Music City maverick Carla Wallace — co-owner/CEO of boutique publishing/artist-development firm Big Yellow Dog Music — counts songwriter-turned-pop star Meghan Trainor and country powerhouse Maren Morris as early success stories: the former’s doo-wop tinged smash “All About That Bass” ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for a whopping eight-week run in 2014, and thanks to songs like breakout hit “My Church” and one-off Top 40 mainstay “The Middle” alongside producer Zedd, Morris’ first two albums — 2015’s Hero and this year’s GIRL — both debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
A pre-fame Morris first showcased her vocal prowess at a company karaoke Christmas party in 2013, where she performed Beyoncé’s “Halo.” “We were all like ‘What?!’ This is outrageous!” Wallace recalls. Now she looks to Trainor and Morris’ genre-bending approach for her next class of rising stars, from CMT 2019 ‘Listen Up’ act and iHeartCountry Artist on the Verge Tenille Townes and Harvard grad Brynn Elliott — the first act signed to Wallace’s new joint venture label deal with Atlantic Records, inked last May. “These artists get to be great singers in any format.”
Billboard named Wallace, who has overseen day-to-day operations since launching the company in 1998 alongside co-owner Kerry O’Neil, as “The Innovator” in 2017’s Country Power Players issue. “None of us can really follow a traditional route anymore,” she told Billboard at the time. “Whether it’s starting a record label to help set these guys up or working with them every day to make a tour happen, we fill in the gaps until the right opportunity presents itself.”
On a wall in my office, I have this board of clippings ripped out from Billboard magazine, which includes two articles [that are] my aha moments: a 2014 article titled “Meghan Trainor’s ‘Bass’ Rumbles Up The Charts” and then a 2016 feature that said Maren could become “Nashville’s next breakout pop star.” I don’t stare at them too much! [Laughs.]
[When I first heard “My Church”], Maren and I drove to the beach at the Santa Monica pier and we listened to it over and over and over, with the windows down and just couldn’t stop listening to it. We both had this feeling that it was something special for her.
I saw such raw talent immediately in Meghan, too. It was just incredible to meet this 17-year-old girl at a songwriter event, and next thing you know she’s blowing up the charts. The first album she gave me was a project that she had self-released called Only 17 — all her singing, her production — and it still had all the elements that she has today: the soca, the jazz-influenced pop, the doo-wop. There was another artist that [“All About My Bass” producer/co-writer] Kevin Kadish was writing with at the time and she was a young artist too, signed to Columbia. I thought ‘oh she should meet Meghan! Two young artists.’ We drove her out to meet the girl, but then her and Kevin clicked and ended up writing together.
“All About That Bass” touched everybody. To celebrate the No. 1, we went to [Nashville drag bar] Play and had a big private party where the girls performed versions of the song. Maren was there, too. I saw a cute clip of them together at the Grammys in February, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever that they were hanging out. Of course Big Yellow Dog client/producer Daniel Tashian — who won for the Kacey [Musgraves] record Golden Hour this year and co-writes with both of them too — was also on the show, so it was a really nice team effort.
Everything was there at that age. It’s the same thing with Maren. Both girls had never had publishing deals or record deals before. It was all about clearing a path for them to discover themselves as artists. A friend of mine said it best: “Isn’t it great that everyone agrees with you?” — AS TOLD TO NICK WILLIAMS