The onboard sound system was playing ‘How Bizarre’ by OMC and the 22-year-old Harris took it as a sign that her permanent move to the country music capital of the world was a good decision.
And so it was. Within the next decade, she had appeared on the Grand Ole Opry twice, was hosting daily cable television show The Edge Of Country, had released her own self-funded album and was touring the States as part of country music superstar Patty Loveless’s backing band.
The youngest of Clem and Anita Harris’s four children, Kylie Harris was born in Hamilton on 14 November 1974. The family moved to Edendale, 27km south of Gore, where the children grew up listening to and singing along to their parents’ John Denver, Charley Pride, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and Patsy Cline LPs.
When Harris was about 13, a friend of her parents’ suggested the family attend the Lower Mataura Country Music Club where the children could gain experience singing with a band and using microphones. Only Harris and her sister Joanna kept at it.
Kylie began entering the local talent competitions around the bottom of the South Island and, out of necessity, picked up the guitar when the John Denver songs she was choosing to sing proved too obscure for the backing bands.
Her first paying gig was as opening act to John Grenell, one of New Zealand’s biggest country stars, at a fertilising company conference in Wellington. Both acts were flown to Wellington where, unbeknownst to Harris, they were to share a rental car to the gig. For Harris it was like driving with Elvis Presley.
Two years after her first crack at the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards in Gore, Harris won the overall junior/intermediate title there in 1990. Two years later, at the age of 17, she became the youngest-ever overall winner of the NZ Gold Guitar. Part of the prize was the recording of a promotional cassette at the studio of former That’s Country and Ray Columbus & The Invaders guitarist Brian Ringrose.
A big fan of Patsy Riggir, Harris’s mother put together a booklet of photos and newspaper clippings of her daughter’s career and, together with the Ringrose tape, sent it off to the Stebbing Recording Centre in Auckland, where Riggir recorded her albums.
By now based in Putaruru, South Waikato, coincidentally the site of the Riggir family homestead, the Harrises were ecstatic when Eldred Stebbing phoned to set up a meeting. Sitting in the corner office of his Jervois Road empire, the recording industry veteran laid out his plans for Harris and quickly signed her to an album deal.
In his Jervois Road empire, recording industry veteran Eldred Stebbing signed Harris to an album deal.
Produced and arranged by Gary Daverne, Let It Be Love was released on BMG in 1995, complete with TV advertising. It included two songs written by Harris and her brother Greg, as well as covers of Suzy Boggus, Kathy Mattea and Cyndi Lauper and a reworking of New Zealand schoolboy David Curtis’s 1970 hit ‘Wheel Of Fortune’.
The album featured a choir and live strings and seasoned session players such as Billy Kristian on bass, Billy Lang on guitars, Steve Garden on drums and Malcolm McCallum on backing vocals. It went on to win the Tui for New Zealand country music album of the year, but Harris was bewildered to also win the rising star award ahead of pop sensation Bic Runga.
In the mid-90s, Harris toured New Zealand and Australia extensively as support for former Irish Rovers frontman Will Millar and his new band. She was part of Sir Howard Morrison’s 40th anniversary tour alongside Ray Woolf, John Grenell and Gray Bartlett, and opened for US superstars Ricky Skaggs, Charley Pride and Kenny Rogers. There were also a couple of jaunts around New Zealand and Australia in 1995-96 singing Patsy Cline numbers in Grenell’s Jim Reeves tribute show.
When it came time for Harris to record her second album, Fancy, Shania Twain was the hottest property in Nashville. Eldred Stebbing brought in copies of Twain’s first two albums and told Harris to select 10 of the songs to record. She managed to reduce the number to two and celebrated a small victory when she arranged to have the returning Will Millar’s band on the recording, supplemented by Kristian, Lang and Martin Winch, amongst others.
The material was arrived at after some pushing and pulling between Harris, Stebbing and producer Gary Daverne and included just one of her own songs, and another written with her brother. The majority dated from the 1960s and 70s and were hits for Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle (four each) and Lynn Anderson (two). It didn’t matter, Fancy was awarded New Zealand country music album of 1997.
