FST audiences will remember Madalyn McHugh from Outlaws & Angels and Three Pianos, two popular FST Cabarets that celebrated outlaw country musicians and piano players, respectively, who blazed their own trails in the industry. Now, Madalyn returns for Friends in Low Places, a contemporary country music revue exploring the musicians who transformed their genre and rocketed to the top of the charts. Armed with an acoustic guitar and an unbreakable connection to country music, Madalyn is excited to be back at FST to help share the musical stories of artists like Juice Newton, Brad Paisley, and Dolly Parton.
We sat down with Madalyn to talk about her personal connection to country music, why the genre has stood the test of time, and what surprising moments have popped up during the show’s run so far.
Friends in Low Places celebrates contemporary country artists, like Garth Brooks and The Chicks, who pushed the boundaries of the genre but never lost sight of country’s roots: authentic storytelling. What impact did these musicians have on you as a person and an artist?
The artists featured in Friends in Low Places managed to push the envelope of what was considered and accepted as “country music,” but still remain vulnerable and genuine whenever they perform.
I saw Miranda Lambert in concert several years ago in a large arena. Although I was far from the stage, she made me feel as though I was in her living room. The way she told the stories in her songs was powerful and moving. She helped me learn that, as an artist, I must be vulnerable onstage. When an artist is true to who they are as a human being, which is precisely what musicians like Lambert and George Strait do, their stories are at their most powerful.
Friends in Low Places has been running at FST since November 2021 and has been seen by thousands of people. Have there been any unscripted surprises or memorable moments with the audience that you’d like to share?
Definitely! During one performance, I was singing “Could I Have this Dance” and a couple stood up and held each other so tenderly as they slow-danced throughout the entire song. It was as if they were painting a picture of the emotion behind the lyrics. It was magical to be singing the lyrics, “As we swayed to the music and held to each other, I fell in love with you,” as I was watching that very story unfold right in front of me.
Another special moment occurs almost every time we perform John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” As soon as the first words are sung, the whole audience lets out a sigh of excitement as they begin to sing along with every word. I have a beautiful view from the stage watching people fall in love all over again with the magic and yearning of these timeless lyrics.
Do you have a strong personal connection to contemporary country music?
My connection to it is unbreakable! When I was just a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to work with an independent record label, Creative Soul Records, in Nashville to record my debut Country/Contemporary Christian album. At just 17-years-old, I learned how to make a hit country song by watching seasoned Nashville session musicians and songwriters bring music to life.
I will never forget being in the studio as they recorded the music before I recorded my vocals. I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen more connected humans than these musicians.” All they had to do was look at each other and they knew exactly what to play. They were so in tune with each other that it felt as if they had been rehearsing together for weeks. In reality, they had actually heard the songs for the first time just hours before.
What was the rehearsal process for Friends in Low Places like? Did you make any discoveries about the show’s music or yourself as an artist during rehearsals?
The process was challenging, but rewarding. Rehearsing a Cabaret at FST is always collaborative, which requires a lot of creative flexibility, and the process of getting a show from the rehearsal studio to the stage is ever-changing. Friends in Low Places evolved based on our strengths as actors and musicians as well as what was needed to bring each song to life.
Personally, I have learned to trust my creative instinct as an artist and as a lover of country music. I have been singing this music since I was a kid and have a strong personal connection with these songs. The magic happens when I trust my creative impulses and mix that trust with heart and passion.
Why do you think country music has withstood the test of time and has grown to become one of the most popular musical genres in America?
Country music has one heart that connects its community of artists and supporters – the genre’s artists and fans have an unspoken bond and connection. A good country song will tell a story that we all can relate to. Country music will always withstand the test of time because people will always want to be united, and people will always have the burning desire to tell their story. You can be rough around the edges, poised, sad, happy, confused, excited, content, or miserable and country music will meet you there. It will never fail you.