Wendy Moten's 'Don't Give Up' heralds veteran artist's timely, timeless resurgence

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Wendy Moten, as per usual, is wearing roughly 75 percent black clothing, including a studded black leather jacket, while seated in Soho House Nashville's dining room on a nearly 100-degree Music City afternoon.

It's as much an homage to the fact that she always appears cool, regardless of the moment, plus her perpetual attempts to blend into the background of almost any situation she's presented.

Her latest, soulful, jazzy single, "Don't Give Up," arrives as Moten, now 57, finds her navigating a moment where she has more music forthcoming that highlights how her blend of 90s R&B swagger and countrified soul are -- for the first time in a half-century -- again synonymous in the same musical conversations.

Wendy Moten performs during the 7th Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum Concert and Induction Ceremony at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
Wendy Moten performs during the 7th Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum Concert and Induction Ceremony at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

The ability of Moten to remain the most known unknown in modern popular music is very likely coming to an end soon.

Potentially 30 years after it should've happened, the convergence of time, space and place has afforded her brightest solo spotlight yet.

"It was Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and me. But, unfortunately, the spotlight can only go so far," says Moten about the moment in the sun she nearly had springboarding from the global top-10 success of her 1994 single "Come In Out Of The Rain."

Thirty years after falling one star short of her mainstream American R&B breakout moment, Memphis native and Nashville resident Moten has excelled as a notable vocalist. Highlights include collaborative and backing work as a member of all-star Western swing act The Time Jumpers, plus work nationally and globally with Julio Iglesias, Wynonna Judd and jazz artist Kirk Whalum.

Save for the untimely demise of Whitney Houston in 2012, the trio of artists who achieved American superstardom at the time of Moten's breakout are still very much pop relevant. For example, Mary J. Blige is still headlining tours in 2022. Likewise, Mariah Carey's appearance with DJ Khaled on a remix of rapper Latto's 2022 track "Big Energy" spurred it to the top five of Billboard's Hot 100 charts.

Ultimately, this means Moten's superstar moment in country music is entirely possible.

Her possible moment comes following her decision to partake in 2021's 21st season of NBC's "The Voice."

"Deciding to do 'The Voice' was hard. Because I've been on a certain level for like 30-plus years… and to be in a situation where you are trying to get people to love you and vote for you…it's tough. But I decided to take a risk," she told The Tennessean in February 2022.

Need more significant proof that the title of her new, soulful ballad makes sense? Look no further than her time on the program.

With three episodes remaining in the season, Moten fell over a monitor, fracturing her elbows. Undaunted, she remained on the show -- she had surgery to repair the fractures with titanium plates after the season.

Alongside the cosigns of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry, plus numerous country stars she's sung backing vocals for -- including Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, and more, there's potential for something significantly career-advancing for Moten's latest.

When considering Moten's country-star potential, a more extensive conversation emerges. Not since Linda Martell's 1969 hit "Color Him Father" has a Black woman in country music eclipsed the top 20 of Billboard's Country Radio Airplay charts. However, since Martell, artists including Rissi Palmer, Miko Marks, and Mickey Guyton have attempted to break into country's mainstream.

Wendy Moten sings the national anthem during the "Let Freedom Sing!" Music City July 4th event on lower Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, July 4, 2022.
Wendy Moten sings the national anthem during the "Let Freedom Sing!" Music City July 4th event on lower Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, July 4, 2022.

Moten's song is unlikely to break into the top 20 of Billboard's Country Airplay charts. However, the idea that Moten can still be held in high regard in everyday conversations about relevant artists in pop-surging country music is impressive. It holds open a door for greater gender and racial diversity in a genre now needing, more than ever, to have sonic points of entry for a growing population of curious ears.

"I only rest when the phone stops ringing, so I've just been working, not taking stock of anything. I'm still a professional recording artist, staying on the grind," Moten says after cackling out loud in joyous laughter about early Nashville acclaim from her famous friends and thoughtful critics in Music City.

For "Don't Give Up," she worked with David Santos, her partner of more than 25 years (and a successful bass player who has toured with Billy Joel, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Toto and Melissa Etheridge), along with Grammy-winning producer Paul Worley (The Chicks, Big & Rich, Lady A).

Wendy Moten performs a song in honor of Pete Drake as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the  medallion ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 1,2022.
Wendy Moten performs a song in honor of Pete Drake as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the medallion ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 1,2022.

Because Moten is so busy and humbly self-effacing, it turns out that the song she needed to sing for another mainstream resurgence resulted from a 15-year-old co-write with Santos.

She debuted it on her "Voice" coach Blake Shelton's sendoff after two decades on the program.

"This song serves as a public announcement that, because I didn't give up, I'm now ready for my Tina Turner and Lionel Richie era. I'm finally ready to accept what others have said about me that I'm 'simply one of the best' song interpreters, storytellers or vocalists of any era, plus, I also want to be the bridge between genres that the music industry desperately needs right now."

"Imagine the qualities of Barbara Streisand, but then throw in some pretty good stories, along with classic chords, grooves and melodies. I, like those characteristics, can work with anything."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Wendy Moten's 'Don't Give Up' heralds veteran artist's timely, timeless resurgence