Touring with Charley Pride was pivotal as his manager John Daines acted as Harris’s sponsor when she relocated to Nashville later that year. Harris family friend Shane McManaway organised her a lift from the airport with a contact from Kentucky by the name of Billy Joe, who made the three-hour-plus drive to fulfil the favour.
Billy Joe also provided Harris with her first paying job in Nashville when he insisted she sing him a song. After a verse he gave her a couple of hundred dollars and told her, “Get yourself some blue jeans and boots because you’ll need them.” The phone number in her pocket, of a possible musician connection, came to nothing and on a walk to check out her surroundings Harris was picked up by the local fire chief when he noticed her heading into the wrong part of town.
When Harris arrived in Nashville, her only phone number of a possible connection came to nothing.
Daines organised a job with Pride’s publicist Pam Lewis, Performance Magazine’s country music manager of the year in 1992 and ’93, with partner Bob Doyle, when they were managing Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Harris got to pitch songs for Lewis and started singing in the clubs on Broadway in Downtown Nashville; firstly with roommate TJ Dennis, an Australian singer/songwriter and daughter of Kevin Bloody Wilson, and then with a band.
It was also the Charley Pride connection that brought about Harris’s two appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. On both occasions, the country music legend gave up one of his songs to allow Harris her turn at the microphone.
Before long she took a job as part-time receptionist for small independent label VFR Records. They loved Harris’s New Zealand accent and offered her a job hosting their Great American Country cable TV show The Edge Of Country. Primarily, she was a musician; secondly, the accent might draw viewers in as they surfed through the 200-odd cable channels.
For seven years or so, Harris fronted the show, flying to Denver once a month to record a month’s worth of daily shows until the operation was moved to Nashville. Eventually she became the programme’s writer and researcher, along the way interviewing the likes of Ralph Stanley, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, John Mellencamp, Solomon Burke and John Carter Cash.
In 2004, Harris released her self-titled third album. Co-producing with country/folk producer, engineer, songwriter and instrumentalist Scott Neubert at Smash Recording Studios, Harris co-wrote three of the songs and covered The Warratahs’ ‘Hands Of My Heart’. It resulted in another NZ country album of the year Tui.
Perhaps Harris’s biggest career highlight to date was touring as part of country star Patty Loveless’s road band. When they needed a new rhythm guitarist/harmony singer to promote Loveless’s 2005 album Dreamin’ My Dreams, their Australian lead guitarist Jedd Hughes suggested Harris.
She practised eight hours a day for weeks – singing, playing guitar and improving her mandolin chops – and nailed the audition. The next two years or so were spent touring the States, sleeping in buses, playing all manner of concert venues and TV shows with one of Nashville’s best-loved singers.
Back in Nashville, Harris met and married drummer Marco Giovino, who had played on albums by John Cale and ex-Toad The Wet Sprocket singer Glen Phillips. The couple wrote and recorded Harris’s fourth album, Love, Lessons & Lies, which was recorded in New York and Nashville and released digitally in 2009. Patty Loveless added backing vocals on ‘Love’s Back Hand’.
For seven years Harris fronted the TV show ‘The Edge of Country’, interviewing Ralph Stanley, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss ...
Meanwhile, the Great American Country TV channel had been bought out by Scripps Networks who decided to cease production of Harris’s The Edge Of Country show. Out of work and having financed Love, Lessons & Lies, she took a job in retail. She also returned to a love of painting that since Timaru Girls’ High School days had taken second place to music, and exhibited her work in Nashville art shows.
Harris and Giovino worked as a duo and were offered a recording contract but it fell through. After the birth of their daughter in 2011, the couple moved to the Boston area to be closer to Giovino’s family. A second daughter was born in 2015 but Harris and Giovino divorced in 2017.
After the move to Massachusetts and the breakdown of her marriage, Harris lost the desire to sing and almost convinced herself to give it away altogether. But in 2019 the hankering crept back in. She met some musicians and began sitting in at gigs before buying an amp and a mic and going out solo.
Her art also found an outlet as associate producer and in-house artist at Studios XL in Northborough, MA. There is a new man in her life and they are travelling to New Zealand in December 2022 for a visit that will include having her hands preserved in the Hands of Fame site at Gore, where her career began.
Fuzzy Feet Records