Since the days of the Carter Family, family acts have always maintained a strong presence in country and bluegrass music, typically producing harmonies that convey a depth of understanding and unity rarely heard among groups of non-related performers. Followers of the Carters, such as the Whites, spent years playing and singing songs together at home for their own enjoyment, entertaining friends and relatives long before actually recording music or taking the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. The Wilkinsons, comprised of Steve Wilkinson and his two teen-age children, Amanda and Tyler, became the latest to emerge in this tradition in the fall of 1998 when “26 Cents,” a single off their debut album Nothing But Love, topped the country music charts. The album’s success led to a Grammy Award nomination, as well as a sweep at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Also of note, the Wilkinsons hail from rural Ontario, Canada, adding to the growing list of Canadian country performers—Shania Twain, Terri Clark, and others—who have made unprecedented breakthroughs in Nashville.
The trio’s music draws on a mixture of influences—everything from George Strait, Reba McEntire, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Dolly Parton, to Patsy Cline, Restless Heart, Linda Ronstadt, and Garth Brooks. Not easy to categorize, the Wilkinsons’ sound instead seems more of a celebration of the vastness of country music, their songs specializing in glistening harmonies and gentle stories about everyday life. “Not since the Whites has there been a family trio with such a gorgeous sound. There’s a freshness and purity in the Wilkinsons’ music that should keep them around for a long time,” predicted Billboard magazine’s Chuck Taylor in his review of the family’s debut. Living up to such suggestions, the Wilkinsons proved their staying power with the sophomore set Here and Now, which entered the Billboard Top Country Albums chart at number 13, earning them the Hot Shot Debut nod. Here and Now just missed the top position on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, bowing in at number two.
A former construction worker, Steve Wilkinson, born on August 18, 1955, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, spent his entire life playing guitar and writing songs, passing his love for music to his three children: Amanda, born on January 17, 1982, in Belleville; Tyler, born on April 30, 1984, in Belleville; and Kiaya, born on July, 14, 1991, who many expect to someday participate in the family group. Like family acts before them, the Wilkinsons began performing in the home, never intending to turn their love for music into a career. “It was what we did for entertainment,” said Steve to Bill Friskics-Warren of the Washington Post. “Singing around the kitchen table was a way for us to spend time together.” His wife Chris also sings, but refuses to perform in public because of stage fright. “I’m fine singing at home with Steve and the kids,” she explained, “but I shut up the second anybody walks into the room. They’ve tried to convince me to get up and sing with them, but I figure if I’m that uncomfortable with it, I have no business being up there.”
From the kitchen table, the Wilkinsons began entertaining at family gatherings, and eventually at county fairs and festivals; while growing up in Belleville and later in nearby Trenton, both Amanda and Tyler honed their skills in local theater productions and choruses as well. The trio became a favorite attraction around Ontario by the mid–1990s, yet when Steve Wilkinson moved the family from Trenton to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1997, he didn’t have a record company contract in mind. While not busy as a carpenter and contractor in the construction business, Steve managed to write two Canadian top ten hits, resulting in a publishing deal with a Nashville-based publisher. Thus, according to Steve, the Wilkinsons never seriously contemplated making a record until they gave an impromptu performance at a popular Music Row watering hole. That night, however, Amanda’s soulful lead vocals and the harmonies of her brother and guitar-playing father produced such a youthful energy that the music industry insiders in the audience took notice.
Little did the head of the Wilkinson family realize at the time, but he had just inadvertently set in motion a chain of life-changing events. “About two weeks after we got to Nashville, a friend of ours, a writer in town, Reese Wilson, was doing a show at the Broken Spoke (a local club),” Steve recalled in an interview with Jennifer Key for the New Country Canada website. Eager to check out the live music scene in Nashville, the family decided
Members includeAmanda Wilkinson (born on January 17, 1982, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Steve and Chris Wilkinson), vocals; Steve Wilkinson (born on August 18, 1955, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada; married Chris, 1979; children: Amanda, Tyler, and Kiaya. Education: Attended Prince Edward College), guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals; Tyler Wilkinson (born on April 30, 1984, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada; son of Steve and Chris Wilkinson), vocals.
