Wendy Moten Is Ready for Her Moment, After Decades as a Backup Singer: ‘I Feel Like an Artist Again’
Rarely does a backing vocalist step out from underneath the shadow of their superstar counterpart, but that's exactly what happened at Vince Gill's Ryman Auditorium residency in Nashville earlier this month, when his backup-singer-turned-special-guest Wendy Moten took the spotlight for a mini-set in the middle of the show.
Moten's revamped billing wasn't a one-off for the Ryman: The singer, who has been touring with Gill since 2016, has occupied a growing place in his show over the past couple of years, with set lists that re-imagine the hierarchy of onstage stardom, and allow for some script-flipping moments where Moten takes the mic and Gill takes a step back from the audience to accompany her on guitar.
In terms of her growing role in Gill's show, Moten's career path has some common DNA with Joanna Cotten, backing singer and close collaborator to Eric Church, whose raw talent and stage presence earned her a grassroots fan base among concertgoers at his shows. Cotten recently left Church's touring band to return to a solo musical career that she first pursued in the mid-2000s, and Moten's roots as a multi-genre solo artist stretch back even further: In the early '90s, she inked a deal with EMI and released a solo album, whose biggest hit — "Come in Out of the Rain" — reached the No. 5 spot on the adult contemporary chart.
"I was a recording artist in the '90s, and that ended, and I became a background singer to the stars," Moten tells Taste of Country. Her career path has been long and winding. She accepted a job as a touring musician with Julio Iglesias, a gig that lasted 15 years and required her to sing in four different languages.
"I only speak English," she clarifies, "But we had to sing in four languages, and that changed my life. I felt like I was getting paid to learn to be a better singer and better communicator through song, because he's one of those living legends — and he was teaching me."
Her association with Iglesias' tour quickly began to up her profile as a backing singer worth booking. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill hired her for their Soul2Soul Tour in 2006; that engagement would wind up lasting well over a decade. She toured with Martina McBride for a couple of years, too, and sang backing vocals in studio sessions for artists like Bonnie Tyler.
In 2016, she signed on as a backing singer for Gill, a gig that would turn out to be fateful for her work as an artist, too. Moten had never lost sight of her original goal: Every time she stood on stage, the proverbial 15 feet away from stardom, she carefully studied Iglesias, McGraw, Hill and the rest of her celebrity bosses.
"I wanted to know, 'What are they doing differently that I'm not doing?'" Moten remembers. "And it was nothing. So it just lets me know that even on the highest of levels, if you have done the work and are qualified, go after that."
When she began working with Gill, she did just that. Moten prepped for the Country Music Hall of Famer's tour by studying the women of country from from the late '60s and early '70s and, at the suggestion of touring pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, floated the idea of an album full of traditional country covers to Gill. He was enthusiastic about the idea, so much so that he signed on to produce it for her.
"And he was like, 'I'm not gonna tell you how to sing anything. I want you to use your own interpretation.' I thought that was really great," she remembers. The result was I've Got You Covered, a 2020 album full of the singer's take on classics by artists like Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry and Dolly Parton.
Moten is quick to specify that she's not a country artist, per se — "I sing [everything from] psalms to traditional country to Elvis and Paul Simon," she rattles off — and many of the artists whose songs she recorded for I've Got You Covered are just as chameleonic and genre-omnivorous as she is. But for her, one of the most important things about the project was that it offered her a window into a new career chapter as a mainstage act.
"I was ready to be a solo artist again and I didn't know how to get back there," she relates. "After doing this record, I felt like an artist again."
She also credits I've Got You Covered with giving her the gumption to try out for The Voice a couple of years later. "Had I not done that Vince Gill project and felt like an artist again, I don't think I would've had what it takes to be a competitor in front of billions of people," she admits.
Her decision to audition for the show also came at a crossroads that was foisted on her — and the rest of the world — when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Her touring gigs stalled; she wasn't sure whether or not they'd ever return. By this time, Moten was in her mid-50s.
"The music business is a young person's game. You may be great in your 50s, but no one really cares," she points out. "So I figured I needed television."
Moten put an audition tape together at home, figuring that if the show said no, she'd never have to tell anybody that she even tried out. But they didn't say no: In fact, she went all the way to the finale on Season 21 of the show, landing the runner-up spot under the auspice of Team Blake Shelton. She recalls her Voice stint as a fundamental change, a push towards reigniting her solo career at a time when she thought her days as a background singer might be finished for good.
"It was like, you can either try to rekindle your love for music and be a solo artist — which is what I really wanted — or you can go work in the post office or something. Because this is all I've ever known. I don't have any skills," she explains. "I asked myself, 'Do you have the courage to at least give this a try before you have to change your life completely?'"
Once on the show, she knew that being three decades older than the bulk of her competitors made her an inspiration to anyone worried that they're too old to follow their dreams.
"That was one of the goals going on the show. To prove that people over 50 have value. We still have value. I just got great. It took all these years," Moten affirms. "Every time the camera was in my face, I made sure to tell the real story. I've been doing this for 35 years. That's older than some of the producers."
Still, over the course of her lengthy and varied tenure in music, one of the biggest and most difficult lessons she's learned is also one of the simplest. Moten's four-night Ryman residency with Gill was only her second time playing the Ryman as a featured artist, though she's played the hallowed venue many times as a backing singer. Ahead of her four early-August dates there, Moten said she was determined to soak up every second onstage.
"I treat each moment like it's golden," she says, when asked what she's most looking forward to or anxious about. "Just the fact that I will be in the Ryman with Vince Gill ... that's already a miracle in itself. I'm not gonna think about it until after it's over."
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