NASHVILLE When Trisha Yearwood turned country music on its ear in 1991 with "She's in Love With the Boy," she also made a lasting impression on fellow Georgian and future singer/songwriter Cyndi Thomson.
Thomson's debut single, "What I Really Meant to Say," has topped Billboard's Country Singles Sales chart for eight consecutive weeks, selling over 70,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
The ballad, featured on Thomson's just-released debut album, My World, has reached the top 10 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
Growing up in Tifton, a small town in South Georgia, Thomson knew at age 12 she wanted to be a singer. A year later, while cleaning house with her mother and sisters, she saw the video for "She's in Love With the Boy" and knew she wanted to be a country singer.
"I think it was a divine experience," Thomson said in a thick Georgia drawl. "God really moves, and I think God specifically wanted me to be in that room, that day, watching that TV when 'She's in Love With the Boy' came on."
Her three older sisters exposed Thomson to a wide range of popular music including country. None of it moved her quite like Yearwood did.
"I had a 'Hee Haw' album that I loved, and I loved the Mandrell sisters, but when I saw Trisha, I knew that's what I wanted to do. She wasn't so traditional that it was unappealing to a 13-year-old."
Now, things have come full circle. Thomson opened for Yearwood four times in July. "It was strangely magnificent," she said, smiling at the memory. "During the first show, she spoke of me in her concert four or five times. It was kind of odd for me, because she has been such a big influence on me for so long, and there she was talking about me onstage."
In high school, Thomson often chose Yearwood's songs to sing at talent contests. She placed second in a festival at Auburn University singing "Wrong Side of Memphis."
Following Yearwood's example, Thomson moved to Nashville and enrolled in Belmont University's music business program while pursuing a recording career.
Later, she made ends meet as a waitress and part-time model. Working a modeling job at a platinum party for Deana Carter's Did I Shave My Legs for This?, she shaved her legs, over and over again. She also made a contact that would lead to a meeting with songwriter Tommy Lee James, whose credits include Brooks & Dunn's "A Man This Lonely," Martina McBride's "Wrong Again" and Reba McEntire's "And Still."
Based on a recommendation, James agreed to co-write with Thomson, not knowing she had never written a song.
"My mom told me to always walk like you know where you're going," Thomson said. "So I walked in there and pretended I knew how to write. I didn't lie to him. Very casually, I just agreed to write with him the next week."
Within a year of writing her first song with James, Thomson was signed to Sony/ATV/Tree Publishing. She quit her other jobs, concentrated on music and became more prolific. The creative chemistry with James has resulted in more than 80 songs so far. Eight appear on My World, including "What I Really Meant to Say," co-written with Chris Waters.
A chance meeting with an old boyfriend gave Thomson the idea for the song that would become her first hit. The aching lyrics deal with things left unsaid and the masking of feelings in a broken relationship.
"I didn't come to Nashville to be a writer," she admitted. "I came as an artist. But I knew writing was important, and I knew I could do it. I just needed someone to help me. To write songs, I've been able to call on movies and my life and my dreams and the poetry I love to read."
James co-produced My World with Dixie Chicks producer Paul Worley.
"He got a hold of my vision for myself," Thomson said. "I wouldn't call it traditional country. It's just Southern. It incorporates my influences and where I'm from."
Indeed, Thomson is proud of her small-town Southern roots. She wants a long, successful music career, but not at the cost of compromising the values she learned in Tifton as a member of a loving, churchgoing family.
"I want a good, normal life," she said assuredly. "I'm from the South, I have a very strong family and my three sisters are all married and have children. I want that, too."
Thomson has learned already that stardom can make it tough to keep her personal life private. Nashville's daily newspaper, the Tennessean, revealed recently that she dates Lance Smith, host of "CMT Most Wanted Live." (MTVi's parent company, Viacom, also owns CMT.)
"Lance and I laughed about it and thought it was strange that people find us interesting," she said. "But I also realize that, in some ways, we are role models and are recognizable.
"I want to know these kinds of things. I'm like, 'How are Carson Daly and Tara Reid?' I pick up People magazine just like everybody else and wonder what's going on in people's love lives."