As a child, Mae Estes dreamed for a day like February 16th; a day where a lifetime of musical passion culminated in the release of something she could hold, something she could give to others. When the day rolled around, Estes was able to present an EP, Before the Record, filled with songs that paint the truest picture of who she is as an artist to date.
Luckily, Estes didn’t stop dreaming, though. Just 16 days after the release of her EP, she will play those same songs in the circle at the Grand Ole Opry, the same circle where each of her traditional country heroes played the songs that helped her form the artistic identity she injected into Before the Record.
We chatted with Estes all about Before the Record, as well as her upcoming Opry debut, lessons learned, her favorite Keith Whitley song and more!
Pro Country: Your bio mentions that you began performing at a very young age. What was it about performing and being in front of audiences that connected with you so early in your life?
Mae Estes: I think I liked being the center of attention [laughs]. I did tap, cheer and ballet, so I was constantly in the living room trying to entertain anybody that would watch. I started singing in public at a rodeo I was in. I asked my mom to give me a shot at letting me sing instead of playing the LeAnn Rimes tape, and she handed me a microphone and sent me to the middle of the arena to sing in front of everybody. At seven, I think people are a little kinder than the would’ve been if I sang like that now, but I caught the bug. Whether people were smiling or laughing, I felt connected with them. That’s when I realized I had a supernatural gift; a God-given ability to connect with strangers, and I happened to love doing it. I knew I wanted to be behind a microphone as much as I possible could.
PC: When does catching that musical bug translate into realizing you wanted to and actually could pursue music as a career?
ME: I have to credit my family. I was raised in a very supportive family. They truly get the credit for making me believe I could do absolutely anything I wanted to. I was born with a lot of determination and stubbornness, but I was raised to believe I could do whatever I wanted to. I’m from southwest Arkansas, so there wasn’t a big music scene. I very quickly realized that if I wanted to have the Dolly Parton career or Reba McEntire career that I was going to have to go to Music City. I set my sights on Nashville in 7th grade; that was the place I knew I had to be to get started at it. I knew if I wanted to make a living and take care of the people I love and use music for business, Nashville was where I needed to be.
PC: When the time came where you moved to Nashville in 2015, what emotions were you feeling as you were making that leap and moving away from home?
ME: It was definitely scary, but all of the fear was outweighed by the excitement and possibilities. I had a lot of faith in myself and support from my family. Any time I called my mom saying, “This is stupid, what am I thinking? Everybody’s so good and I’m so poor! How am I gonna do this?” Mama would say, “You wouldn’t be there if you weren’t supposed to be.” Those calls kept me going. I was a fish out of water for sure, though. I had never used a parking meter before [laughs]. Nashville was like New York City to this small-town Arkansan. It was a shock as much as it was exciting. My hometown is still a dry county, so I’d never even spent time in a bar. I moved here at 21 and went to town on all the things I was missing out on [laughs].
PC: You had the opportunity to play The Bluebird Café in 2019. What was it like to perform at such a legendary venue where so many hit songs have been played?
ME: I have the coolest Bluebird journey! Grand Ole Opry has always been at the top of my goal list, but The Bluebird was right under that, and it felt more feasible because they hold quarterly auditions. The first auditions that were held, I went and sat on the sidewalk outside and waited until they let me in to sing a verse and a chorus of a song. The song I sang was called “Thrift Store Heart,” which was my first co-write at the time. I ended up making it through auditions, and they let me play their Sunday writer’s night, which is like an open mic with an audition process. I ended up meeting my first producer and incredible friend, Justin Klump, and he offered to produce my first song for free, and he ended up producing “Naked,” “Best Side” and “Too Much,” so The Bluebird is a really special place to me. I can’t even begin to consider the history and all of my heroes who have gotten their start there. It’s so overwhelming. There’s a crazy magic in that room. Any audience I’ve met there, they’ve turned into lifelong fans. There’s people I met the first time I played that are still following my journey religiously. It’s magical.
