Jaida Dreyer didn't grow up intending to become a country music artist, but to hear the story of her crooked road to Nashville, it's clear she was meant to be here all along. Her unmistakable voice, bubbly personality, and eclectic, insightful songwriting scored her a publishing deal with Grammy Award-winning producer Byron Gallimore (Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Sugarland) at the precocious age of 19; this February, Gallimore announced the creation of his own label, Streamsound Records, and threw his full support behind Dreyer's career. "I'm proud for her to be our flagship artist," says Gallimore. "She's the real deal. I couldn't feel stronger about anybody." Building on the success of Dreyer's spunky, self-reliant debut, "Guy's Girl," her second single, "Confessions," goes to radio this month.
Dreyer was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and raised in Latimer, Iowa, where the population sign still reads 303. "We didn't have a stoplight, we had one stop sign," she says. "Literally." Her dad worked the family grain elevator, and her mom was a horse trainer; naturally, young Jaida gravitated towards the latter. She was a "horse-crazy" little girl who grew up showing competitively and won her first of many world championships at 5, getting an early education in the sort of work ethic required to reach success. And although her family wasn't musical, per se, music was always a part of Dreyer's life. "Early as I can remember," she says, "from church to school honor choirs to singing along with the radio at three in the morning trying to stay awake on long-haul drives cross-country to horse shows, it was always just there."
She credits her eclectic taste in music to her mother, who introduced her to classic artists like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams, Sr., as well as then-current hitmakers like Tanya Tucker, Keith Whitley, and Patty Loveless. As a pre-teen, Dreyer also found herself drawn to a variety of singer-songwriters like Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle. For her twelfth birthday, Dreyer's parents gave her a guitar. "It was the last birthday present they bought me together," she remembers. "I messed around on it a little bit. But my parents got divorced, and I grew to hate that guitar." The divorce also led to Dreyer putting on her "gypsy boots," as she calls them, as she and her mother set out across the country, moving wherever their equine work took them.
Before she turned 18, Dreyer had lived in seven states, including Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, with the bulk of her time spent between Texas and Georgia. During those gypsy years, Dreyer says, music remained a constant, and when she hit California, 14 year old Jaida finally found a reason to pick up her abandoned guitar: She and her mother were between jobs and briefly living out of their car when they were taken in by a rock band. "The lead singer taught me my first few chords on the guitar: C, D, and G," Dreyer says. "That's when I officially learned to play." She'd also been keeping a journal on the road, writing stories and poems about the "vast array of dysfunctional characters" she and her mother met on their journey. As she grew more comfortable on the guitar, Dreyer began crafting melodies, and upon settling in southern Georgia, she decided it was time to try the songwriting thing for real. A local singer-songwriter friend helped Dreyer record her first song, a one-take guitar vocal they recorded together.
No matter how crooked the road, fate has a funny way of pointing us in the direction we're supposed to go: Just as Dreyer began to take her music seriously, her career as a horse-show champion came to an end. At 17, at the top of her game, she was forced to retire by an injury that would only worsen by further submitting her body to the wear and tear involved in training horses. It was the biggest risk of her life. "The only other thing I knew how to do was write songs," Dreyer says. "I looked back at all the songs I had written on the road, and I didn't know if they were any good, or if anybody wanted to hear what I had to say. But I wasn't scared of moving, obviously. I decided to make a couple trips to Nashville and just check it out." Shortly thereafter, Dreyer's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which resulted in her decision to leave their horse-breeding business in Georgia. The two moved to Music City. Dreyer was 18.
"I originally had no aspirations to be an artist," says Dreyer. "Not because I didn't want to be, I was just a realist. I knew that I didn't sound like the female country singers I was hearing on the radio at the time, and I just figured my place was as a songwriter. I was okay with that. Little did I know that someday people would actually like my voice for the exact reasons that I thought they wouldn't." In fact, it was the worktape she'd recorded back in Georgia that caught the attention of renowned songwriter Robin Lee Bruce, who found it on Dreyer's Myspace page. "She reached out and said she'd never heard anything like me before, and she wanted to help me plug into the scene," Dreyer says. "She introduced me to the songwriting community, who embraced me and welcomed me with open arms. The next thing you know, people were offering me publishing deals." She laughs. "At that point I was so naive I didn't even know you could get paid to write songs full time. I was nannying for a family with five kids, and I was like, 'You can get paid to do that? Sweet!'"
Her first live performance in Nashville was at a Tin Pan South round; she soon moved on to rounds at clubs like the Bluebird and Douglas Corner. For a while, she played down on Broadway, and learned the ever-important skills it takes to impress drunken strangers. Most of all, though, Dreyer wrote. "I would write up to three times a day sometimes, with anybody and everybody that would write with me," she says. "I was trying to learn different tools and put them in my toolbox. Making it up as I went along. I had no formal vocal training. I had no idea what I was doing." Well, she knew one thing: When asked which Nashville producer she'd want to work with, she said Byron Gallimore. "I remember thinking there's no way in hell I'll get to him," Dreyer says. But about a year after moving to Nashville, she got a call from the general manager of Gallimore's then-publishing company. Dreyer had been writing with his wife, and he'd passed along some of their worktapes to Gallimore, who liked what he heard, and set up a meeting. "From the moment I shook Byron's hand and looked him in the eye, I knew I was home," Dreyer says.
Gallimore was equally impressed. "Her voice is unique," he says, "and her songs were just way better than the average bear. She is possibly the most talented female writer in Nashville who's also an artist. I'd put her up with anybody to write. She's young, but she's lived these songs." For her debut album, due later this year, Dreyer and Gallimore have worked hard at honing the honest, authentic sound already apparent on "Guy's Girl," and while Dreyer admits that her lyrics can sometimes be edgy, her songs are firmly rooted in the traditional, whether she's writing with Guy Clark or Kings of Leon producer Angelo Petraglia. Most impressively, she has written or co-written every song on her upcoming record. "I've always found solace in music, whether creating it myself or by being a member in the audience," Dreyer says. "I want people to experience a variety of emotions through the rollercoaster of songs on my record, to immerse themselves in the feelings each song evokes. To find comfort."
Suddenly, the woman who never intended to be an artist is on the verge of breaking into the spotlight in a big way. She's coming to terms with it. "Every little girl wants to be a movie star or a rock star, stuff like that," Dreyer says, "but coming from where I did, it was never tangible. And now that it's all happening, I guess I just proved myself wrong." Naturally, this means more traveling; luckily, Dreyer's a pro. She's already toured with Eric Church and Luke Bryan, and opened for Dierks Bentley in arenas on his Jägermeister tour, taking a title loan out on the truck her late grandfather left her in order to pay her band. "It was really important to me if I was going to do this that I could be the whole package," Dreyer says. "I wanted to be out in front of the fans."
That commitment to doing whatever it takes for the sake of her craft is just another way that Dreyer's work ethic - the one she developed on the back of a horse at 5 years old - has prepared her for this moment. "Growing up on the road, I learned that life isn't a fairy tale," Dreyer says. "It gave me a lot to write about, and a story that most 17 year old girls don't have. I think some people could use the hand that they've been dealt and be bitter and jaded, but I haven't done that.
"I look at it as a blessing," she concludes. "My crooked road has given me a career."