Tears and Cheers: My Top 10 Memories of 2016

As the year draws to a close, social media is buzzing with comments about the unusually high number of iconic personalities we have lost this year—Carrie Fisher, George Michaels, Prince, Merle Haggard…the list is depressingly endless, or so it seems. Like most people, I have been reflecting on my own highs and lows of the past 12 months. Thankfully, most of my personal experiences (in music) have been positive, but there was one particularly painful event that I still am not completely over. Here are a few memories of 2016 that I will hold forever.

1. Fred Brooks: Business Partner, Friend, Mentor

The loss of my business partner, Fred Brooks, was devastating. We had worked together since meeting at a music festival in 2013. Fred was once in a band, so he understood the music business in ways that most business people do not. More than an investor, he was like a second father to me. I spent many days with him and his wife, Sherry, at their home in North Carolina. They honestly treated me just like another daughter, especially Fred. He helped me in so many ways, and we were looking forward to accomplishing new things in 2016. In March, Fred and Sherry invited me to spend a week with them at their second Florida home. Fred took me to Walt Disney World and and all three of us spent time doing other fun things, together. I flew back home to Virginia on a Saturday, only to receive news 48 hours later that Fred died from a sudden heart attack. I still remember vividly the smile on his face while I boarded my plane. He actually went through security with me just so we could have a short breakfast together before I went home. My heart shattered. I cried for days, not knowing how to process what had happened. As often happens when one loses a loved one, I felt that I could not go on. But I had to. Fred would have wanted it. 

2. Reds Opening Day Parade

It was an honor to be invited to ride in the annual Opening Day parade! However, when Fred Brooks passed away two weeks before the parade, I thought about canceling. How could I appear in a parade, singing and smiling in front of thousands of people, when I felt so upset? Fortunately, my friends encouraged me to do it and I am glad they did. I rode on the 911Steel.com float, which is the country’s only traveling 9/11 memorial, and sang my song “Don’t Push.” The song has a line that says, “Don’t push, somebody might just push right back.” That’s what America did, after 9/11. We pushed back, against the bullies of the world! Later in the year, I was asked to perform the National Anthem before the Reds game! Of course, this was exciting and is a top moment as well.

3. "Heart of Appalachia"

Before “Heart of Appalachia” became the theme song for Southwest Virginia tourism, it was just an idea. I had written the song with my friend Scott Arnold more than a year earlier. When we played the rough demo for the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority board members, they loved it. In April, I went into the Gorilla’s Nest Studio just outside of Nashville, to re-record the vocals. Bluegrass legend Larry Cordle produced and engineer Chris Latham handled the mix. Larry also sang background vocals, along with Val Storey, a great singer in Nashville, who has worked with many other artists, including Dolly Parton. After we had finished the final recording, I spent four days shooting the music video throughout Southwest Virginia. Even the great Ralph Stanley II made a cameo appearance in my video! I sang “Heart of Appalachia” in public for the first time at the Ralph Stanley Festival, with Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, which was a pretty amazing experience. I love being from Southwest Virginia, and feel extremely honored that my song is the official theme song for the region. One of my top 10 moments, for sure!

4. Country Jam Colorado

I have sung in front of large audiences before, but never as big as 2016 Country Jam Colorado. The festival takes place every June in the desert outside of Grand Junction, Colorado. When I was invited to perform, how could I refuse? A couple of weeks before the festival, the promoters asked if I would be interested in doing another performance, earlier in the day, in the V.I.P. tent, so I agreed. Following that performance, the festival director asked if I would be interested in singing the national anthem later that evening, before Brad Paisley’s show. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. Whew! Throughout the day, I had been experiencing nosebleeds. I couldn’t figure out why, because I had never had that problem before. Of course, I was flipping out. However, a nurse in the First Aid tent said a lot of people had been suffering nosebleeds because of the high altitude (the festival site was over one mile above sea level). I was trembling but I knew this was not about me. This was about honoring our country. As it turned out, the festival organizers were honoring our troops that night. There were soldiers on the stage when I stepped out to sing the anthem. 

