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Published: Sunday, 12/10/2006

Going country for Christmas

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Steve Azar Steve Azar
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It s three weeks before Christmas and Deana Carter is on the treadmill in the athletic center of Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

I just ate a doughnut. Now I m trying to figure out what to eat at the [pre-show] spread, she says, chuckling.

Minutes earlier, Steve Azar was on a nearby treadmill, burning off excess energy and fighting off boredom ahead of that night s GAC Country Christmas Tour show.

For 20 dates, Carter and Azar are teaming up with Julie Roberts, Bucky Covington, and Blue County. Buddy Jewell was scheduled to be on the tour, but he was replaced by Covington, the former American Idol finalist, after Jewell broke his wrist when he fell from a ladder while hanging decorations on his home.

The tour rolls into Toledo tomorrow for a show at the Stranahan Theater. It will be a chance for Carter and Azar to sing some of their favorite holiday songs and many of their hits, but it will also be one day closer to getting off the road and reuniting with their families for Christmas celebrations.

All Christmases are special, but to me, it s just the thought of being there at home, Azar said. I love waking up and seeing the kids happy.

As one of five children in a family that is devoutly religious, Christmas has always been a big part of Azar s life.

But, he says, Even though I was in a big family, I don t remember growing up as much as I remember the Christmases with my own kids and wife.

Although he spends the majority of his time on the road, he s home each December by the 23rd without fail so he can enjoy the holidays with his wife, Gwen, sons, Strack, 7, and Adrian, 9, and daughter Cecilia, 6.

We have a tradition. We ll go see It s a Wonderful Life. We ll go into this old, ornate theater and watch this black-and-white movie that I used to watch with my dad. Then we ll go out to eat, go to Mass, come home and make a nice dinner, then the kids get to open one present. It s my best memory because I get to relive it every year.

This year, in particular, Azar, 42, has plenty of reasons to be thankful. After finishing up the GAC tour, he ll join Bob Seger s tour for four sold-out shows in Detroit.

I told Bob that that s the nicest thing that s ever happened to me. He mattered a lot to me growing up.

Deana Carter Deana Carter
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But more than anything, Azar s excited about his upcoming album, Indianola, which will be released next month. It s steeped in the imagery and feel of the Mississippi Delta, his home, and it s the first album to be released by his own label, Dang Records.

Musically on this album, I played whatever I could, probably some instruments that are illegal, he said, chuckling. It s got that Delta background, but really it s a fusion of my life in Nashville and the Delta.

Dang Records had its roots in Azar s dissatisfaction with Nashville s music-industry politics, and plans for the label were accelerated after he lost his record deal with Mercury Records. With Mercury, Azar released his biggest hits, I Don t Have to Be Me ( Til Monday) and Waiting on Joe.

The label talked the game of being there for singers/songwriters, but it didn t work out that way, he said. Dang is something I ve wanted to do for a long time. I want it to be this boutique for singer/songwriters who are great at what they do. The format doesn t matter. I want to help the singer/songwriter who wants to entertain.

On the GAC tour, Azar has a philosophical and career-path peer in Carter, who also grew restless with some of the restraints Nashville put on its artists. Like Azar, she talks with pride of being a singer/songwriter.

Following the multi-platinum success of Did I Shave My Legs for This?, which produced three No. 1 hits, Strawberry Wine, How Do I Get There, and We Danced Anyway, Carter released two albums that produced disappointing sales. Following a divorce, and looking to renew her creative energy, she moved to Los Angeles and signed with indie Vanguard Records, where last year she released the pop-tinged The Story of My Life.

I m a native of Nashville. I ve seen it from the inside out, said Carter, whose father, Fred Carter, Jr., was one of the top studio musicians in Nashville. I think there s a theory there that if it s not broke, don t fix it. It s hard to go outside the lines and be a risk-taker.

Carter was looking for the chance to express herself along the lines of Avril Lavigne on one song, yet return to her Southern roots on another. She was able to do that on The Story of My Life.

There are some people out there who love Journey and Simon & Garfunkel but also like George Strait and my music. ... I ve never put people in genre jail.

She s quick to add that her move to Los Angeles was not an indictment of the Nashville culture. I dig being Southern. I m proud of that. It was just time for me to go. I was single, young, had some talent, and I d always felt that I wanted to be in L.A. I grew up when the variety show was king the Donnie and Marie era, Carter, 40, said. As a kid, I always wanted to be on stage or TV. The cards just kind of fell where they did.

In Los Angeles, she has played on soundtracks and was the voice of Anastasia in the animated film of the same name. She has grown to love the quirkiness and differences in Southern Californians, including the fact that few people understand what sweet tea is. However, she sees herself moving back to Nashville, especially now that her parents are getting older. The GAC tour reinforces the importance of Christmas for Carter.

Like Azar, her family stressed the religious significance of the holiday. I was blessed to have a mother who instilled the love of Jesus and the meaning of Christmas in me.

As the parent of a young son, Gray Hayes Hicky, she pledges to do the same, but she giddily talks about the secular side of Christmas and the fun she plans on having with it.

Last year, Santa came a little bit. He got a taste of it. But this year he s 2, so he gets the gist of what s coming. It s going to be fun to be a kid again.

The GAC Country Christmas Tour will be at the Stranahan Theater Monday at 7:30 p.m. Deana Carter, Julie Roberts, Blue County, Steve Azar, and Bucky Covington will be singing Christmas classics and their hits. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the World Vision Storehouse Project, a community store that collects donated goods to support families and neighborhoods. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the Stranahan box office by calling 419-474-1333, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com.



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