Mae Estes is ready to introduce herself to the world. Raised in the small town of Hope, Ark., the talented country singer/songwriter started singing and performing at the tender age of 7. In 2015, Estes moved to Nashville with a guitar, pen and paper, and a dream. Five years later, that dream led to a deal with Plaid Flag Music.
In February, Estes released her debut EP titled Before the Record. The six-track collection, produced by Paul Sikes, gives fans a first look and listen into who Estes is as an artist and features songs: “I Quit Smokin,’” “Run,” “Your Hands,” “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Cheatin,’” “Town Left Me,” and “Die In A Bar.”
“This is my first project release and will be my first time to print physical discs. I think that explains what this release is to me,” Estes says of the project in a press release. “I grew up listening to CDs front to back religiously. I bought into artists as a listener, rarely just single songs. I think I’m one of those artists whose perspective, in general, you buy into, or at least I hope to one day grow into that kind of artist. I think I see the world differently, and yet exactly the same as everyone around me, and feel I’ve been God-given the coolest ability to connect with strangers through stories.” journey, and I’m so damn proud of it, but we’re definitely just getting started.”
Estes co-wrote all of the songs on Before the Record, with the exception of “Your Hands,” which was penned by her good friends, songwriters Autumn McEntire and Marti Dodson and Matthew Morrisey.
Adding to her recent milestones, on March 4, Estes made her Grand Ole Opry debut, taking the historic circle with songs from her new project.
Estes caught up with Country Now to share her backstory, talk about her debut EP, and reveal her plans for the future.
Read on to find out more about Mae Estes in this exclusive Q&A below.
How did you begin your career in country music?
I started singing in front of folks for the first time when I was seven. I sang the national anthem at a rodeo and caught the bug from there. I have always had that entertainer spirit and liked to be the center of attention. It gave me a way to connect with complete strangers by doing something I love. So, after catching the bug at seven, I set out this plan and went from there.
Do you come from a musical family?
My family has a history of having some bluegrass bands and things like that. So I definitely think I have music in my bones passed down. But, my parents, themselves, are not super musical inclined. My mom is a great singer, but she’s shy about it. But they both have supported me from day one. When I was in fifth and sixth grade, they drove me to Glenwood, Arkansas, which is just a couple of hours away from my hometown. They brought me there every Tuesday night to sing on an AM radio show and took me all across Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. That did a lot for me. They got me my first guitar and helped me prioritize chasing my dreams. Then, the emotional support that they have given me over the years when I call them and say, ‘I’m moving home,’ all of them have kept me on track and helped me check off a lot of goals. I’m lucky to have a family that has always made me believe I could take off flying whenever I wanted to.
I read that you also went to college. Was it difficult to pursue music while earning a degree?
I set my sights officially on Nashville when I was in junior high. Coming from South Arkansas, there wasn’t much of a music scene there, especially a commercial music business industry, where I could make a career and pay my bills by playing music. So, I set my sights on Music City. That’s just what I had grown up learning that all of my heroes had made names for themselves in Nashville. When I graduated high school, I toured Belmont University in Nashville, which is the mecca, for a music business degree and networking. But I realized it would be unbelievably expensive. I was going to lose all of my in-state Arkansas scholarships. So, it just made sense for me to go to school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I went to Henderson State University and got my Bachelors in Mass Media Communication. Honestly, I felt like it was the responsible thing to do. I had no idea how much growing up I needed to do in college. I definitely hated going there. I was wanting to get back to Nashville. But, looking back now, I needed those few extra years, just a little way from home, just about 50 miles North, to grow up a little bit. Right after graduation, in August of 2015, I hit the road and finally got to Nashville, and that was just the beginning.
How did you navigate the music scene in Nashville?
When I first got to town, I didn’t know anyone except Josh Matheny, who is a great co-writer, producer, friend, and an incredible dobro player. I get to collaborate with him quite a bit. But our families had that bluegrass band together. So, my mom called his mom and asked if he would take me under his wing. He did immediately and just connected me with 20 years of his networking of friends and co-writers. So I lucked out, getting into a family up here pretty quickly, even though I was seven hours away from mine. So most of my relationships have stemmed from Josh Matheny. I give him lots of credit.
What led to your deal with Plaid Flag Music?
I was working in the restaurant industry. I have worked many jobs in Nashville, trying to make ends meet. And, I was working at a restaurant called, Tavern in Midtown in Nashville when COVID-19 hit. On March 16, 2020, they laid off all the staff. For the first time in several years, I had to think about what I wanted to do. By the time we were all getting weaned off of unemployment during COVID-19, I had built a great relationship with Kendall Warren at Plaid Flag and Stephanie Cox at Kobalt, who is the creative admin behind Plaid Flag Music. I ended up signing my first publishing deal, and creating a great publishing family. That publishing deal was what finally got me out of the restaurant industry. I officially became a full-time professional songwriter in 2020. That was such a dream come true. It still doesn’t feel real.
What was it like making that full-time switch to being a singer-songwriter?
