Shania Twain: A Survivor Who Remade The Good Old Girl

Originally published on June 15, 2017 10:03 am

Shania Twain's new memoir, From This Moment On, is not a light read. Discussing the book with Scott Simon in an interview for Weekend Edition Saturday, the hugely successful star sounds more like a Loretta Lynn-style mountain-girl survivor than the woman who showed Nashville what a midriff looks like.

The interview (which you can hear at the top of this post starting Saturday midday) is a killer listen. Twain reveals the abuse she and her mother both suffered at the hands of her stepfather and the dire poverty they endured after leaving him. She goes into detail about her humiliating divorce from her producer and primary musical collaborator, Robert "Mutt" Lange, who left her for one of her best friends in 2008. What Twain doesn't talk about much, though, is music — and the huge part she's played in inventing the current style of international pop superstardom.

"Music is a great natural high and a great natural escape," Twain says near the end of her chat with Simon. It sounds like a platitude, but it's one that offers insight into what her massive hits in the 1990s meant — not just for her listeners, but for pop in general.

The Canadian-born Twain's massive success did offer an escape, for country music in particular — she brought the genre into the modern era, when cowboys are more likely to drive SUVs than wrangle horses, honky-tonks have karaoke machines and family values make room for TGIF nights out with the girls, getting down to a little rock 'n' roll.

With the 1995 monster The Woman in Me, Twain and Lange forged a sound and sensibility that changed not only country, but pop, forever. Following in Dolly Parton's patent-leather footsteps, and running alongside a power-ballad-loving guy named Garth, the pair perfected a fusion of heartland rock and Nashville twang that perfectly articulated the changing realities of the liberal feminist-era good old girl.

For your pleasure, then, here a few favorites from the Shania Twain oeuvre. This little lady was never anybody's fool.

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We already know a lot about Shania Twain - her powerful voice, years of hit songs. Her 1997 album "Come On Over" is the best-selling country music album of all time. But in recent years, her name has been splashed across tabloid headlines that might come straight out of a country song.

Her husband ran off with her best friend and just a few years later, Shania Twain married the man who had been married to the woman who wronged her.

Now, Shania Twain is telling her whole life story. She's written a memoir, "From This Moment On," which starts in her hometown, Timmins, Ontario - 500 miles north of Toronto - where she had a sad, poor, tough, even chilling childhood.

We talked to her from New York this week, and she talked about one of the main meals she shared with her family, a concoction called goulash.

Ms. SHANIA TWAIN (Musician/Author, "From This Moment On"): Goulash, yeah. Although I never disliked goulash...

SIMON: We're not talking about the Hungarian meat dish but something else, because your folks were poor.

Ms. TWAIN: Exactly. We were poor. So when, you know, our version of - well, whatever was available in the cupboards. But often it was - hopefully - milk. If there was milk, then we would make goulash with brown sugar, boiled milk and broken-up, stale bread. And you know what? It was good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah. But that wasn't dessert. That was dinner, right?

Ms. TWAIN: That was dinner. That was breakfast, lunch and dinner. You know, it wasn't all the time. It's not like we ate like that for months and months. But we would go in and out of really dry periods financially and this bread, milk and sugar concoction was a staple.

SIMON: And there was - to be blunt about it - a lot of misery going on in the house too, wasn't there?

Ms. TWAIN: There was. We had a very turbulent family life. There was a lot of violence due to the stress of not being able to pay bills. It made for a very insecure and unstable environment for a child, which is basically what my life was for my entire childhood.

SIMON: But you were the singing girl too, weren't you - the little singer?

Ms. TWAIN: I was the little singer. That is how my mother - what everybody always called me, growing up. I was the little singer. And there was a lot of music in the house. This was a real savior for me because it was a great escape.

SIMON: Eleven years old - you were asked to sing on the "Tommy Hunter Show" on the CBC; big country music show. And that entailed taking a train from Timmins.

Ms. TWAIN: Yeah. A long train ride from Timmins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Kind of an adventure ensued.

Ms. TWAIN: My parents had put me on the wrong train, and I was headed off to British Columbia. Now that's, you know, a three-day train ride - which is completely off course to where I was going, to Toronto. Toronto was just an overnight sort of ride.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. TWAIN: It would have probably taken, you know, 15 hours or something like that.

SIMON: And this was the days before cell phones and that sort of thing.

Ms. TWAIN: Yeah. No cell phones, nothing like that. No way to communicate with my parents. And so the conductor was able to stop that train in the middle of the northern bush; let me off on the side of the tracks with my guitar; and just said, wait here, and the next train that comes by is going to pick you up and take you to Toronto.

