At first glance, Cindy Hughlett does not fit one’s typical image of a professional recording artist.
She has not followed obviously well-traveled paths, and her ultimate goal would appear to be respect rather than stardom — although, in some ways, she has enjoyed both.
She has what she terms the “God-given gift of being able to play music by ear,” although few know the number of daily hours at the piano her craft demands. She is an award-winning composer and recording artist, examples being Artists Music Guild Heritage Awards in 2013 for Female Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year (“Love Struck Me”) and in 2015 for Album of the Year (“Something Old Something New”).
She has recorded eight studio albums, the past four working with veteran Nashville songwriter and producer Mark Carman, and is represented by MCM World Media.
New album “Reflections” has a Tuesday release date. It will be available for a “suggested $10 offering” when Hughlett and country music star Richie McDonald perform in concert Thursday at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Theatre.
Music on Grammy ballot
Hughlett is an active voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, meaning she is eligible for Grammy Award consideration and votes herself. Recent albums made the Grammy ballot in the Gospel Roots category. “Reflections” also is submitted as a Grammy candidate.
Yet this is the same person leading worship at Ropes First Church of the Nazarene each Sunday morning.
Hughlett also makes time to fill the role, she explained, of “interim music minister for several small churches that cannot afford a music minister.”
One of her funnier observations: “If you play piano, and you go to church, somehow they (church leaders) just find out. You name it (the church), I’ve probably played there.”
Again, that is not how many visualize award-winning recording artists.
The daughter of small-town pastor Ernest Brewer, now deceased, Hughlett’s definition of success has little to do with dollar signs, at least not in her own bank account.
As much as she loves business trips to Nashville, she said that she also loves Lubbock and has no intention of moving. She and her husband, Kirk, have raised two sons here: Travis, 34, and Tyler, 31. She and Kirk remain comfortable and happy in West Texas, she said.
Chooses not to tour
Hughlett is aware she could gain far more exposure on the road. “I could be a touring artist if I chose to,” she remarked. Musicians she plays with regionally are Michael Whited, guitar and band leader; Jim Andrews, bass guitar; and R.D. Carlile, percussion.
Instead, while her music has helped others locally and in regions as diverse as Egypt and the Philippines, she restricts her travel to a 200-mile radius, mostly to churches. The exception is her work in Nashville.
To understand Hughlett, it helps to know a little about her childhood and recognize that this musician, 54, recorded her first album 16 years ago. Even that never would have happened without a financing angel literally tapping her on the shoulder and suggesting the time was right.
Hughlett began playing piano at age 6, and did not lack the courage required to sing in front of others.
Her first goal was to become a missionary. As a little girl, her first heroine was Amy Carmichael, who died at age 83 after 55 years of service in India.
It was not that long ago that Hughlett cut hair for a living while “working in the Lubbock County jail ministry, and with the homeless.”
Little did she know that styling one man’s hair would lead to meeting and marrying his cousin.
Ten years later, after listening to Hughlett play piano one Sunday, church member Bill Stewart told her she should record an album, and he wanted to pay for it.
“Do you remember that Don Knotts movie ‘The Reluctant Astronaut?’ ” asked Hughlett. “I was the reluctant recording artist.”
If not precisely reluctant, she was nervous.
Things improved when she and Kirk approached local studio owner Wally Moyers about producing Hughlett’s second album.
Moyers actually would produce her next three, saying, “(Hughlett) is the total package: great singer, writer and musician. Most importantly, she has a great work ethic. Her husband is also very supportive, and you don’t see that very often in this business.”
Hughlett added, “I recall, after making a record with Wally, someone heard my music and played it on the radio. You treasure something like that in your heart.”
It was another step toward recognition and respect.
Yet recording still left her “kicking and screaming on the inside.” She recalled praying, “God, if you want me to record music, can I have some fun doing it?”
Her 2011 album “Stories, Hope and Lullabies” earned seven nominations at Christian Voice magazine’s annual fan awards. She attended that awards ceremony in 2012 in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where she won Album of the Year.
Still, Hughlett felt “ready to quit,” feeling she had peaked with regional recording.
Meeting Carman in Gatlinburg carried more weight than any award.
He was there to represent a recording he had produced for Trace Adkins, T. Graham Brown, Marty Raybon and Jimmy Fortune. But he told A-J Media, “I was quite impressed with her (Hughlett’s) sound when they played clips of her recordings.”
Working with Carman helped Hughlett progress with more than her music: “He gave my music a broader platform.”
Hughlett focused more on her music. In turn, her husband focused on keeping up with household bills and family expenses, so funds earned by Hughlett’s recordings and performances could go toward other projects.
Carman was a member of International Cooperating Ministries, raising funds to build churches and orphanages; Hughlett soon joined ICA as an emissary artist. Her contributions have financed the construction of four churches, she said, two in the Philippines, one in Egypt and one in Honduras.
A nonprofit organization was formed, called Cindy Hughlett Music Ministries, recently changed to Smallest Gifts.
Thursday’s concert will benefit two organizations. She said, “I love supporting the (Texas) Boys Ranch, but I have a children’s home that is supported exclusively by my ministry in Surigao City in the Philippines.” (See smallestgifts.org for details.)
A Nashville connection saw Hughlett’s music improve, and increase in quantity. She never had worked so hard.
“Partly because the kid gloves came off,” she noted. “If I wrote a bad song, Mark would tell me. I know I am teachable. But I learned that, even in ministry, it was time to put my big girl boots on.
“Mark has written and recorded so much. When you are coached by someone like that, songs just started flowing.”
Carman also concluded that Hughlett, signed to MCM World Media, should record in Nashville. “Cindy has a very pleasant, easy-to-listen-to voice, and she delivers a song truthfully,” he explained.
“She believes what she is saying. She makes the listener believe it. The songs she writes are snippets of her own life, a window into her heart and soul.”
Leaving comfort zone
His invitation to record in a more professional setting took her “way out of my comfort zone,” she said.
“My first time recording in Nashville,” recalled Hughlett, “was so surreal. It was like 10 years of Christmases and birthdays.”
As inspiring as Nashville and Grammy ballots are to Hughlett, she has known, from age 6, that she wants to help people. Instead of becoming a missionary, she calls herself a “musician-ary.”
Grammy voters noticed her unique approach. Hughlett, for example, includes on each album her own arrangements of traditional hymns. She explained, “Everyone likes to hear a favorite band play cover songs. Hymns are my cover songs. I consider this ‘playing the hits.’
“I grew up in a small country church. I’m giving the hymns I loved new life, but I maintain the integrity.”
She also takes truths from real stories, not all her own, and transforms them into songs. Yet her biggest satisfaction, said Hughlett, comes from helping others.
The respect she has earned allows her to do even more of that.
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