We’ve got pop,” says Charly McClain. “We’ve got crossover pop, middle-of-the-road pop and blues country.” The modest royal “we” in cataloging her own talents is misleading. Few 25-year-old singers are as ambitious, aggressive and clearly on the march. In the last year Charly has changed bases of operation (Memphis to Nashville), changed record producers and mounted an all-out search for new material. It’s all part of her plan. Two years ago McClain predicted that 1981 would be her year for a breakthrough hit, and, as it turns out, she’s had two—Who’s Cheatin’ Who was No. 1 last February and the current Sleepin’ With the Radio On hit the Top 5. Having opened for Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, Ronnie Milsap, Larry Gatlin, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers and Don Williams, McClain reports proudly that Eddie Rabbitt complained that her act was too hard to follow. Now she’s a headliner. “I don’t think I’m anywhere near as big as I can get in country music,” she says.
Meanwhile there are other worlds to conquer. After appearing on such television shows as Dance Fever, Austin City Limits and a Home Box Office feature, So You Wanna Be a Star, Charly taped a segment for ABC-TV’s Hart to Hart in which she played a country singer involved in smuggling diamonds. McClain’s only abiding fear is the talk-show circuit. “I don’t want to just sit there and say, ‘I’m a country singer and I work every day,’ ” she says. “I’m waiting until I win a big award or have my own special.” To that end she is fabricating a “countrypolitan” image for herself. She cut off her long auburn mane to stifle comparisons with Crystal Gayle, and she’s upscaling her mostly jeans wardrobe to include a gold lace-trimmed blazer with black velvet knickers. “Too many people, like Lacy J. Dalton, want the Levi image,” McClain says. “When I work the honky-tonk clubs, I don’t dress in sequins, but in big auditoriums I owe it to my fans to look the part. You don’t have to have wagon wheels and hay behind you just because you’re a country singer. Anyway, I’m not from the country in the first place. I’m a city girl.”
McClain still lives with her mom and dad in a Memphis suburb not far from Elvis’ Graceland. Her father, an electrician, and mother have always been close advisers. Young Charlotte sang with her brother’s rock band when she was 9, and by the time she finished high school she was performing in clubs around town. “I never thought I’d fail,” she says. “I had a lot of disappointments in the beginning because of the casting-couch routine. But I thought, ‘If I can’t make it on talent, I don’t have to be in the business.’ ”
Since she only rarely composes music herself, she’s now listening to demo tapes from “writers all over the place. I can’t sleep at night, there’s so much to hear.” When her career and dreams were confined to Memphis, “All the tunes I heard were from one publishing house—my producer’s—or writers in town. I was stuck in a rut.” Dumping her producer and moving to Nashville to record were her characteristically decisive solutions. “I never wanted anybody to tell me what to do,” she says. “The reason I like this business so much is that I can make my own decisions.”
Her desire for independence has its limits, however. Last June she broke up with boyfriend Carl Thomason, the guitarist in her band (“He was so possessive”). Now, she laments, “My personal life is zilch. On the road, when you pull into town to do a concert and meet somebody, it’s just, ‘Hi. Well, goodbye.’ I have nobody to go back to the hotel room with. I go to bed by myself.”
Her success is a consolation. She has invested in a beauty parlor in Jackson, Tenn. (Charly McClain’s Family Hair Care) and wants to do “a lot more acting.” Can ambition like hers ever be fulfilled? When George Jones dubbed her “the princess of country music,” it was nice, she says, but it was not enough: “I’m on my way to being a queen!”