PC: You had plenty of solid success with your early single releases, but your 2021 single, “Roses,” skyrocketed out of the gate and has earned millions of streams across platforms. What was it like to tangibly see the success that song earned and the life it has had?
ME: That was the first real taste. It’s funny now that songs like “Naked” are being added to a bunch of playlists and people are saying that’s one of their favorites. It’s funny how they get old to us as artists and songwriters; I’m a full-time songwriter, so songs get buried very quickly for me. “Roses” truly felt like a new era for my sound. It felt like we tapped into something that felt traditional and still felt so fresh. It felt reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt and some of my favorite artists, while still defining me as an artist. I have to give a lot of credit to TikTok too. I avoided TikTok like the plague like every other traditional artist, but once I dove in and could understand that all those usernames and likes were actual human beings interacting with my music, it translated for me. I definitely couldn’t have imagined how many people that song has resonated with.
PC: You’ve released several singles in the past, but your new EP, Before the Record, serves as the first collection of songs you’ve released. Why did you feel it was the right time to package these songs together, and how much have you been looking forward to being able to present music that way?
ME: I’m so looking forward to it! I grew up on classic country music, so I lean really traditional in my taste. I’m a singer first and a songwriter second. I bought into artists when I was younger. It was listening to an album from front to back. I leaned into the perspective of the artists and the songs they picked and how they had a theme running through the middle of it somehow. This a six-song EP, which feels like nothing to me after writing songs and making music in town for eight years. I’m super sad that a lot of those songs have been singled, but there’s a new release on there with “Town Left Me.” That made the most financial sense for me as an artist at the time; I had to be very scrappy financially. I don’t come from any money, so it made sense for me to drag out such a big financial investment. We’re printing my first CD with this release, which appeals to the little girl in me who had all of those CDs and asked anybody ever to sign them. Designing the artwork was the coolest thing. I hope it’s an introduction to me as an artist for people who haven’t gotten to hear all of the singles yet. It feels like an actual stamp on the country music industry, and I’m so excited to leave it.
PC: “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Cheatin’” is closing in on one million streams on Spotify alone. What do you think it is about that song that has allowed it to continue to connect with listeners?
ME: I still don’t know what to expect when I play that song [laughs]. I know that it’s offended some people who don’t take the time to hear what I’m saying in the song. I’m not sure if it’s the content or the production, because it definitely leans more traditional country with a pedal steel kick at the beginning. It’s a good two-step tempo, so I think the sound in general is something that a lot of us country music listeners are really hungry to hear again. Personally, I’m so proud of the content. It’s an untouched idea in my mind to be that direct as the narrator in the conversation. I was trying to ride the line of getting people’s attention with the song title and also cover something that’s really important. I think we’d all have a lot better shot at happy and long-lasting marriages if we respected each other enough to have that direct, uncomfortable communication. Whatever people need to get out of that song, even if they’re pissed off after they hear it, that’s great too [laughs]. In the end, it’s a deep message for me that was inspired by all of the females who had something to say, like Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton; women who weren’t afraid to say what they thought needed to be said. That’s what that song is for me.
PC: Is the success of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Cheatin’” especially gratifying as it was the first single you released from Before the Record?
ME: I think it’s a great introductory song for me. If anybody had to hear one of my songs, I would want it to be that one, because I think it’s a good taste of what to expect from me moving forward. It also had a lot of fun things around it. I got to make my first music video for that song. My actual husband agreed to be in the video, so I’m sure there will have to be marriage counseling for that at some point [laughs]. CMT featured the video, which was another dream come true, because I grew up watching CMT religiously. It had a lot of exciting things around it as the first release from the EP. It started a new chapter, and I can’t wait to keep doing it for as long as I can.
