Secrets are safe with Shania Twain. The five-time Grammy winner has sold seventy-five million albums, but she has also lived much of her life in silence, fiercely protecting her family’s “painful” and “embarrassing” past from public scrutiny. The decision to divulge some of those secrets in the hope that it might “be of help to others” is what gives her new autobiography, From this Moment On, its remarkable heart.
What gives From This Moment On its soul, however, is the upbringing Shania Twain shares with her first musical heroes. Gone are the days when most country artists could claim a rural past, much less the hardscrabble life that informed the brilliant and ground-breaking music of artists like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Little wonder that Shania Twain regards both women, especially Parton, as musical touchstones. Twain and Parton are cut from the same cloth: resourceful, determined, sexy and sexual, and uncompromisingly in control of their careers.
Parton famously chronicled her family’s Tennessee mountain poverty in her iconic song, “Coat of Many Colors,” but Shania Twain rarely owned a coat that could keep her warm during cruel winters in rural Northern Ontario. She did wear out a pair of mukluks (moccasins), tanned and hand-stitched by her Ojibwa grandmother, a gift as symbolic to Shania as Dolly’s patched coat. Wearing plastic bags on her feet to keep them dry inside worn-out boots, suffering taunts about her frayed clothes and dirty hair, going to bed hungry, cowering with her siblings while their parents fought (and, later, physically breaking up those fights herself), living in cramped basement apartments with maggot-infested carpets—these depredations were the norm for Shania Twain. “From a very young age,” she writes, “I grew up with the mind-set of a survivor, like a boxer in the middle of the ring.”
Her recollections of her parents’ fights are harrowing: her stepfather—who legally adopted Twain after marrying her mother, and whose last name Twain carries—once “slammed” his wife’s head against the toilet basin, knocking her out, and he repeatedly “plunged” her head into the toilet. Yet Twain also remembers moments of real love and affection between the two, and her forgiveness of their faults and shortcomings provides some of the more poignant moments of the book.
Twain never considered music a serious career, but her mother did and pushed her daughter to perform and improve her talent. She scrounged to pay for Twain’s singing lessons, and the ever resourceful Shania, who taught herself guitar, gave lessons to friends for a few dollars. After high school she sang with cover bands and made a few demo records, but four years later, her parents were killed in a car accident, and Twain went back to Timmons, Ontario, to become the guardian of her younger siblings. She moved them into a small cabin with no indoor plumbing and performed nightly at a local resort to support the family. Even after being signed to a Nashville record deal, the future superstar brushed her teeth in the river and took a bath standing in a tub of stove-heated water (still, she says, her favorite way to bathe). But what a difference one album and one controversial video would make.
Although Twain felt hindered by the conventional-minded expectations of Nashville’s music industry, she was pragmatic enough to do what she was told, work as hard as she could, and wait for success as a singer and the chance to showcase her songwriting skills. She wouldn’t have long to wait. Her stunning good looks and exposed midriff, which initially caused CMT to ban her first video, might have cast her into the Mindy McCready category with a host of similar coquettish singers had not Mutt Lange—hit songwriter and producer of AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Bryan Adams—come calling. Energized by Lange’s belief in her songwriting, Twain forged a strong working relationship with him that would later culminate in marriage and a second, ground-breaking album. A grueling promotional tour for The Woman In Me left her rail-thin, exhausted, and “craving normalcy”—which, for Twain, meant a quick trip to Wal-Mart with a girlfriend.
Her next albums—Come On Over and Up!—raised the bar high for Nashville’s music industry. Her inventive, tightly crafted, sing-a-long lyrics and Mutt Lange’s technically perfect productions meant that Nashville could no longer get away with lackluster songs and thin, muddy productions that sounded like glorified demos. Music Row powerbrokers may have grumbled about the Canadian upstart, but Twain’s success revitalized 16th Avenue South, and many country music artists after her enjoyed million-selling albums and a new crossover appeal.
With Twain’s enormous, steamroller success came a son, Eja, a home in Switzerland, stables and horses, and, in 2008, betrayal—Mutt Lange’s affair with Twain’s best friend. After the dissolution of their marriage, Twain emerged with a new sense of herself as an artist, a mother, and, again, a survivor. (She also remarried in 2011.) Twain maintains a refreshingly practical view of life, advising readers to “be ready to face a world that, at times, will take pleasure in kicking the shit out of you.” Today she is thankful she no longer has to “keep her dukes up”—or to expend so much time and energy keeping secrets.