With the development of social media and how many tools we have marketing-wise, I think my generation of independent artists are control freaks because we have to be. I think we all are wearing many hats that none of us have any business wearing as far as trying to – and I’ll speak for myself – but trying to design my website and merch and ship my merch. I run all of my socials and keep up with messages and comments and create content. All that is on top of writing full-time with a publishing deal, performing shows, doing live streams, and attending events. I’m married on top of that, so you know, you have your personal life. That’s a whole other part of that. So, it’s a lot. Having it become my job was a mental health struggle for a minute, you know, trying to process something I love that has always been my passion and outlet and that being a means to an end for my financials for the first time. So that was weird, but honestly, the biggest blessing ever. I have an incredible team around me who supports me and makes me comfortable to try everything. I feel compelled to create and couldn’t be happier. The most difficult part of signing your first publishing deal, in my case, was handing over my calendar. I used to keep a physical planner and still do, but I can’t use it as much anymore because I have to share my calendar with my publicist, publisher, and manager. So, now I have to keep it all digital. But it was hard to get used to somebody adding and taking stuff off of my calendar. But I’ve gotten used to that now, and I’m grateful to have somebody helping me organize my schedule.
You recently released your new EP. How does it feel to have this music out for the fans?
That has been literally almost eight years in the making, my first project. My uncle Billy, back in Arkansas, who has always supported me and my music handed me a dollar bill about 15 years ago. He said he couldn’t wait for my first CD to come out. So 15 years later, I am excited that I finally got to print a CD for the first time. It’s things like that, you know, that just kind of mark that milestone of your first project release. The EP is titled Before the Record. It’s six songs, and this is my first project to print. I just wanted to title it with the intention that bigger things are coming, and we’re gonna continue to grow, and I’m optimistic about getting a first record out shortly. I have songs I’m proud of, and already ready to put out an album. So, it’s kind of just a nod toward the future and the past. I want to sit in this spot I’m in now in my career. I think that as long as I have a work ethic and the people around me believe in me as they do, the sky’s the limit for us.
The only outside cut on the project is “Your Hands.” What drew you to that song enough to put it on your EP?
‘Your Hands’ is actually my love story. Every detail is true about my husband and me. Two of my best friends, Autumn McEntire and Marti Dodson, have known me and know my relationship with my husband closely. They got together with our incredible producer/friend Matthew Morrisey, a great songwriter and great guy in general. They wrote my love story because they know I tend to lean more toward cheating songs and things of that nature as a songwriter. I don’t process the sweet emotions as well. So they said it better than I ever could have, and it felt like an amazing opportunity to honor the incredible man I get to call my husband. It’s been the funniest thing. It’s like somebody reading my diary to me that I never even wrote down. But I feel lucky to have gotten to cut that song.
What was the process like for you in selecting songs for the EP?
I think I changed my mind every other day about what should be on there. When it’s your first project, you’re like, ‘What if this is the only project I’ll ever get to release?’ You put that kind of pressure on it, and it’s impossible to manage. With Before the Record, that was also a reminder for me to say, ‘Hey. This is one project.’ It’s my goal to have a Reba McEntire or Dolly Parton kind of career. I’m in it for the long haul, and this is just the beginning. But I would have loved to have 20 songs on it if it made sense financially. But I think we’ve done a little of everything on the EP. I’m proud of covering a lot of content. We’ve got some heavy pedal/steel stuff with ‘Thinkin’ Bout Cheatin.’
Then, we’ve got a modern early Shania Twain and The Judds feel with ‘I Quit Smokin’.’ ‘Die In A Bar’ has this Joe Diffie Honky-tonk vibe. And, ‘Your Hands’ is a love song, which I sure didn’t think we would have on there. But that one has become kind of a blue-collar love song.
How did ‘Run’ come about in the writing room?
I think it came from an authentic place in the early stage of my relationship with my now husband. I think I’ve always struggled with ‘leave or be left’ kind of abandonment issues. So, I have always been on the anti-commitment side, like, ‘I’m gonna leave before they have the chance to leave me or before they have the chance to hurt me’ kind of things in relationships. And in my life, I’ve seen many of those situations happen. So, I just became the person who didn’t want to get attached to anything, anyone, or anywhere because, through my experience, it ended up poorly. So, it turned into a full relationship commitment song, which is an easier analogy to use in general. It came from an organic place. I brought in the lines, ‘it’ll have to have the stakes so deep that I can’t pull it out of the ground / And it’ll have to have a chain real tight to make sure I’m tied down,’ that was all I brought in that day to my producer and songwriter. And we got that bouncy vibe. It’s such a cool, easy-listening track that feels different from anything else on the EP.
What do you want fans to take away from your EP?
I think this is an introduction for me. I hope people see my project, and whether or not they’ve heard my singles, I hope they turn the thing on and listen front to back and feel like they know me better as an artist when they’re done.
You recently made your Grand Ole Opry debut. Can you tell me about that?
Girl! March 4 was my debut and also my only nephew’s first birthday. So it was such a special day with many things coming together at once. The Grand Ole Opry was at the top of my bucket list when I moved to town. So it is the biggest thing that could happen to me as a deep-rooted country music fan, singer, artist, and writer. It’s so cool to tell my story on the Grand Ole Opry stage and not just sing, so it was an absolute honor. I feel lucky to be a part of country music. I hope to be the next Jeannie Seely and get to make the Opry my home. I’d be happy to play there for the rest of my life.
What’s next for you?
We have a very exciting year coming up. I think we’re gonna switch to where we will start growing the business side a little more. Hopefully, I can keep adding to my team. So I can have more time to focus on the creative stuff. Another thing that I am excited about is we recorded a three-part, one-take series. I had a couple of friends sing harmony and play with me, and we recorded some live one-take versions of the EP. Those are still a few months out. I’m very excited to deliver live performance videos and versions of these songs. From what I hear from my audience on socials, they love that raw sound, that real live vocal that isn’t perfected in production. I can’t wait to give them that.
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