When Kal Rudman, king of the record-radio tip sheets, went on the "Today" show several months ago and picked Juice Newton to become a big star, Rudman reasoned that Newton would succeed with a remake of Merilee Rush's decade-old hit "Angel of the Morning," then sitting dormant on the charts. With Rudman's blessing, it shot to the No. 1 spot, turning its album gold as well.
A journeyman singer who has yet to settle into a consistently satisfying style, Newton remembered the song vaguely from high school days in Virginia Beach but "I never dreamed I'd have any association with that song.I wasn't into that kind of music but I said, 'I'll give it a whirl,' reasoning that I don't know all the answers."
Newton, shrouded in a cascade of long, strawberry-blond hair, conceded the other night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, "I have experienced vacillation in my career." Before "Angel," she'd released six albums in six years and each reflected the male-dominated record industry's methodical control over women in the business. Newton's career had been steered ineffectively from country (where she has had medium chart success all along) to country-rock to hard rock.
"I'm a pretty cooperative person," she said. "We were still naive and unsettled in our knowledge of the music industry. We hadn't learned to say no." Of the hard rock she insisted, "We tried to do 'em with as much guts as we could, but it still didn't work. You could kind to see holes in it."
Part of Newton's problem was a surfeit of influences with the stamp of none. When she was growing up in Virginia Beach (and she'll only say she's still young enough to get pimples"), Newton started out as a folk singer strongly influenced by a young Emmylou Harris and Bryan Bowers who were living in the area at the time.
"It was real easy to pick and play," Newton says. "But when they were a little older they moved away and then I moved away." Attracted to college in California by the "West Coast mystique . . . 'Beach Blanket Bingo,'" Newton found herself singing in local bands, often typed as country because of her accent, though the music had not been an influence growing up.
Newton believes her unfocused style and label changes ("It took a while to even capture the attention of our present label") contributed to the long wait so common in a business where 2 percent of the artists earn 98 percent of the money from record sales. Though Rudman's endorsement was "the kind of exposure that you cannot buy," Newton is anything but the suffering artist renewed by success. "I'm surprised now, because you realize after a while that the chance of being accepted on a large scale is actually rather low," she said. "I'm not naive. As each record went by, I knew more. It's a business. I'm in an art form that's connected to a business and if you ever lose sight of that, it's a mistake."
The success of "Angel" -- and a new single, "Queen of Hearts," seems to be following it up the charts -- has enlarged the parameters of ther career, slightly. "Well, we have an extra person in the crew and we don't have to drive our own bus," she said, laughing.
Trying to capitalize on the sudden recognition factor -- "We're just a bigger curiosity" -- has put Newton and her band on the road with a wider range of headlining acts. But even with her album's gold status, Newton said, "We still haven't earned any money. I have a big debt to pay back [for advances and recording costs]." At least now long conversations on the tour bus can be perked up with tales of expanded itineraries and exotic chart positions. "We're No. 1 in Australia, gold in Canada, 30s in England, the new single is in the 40s . . ."
Newton still considers herself a country or country-rock singer, partially because "the country side of music is more forgiving. "People realize you can make boo-boos and not be such a bad Joe." She's also "realized there is a life outside of music. I put a lot of energy and time into what I do, but I also realize I would not perish if I never reach No. 1. I'm very happy I did, but I wouldn't have jumped off a cliff. I sing pretty hard and try to work hard at what I do."