Shania Twain may know how to write a hit single, but she sure doesn't know how to be a country star: She's from Canada, for one thing, and doesn't live anywhere near Nashville. Not once in a five-hour interview does she thank God for her success. She doesn't even eat meat, for goodness sake. Granted, the 29-year-old singer's hair is on the big side, but what country music's star of the moment is mostly about is breaking stereotypes.
Currently, the reedy vegetarian is grazing on a green salad and a basket of fries at a downtown eatery in New York City, and trying to put her finger on why her platinum album, The Woman in Me, is 1) resting in the top spot of the country charts for the fourth week in a row, 2) a crossover hit that resides in the middle of the pop chart's top 10, and 3) selling even more copies per week than country's biggest male stars, Garth Brooks and John Michael Montgomery. ''People are hearing something they've never heard before,'' she says. Twain is referring to the pop-rock edge of her country music hits, but she's wrong.
In fact, the blend of country with pop and rock is hardly novel Dolly, Reba, and Garth have all taken that route with more than a little success. What sets Twain apart is chemistry. Before the singer met British pop-rock producer Robert John ''Mutt'' Lange and rocketed up various charts, she was just another carnivorous country singer with a modestly successful but ultimately uninspired self-titled debut.
Not that Twain isn't happy to lay accolades at the feet of Lange (who, not incidentally, is also now her husband): ''I could have ended up with an album that's not all that different than everything else coming out of Nashville,'' she says, without a hint of the twang reserved for her singing voice. ''Mutt made the difference. He took those songs, my attitude, my creativity, and colored them in a way that is unique.''
Luke Lewis, president of Mercury Nashville, Twain's label, says that when Lange and Twain came together, something extraordinary occurred. ''Our jobs generally are to put producers and artists together and make the magic,'' says Lewis. ''But this is not a brew that any of us created.''
The 40ish Lange, whose résumé includes producing records for Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton, and Def Leppard, applied his pop sensibilities to Twain's music: Lewis points out that her No. 1 single, ''Any Man of Mine,'' has almost the same driving beat as Queen's ubiquitous classic ''We Will Rock You.'' ''There's something primal and seemingly irresistible about it,'' says Lewis. ''That's part of the genius of Mutt Lange. The guy knows hooks.''
He knows raw ability, too. Lange, who refuses to give interviews about his wife or any other performer he produces, first spotted Twain in a music video for her first album; he contacted her manager hoping to get an introduction. ''Mutt called because he really felt she was talented,'' says Twain's manager and mentor Mary Bailey. ''I didn't know who he was. But I grew to like him on the phone, and I just set up a conversation between them.''