Westchester County—not colonized by cattle and cowboy boots and completely devoid of tumbleweed—is certainly not known as one of America’s hotbeds for country music. Yet in the last couple of years, the county has produced a crop of up-and-coming singers with unmistakable leanings toward a country twang.
Truth is, growing a country star does not depend on the ingredients in the soil. It’s not about where or how you’re raised, but more about the natural progression of your inner rhythm and predilection for storytelling. “To create a country singer,” says Bedford’s Joanna Mosca, “you have to like singing a good story. What is it they say makes a country song? Three chords and a sad story? You just have to be able to connect with the lyrics and convey that emotion to the audience.”
Mosca grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, singing Patsy Cline songs. She was introduced to a variety of music by her father, who was also a singer. After working as a registered nurse and then in hospital administration, Mosca felt a tug toward a more expressive career path when her father died in 1994. “He was a wonderful singer that never pursued that field professionally,” she says. “When he died unexpectedly, something clicked in me that I needed to sing.”
She had already started taking acting lessons when she was still in healthcare, and, after her father died, she wrote and starred in a series of autobiographical one-woman Off-Broadway stage performances, incorporating musical numbers by Cline and a slew of others.
It only grew from there. The current Bedford resident’s 2012 video, “Dream On Savannah”—shot by Visual Image’s Steve Baker—has nearly 200,000 views on YouTube and gets regular play on country radio. She recently toured with Grammy award-winning star LeAnn Rimes, and Grammy winner Bryan White produced Mosca’s most recent EP, Have a Little Mercy, released last August.
But it wasn’t until Mosca appeared on radio WAXO in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and was pressured into singing an a capella version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” that she passed the test as a bona fide country singer. Although she hadn’t sang the tune in more than a decade, she belted it out triumphantly.
“They want you to prove your credentials down there,” she says. “If you’re from the North, they make you prove yourself a little more.” Mosca recalls another interview she did for live TV in Alabama: “The host was very bright and wonderful—very funny. His accent was so thick. He said, ‘Ya’ll from New York City? Mosca? Is that an Italian name? Are you in the mafia?’”
Rebecca Haviland and Whiskey Heart, based in White Plains, recently toured with Tennessee native and megastar Chris Young. “For some of the Chris Young fans, the feedback was that we weren’t country enough,” Haviland says. “When we play in Manhattan or anywhere around here, we’re definitely a country act. The fan base is here and really eager.”
Haviland, who played Peekskill’s Hudson Hop & Harvest Festival in October, grew up singing in Westchester clubs as a teenager, performing with her uncle’s blues band. She met partner Chris Anderson at Purchase College. Inspired by everyone from Willie Nelson to Ryan Adams, Haviland and Anderson prefer to think of their sound as “Americana,” but are okay with the country pigeonhole they are regularly placed in. “We get a lot of ‘I don’t really like country but you guys are great,’” she says. “That’s my favorite compliment.”
She agrees that the road to country doesn’t have to be covered in tumbleweeds or originate in Nashville. It could just as easily travel through White Plains or be influenced by a movie set. One of Haviland’s most successful songs to date, “Collide with Me,” was inspired by a lonely road in the movie Crazy Heart. The idea for the song came to her with the image of actor Jeff Bridges making a phone call from an empty highway.
“There is something so desolate and inspiring about that image,” she says. “I mean, how many times are you going to have that in New York? But, as soon as you get out of the City, you have these big, open spaces—farms and nature. It’s not desolation, but, when I see it, it takes me to that genre. There’s an honesty to it. It’s not trying to prove anything.”
Hailing from Yorktown and growing up playing in a wedding band with her parents, Jessica Lynn got her break when a scout from what is now Round Hill Music, a hard-hitting Nashville-based publishing company, saw her perform at Ruben’s Mexican Café in Peekskill. Initially more of a pop singer, Lynn developed her country sound after discovering Shania Twain, to whom she drew an immediate affinity.
“I feel like we have a lot in common,” Lynn says of the Canadian singer. “Being from New York, I don’t look like other girls in country, and I don’t sound like them. There are going to be people who say, ‘If you want to make it, you have to be just like Miranda Lambert.’ But the greatest artists of all time are the ones that took risks and did something different.”
Dark-haired and inclined toward cut-offs, cowboy boots, and steppy dance tunes, Lynn stars in a PBS special, This Much Fun: Live From the Winery at St. George, that aired across
the nation this past summer. Another, Takin’ Over, was recorded at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill, where a 10-piece band, which includes her father on bass and mom on backing vocals, accompanied her. This year, Lynn has traveled the nation playing country festivals alongside the likes of Brad Paisley, Jake Owen, and Lady Antebellum. In spite of the obvious acceptance that comes with an invitation to such gigs, Lynn was initially fearful about introducing her music to “real” cowboys.
“I didn’t know if we’d get out there and have people say, ‘What is this?’” she says. “But the response was very cool. In Wyoming, some really old cowboy came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know I don’t like female country singers or modern country. But I like your music.’”
With her Nashville publishing deal, Lynn could very well be destined for big stages. Luckily, her stage fright was quashed forever thanks to an a cappella performance of the national anthem at Madison Square Garden last year, which preceded the professional bull riding championships. Already anxious to do the song justice, it didn’t help Lynn to have wild animals literally breathing down her neck.
“It was like this: All the bull riders light the PBR sign on fire, then the stadium goes totally black and a voice announces you,” she says. “The spotlight shines just on you and you hear these bulls slamming against the metal fence behind you. After that, I’ll never get nervous again at a show.”
As Lynn launches into the thick of her career, she embraces her Westchester heritage and plans to use it to her advantage among the blonde songstresses in Nashville. “I always say that country music is not about where you’re from—it’s about the story you have to tell,” she says. “No matter where you are, your destiny is your destiny. I feel like growing up in New York gives me a little bit of an edge because it’s so rare. When everyone around you is doing the same thing, it’s hard to find your own style and look. But when you’re one of very few, you have to find your own way. That’s what really sets you apart.”