By DeeAnna Haney • SMN Intern
All it took was a knack for guitar playing and a single visit to Nashville, Tenn., to spur a lifelong passion in one Tuscola High School senior’s life.
Singer/songwriter MacKenzie Leigh Wilson recently released her first extended play record in January featuring four original songs. With rhythms as bouncy and lively as her personality, the record is just a small taste of what Wilson has to offer.
The young musician moved to Western North Carolina from Charlotte two years ago when her father Chuck Wilson, a minister, transferred to Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church.
Although Wilson describes a childhood full of singing in church and community choirs, she admits she never considered pursuing it as a career. But a family vacation to Nashville for her 16th birthday ignited inspiration to try her hand at songwriting.
Since her fateful visit to Nashville, Wilson has written more than 60 songs.
“My mind is constantly spinning with new song ideas,” Wilson said. “That’s what I love so much about songwriting, you can write anywhere, anytime.”
She often writes songs when inspiration hits, and will sometimes not write for weeks at a time, she said. Other times, she may write multiple songs in one week. One thing is certain — she writes best when alone without distractions.
Even though Wilson started playing guitar at age 15, she didn’t find a true love for the instrument until she started writing her own material. Her guitar instructor, Larry Watson, was immediately impressed by Wilson’s raw talent and dedication to her music.
When it came to “teaching,” Watson only provided a little guidance on music theory and chord progressions.
“When you take someone like MacKenzie who’s already talented, you don’t have to do a whole lot because they grab it really quick,” Watson said.
Taking her talent to the stage, Wilson has performed locally, is a member of Summit choral group at Tuscola High School and won the local talent competition “Haywood Idol” in 2009.
But you won’t catch Wilson performing many covers of other musicians. While she admires and draws inspiration from many famous names — including Michelle Branch, Sara Bareilles, and Loretta Lynn — Wilson seeks to set her writing style and vocals apart from others.
“There’s something about when you’re playing your own songs and when you’re singing your own song, it’s just so different than just covering someone else’s,” Wilson said.
With an evident country twang and soulful, upbeat melodies, Wilson’s overall musical style is a country-pop hybrid sound akin to a mix of traditional Patsy Cline and contemporary LeAnn Rimes. She also draws inspiration from folk, bluegrass and classic rock to create her unique sound.
Wilson’s songs typically aim to reflect who she is as a person and where she is in life, with themes of young love, heartache and growing up.
“I am much more honest with my music than I am in real life — it’s much easier for me to put things in a song than it is to just sit down and talk to someone,” Wilson said
With the help of Watson, Wilson decided to explore creating an extended play record at Crossroads Records in Arden. Known mainly for bluegrass recordings, Crossroads Records has produced albums for such popular artists as the Kingdom Heirs, The McKameys and The Greenes.
Having never spent time in a studio, Wilson had no idea what to expect of the project and began knowing only which four original songs she wanted to record.
Wilson first recorded a base track with raw vocals and guitar, then the studio band built on the original to complete the sound. She went back and added her own harmonies.
The four songs range from ballads to energetic country, offering a balanced sound each with strong commercial appeal. The most popular so far, Wilson said, is “She Plays You,” a fresh take on the story of the girl who wants to be noticed.
“I kinda say that that’s like my anthem because I’m the girl who goes home and plays guitar, not the girl who is out chasing boys,” Wilson said.
And just like the lyrics from her slower, more emotional song, “Tennessee,” Wilson says, “Carolina’s in my heart but it’s time for a new start.” She plans to attend Belmont University in Nashville in the fall of 2011 and hopes to major in songwriting. She wants to take piano and mandolin classes while she is there.
But Wilson’s main goal in Nashville is not to achieve fame and fortune. Instead, she is most excited about being able to interact and work with fellow songwriters and hopes to learn new techniques and become stronger in her craft.
Of her future, Watson predicts great success.
“She is an extremely talented person and no one person could take the credit for anything she’s done,” Watson said. “I was just fortunate enough to get to help her.”
Wilson believes in the importance of having an identity as an artist and hopes to gain more sense of her own as she continues to write, perform, record and evolve. In the meantime, she intends to finish her senior year and enjoy being a high school student.
“I’m just like every other high school girl out there, I’m just the girl who goes home every day and writes songs about it,” Wilson said. “I want to stay that girl.”