'The Voice' Hopeful Meghan Linsey Once Charted a Country Hit, Opened for Blake Shelton

Tyler Golden/NBC
Meghan Linsey on The Voice.

NBC's The Voice has enlisted the occasional contestant with a prior recording career  -- like season 3 winner Cassadee Pope -- but never one who could lay claim to a previous top 10 hit. But this year, the series has its most high-profile major-label refugee yet with Meghan Linsey, formerly half of the duo Steel Magnolia, who notched a No. 3 album and No. 4 single on Billboard's country charts during a two-year run starting in 2009.

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Like Pope before her, Linsey had a brief moment of pride when she got the call to come audition. "At first it seemed like a little bit of a hard pill to swallow to go on a show like this," Linsey tells Billboard. Until, that is, she considered just how little of a leg up that half-decade-old success was worth today. "I spent so many years investing in the Steel Magnolia brand that people don't really know me as Meghan Linsey on my own. And I feel like it's almost impossible to be a female and get played on country radio now. I don't have a ton of money in the bank. I was getting to a point where I can't do this independently anymore. That's why it became really clear when they called that this was the right decision."

A prior record in country is no guarantee of success on The Voice. Last year, Julie Roberts didn't get a single judge to turn around during the blind audition, despite having previously had a top 10 country album and even her own CMT show. Linsey, as a regular Voice viewer, was well aware of Roberts' fate as she approached her own turn.

Roberts' audition "was definitely in the back of my mind, for sure," Linsey says. "When I was doing my blind and it really took a long time for them to turn around, I was like, 'Oh God, did I make the wrong decision?' It was torture. When we were putting the song ['Love Hurts'] together, I didn't want to come out screaming but to tell a story and build it up. But being at the point I'm at in my career, it was do or die for me. So when they weren't turning around, I was like, 'OK, I've really got to blow it out now.' I don't even know where I was pulling from at the end, but they finally turned around, and I was very relieved, obviously."

Well, three out of four did -- the lone holdout being Blake Shelton, who'd had Steel Magnolia as an opening act and sheepishly admitted afterward that the former tourmate he'd failed to recognize is "one of the best singers I've ever heard in my life."

Shelton not offering himself as a potential coach didn't mandate any change in her plans. "I actually came out with the intention of picking Pharrell [Williams] if he had turned around, and so it actually worked out really well that he did. Christina [Aguilera] fought pretty hard to have me on her team, so there was a moment where I almost changed my mind at the last minute, because she seemed so passionate. But I feel really good about my decision."

Linsey is actually an old hand at televised music contests, since Steel Magnolia got their deal after winning the second season of CMT's Can You Duet. It was an irresistible story: Linsey and partner Joshua Scott Jones were betrothed to each other as well as to Big Machine. The duo's 2009 debut single, "Keep On Lovin' You," reached No. 4 on the country chart and wound up being the 15th biggest song of 2010 in the format. But their album was delayed until early 2011, and three subsequent singles failed to crack the top 20.

Setbacks continued to pile up: Linsey and Jones broke off their engagement. Jones entered rehab in 2011, which forced Linsey to continue Steel Magnolia's tour with a fill-in, James Otto. Before that year was up, they'd been dropped. For at least a couple of years, there was a lot of confusion about whether the duo were together anymore.

"There was a time when we were trying to write songs and make a [sophomore] record," Linsey explains. "But so much of what we did was very personal -- the songs, and even our stage presence, where there was a lot of chemistry going on. When you break up personally, that's no longer there. We'd go in the studio, but it just never seemed to click. So we decided in January 2014 that we were going to play our last show and move on. We still stay in touch and support each other. It was a good ending. I'm glad we explored it, just so we didn't have any regrets. At the end of the day, you can't make it work if it's not working. I was very drained and exhausted at the end of it."

Neither ex-member has found it easy going as a solo artist. Last fall, Linsey released a self-titled six-song EP that included her cover of "Counting Stars." SiriusXM gave her a push, but terrestrial country radio took little interest.

Although The Voice made note of her prior country success, there's a reason the show subsequently tagged her as "soul singer Meghan Linsey."

"I grew up in New Orleans, and soul music is my favorite thing to sing. As I go on the show and am in the studio making new music, I really am trying to get back to my roots. I moved to Nashville in 2004 and would go play Bluebird writers' nights, and I fell in love with the way people were writing country songs and telling a story. So I tried to marry my soulful voice with the story element of country. But being on Team Pharrell, it's a good time for me to explore more of that soul side of what I do."

As one of 48 contestants going into the next phase, Linsey still faces long odds, yet knows there may be viewers who consider her overqualified. "I know some people are questioning if I deserve to be here," she allows. "I've heard a comment or two that are like, 'Oh, she had her shot' or 'Her career is over.' I'm 29, and I moved to town 11 years ago, and I've worked so hard and don't believe in giving up on a dream. I'm grateful that The Voice does allow people who have had careers to come on the show like this and reintroduce themselves, giving an opportunity for a second chance. It's interesting with all the contestants: We're all the underdog in our own ways."

A brand-new Voice episode airs Monday night (March 9) on NBC.