PC: You had the great line earlier of being a singer first and a songwriter second. “Your Hands” is the only song on Before the Record that you didn’t have a hand in writing, as it was penned by Autumn McEntire, Marti Dodson and Matthew Morrisey. Can you talk about how you heard the song and what drew you to record it?
ME: That was a very strange experience. I’m definitely open to outside cuts, but when you’re in Nashville as an independent artist, people don’t throw songs at you, because they’re saving them for the artists that are on major labels. I get that to an extent, but this one was a special case. We were on a writing retreat for me as an artist, so I got to pick the writers that I’ve worked really well with in the past year, and we all went down to Florida on a writing retreat. I could only be in one write at a time, so all of my favorite writers were also writing together separately when I was in another write. Autumn and Marti have been best friends of mine since I got to town, and Matt was a new friend, but very talented. They literally got together and wrote my love story. It felt like somebody reading a diary page to me that I had never written down. It so was uncomfortable and I cried so hard in front of so many people I didn’t want to cry in front of [laughs]. I knew immediately that that was better than I could have ever said it myself. My husband absolutely deserved a love song meant just for us, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have inspired it and be the artist that got to cut it.
PC: “Town Left Me” is our favorite song on Before the Record, and is a song you wrote with Autumn McEntire and Paul Sikes. Can you take us in the room and talk about how the song came together?
ME: That’s another one that hits close to home. I can’t think too hard about why I wrote it when I’m singing it or I’ll get emotional. Autumn and Paul are two of my very best friends and co-writers. We’ve gotten really close, because when you’re songwriting, especially the vulnerable writing that I want to do, you have to let all of your walls down with each other. I had been back in Arkansas visiting family, and I came back and told them that I almost missed the turn to my mom and dad’s driveway. I could make that drive with my eyes closed when I lived there, so it was a physical moment for me when I realized that it wasn’t my home anymore. I don’t mean that like it isn’t a safe place to run to, but that place went on without me. I don’t even know half of the things there anymore. I brought in that line: “Just looking around at all the things that have changed since I left,” and we started spiraling on it. Paul was the one that came up with “I know I’m the one that left this town, but it feels more like this town left me.” That hit the nail on the head. I started playing it out over the years at rounds and sharing it on social media, and it’s taken on a life of its own. Everyone can put their own story in it, because homesickness is a universal thing; whether you moved next door to your parents or when you were leaving for college or if you packed up, threw it all on red and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to chase your dreams seven and a half hours away from everything you’d ever known. I found out that we’re all a lot more similar than we realized. I think this song might actually be a sneaker, I’m excited to see what it does. It’s one of the proudest songs that I’ve been a part of.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from Before the Record after listening all the way through?
ME: I hope they feel like they know me and my perspective better. I hope they know what I want to say and know the music I intend to make. Because I’m human, I hope everyone loves it, but mostly, I hope it gets the exposure to where people get to make up their own minds about it. I don’t think I’m going to be for everybody; “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Cheatin’” is a great example. I’m not here to please everybody, I’m here to say things that I feel need to be said, and hopefully have enough thick skin to withstand any of the critiques that come with it. This is only the beginning, so I’m excited to give it a life and a taste of what’s to come. I have so, so many songs and stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to a Dolly Parton kind of career doing that, if I have anything to say about it.
PC: You’re set to make your Grand Ole Opry debut on March 4th. Can you take us through how the news was broke to you and the emotions you’re feeling as the day approaches?
