To say Amber Digby grew up in country music is no stretch. Father Dennis played bass for major Nashville acts like Carl Smith and Loretta Lynn, while her mother Donna was a backup singer with Sammi Smith until Amber turned two years old.
Spending major parts of her childhood traveling on Lynn's tour bus — the one actually used in Coal Miner's Daughter — the precocious youngster could usually be found watching from the side of the stage as Lynn performed her magic. Talk about going to school.
These days, the Woodlands resident is a very busy woman. She's a mother, which keeps her busy enough. Digby also helps out her husband and guitarist Randy Lindley with his insurance company, while regularly traveling to Nashville for songwriting sessions and music-business meetings.
Then there are the gigs, mostly dance halls out in the Texas hinterlands.
"There's never a dull moment," says Digby. "But I like to stay busy."
At the time of our interview, Digby was packing for a quick run to Sweden to play an annual Christmas show. The day after her band arrives back in Houston, they play at Blanco's. Meanwhile, her producer Justin Trevino is mixing a recent performance into Digby's first live album, Amber Digby and Midnight Flyer Live.
"We've been a bit slow the past couple of months while I was recuperating from some surgery, but we're revving up again," she says. "We've already got a tremendous amount of stuff booked for 2011. It's looking like it could be our biggest year yet."
It doesn't hurt to have connections like former country superstar Ronnie Milsap in her corner. In the past year, Digby has appeared twice on the Grand Ole Opry, both times on Milsap's portion of the long-running live program and Nashville institution.
"My mom and aunt both worked for Ronnie, and he's been a great supporter of mine," says Digby. "He wrote the liner notes for my album Passion, Pride and What Might Have Been. His support means a lot."
A straight-up honky-tonk traditionalist, Digby has released four albums on Tracy Pitcox's Heart of Texas Records, a similarly purist label based in the Hill Country town of Brady. Heart of Texas also markets such artists as Tony Booth, Justin Trevino and her famous uncle, Darrell McCall.
Pitcox, who is also a disc jockey, sees big things ahead for Digby.
"I was talking with Moe Bandy the other night, and he remarked that [traditionalists] just need one of our younger artists to hit the mainstream, and hopefully the rock will start rolling downhill," he says. "And Amber could be the one. We certainly have believed in her and her talent since Day One."
Digby calls her latest project a "dance record."
"We recorded a show at one of those historic dance halls, the Swiss Alp near Schulenburg," she explains. "I designed that set to be nothing but straight-up country dance tunes, so we've got quite a few classic covers. It's straight off the sound board, but what Justin has played me so far sounds great."
Fellow honky-tonker Mike Stinson describes Digby's band — which besides Lindley includes her father-in-law and legendary steel guitarist Dickey Overby, Tom Lewis on drums, Ben Collis on bass and Damion O'Grady on keys — as "incredible."
"They do the two-step shuffles and straight-time dance stuff as well as anyone on the scene," says Stinson. "That band is nothing but aces, and they all know their job."
Digby's current routine includes one week per month to travel to Nashville to write songs, often working with Houstonian Frank Liddell's stable of writers at Carnival Publishing. One song she co-wrote with Vince Gill, "One More Thing I Wish I'd Said," will be on the Country Music Hall of Famer's next album.
Digby describes the Nashville writing process as hard but fulfilling work, and says that she's actually grown to like it.
"I always learn something from those writing sessions that I take away and put in my little tool box," she says. "Unlike working alone, when you co-write with professionals, your eyes get opened to other facets of the creative process that stick with you.
"You can't buy what co-writing teaches you," she adds. "Mostly humility."
Lately, Digby's co-writers have included Dani Flowers, Dale Dodson, Odie Blackmon and Eddie Perez, all names that carry serious weight on Music Row.
"We all come at stuff from different angles, so there are lots of ideas that I took into writing sessions that came out completely different by the time that other person's ideas come into the equation," Digby says. "If you're really paying attention, that kind of thing only makes you a better writer."
Digby always goes into her writing sessions with material, she says, never counting on the other writer to bring something to the table.
"I just try to always be ready, to do as much homework as I can. If the other person has something that grabs me, I'm happy to work with their ideas. I just never want to walk in empty-handed."
Pitcox says he feels like Digby is "on the verge of something bigger.
"I see Amber as being a lot like Elizabeth Cook," he says. "I know I'm prejudiced, but I think Amber sings as well as any female country singer ever has, and I think she's going to cut something that takes her to the next level soon.
Pitcox is even willing to sacrifice Digby to a bigger label if it helps further her career, he says, and opens the door for similar artists: "When she makes that next step, she's going to help all the traditional country acts striving to get somewhere higher."
Besides that killer schedule, Digby doesn't play in Houston all that much for another, very sound, reason.
"We're just not going to play $400 and $500 gigs. And we don't do those so-called 'exposure' gigs," she laughs, referring to shows where performers are paid in good will instead of cash.
"Exposure can kill you."
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