5. Picking Up the “Pieces”

“To Pieces” is a breakup song I wrote with my friends Janet Miller and Scott Arnold. I shot a music video in the fall of 2015 but, at that time, decided to hold off on releasing it until spring. When Fred passed away in March, suddenly, everything we had previously discussed was put on the back burner. I went ahead with “Heart of Appalachia,” because that song was already in the works with the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority, and it had to be finished by June. Toward late summer, I realized “To Pieces” needed to come out before the holidays, or it might be too late, for several reasons. So, I then started working with a radio promotion company in Nashville to start putting the song out to radio stations and set up a radio tour.

6. Huffington Post's Top 10 Artists To Watch List

When I found out I was included in the Top 10 Artists to Watch for in 2017 — I felt so honored! I admire all of the artists that was included and I am so thankful that Huffington Post included me! 

7. Radio Tour: On the Air and On the Road

My radio tour gave me an opportunity to see and experience so many great new places that I will never forget, and also to make some incredible new friends. I went to radio stations in several states—West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin—to promote my single “To Pieces.” The lack of sleep was certainly worth it, I had a blast!

8. Attending the CMA Awards

For years, I sat at home, watching the CMA Awards on television, dreaming of just being there. Forget about performing on the stage—I always just wanted to sit in the audience. Well, in November, I got the chance, when ABC Television offered me tickets to the 50th Annual CMA Awards! I was a ball of excitement the day of the show. If I could describe the awards in a few words, this is how it would go — a big ole’ puddle of country glamour! Dolly made my whole night, I think she is amazing! I still dream of making it onto that stage one day, but you know what? I was pretty dang close to the stage, so I’ll take that for now! Hehe!

9. Lights, Camera, Action: Filming Born in Bristol

So, this actually happened in 2015, but since it was the end of the year, the excitement carried over into 2016! I am including it on my current list of Top 10 events. Born in Bristol is a documentary film about the historic Bristol Sessions, a series of recordings in 1927 that marked the beginning of the country music industry. When I found out it was going to be filmed in and around Bristol, TN/VA (not far from where I live), I wanted to be involved. The problem is, I did not find out about the project, until after auditions were over. My publicist submitted me, anyway, and the director, Chusy Haney-Jardine, agreed to see me. A few days later, he offered me a small part. Talk about being out of my comfort zone! I had never been in a movie! I was to be one of a small group of female singers performing a song at a funeral written by 2-time Grammy-winner Carl Jackson. I did not realize it at the time, but the movie was inspired by Carl’s album “Orthophonic Joy,” which had been released earlier that year. Carl was the musical director on the film, and he could not have been nicer to work with! I spent two days rehearsing with him (along with other singers, including the Church Sisters, Dani Flowers and Delnora Reed), and then one day shooting our scene. We filmed the scene in Acuff’s Chapel, a church built in 1786 in what is now Blountville, Tennessee. Being December, Lord, it was COLD. I had a small little black dress, heels, a hat, and no make-up on. Each note I would sing you could just see my breath freeze in the air. I got so caught up in the moment, I cried real tears during the scene. Born in Bristol premiered as a work in progress at the 2016 Nashville Film Festival. I am only on screen for a few seconds, but I felt so proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort level and trying something new.

10. Song of the Mountains

Song of the Mountains is a nationally syndicated television concert series, hosted by Tim White. Tim is also a well-known bluegrass artist, promoter and radio host. I taped his TV show back in 2014 at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia, but because of a complex distribution schedule, my episode did not start airing until February of 2016. The show airs on many PBS affiliates throughout the country, so I have heard from people in many cities, who saw me for the first time on Song of the Mountains. I am so grateful to Tim White for his support!

Brittany Hodak