ME: Picture me blubbering crying; that’s the best image [laughs]. I don’t do surprises well. In general, I’m very emotional. I’m a creative and a songwriter, so it makes sense that we feel things very heavily. We create our whole lives around those feelings. I was so unprepared. I actually worked at a restaurant years ago, and there was a hostess up front. I had no idea, but after Covid, she went to work for the Opry in Artist Relations. I didn’t know that when we went for coffee and to catch up, and she told me that she had been trying to get her team to hear what I was doing for over a year. She told me they had finally agreed to let me do my Opry intro, which is where you go in and play for the team. That went great, and they asked me to play their holiday party a week later. I played a six-song set with Josh Matheney, my dobro player and an incredible songwriter, producer and session player in town. I thought it went great, and I was being all smarty-pants and telling them I hoped to see them in the circle soon and thanked them for having me, then the MC came up and said, “I think Josh has something he’d like to ask you.” And I said “Oh my gosh.” I worked at the Grand Ole Opry when I first got to town, so it’s a special, full-circle moment for me; it was especially full-circle to get to play in front of all of their employees. That means more to me than probably a lot of artists because I was one of those employees. I saved my nametag from my days at the Opry, so I plan to wear it on stage. It’s a big, full-circle moment for me that I’m so grateful for.
PC: You mentioned earlier that 2023 is your eighth year in Nashville. In that time, what do you think has been the biggest thing you’ve learned along the way?
ME: I think with the season I’m in right now, I’m really trying to slow down. I think I’ve had my head down and accomplished so many things that I can’t even believe by working so hard, but I want to make sure that I enjoy this journey that I’m on. There’s no top of the mountain you get to where you get to celebrate; Miley Cyrus said, “It’s the climb,” and it really is. I don’t think I realized that until dreams like the Grand Ole Opry happened. That was number one on my list, so I thought to myself, “what do I do now? I can give up after March 4th, we’re good to go!” [laughs]. I’m hoping to slow down and allow myself to celebrate things as they should be celebrated; whether something is critically acclaimed or I’m just really proud of something that I did and proud to have people that believe in me that have created it with me. That alone is worth celebrating. I wish that’s something I started doing when I first got to town. But I have no regrets on my journey. I’m learning to let myself be proud of myself and celebrate me and my whole team.
PC: Along with promoting Before the Record, what do you have planned for 2023?
ME: So many things! I have big dreams and they end up falling in line where they do, but we already have some international shows booked this year! We’re heading back to Europe, and that is mind-blowing. Like I said, I had never used a parking meter when I move to Nashville, and now I get to travel to Sweden to play music. That is unbelievable to me. We also have some acoustic, one-take video series episodes coming out for the EP. My audience seems to love my live vocal, so we went ahead and made a full video series of live vocal takes of the EP re-imagined, so I’m very excited to show both sides of the EP. We printed these CDs, and I’m excited to get them in the hands of everybody who has shown up to shows, believed in me and supported me. There’s so many exciting things, and I’m ready for a full record as soon as I can get my dots in a line.
PC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
ME: My website says “Just tryin’ to make Mama and Keith Whitely proud.” I think that’s a great introduction. If anyone cares to know the artist behind the songs, that’s all I’m in it for. I feel like a vessel with a God-given ability to use this tool to connect with people, and as cheesy as it sounds, make a difference in the world. This is a tool, like anything else, that has potential to bring a lot of people together and make a difference and leave the world better than we found it. I have the biggest dreams in the world, and I hope anyone that feels connected to that jumps on board, because we have a lot of fun stuff coming up!
PC: With that mantra in mind, we can’t let you go without hearing your favorite Keith Whitley song.
ME: You are really trying to get your girl’s brain working after a write today [laughs]. At my wedding, I danced to “That’s Where I Want to Take Our Love.” The guitar part on that song is just incredible. I think I’m gonna say “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” I really identify with that song. I haven’t had it easy; I’ve paid my dues and lived a hell of a life before I even got to Nashville. I feel empowered by my journey. I wasn’t at my happiest working in the Opry shop for nine dollars an hour when I first got to town, on top of another job. A lot of those things coming to fruition right now make me so grateful for every hard day, because it’s so much sweeter when you get to reap the benefits of that. I’m grateful for my journey, but I’m definitely no stranger to the rain, so I feel most seen by that song. But you can put Keith Whitley’s voice on anything and I’m sold.
*All images by Marisa Taylor
**Before the Record is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!**
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