regrouped for thirty one a bit of constructive head-butting would be inevitable.
I wanted to make sure there were banjos and steel on the album because that’s the stuff I grew up on. So we argued a little bit on a few songs. I really fought him on certain songs. I wanted us to challenge each other, because I know that Scott is such an amazing producer. And in the end, it was magic.”
The results testify to Kramer’s authenticity as a singer with sturdy country roots and a rare gift for communicating through song. On “Bullet” she asserts her personality and drives the song home, delivering the title with an innovative stuttering enunciation and attitude-drenched drawl. (“It’s a very empowering song for women, a way of saying ‘I dodged a bullet’ without calling the guy a jerk,” she reveals, with a deep-throated laugh.)
And, yes, thirty one is a monument to her determination not to back down when it comes to being true to herself — and to her growing legion of true believers.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life, and I feel like country music saved me in a lot of ways,” she states. “I think about Martina McBride’s ‘A Broken Wing,’ which helped me get through a rough time. And I grew up listening to old-school country music. My grandma’s favorite was Patsy Cline; she still has the same cassette tape and cassette player in her kitchen, where we liked to make cookies together.
“Do you want to know why I do this?” she sums up. “I’m giving back. That’s what I love most about being on this platform that I have. I want to give that back to people. This was never just a hobby for me. I’ve always wanted to share my story and help change people’s lives. That’s how much this music means to me.”
Although by her own account she may be “just getting started”, Jana Kramer’s new album is proof she’s here to stay.