And here I was in the middle of the bush, waiting for the next train - really wondering if it was going to come or not.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, it came and you got to Toronto, right?

Ms. TWAIN: It actually stopped.

SIMON: Please tell me about the day when you were 13 years old, got up and decided, enough of this.

Ms. TWAIN: Yeah. You know, at 13, I declared that year the worst year of my life. I was just really tired of never knowing what tomorrow was going to bring, if my parents would kill each other - as they'd almost done many times throughout our childhood.

And living with that insecurity every day just started to get to me as an adolescent, more than it had when I was a child - well, I wouldn't say more; I would say in a different way. I decided for myself that I was going to make my mother get in the car, take us away, and leave the whole thing behind.

So I did exactly that. I got her up the following morning - you know, she was in a fog, in a pretty typical state of depression. Made her her coffee, lit her cigarette, and I just said, let's go. Drive. And that's what we did. And we drove to a battered women's shelter.

SIMON: We're speaking with Shania Twain. Her new book, her memoir, "From This Moment On."

We'll note at some point your mother went back to your father. You were in Toronto, 22 years old, beginning a singing career, and got a phone call telling you your parents had died in a car accident.

Ms. TWAIN: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Changed your life.

Ms. TWAIN: It certainly did. I really felt completely alone. Of course, went through the shock and the grief of losing my parents. And also thought maybe I should just quit music too, because that was my mother's passion - my music career. So with her gone, it almost seemed as though there was no purpose to carry on, no reason to carry on, and now it's time to just get a real job, and go back to school and become a whatever it is I want to do, you know - become a veterinarian or an architect, which were things I always had dreamt of doing.

And so it was a real turning point for me, and big decision-making. But what ended up happening was, because we had - still - younger siblings at home, I ended up going back home and taking care of them, and taking care of the - my parents' affairs.

But thankfully, a friend of mine who had followed me along through my childhood career, who was also an artist - Mary Bailey - she really was the one who convinced me not to quit music altogether, and maybe combine music and work to support my family. It paid, you know, the mortgage; it paid the heating and the electricity. It paid the food, you know. I did it out of necessity.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. TWAIN: But it kept me in there. I'm wondering if it hadn't been for that, if I might have just decided after all to quit and just, you know, sing for myself in my bedroom for the rest of my life.

SIMON: Do you know the hardest part of the book for me to read? And we're talking about a book where you detailed spousal abuse, and misery and sadness, and loss and death within the house - reading about your father's abuse of you.

Ms. TWAIN: Right.

SIMON: We're not talking about physical abuse, but something else.

Ms. TWAIN: The most disturbing part of my father's abuse towards me was the psychological abuse. I'm not surprised that you found that very disturbing, and it disturbs me still. But at the same time, what's harder for me is the confusion between how I knew him to be such a beautiful person - a very funny, happy-go-lucky guy. He went to great lengths to care for us the best that he could. He was kind; he was not judgmental.

Yet he had another side to him that seemed to be out of his control, and it was very scary and unpredictable. And then we'd never talk about it the next day - as if it never happened - just like any of the violent episodes at our household. We never talked about them the next day. It was just, you know, all right. Another day in the Twain household. We just carry on with life and buckle up, and put on a smile and go skip off to school.

SIMON: Shania, I almost hear a question from our listeners. How can you love a man like that?

Ms. TWAIN: You know, love is unconditional - family love. And that's why kids are so torn. And that's why a lot of abuse stays under the radar, because they don't want to report it. And I realize that as difficult as it is to talk about it, by talking about it and sharing it, I really believe a lot of people out there are going to feel less alone. And even if they feel they still need to stay under the radar for whatever reason, maybe they will feel that they aren't alone.

People that read this book are going to say, whoa, I never would have suspected this from Shania. And maybe it will be liberating for them personally.

SIMON: When you were a kid, singing was your refuge, your salvation. Now you're older, not a kid. How much can singing and music make up for the rough stuff that life has in store sometimes?

Ms. TWAIN: Music is a great natural high, and a great natural escape. We need to be able to sing in the shower. We need to hear a song that breaks our heart. We need to hear a song that provokes our thinking and stirs our emotions. So I'm no different.

I get a particular joy out of creating it, but I make it and I create it for the same reason others listen to it.

SIMON: Shania Twain. Her new book, a memoir, "From This Moment On." Thanks so much.

Ms. TWAIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "From This Moment On")

SHANIA TWAIN (Singing) From this moment, I will love you...

BRYAN ADAMS (Singer/Songwriter: (Singing) I will love you.

SHANIA TWAIN: long as I live...

SIMON: And you can read more about Shania Twain's impact on pop music, and see some of her best videos, at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.