It all started with a vacuum cleaner.
Steve Wilkinson, patriarch songwriter of The Wilkinsons, the
family-friendly Ontario-based contemporary country music trio that
includes his daughter Amanda and son Tyler, recalls the day he wrote
“26 Cents,” the song that would change their lives forever. Back in the day when music was still the household’s pipe dream -- and
struggling to make ends meet after an unexpected downsizing at a
nuclear power plant and a shortage of work as a carpenter in
Belleville, Ontario -- Steve took menial jobs in order to feed his
family, which also includes his wife Chris and young daughter Kiaya. “Things weren’t great up here,” Steve says, recalling a time when the
family frequented food banks and barely had 26 cents to rub together. “I was working as much as I could. I cleaned a restaurant for $25 three
hours work in the morning. Truth be told, that’s where ‘26 Cents’ was
“I literally stopped part way through my cleaning job, ran out to my
Ford Granada and I sang what I had of ‘26 Cents’ into a little handheld
It’s only natural that “26 Cents” – the “penny for your thoughts and a
quarter for the call” account of a mother’s unconditional love for her
daughter -- would open the trio’s watermark new Universal Music Canada
album The Greatest Hits …And Then Some. It’s the song that launched the good ship Wilkinson into the mainstream: a Nashville record deal and a U.S. gold album with Nothing But Love, a Top 3 Billboard Country chart hit (No. 2 in overall sales),
multiple Grammy nomination, numerous CMA, ACM and Juno nominations, aswell as a five-trophy sweep at the 1999 Canadian Country Music Awards. Most importantly, perhaps, is that “26 Cents” ushered in a lasting
career that’s now entering its second decade.
It’s a vocation that has been the inspiration for such big hits as the
Top 20 “Fly,” and “Jimmy’s Got A Girlfriend” as well as “26 Cents,”
all of them specially re-recorded for The Greatest Hits…And Then Some;
fan favourites like “Shame On Me” and “1999”; and soon-to-be classics
like “You Heal Me,” “Diamonds,” “Your Car”
and the first single, “When I’m Old.”
Along the way, The Wilkinsons have touched audiences around the world,
from Germany to Australia, from Croatia to Japan, and of course, North
America, with Amanda’s incredible voice, Tyler's dazzling musicianship, meaningful songs that have been co-authored by all three Wilkinsons and the tight, exuberant family harmonies that, as Amanda describes them,
are “instant magic.”
“Looking back over 10 years of having a record deal, I think it’s
amazing what five people – a dream – and determination, complete belief
in one another – could do,” says Tyler.
There have been unimaginable highs – such as sharing the stage at
numerous times with the likes of Alan Jackson, Patti LaBelle and John
Mayer – as well as the 1999 groundbreaking for Nashville’s $37 million
Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum. Representing four generations
of country music at the ceremony were Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire,
Trisha Yearwood -- and Amanda.
There have been devastating lows. Confidences have been shaken, and some have tried to manipulate the tight-knit family bond and destroy the musical equilibrium that is The Wilkinsons. But the numerous threats and setbacks have only strengthened the
tenacity of the family. The Greatest Hits…And Then Some is not only the travelogue of that resolve, but the window to the future.
“We always will do music together,” says Amanda. “And no matter what kind of outside forces have tried to dictate what we do, that will always happen. It’s natural. It’s what we’ve always done.” Sitting on t he porch of the family’s 5000 sq. ft. log cabin, the construction of which was immortalized in the two-season, Gemini
Award-winning, Country Music Television reality series The Wilkinsons, Steve, Amanda and Tyler are still pinching themselves on how their good fortune has played out.
This is the 17th year of their musical union: the seven years prior to their Nashville “overnight success” was spent honing their act and suffering rejection from every major label in Canada. The Wilkinsons had no choice but to head to Music City, Tennessee. “It just flips me out that 10 years ago, we went to Nashville in that old yellow ’82 Cadillac, hauling a pop-out tent trailer,” recalls Steve Wilkinson. “That’s how we were going to survive. We had this little dingy apartment in a questionable building where a couple of times, while we lived there, it felt like an episode of Cops– because there’d be officers coming in the front and guys with guns going out the back window in the apartment next door.”
Even if the U.S. refused to embrace them, the Wilkinsons would have continued pounding on doors until the right one opened.
“I don’t think we had any illusions about how easy or how hard it was,”pipes up Amanda. “We always were determined, even when we lived here, to just plow through as a family. When we had no money, our attitude was , let’s pull together, and we’re going to do more gigs and we’re going to pay the bills.”
“That’s the great thing about playing music,” Tyler interjects. “You can be so nervous – especially at the stage we were at – but as soon as Amanda opens her mouth and we start singing together , it feels comfortable . It feels like home.”
Luckily for them, it didn’t take long for Music Row record company executives to agree. With only $17,000– less the $2500 that they shelled out to perform at an Atlanta club for an investor showcase -- to their name, the Wilkinsons met a heavyweight lawyer through that showcase as well as singer Mark Wills, who asked if he could record “26 Cents.”
“I turned Mark down,” recalls Steve. “And during the four hour drive back to Nashville, I thought,
‘what have I done? I’m such an idiot.’” That sentiment was short-lived.
