Artistic Departure

Michael Feinstein wanted to get ‘Gershwin Country’ right

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Michael Feinstein considers his upcoming release of “Gershwin Country” as a labor of love. 

On the collection, he duets with a host of country singers, including Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett and Alison Krauss. It hits streaming services and stores on Friday, March 11. 

“It took several years to finish,” he says. “It was the kind of project that was the antithesis of everything else I worked on. We took our good old time with it. We knew it had to be right, as opposed to being ready Tuesday.”

A portion of the proceeds from the album’s sales will go to MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s philanthropic partner that provides health care and other services for those in the music industry.

Feinstein says the inspiration for “Gershwin Country” came from a very unlikely source.

“The idea of doing anything in the country realm originally came from Maya Angelou, whom I was visiting in Winston-Salem at her home,” he says. 

“She was one of the biggest fans of country music. When I queried her about it, she told me about great voices and storytellers. She would have executive produced the album, but she sadly passed away. The idea came back to me all these years later when I was waking up one morning and this idea popped into my head. As I thought more about it, it turned into a real possibility.”

Feinstein yearned to make the process and the album authentic. So, he and his team worked on “Gershwin Country” in Nashville with “the greatest Nashville band we could assemble.”

He chose songs that he felt would adapt very well to that idiom — and he said they did. 

“A number of the artists who came to this project didn’t know the songs,” Feinstein says. “It wasn’t about if they knew Gershwin or not. It was about the song. If they could relate to the emotion in the song, they could sing it.”

Recording “Gershwin Country” was artistically different for Feinstein, but the collaborations were hard.

“The assembly of the idea was the hard part — choosing the songs, figuring out the keys and the routines — because I wanted these to be very interactive duets, not you sing a phrase and I sing a phrase. 

“There is a very strong purpose for singing these songs as duets. I took a great deal of thought and contemplation to recreate these songs so the duets would seem natural. I think the end result is a very natural and rich musical experience.”

Vibrant career

An Ohio native, Feinstein has built a successful career over the last three decades bringing the music of the Great American Songbook to the world. From recordings that have earned him five Grammy Award nominations to his Emmy-nominated PBS specials, his acclaimed NPR series, and concerts spanning the globe — in addition to his appearances at iconic venues such as the White House, Buckingham Palace, Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House — his work as an educator and archivist defines Feinstein.

In 2007, he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, MasterClasses, and the annual High School Songbook Academy. 

His holiday album, “A Michael Feinstein Christmas” from Concord Records, features Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Alan Broadbent (Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole). 

Feinstein earned his fifth Grammy Award nomination in 2009 for “The Sinatra Project,” his CD celebrating the music of “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” “The Sinatra Project, Volume II: The Good Life” was released in 2011. He released the CDs “The Power of Two” — collaborating with “Glee” and “30 Rock” star Cheyenne Jackson — and “Cheek to Cheek,” recorded with Broadway legend Barbara Cook. 

For Feinstein’s CD “We Dreamed These Days,” he co-wrote the title song with Angelou.

Feinstein was named principal pops conductor for the Pasadena Symphony in 2012 and made his conducting debut in June 2013 to celebrated critical acclaim. 

Pasadena is close to Feinstein’s heart, as he lives there part time. 

“It’s peaceful,” he says. “There’s half the traffic of greater LA. The Arroyo is incredibly special. I commune with horses and stables. There’s a tremendous balance of city and nature. It’s on a level that I am. It’s a great blessing, and we’ve all been waiting a long time for the world to open.” 

In Pasadena, Feinstein enjoys the Rose Bowl Flea Market, which he called “tremendous fun.” He also enjoys Book Alley, as it’s “one of the last surviving independent used bookstores.”

“Certainly, going to antique stores on Fair Oaks Avenue is something I enjoy doing,” he says. “I enjoy exploring the greater area. I’ve explored Altadena and Sierra Madre, and hiking in the hills.

“I love getting a sense of the area that is so beautiful and bucolic. I also love the spiritual history of the area. I’m a vegan, and there are a lot of great vegan restaurants in the area. It’s fun to discover all the vegan choices.”

Last August, Feinstein shared his love of Ol’ Blue Eyes with “Michael Feinstein Sings Sinatra’s Songbook.” 

“That’ll be a show where I’ll be singing instead of conducting,” he said. “I’ve pulled a whole bunch of classic arrangements and new charts we’re creating for the show. 

“It’s a combination of classic signature with unexpected surprises,” Feinstein says. 

“I met Mr. Sinatra, and he was very nice to me and was supportive of my career. I was hired to play the piano at Barbara’s 60th birthday.”

Feinstein was in his 20s, and Sinatra was impressed he knew the classics. 

“He said, ‘How old are you? Twelve?’” Feinstein says with a laugh. “He and his wife invited me over for dinner. It was a magical experience. It’s a treasured memory, and I try to evoke a sense of the special nature of what he did. I want (patrons) to revel in the legacy of that extraordinary music.”

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