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The magic of Sarah Darling's artistry lies in the power and passion of her voice, the cool believability of her approach and the grace and assurance of her stage presence. Collectively, their effect on industry pros and everyday fans alike has brought her an enviable set of milestones. She hit #1 on CMT.com with the video to her 2011 single, "Something to Do With Your Hands," and performed on the stages of both Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry. Press accolades include The New York Times noting her as "a sophisticated songwriter" with a "crisp, powerful voice." She has seen "Blackbird," her contribution to the Linda McCartney tribute/breast cancer fundraiser “Let Us In,” take off as a video across country's television networks and as a featured song on Sirius XM.
That magic and those accomplishments are about to become the launching pad for her emergence into real country stardom. She is recording now with storied producer Dann Huff (Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts), and the reception of "Blackbird" is just one sign of the anticipation for the project.
"There's a time when everything aligns and falls into place," she says, "and this is that time. I've been writing and performing a lot over the past year and I'm surrounded by a great team at Black River Entertainment. They're giving me the kind of creative freedom every artist wants and I can't wait for the world to hear the music that's coming out of that.
"My writing has definitely changed over the past few years," she adds. " I call what I do now 'Sarah Darling 2.0.' I really feel like I've come into my own."
The Nashville portion of Sarah's journey began when a top music executive from Nashville overheard someone praise her singing voice as she stood in line for an after-concert autograph in Des Moines, near her hometown of Mitchellville, Iowa. Consequently, he asked her to mail a CD to him in Nashville.
"I did," she says, "and he called and said, 'You need to move to Nashville. You have potential.' That was the little extra bump I needed."
That "bump" capped a lifelong love of music that had seen Sarah perform at the Iowa State Fair at 13 and spend her teen years playing fairs, festivals, clubs, casinos, hospitals, charity events—"just anything I could possibly do. All through my teens, while people were going to football games, I was doing shows on the weekends."
As all her friends looked at colleges, she took a job in an Italian restaurant and set about saving money for the move to Nashville she knew was inevitable.
“I told my parents that’s what I wanted to do,” she says, “and they were very supportive.” By the time the music executive gave her that final push, she had already saved $5,000. She took the money to Nashville, got work as a waitress and slowly began the learning process.
"Coming from Iowa, I didn't really understand the music business at all," she says. "I thought you just move to Nashville, you get a record deal and you make a record. But my manager said, 'I'm going to set you up with some writers,' and I started getting my feet wet with songwriting."
Shortly after moving to Nashville, Sarah got the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas to take part in the E! Network's reality show, "The Entertainer," hosted by Wayne Newton. She made it to the final three and then came a memorable on-camera discussion with Mr. Las Vegas.
She says, "He told me, 'I've thought about this a lot and I think you're an artist. You need to be in Nashville and you need to write. That's what you're going to be great at, not singing covers in a Vegas lounge.' Looking back, it was one of those unanswered prayers. It was a great way to leave the show if I had to and, in a way, it was like going to college. I learned about TV and about editing and the whole experience made me get serious about being an artist."
She continued to polish her craft as a songwriter, working with longtime Glen Campbell guitarist Jeff Dayton, among others. After a writers' round one night, representatives of Black River Entertainment approached her after finding her on the Internet. She did an acoustic audition for executives and then for the label's owners, all of whom were immediately on board.
"It was pretty much a Cinderella signing," she says. As she got her first outside cut—Guy Penrod recorded "Knowing What I Know About Heaven"—she wrote and recorded "Something To Do With Your Hands," becoming deeply involved on both sides of the camera for the video that earned a spot on GAC and in the CMT Top 20 as well as on CMT.com.
"For me," she says, "it's really fun to be involved in the creative process, creating a set and a feel for a video. I feel like an artist should be part of that because a video really gives off who you are if you really have a part in writing and directing it as well."
Another Cinderella moment came in February 2011 when she was introduced by Vince Gill for her Grand Ole Opry debut. Gill’s introduction made the debut that much more special due to his guest vocals on her 2011 release, Angels & Devils.
"What was neat about [the Opry]," she says, "is that my grandfather was there. He had traveled very little in his life but he always said that if I played the Opry, he'd come to Nashville and he did!"
No matter where her artistry takes her, Sarah always goes back to the same place.
"For me, being on stage is home. I'm supposed to sing. You have these gifts that God gives us. When you're using those gifts and you're on a beautiful stage and people are enjoying it, I don't think there's anything better. I'm doing something I feel like I'm supposed to be doing in my life and it's amazing."
Sarah is pouring all of the passion she brings both to the stage and to her songwriting into the CD she is now recording with Huff. She met the superstar producer at the suggestion of the label.
"We had coffee and he knew some of my music," she says, "and knew people who believed in me and said I needed the kind of touch he could bring. After our first meeting, he said, 'I'd like to work with you. You've got something to say that's different and I want to be a part of that.' My thought was, 'Yes! Of course I want to work with the best producer in town.'"
Their first work together produced "Blackbird," which has been the kind of calling card most young artists would envy.
There are others. As an avid cook, she has attracted the attention of the Crock-Pot slow cooker brand, becoming their first Crock-Star and the face of a campaign that unveiled a new slow cooker line.
But it is her work with Huff on her new album that promises the kind of breakthrough her fans have long anticipated.
"This album is going to be a slide show of my life," she says. "It's going to have a little bit of everything. I'm an open book when I write and this CD is a documentation of what's been going on in my life. The fact that I'm always growing, always searching, means it holds a wide representation of my personality."
As such, it reflects a journey that mirrors and builds on the gifts she first recognized growing up in Iowa.
"The biggest thing for me," she says, "is just being exactly who you are. I'm the same girl I used to be playing the fairs and festivals around Iowa. I know the challenges I'm up against and I'm ready to take them on."
It’s a challenge the industry and her fans are both eager for her tackle.