One day she’s a dancer, the next a country star. That’s how it seemed with Julianne Hough. And that’s actually pretty close to the truth.
Country music success has a formula. A hopeful slogs it out in Nashville, plays the clubs and gets noticed by a label. There are the showcase, the signing, the meeting with a third coast agent and manager. The press starts, then a tour.
"It’s absolutely fascinating," Hough manager Scott Siman told Pollstar. "This didn’t follow that timeline. This didn’t follow that process. It’s been really refreshing and exciting as a manager to look at it a little differently."
Hough’s story began backstage during the "Dancing With The Stars" tour. Hough was a backup dancer trying to pursue a musical career. She played in a band called White Lightning when she was 4 years old, a group composed of family members. As a teenager in London, studying dance at the Italia Conti Academy, she, her brother and her dance partner Mark Ballas formed a pop trio called 2B1G.
"Two Boys, One Girl. Really original," Hough told Pollstar. "I didn’t want to be in it because I wanted to sing country music and they didn’t want to be in it because they wanted to sing alternative rock."
Trained in dance since the age of 9, Hough eventually found her way to the "Dancing with the Stars" tour.
"I couldn’t pay my rent any more," she said.
One night, a guest in the audience took notice.
"He thought, ‘Wow, she really pops. I wonder if she sings,’" Hough said. "So he came back and asked me if I sang and I was like, ‘This is my lucky day! Of course I do. This is really my passion.’ So I went and sang for him in one of the rooms and he said, ‘All right, let’s make a record.’"
That guest turned out to be Irving Azoff. Jared Paul of Front Line Management produces the "Dancing with the Stars" tour, which explained why Azoff was in the audience. Azoff introduced Hough to Siman at last year’s CMA Music Festival. In between, Hough went from a backup dancer to one of the stars of the highly rated television show, winning the crown two years in a row.
The television show has a grueling schedule but she cut a tune last summer that was put on iTunes the day after she won the contest.
"It went to No. 8 on the iTunes chart so we were, like, ‘Wow, this might actually work!" she said. "We had this window of opportunity so I went to Nashville that first week in June, met with Scott, met with [producer] David Malloy. It was: ‘Let’s start listening to some songs, let’s do the process and let’s meet with record labels. If they don’t want to sign us, we’re just going to keep going with it.’"
By October, Luke Lewis was paying attention. The Universal Music Group Nashville CEO had never seen the show and didn’t know what Hough looked like.
"He didn’t want to know what I looked like until he met me. He had only heard my voice. So I was really happy about that," Hough said.
As the next "Dancing with the Stars" tour was wrapping in early 2008, Hough quickly made an album, with songs selected, tracked, mixed and produced in a month and a half.
So, at least for a little while, the Salt Lake City native paid her dues in Nashville. Certainly the touring aspect would follow the conventional protocol, with her highly respected agent, Rod Essig, pulling strings to get her an enviable slot on a major tour. Right?
"I was at Brad Paisley’s show in Nashville and he asked me to go on his bus," Hough said. "So I went and met with him. He said, ‘I know this is pretty unconventional to do this here and, obviously, talk to your people first, but I’d like you to come on tour with me this summer.’
"I was like, ‘I don’t need to talk to anybody! I’m in! Don’t even worry about it. I’m in.’"
Hough has a vibrant personality and speaks excitedly. And with country music being a fan-friendly genre, Hough agreed her personality fits well.
"Absolutely. I talk to everybody the same. I can’t shut up. I can’t stop smiling," she said. "I love meeting people, especially the fans."
"She’s been very good at giving access to country radio and to the fans," Siman added. "It’s a little different when we offer Julianne to a radio station or a promotional partner. You’re really offering them a television superstar. You’re giving them something of value. I’d describe her as an accessible superstar today.
"She’s kind of like America’s newest sweetheart," he added. "I think she’s going to get opportunities like nobody else in our format has had except maybe Tim McGraw, whether it be sponsorships, endorsements, TV or film."
Siman expects Hough to be a country headliner. She’s been all over the globe trying to make it happen.
"People often ask her, ‘Where do you live?’ And she gives this look like, ‘Where do I live?’ She’s been in London and Salt Lake and Las Vegas and Nashville. I tell her, ‘We’re claiming you for Nashville right now. You belong to us.’"