No matter how compelling Krystal Keith's voice, songwriting and debut album Whiskey & Lace may be, there's no getting around the shadow of a musical superstar in the room. Not that she'd want to, of course. Krystal's father Toby contributed several songs and co-produced the project with Mark Wright. "You can't have a better mentor," she says. "As a songwriter, as a vocalist – and he's also my dad, so I get the best of all worlds wrapped up in one person."
The concern, however, is that the uncommon opportunity and access afforded the daughter of a music icon could obscure the emergence of a truly remarkable new artist. Because what's most noteworthy about Whiskey & Lace isn't the artist's lineage, but her range. Vocally, to be sure, but it's much more than that. Put simply, the album's breadth reveals her to be incredibly adept in ways rarely seen on a debut. And that speaks to an amazing amount of passion, preparation and patience – traits that define Krystal Keith as a viable artist in her own right.
In its earliest days, Krystal's desire to be a performer exceeded her ability. "I don’t remember a time when I didn’t sing," she says. "My sister likes to tell stories about me singing at the top of my lungs and points out, 'That was before you could sing good.' She had to learn how to sing harmony just so she could hear herself over me. But I was always a little ham and sang pretty much everywhere I went.
"There are pictures of me as a three-year-old throwing a fit because my mom wouldn’t let me onstage with my dad, who was doing a Fourth of July BBQ show near our home in Oklahoma," she continues. "So they got me onstage and I was immediately freaked out when I saw all the people. I think I just wanted to sing with my dad, more than getting in front of an audience. But music was such a big thing in our household, always a part of my life and always the path I was on."
More than a general direction, however, music was a diligently pursued focus. "I started writing music when I was nine because I was taught that not everyone can perform and make it as a singer," she says. "I started singing in competitions when I was 13 and did a lot of local and regional competitions. And I recorded my first demo when I was 17, just to get used to being in the studio, working with studio musicians and working in a vocal booth."
Krystal made her national television debut in prime time as a teenager, singing "Mockingbird" with her father on a 2004 awards show. Despite widespread acclaim for her vocal abilities, she delayed the artist career she'd been working toward her whole life. "My parents really wanted me to graduate college, and my dad said he'd help me get started at that point," she explains. "So I went to the University of Oklahoma and got a degree in Communications with a Business emphasis. After graduation, I went full-time into working on my album."
The process only furthered her musical growth. "I’ve been songwriting for a long time, but only in the last couple years have I started co-writing," she says. "It's a new challenge I'm enjoying, and I've gotten a song out of every session I've done, which is rare. I’ve been writing with some of the most amazing, prolific songwriters in Nashville – Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins, Craig Wiseman, Bobby Pinson, Nathan Chapman and more. After writing solo for so long, having another creative soul to bounce ideas off of is a great experience."
Working with producers Mark Wright (Gary Allan, Lee Ann Womack) and her father may have actually advanced her individuality. "As a new artist, I might have been intimidated by another producer," she says. "It might have kept me from being as vocal about what I wanted. But my dad gave me the creative freedom to see my vision through. We actually had similar views on what we wanted to do.
"And I love working with Mark Wright. He brings another perspective, and he and my dad work hand-in-hand. They bring the best out in each other, which in turn brings the best out in me. Mark has so much experience and knowledge to share and gets so excited about his projects – I turn into a sponge around him."
Revealing a musical maturity rarely seen on a debut album, Whiskey & Lace shows her to be equally at home on the sunny, grooving celebration "Doin' It" and the organ-accented shuffle of "Can't Buy You Money." The classic big vocal ballad "Beautiful Weakness" (with Toby on backing vocals) is as in-the-pocket for her as the languid, Latin-flavored "Cabo San Lucas" and the bluesy, strutting "Down Into Muddy Water." She carries the surging and ebullient "What Did You Think I'd Do" as easily as she does the smoky regret and attitude of "Him And His Tattoo."
The three co-written songs she includes – a number that also reveals some artistic maturity – are led by "Daddy Dance With Me." A surprise gift for her father on her wedding day, the song gives a bride's-eye-view of the reception tradition. "Get Your Redneck On" flips the usual hard-driving cliché into a reclining and breezy river float song layered in banjo, steel guitar and propelled by a subtle drum loop. Finally, the title track is the album's most aggressive song, both in its subject matter and its high voltage guitar work.
Krystal's comfort with such a wide range of material comes from an appreciation of the classics. "I grew up on Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, KT Oslin and Willie Nelson," she says. "I'm not sure I heard much current music until I got old enough to have my own car and radio. We had a vinyl player and every day I listened to the Big Bopper’s 'Chantilly Lace' probably seven times. I listened to every Patsy Cline song at least every other day. I spent a ton of time at my grandmother’s house listening to her old 8-track player long after those were a thing."
The application of those influences, her experience and undeniable talent have resulted in an album that's impossible to dismiss as a vanity project. "I know there are going to be people who only see me as Toby’s daughter, and I’m prepared for those criticisms because I’m really confident that the album and my work ethic will speak louder," she says. "Obviously I have an amazing opportunity to be on a great label and work with amazing people. I don't take that for granted or apologize for it, but I also hope people will be open-minded enough to listen and base their judgments on the music.
I have faith that most people will be pleasantly surprised.”