Moved to Nashville, signed with Giant Records, 1997; released debut album Nothing But Love, 1998; released Here and Now, 2000.
Awards: Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMA) for Top Album for Nothing But Love, Top Single and Top Song for “26 Cents,” Top Group, and the Rising Star Award, all 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Giant Records, 3500 W. Olive St., Ste. 600, Burbank, CA 91505, phone: (818) 977-0400, fax: (818) 977-0401.
to attend, and the club’s manager, who had heard the group’s music in Canada, invited the Wilkinsons to sing a few tunes. “We sang three songs and somebody (in the music business) heard us and immediately started making phone calls to the record labels. To make a long story short, in about ten days we had sung for seven labels and had multiple offers.”
After accepting an offer from Giant Records, the Wilkinsons hit the studio to record their debut album, Nothing But Love. Released in August of 1998, shooting to number three on the Billboard country album chart, the set included the chart-topping smash single “26 Cents,” as well as the radio hits “Fly (The Angel Song),” “Boy Oh Boy,” and the energetic yodeling tune “The Yodelin’ Blues.” In January of 1999, the Wilkinsons were honored for their efforts with a Grammy Award nomination for Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group for “26 Cents,” a song filled with the close harmonies and pop sensibilities that exemplify the trio’s attraction. Later that year, on September 13, the Wilkinsons swept the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMA) held at the Ottawa Civic Centre in Ottawa, Canada. Taking home five of the six honors they were nominated for, the group won for Top Album for Nothing But Love, Top Single and Top Song for “26 Cents,” Top Group, and the Rising Star Award, but lost the Top Video award to singer Shania Twain.
Amid all the attention, Steve and Chris Wilkinson, who schooled their teens at home, were careful about placing too much pressure on Amanda and Tyler, taking pains to ensure that both enjoyed relatively normal teenage years. “What really disturbs me is seeing kids grow up fast… and that society pushes kids to get there before they need to. I guess that’s why their mother and I are keeping such a close eye on how they develop,” explained Steve to Friskics-Warren. “We’re really concerned that the kids don’t get goofy,” he added. “And I think they’re aware of it. We talk about how nobody needs to get crazy about ego or anything else. Amanda said it best: There are too many idiots in the world right now. That population doesn’t need to be increased by three.’” Nevertheless, Steve admits that he doesn’t want the trio’s image to seem made up because of its wholesomeness. “We walk a fine line,” he said. “We’re very conscious not to appear cheesy or contrived.”
In April of 2000, the Wilkinsons returned with their second full-length effort, Here and Now, delivering a more musically adventurous and lyrically mature collection of songs. Because Tyler’s voice had changed, he was able to share the spotlight with his sister. Still, Amanda’s singing stole the show. “With a voice that resonates like strings across a cello,” wrote Miriam Longino of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Amanda has one of the most promising futures in country music.” The set also incorporated different instruments, with sitar on the track “The One Rose,” and the tuba on the Beatles-inspired (John Lennon and Paul McCartney are two of Tyler’s favorite songwriters) cut “Hypothetically.” Here and Now entered the country album chart at number 13 and spawned the hit single “Jimmy’s Got a Girlfriend,” proving the Wilkinsons could grow without losing their appeal.
Nothing But Love, Giant, 1998.
Here and Now, Giant, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 6, 2000.
Billboard, August 29, 1998; September 25, 1999; February 19, 2000; April 22, 2000; May 13, 2000.
USA Today, April 4, 2000.
Washington Post, October 4, 1998.
New Country Canada, http://www.newcountrycanada.com (September 23, 2000).
"The Wilkinsons." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wilkinsons
"The Wilkinsons." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wilkinsons
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