Bets on Betty
Betty Cantrell talks touring the country as Miss America to recording her first country music album
Betty Cantrell’s powerful voice helped win her the 2016 Miss America title, and now may also send her soaring into southern music stardom. The 21-year-old became the second woman from central Georgia to win the coveted Miss America crown, 63 years after Macon native, Neva Jane Langley Fickling won the title. Coincidentally, Cantrell perfected her operatic vocals in the recital hall named for Fickling at Mercer’s Townsend School of Music. After a year touring the country representing the national pageant, Cantrell is eager to move on to her true love, the world of country music.
Cantrell’s vocal training began classically at the age of 14, but it is her memories of growing up on a farm in Fort Valley that guide her musical journey today. A graduate of Mount de Sales Academy and student of Mercer University, she was 19 when a friend convinced her to enter her first pageant. Three pageants later, she was crowned Miss America, in large part due to her impressive vibrato and southern charm, both of which are helping her make a name for herself on the country music scene. “So many people expected me to go into opera, but I never had a love for that. I’ve always loved country music,” she said.
Cantrell’s connection to Mercer and the Townsend School of Music has created a unique opportunity for the singer. Mercer announced its plans to revive Macon’s historic Capricorn Studios late last year in conjunction with a large new development along MLK. Aptly named Mercer Music at Capricorn; Cantrell has been asked to be the first artist to record at the legendary home of southern rock since the building returned to Mercer’s ownership last month.
Mercer alumnus and multi-award winning musician and producer, Steve Ivey, will record Cantrell and up-and-coming artist Jonathan Wyndham at the historic studio. Cantrell has the distinct honor of recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Macon’s own Otis Redding. Cantrell said Ivey reached out and told her, “you have to be the first person to record (at Mercer Music at Capricorn)… and we’re going to do an Otis Redding song.” Wyndham will record the classic Marshall Tucker hit “Can’t You See.”
Ivey is a Mercer alumnus who has made a name for himself in Nashville as a multi-Emmy, Grammy and Dove award-winner and nominee. His music has been in the Billboard Top 10 sales charts for an astounding 1,000 weeks, with over 10 million units sold, including music he has produced and written. Top artists he has produced music for include Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, among others.
“For Betty Cantrell who is such a talented singer and grew up in the Macon area, we began thinking about music created there and what had a huge significance on her,” said Ivey. “She loves Otis Redding and so the decision was easy.” As a fellow graduate of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music, Ivey would occasionally speak to classes about Music Entrepreneurship. “Essentially the process of how to take an elite music degree like the students get at Mercer and translate that into making a living.” Ivey notes when the conversation of rebuilding Capricorn began, he was quick to offer his knowledge and know-how, not to mention the opportunity to work with Cantrell and the ability to kick-off a new chapter in Macon music history.
Thrilled with the song choice, and the honor of recording one of the soulful legend’s most recognizable hits, Cantrell said “I’m super excited to put my own twist on it!”
The recording session will take place Wednesday, Dec. 7. Former Capricorn session musician Paul Hornsby will support the artists on keyboard, along with other local talents, including Charles Davis, Rob Evans, Leroy Wilson and students from Mercer’s Townsend School of Music. While closed to the public, local radio station 100.9 The Creek will be providing a live remote and interviews throughout the day. A Facebook live feed will also be available to view throughout the recording session.
Cantrell traveled roughly 20,000 miles a month as the national titleholder for the Miss America organization after winning in Atlantic City. She won over the judges during the talent competition with her rendition of “Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio” from Madame Butterfly.
“I like songs that are dramatic and can reach people on an emotional level because that creates a connection between the audience and the performer,” she says. “Being Miss America has definitely launched my music career. I wouldn’t be where I am today with my country music if it wasn’t for the national pageant.”
During her time as Miss America, she championed Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and partnered with the American Farm Bureau Foundation. Her personal platform is “Healthy Children, Strong America” which she says stems from her roots in Fort Valley and her family’s dedication to a healthy lifestyle. (Her parents also own the Cantrell Center for Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine in Warner Robins.)
She admits translating her operatic and classically trained background into country music may be somewhat difficult. However, she is confident she’ll easily make the transition while maintaining the traits that vocally set her apart. “If you can sing opera, it will help you in every other genre. It teaches you the healthy ways to sing, such as breathing techniques.” The main difficulties she mentioned were making sure her vowels were southern enough. After her year as Miss America, she teased that she’s trying to regain her charming country accent.
Her new single and first music video, “Soldier On,” will be available on Itunes, Spotify and YouTube in December. She says that it “will be like nothing anyone has ever heard before. It’s about women in the military… there is no other song about that.” Cantrell’s family history in the military played a prominent role in her decision to record the song in her debut EP. Her dad was an airborne army ranger, her grandfather fought in Korea, WWII and Vietnam and her uncle was also in the army. “I could relate to (Soldier On) because, without giving away the song, there’s one part that talks about her dad being her inspiration and since my dad was in the military, I really liked that and I knew so many (others) could relate to that.”
Cantrell credits Linda Ronstadt as an example of who she wants to model her music career after, because the veteran singer has been able to cross over genres. “I’m really old fashioned. I don’t want to be pop country.” She laughed and joked about not wanting to sing about trucks and beer. “I’m really, really excited for people to hear my country side and to be able to relate to me on that level because so many people relate to country music.” She said. “It’s hard to relate to Miss America, even though I made that my mission during my year to be relatable… Music is definitely the best way to reach people.”
Cantrell plans to move to Tennessee in December with her fiancé/manager Spencer Maxwell. Although she loves Tennessee, Cantrell was adamant that her music will be rooted in central Georgia and Macon will always be home. “Every time I participated in an award show, I always told them I hope to be back next year or the year after as a performer.” She had the opportunity to present an award alongside Darius Rucker at the 2016 CMA’s. Bets are on Betty to be the next new voice of country music.
Mercer Music at Capricorn
Capricorn Studio, co-founded by the late Phil Walden, a Mercer alumnus, during its heyday recorded such acts as the Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and the Marshall Tucker Band and was the epicenter of Southern Rock.
For more than a decade, the facility sat vacant and fell into disrepair until it was purchased and stabilized by NewTown Macon with a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation. In 2010, it was named one of Georgia’s most endangered historic buildings. Along with local developers, the historic Capricorn Studio is now part of the largest market-rate residential development in the history of downtown Macon.
Mercer University has committed to raising an additional $1 million to complete restoration of the historic structure, which will be known as Mercer Music at Capricorn. Gifts may be made online at www.savecapricorn.com.