Sarah Lou Richards will tell you that she was born in Wisconsin. But the folk-Americana musician known as SLR was born in Nashville.
After studying music education at the University of Hartford’s The Hartt School and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire—and with some vocal inspiration from Shania Twain—Richards shifted her focus from teaching to performing. A few setbacks, though: She didn’t own a guitar. She didn’t know how to write a song. And she didn’t listen to much outside of pop-country radio. But all of that changed upon moving to Music City in 2007. SLR quickly began studying, writing, and working the city’s open mic circuit with her first original song, “Space.”
That introspective track eventually made it onto Richards’ folksy five-song debut EP, Emerald City, which was released in September 2009. (Adding to Emerald City’s star power: SLR’s pals Florida Georgia Line opened for her at the release party.) After connecting with Henry Paul, lead singer of the multiplatinum country band BlackHawk, she’d found the producer for her first full-length album. With the 2010 release of the slicker, twangier, ten-track Ruby Red Shoes, two themes emerged: Richards’ Wizard of Oz fetish, of course, but also her strong work ethic. “I was struck with her commitment to her work,” Paul says. “Sarah Lou is in the music business for all the right reasons. She has an artistic agenda and is personally motivated.”
A bit of magic took hold as Richards dove into her second full-length album. The playful duet “Dear John/Dear Abby” required a male voice, so she cold-called her dream choice: Gary Nichols, lead singer of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. Nichols, meanwhile, had been searching for a female vocalist to accompany him on “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” a wistful country ballad written by James LeBlanc and Angela Hacker. When he heard SLR, he knew immediately that his search was over.
“Sarah Lou has one of the purest voices out there,” Nichols says. “When I think of pure voices like that, I think of Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack, Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride. When it comes to that kind of voice, I would put her in a peer group with those female singers.”
“I Ain’t Easy to Love” became Richards’ priority, and at the end of 2012, she found herself recording with Nichols at the legendary FAME and NuttHouse studios in his native Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The sessions were so successful that Nichols signed on to produce her as-yet-untitled sophomore full-length. That project features the pair’s duet—albeit not the one SLR originally had in mind—and is currently being shopped to labels.
In between writing and recording, Richards is constantly on the road—sometimes solo, sometimes backed by a rotating cast of musicians collectively known as the Handsome Devils. She’s shared the stage with globally recognized artists like Jamie O’Neal, Sarah Siskind, and Gabe Dixon and opened for Bombadil and Woody Pines, among other nationally touring acts. She’s played everywhere from New York City’s historic The Bitter End to the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis, as well as at buzzy festivals like SXSW. And in 2013, she was a featured guest on NPR’s West Coast Live (fittingly, host Sedge Thomson’s trademark is a pair of red shoes). When she’s not on stage or in the studio, you can find her—and her guitar—volunteering with organizations like Musicians on Call, Soles4Souls, and Girls Rock Camp.
Whether she’s pouring her heart out to an audience or toiling over unfinished tracks in the studio, Sarah Lou Richards has found her voice. And as the hype surrounding her new album builds, others are discovering it too. Says Nichols: “For me, what it comes down to is that the girl can sing. Or, the way I say it down here in Alabama, that girl can sang.”