ATLANTA _ When Robin Meade was 4 years old, she proudly approached her preacher father and told him that she had learned her first song _ the hymn "Kneel at the Cross." A couple of years later, neighbors would watch with amusement as Meade stood by herself in the yard in her Ohio hometown, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the flagpole.
"I probably looked like this insane little kid, but I remember always feeling drawn to music," Meade said recently from her cozy office at CNN headquarters in downtown Atlanta.
Right, it's that Robin Meade we're talking about. The attractive and effervescent host of "Morning Express With Robin Meade" on HLN who two years ago decided to finally unearth the musical passion she had repressed for years and recorded her debut album, the country-tinged "Brand New Day." She gained some notice for her twangy cover of Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" _ a cheeky choice for a news anchor _ and relished the experience of songwriting and recording.
Last month _ almost exactly two years since her debut _ Meade unveiled her sophomore outing, "Count on Me," a collection of a dozen country-pop-bluegrass songs that includes four covers (Cyndi Lauper and Tom Petty among them) and features the handiwork of artists such as Kristian Bush of Sugarland (with whom she wrote the song "Your Glory Days"), Keb' Mo' (who plays on "Slow It Up") and Kenny Loggins' Blue Sky Riders (who assist on the opening track, "Here for You").
The album, distributed by Canada's Mood Media Entertainment, is currently a Target exclusive until it moves to Wal-Mart in the next few months (it's also available on iTunes).
Meade again worked with country singer-songwriter Victoria Shaw _ regarded in the industry for penning Garth Brooks' "The River" _ who produced both albums.
"About the time that Lady Antebellum first came out (in 2008), I had their CD and was reading the liner notes _ because I still do that," she added with a smile, "and I loved their sound. So I read who produced it and it was a lady's name, which is rare. It was Victoria. I looked at my husband (Tim) and said, 'I'm going to work with her someday.'" Their paths fortuitously intertwined shortly afterward when Meade was tapped to host the "Next GAC Star" competition on the Great American Country network. Shaw was one of the judges.
"I waited until after the broadcast to say, 'I'm such an admirer of yours,' and then the zinger ... 'Will you teach me to write songs?' I don't know what possessed her, but she said yes," Meade said with her familiar throaty laugh.
Working on "Count on Me" required Meade to take a little bit of time off from her news duties and travel to Nashville, Tenn., to write and record.
Her bosses at CNN / HLN have fully supported her moonlighting _ an album launch party held at the Cutting Room in New York City last month included sightings of Don Lemon, Kate Bolduan and head honcho Jeff Zucker _ and HLN has used her song "Here for You" for a promotional campaign on the network.
"From the time I started here (in 2001), my bosses didn't discount the value of being known as something else as well. I was given the go-ahead, but I was already going back and forth to Nashville to learn to write songs. That's where the music connection was for me," Meade, 44, said.
"Count on Me" was recorded in Nashville in two long weekend sessions (side note, Meade's band members when she performs live are from the group Sixwire, who play some of the real musicians on ABC's "Nashville"). Songwriting was done "the Nashville way," Meade joked, with scheduled morning and afternoon meetings.
She did write one song in Atlanta _ "Your Glory Days" _ with Sugarland's Bush in his Decatur, Ga., studio.
The pair met at a T.J. Martell Foundation benefit, and Meade is still slightly incredulous that he agreed to work with her.
Bush, meanwhile, has high praise for the burgeoning songwriter.
"Robin is passionate about telling the stories of the things she sees," Bush said in an email. "It comes through in the choices she makes, whether those are words or melodies. I work with a lot of singers and a lot of songwriters. She seems like she's on her way. But she's gonna have to change her hours. No self-respecting rock star gets up that early!"
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While Meade has done a few promotional appearances for the album, such as singing the national anthem at the Charlotte NASCAR race in May and performing at the CMA Music Festival last month in Nashville, she doesn't have any official upcoming gigs. She would, however, "love to play two weekends a month, even though it would be exhausting" considering her 2 a.m. wake-up call during the week.
Throughout an hourlong sit-down, Meade is consistently warm, funny and engaging. But she projects a different air of purposefulness when talk turns to the goal of her music career.
"This is not a one-off," she said. "I don't intend it to be something that was a phase." She mentions a recent HLN special she participated in _ "Stories of Courage: Soldiers' Songs" _ where she and songwriters from Nashville and Austin, Texas, sat with soldiers having problems with post-traumatic stress disorder and helped them write songs as a method of emotional release.
"My role (on TV) is to be your emotional guardian, and I look at music the same way," Meade said. "I really believe in the power of music."
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