Call it the Karli Whetstone paradox. Here is a direct, grounded and happily married Midwestern girl who has a special affection for and way with attitude-laden anthems and drama-drenched ballads. A new artist with her entire career laid out before her, she speaks with a maturity and grasp of her path’s challenges in a fashion more akin to veteran hindsight. And as an experienced, award-winning performer with a remarkably powerful and nuanced voice, she has had to push herself past the fear of opening her mouth on stage. Somehow these seemingly opposing energies have blended perfectly, however, to put Karli Whetstone and her wry new single “I Didn’t” squarely on the cusp of the next big step.
“I really didn’t have a choice but to love music,” the Ohio native says. “My parents were obsessed with the arts and music. My dad was into rock and my mother liked pop, but there was always country music in the house.”
Karli’s affinity for making music didn’t blossom as quickly as other artistic endeavors. “I started dancing at three and continued through high school,” she explains. “I was good, but more importantly it was great experience for putting together my performance as a singer.”
Though she understates her dance prowess –Karli won championships and competed at the national level – those skills didn’t exactly pave a smooth road for her. “The funny thing is that despite performing for so many people as a dancer, it took me forever to be able to sing in front of people,” she admits. “Finally my mom said to me, ‘The basement walls can’t be your audience.’ So I had to conquer that fear.”
Karli began classical vocal training at 12, soon entered singing contests and, by 14, was performing with area bands. “I was the wedding singer, bar singer, singing basically anywhere that would let me!”
While a necessary step in her growth, Karli knew small venue cover shows would not quench her musical ambitions. And the spark of her inner fire was always perfectly clear. “Garth changed everything for me,” she says without hesitation. “He gave me a passion for country music that has only grown.
“I was very little, but I definitely remember hearing ‘Unanswered Prayers’ for the first time. It was the first Garth song I heard. And over the years the thing that has always struck me about him – whether it was through a CD, an iPod or from a stage to the very back row of a stadium – was his ability to make you feel like he was singing directly to you and nobody else. That one-on-one connection was his hallmark, it’s something all the greats can do and it’s definitely something I try to emulate in my career.”
That journey started in earnest at 15 when Karli made her first trip to Nashville. “The second the plane touched down I knew Nashville would be home,” she says. “My parents and I made an agreement that I would stay in school in Ohio, but that I could go to Nashville whenever I wanted.”
Three to six trips a year turned into monthly visits following graduation. At the same time, Karli was beginning to open shows for big name acts including Taylor Swift, Phil Vassar, Darryl Worley, Joe Nichols to name a few. Performing and, perhaps more significantly, time spent in Music City challenged her. “Nashville pushes you to get better,” she admits. “As a singer, a songwriter and a performer, you have to be the best, because it’s definitely the major leagues.”
Her Tennessee trips, writing appointments and recording sessions led to her self-titled four-song EP, as well as the regional hit single “Ohio.” “Growing up where I did, I was as obsessed with Ohio State football like anyone else in Ohio,” she says. “So I wrote a song about my home state and of course the Buckeyes, which is actually the only thing I’ve released so far that I also wrote.” Ironically, it’s also her most successful offering to date, having been adopted by Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel being played for over 100,000 people in Ohio Stadium during every home game.
Despite the song’s acceptance, Karli doesn’t consider songwriting to be one of her core strengths … yet. “I’m primarily a singer,” she explains. “The voice is the instrument for the song and we have a rule when we’re recording that the best song wins. So far, those have mostly been songs by other writers, but I’m working hard at becoming a better writer. And not because I feel a strong need to write my own material, but because I enjoy how it challenges me in a way that’s very different from the way I challenge myself to improve as a performer and vocalist.”
Certainly, Karli’s live show is developed to an extent that sets her well apart from other young artists. “Being able to communicate and interact with an audience is both an art and craft as much as songwriting or recording,” she says. “Some people have a natural affinity toward live performing, and I certainly think my dance background makes a difference. But you also have to put the time in and there’s just no substitute for experience and working at it. I’ve spent so much time on stages and played for so many different kinds of crowds that it’s rare to have a show where I don’t feel totally in command.”
Now, Karli has enlisted an A-team of experienced music business professionals to launch her radio-friendly new single “I Didn’t.” And she’s looking forward to the promotional tour, having greatly enjoyed an earlier run at radio. “I had the best time,” she says. “I loved the programmers, deejays and towns. It’s almost surreal the way it felt like being home, driving around to smaller towns and cities visiting stations. It makes you realize the experiences and themes of country music really are universal. Those trips really made me appreciate being one of the lucky few who get to share those things with people in song.”
When it comes to choosing songs, Karli is drawn to substance and strong messages. “I’m a very honest person,” she says. “Maybe too honest and blunt. But attitude songs fit me very well and tend to be what I gravitate toward in an uptempo. On the other end of the spectrum, I love the Reba-style rip-your-soul-out ballad. That’s just special to country music.”
She doesn’t shy away from the obvious disconnect between real life and the themes she’s drawn to in music. “What you see is what you get,” she says. “I’m a real, honest, Midwestern girl who loves her faith, family and career. I’m willing to fight for the things that are most important to me, and I’m not afraid of hard work. And I’ll be the first to admit I’m sassy, strong-willed, and opinionated.”
On a personal level, Karli married her high school sweetheart three years ago. “My personal life has never been filled with a lot of drama, but I do find myself drawn to songs that express those emotions and deal in those subjects. It’s almost like an actor where you can dive into a character, a set of circumstances and, for three minutes, walk around in a completely different psyche. I love the energy of that experience and I think my enthusiasm for it connects with the audience.”
And there is the crux of the paradox. What might, on an intellectual level, have the potential to be confusing tension is in fact, on an emotional plane, a source of tremendous energy. For thousands of fans who’ve seen her perform, heard her songs and purchased her music, the source of Karli’s appeal is universal. And more importantly, they just like what they hear.