An invitation from songwriter Reese Wilson (the chart-toppers “She Can’t Say I Didn’t Cry” and “Not On Your Love”) during a performance at Nashville’s famed Broken Spoke nightclub to step on stage found The Wilkinsons dazzling the crowd, as a request to perform one song turned into four before they were through. That was on a Saturday. By Monday, The Wilkinsons – on their 10th day in Nashville – we’re in the midst of a label bidding war. A week later, the trio met and sang for Vince Gill, who – moved to tears by Amanda’s spectacular voice -- surprised them by inviting them up onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry where he accompanied them on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
"Vince is a huge supporter of ours,” says Amanda. “Even to this day, we
run into him. He’s like an uncle now.” The whirlwind continued, as The Wilkinsons signed with Nashville-based
Giant Records, watched “26 Cents” rocket up the charts and quickly recorded their debut album Nothing But Love.
“We agreed to the deal, and a month later we were in the studio,” Steve recalls. “Less than a year after we moved there, we’re holding on to a No. 1 and then less than a year after we started cutting, we had our first Grammy nomination. We were hanging around the Green Room at the Grammy’s chatting with Will Smith while still wondering how we got
there .” The trio barely had time to catch their breath before they were back nto the studio working on Here And Now, which featured “Jimmy’s Got A Girlfriend” -- Tyler’s first lead vocal on a single; “1999” and the Steve Wilkinson-Gary Burr co-write “Shame On Me.” Here And Now also earned them a Juno Award for Best Country Group Or Duo.
More touring ensued, the fan base steadily grew (including such huminaries as Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman), and then the Wilkinsons hit the first bump in what had been a smooth road to that point: within weeks of the release of Shine, the trio’s third album, Giant Records shuttered its doors.
The Wilkinsons jumped to another label, recorded another album, but were then dismayed by an ultimatum from that label’s president while only two weeks away from the first single release: He wanted to break up the family and focus solely on Amanda. Suitably, the trio was insulted. “I was going to be damned if some person who doesn’t love or have respect for us beyond me opening my mouth, was going to come in and say, ‘Well, you other 2 guys can go into - early retirement,’” Amanda recalls.
After deciding that the “highway” was better than the executive’s “my way,” The Wilkinsons returned to Canada and went the independent route with 2004’s Highway (represented on The Greatest Hits…And Then Some by the hits “Little Girl” and “L.A.”.) They followed it up with 2007’sHome and a CCMA Award for Best Independent Group or Duo.
And they continue to flourish, to evolve – a major reason why The Greatest Hits…And Then Some serves both as a signpost and a springboard.
Along with the handful of new songs, The Wilkinsons have offered updated recordings of their hits.
“I thought it was important that we redid them, rather than just license the original tracks,” Steve explains.
“Because if it was the original recording you would hear Tyler singing again at 13 years old on ‘26 Cents’ and ‘Fly.’
“We worked really hard to keep the original arrangement, so I hope people will listen to the new updated version and say, “They sound just as good as they ever did – or better!’
“That’s the biggest pat on the back we could get.”As Amanda notes, even the emotions and motives behind their
performances have undergone considerable transitions.“We’ve grown,” says Amanda. “I sang ’26 Cents’ when I was 15. I’m now 26, and my relationship with my Mom has evolved and grown to the point where I sing that song differently now and feel different things because of where I am in my life.”
This new maturity is best captured in the material freshly written and recorded for The Greatest Hits…And Then Some, including the boisterous First single “When I’m Old.” “‘When I’m Old’ speaks volumes for where we are personally,” says Amanda.
“The song says, ‘Take advantage of your life and live it to the fullest.’ Because when you’re old, you don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish I had done that.’”
The message is emphasized by an action-packed video directed by Warren Sonoda that features Amanda and Tyler skydiving from 11,000 feet and wakeboarding, as well as the rest of the family engaged in driving go-karts, Formula One cars, all-terrain vehicles and numerous other thrilling moments.
Tyler says that moments like those captured in the video are par for the course when it comes to their careers.
“I’ve had a fantastic time,” says Tyler. “I’m 24 years old and I’ve been to Australia ,Japan twice… everywhere from to Croatia and the North Pole. I’ve done so many things that people my age just haven’t
“We’ve definitely lived life to the fullest – we all have.”
The new songs also include “Your Car,” co-written by Amanda and Sarah Buxton (“Stupid Boy”) that deals with a flood of break
up emotions; “You Heal Me” – a gorgeous love song from Steve to his wife Chris that was written in 20 minutes for the CMT series; “Paper Doll,” a holdover song from an unreleased album that was performed on the Canadian
Country Music Awards; and the most recent 24-carat cut, “Diamonds.” “That one was a last-minute addition,” Steve explains. “I wrote it earlier this summer, tried it out a couple of times in Calgary at two different shows, and people were crying in the front,
and I thought, “That’s saying something right there. We need to include it.”.
It’s those touching anthems that endear The Wilkinsons to audiences all over , as they’re about to discover again with an intense cross-Canada tour that will last deep into the fall of 2008.
And whatever the future holds – and it will yield both solo albums from Amanda and Tyler – The Wilkinsons dynamic will always remain constant as the family touchstone.
“There’s still a lot more to say creatively between the three of us,” assures Amanda.
“No matter what struggles we’ve been through – no matter what happens when the three of us sit down and open our mouths, magic happens, plain and simple.”
“When we get together and sing, all the pieces seem to come together and fit the way they should,” adds Tyler.
“And when we’re in that pocket, I don’t think there’s a more perfect place I can be,” says Steve.
The pocket is now in our hands in the form of The Greatest Hits…And Then Some.
The Wilkinsons are better. The Wilkinsons are stronger. The Wilkinsons are dynamic…and then some.