Great country duos often don’t start out as duos.
Brooks & Dunn, who nearly always won the CMA Duo of the Year award from 1992 to 2005, were each struggling solo artists and writers before Tim DuBois paired them at Arista in the early 1990s. Kix had charted a pair of singles as a solo in the 1980s, neither of which even made the Top 70 of the Billboard charts. Ronnie was on a now forgotten label named Churchill Records in the 1980s, and his two charting singles that decade reached the exact same number on Billboard – No. 59.
But as a duo, Brooks & Dunn were an immediate smash, with four straight No. 1s on their first four radio releases.
Burns & Poe is also an award-winning pair, scoring Music Row magazine’s Independent Artist of the Year prize for 2010, with more than 50,000 spins on reporting stations of their singles such as “How Long Is Long Enough.” And like Brooks & Dunn, Keith Burns and Michelle Poe didn’t originally plan to be part of a duo.
The Blue Steel Records pair, whose midtempo new single “Second Chance” impacts radio on May 16 with an exciting double CD coming later in the month, really began when Heidi Newfield departed Trick Pony, the quirky Warner Nashville (and later Asylum Curb) trio that also included Burns and Ira Dean.
Michelle auditioned and won the job as Heidi’s replacement, but the following day Ira Dean also left Trick Pony.
Trick Pony effectively ended that day, but Burns & Poe were just beginning.
“The thing about Trick Pony,” Keith says in a phone conversation from a tour stop in Las Vegas in late April, “was that I had two Type-A personalities in that trio. Vying to get attention from Heidi and Ira on stage was impossible, so I did a quiet cowboy kind of thing. But when I stepped over into Burns & Poe, Michelle was more the sweet, shy type of country girl. Our show is a lot of fun, I kind of get to emcee it.”
Poe is a beautiful blonde singer, songwriter, and bass player from Florida who had worked for years in the road bands of artists including Dierks Bentley and nowadays Hank Williams Jr. She’s played for Bocephus for five years now.
Like Keith, Michelle had experienced some strange label adventures before joining the duo. She was originally signed as a solo act on Dreamworks until the label was absorbed by the Universal Music Group/Nashville.
“Literally the day my single and video were released, they merged,” Poe says. “Everybody who was signed under James Stroud was dropped, and the others who had been signed by Scott Borchetta moved on to the new label. I was one of the unlucky ones, but I was playing bass for Dierks and I had a gig. When one door closes, another one opens.”
As a duo, Burns & Poe instantly clicked as writers and performers. One reason is that they work so hard, and are extremely fan-friendly.
“It’s all about putting on the best show you can, and giving people their money’s worth,” Keith says. “Fans pay their hard-earned dollars to see a show, and they want to hear what they hear on the record.”
They come from different musical backgrounds. Keith is an ex-jock from Georgia who has had success both as an artist and writer on the Row, often with longtime co-writer and current co-producer Mark Oliverius.
“Mark and I have had a pretty good run,” Burns says. “Ten of the 30 songs we’ve written have been cut.”
Even top Row songwriters who are not artists can rarely claim that type of success in today’s tight market.
Michelle began playing bass early on in a family Gospel band in Florida. She moved to Tennessee to go to MTSU, originally intending to become an airline pilot. A freak accident while she was attending a Jimmy Buffett concert at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, when she fell over 23 feet, led to 1 ½ years of physical therapy and took Poe off the pilot track.
“But I kept getting gigs, playing for Steve Holy and Dierks,” she says. “By then, I was studying by day and playing Printer’s Alley at night.”
That’s where Keith first heard her.
On the new single “Second Chance,” Michelle and Keith trade lines during the verse, in classic co-ed country duo style, much like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton often did back in the day.
“It’s really cool, because in the song the audience gets to listen in on a conversation we’re having together,” Keith and Michelle say. “Radio always wants something fresh, and there’s really nothing else like this out there with the duets that are happening.”
The duo format helps both artists. “It’s even easier doing the shows with a partner,” Poe says. “We share the responsibilities, and it’s not just you singing for 90 minutes.”
Fans have also fallen in love with Burns & Poe videos. They just filmed the video for “Second Chance,” and the duo recently got to watch their video of “Cowboy Stomp” on the gigantic video screens at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
“There’s nothing like seeing Michelle Poe 68 feet tall,” Keith says, smiling.
Besides, it doesn’t hurt that both Keith and Michelle look like movie stars. She has the glamorous blonde style, normally topped by a brown cowboy hat. Burns sports a black cowboy hat, often with a black leather stage outfit.
Folks often call them “the country Sonny & Cher,” since the 1960s pop duo of Sonny Bono and Cher may well have been the most famous co-ed duo in music history. But there are also major differences between the duos. Bono was anything but glamorous, and both Burns and Poe are. Besides, Sonny & Cher’s music was classic 1960s pop, and Michelle and Keith’s influences have been country from the very start.
“I never watched the Sonny & Cher Show on TV, I was too young,” Michelle says. “They’re sort of Keith’s era, and I get why we’re dubbed the country Sonny & Cher. But we take our music more seriously, though of course we don’t take ourselves all that seriously. There’s still the bantering onstage, and we love to get the audience involved.”
Their label, Blue Steel Records, is a classic indie model. Blue Steel is owned by the Florida couple of Vickie and Jim White, who also own a big Sunshine State construction crane business. Steve Pope is the CEO.
“It’s a really small indie label, with only a couple artists and we’re the main focal point,” Burns says. “The attention we get is great. That’s the pro side. The downside is that we don’t have the resources that Warner or Curb has. I really believe that the independent labels are gonna get bigger and stronger as the years go by.”
Michelle has meanwhile always been honored to follow the trail blazed by her musical heroes.
“I love Steve Wariner, Dolly, Emmylou, Barbara Mandrell, and Reba, especially her old stuff,” Poe says. “I started with a pink bass guitar when I was 11, playing gigs in the family band, singing country and Gospel in churches, festivals, and retirement homes.”
And as Keith says, the breakout success that Burns & Poe have enjoyed with radio and on tour always comes back to the fans.
“Well, the thing that we can never forget, which any artist that’s been successful knows, is the fans come first,” he says. “We stay after every show and sign autographs, not just the T-shirts, and we’ll stay until the very last fan has left.”
By Phil Sweetland