Country Strong: Hannah Thomas blazes ahead in music career

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

Newton County resident Hannah Thomas turns 21 this year, but there's a good chance 2011 will be memorable for so much more.

The up-and-coming country music artist's birthday is Feb. 1, and she'll celebrate the occasion two days later with a performance at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta.

"It's going to be an all-out throwdown," Thomas said.

Thomas' birthday should give her pause to consider how far she's come since her first public performance, a "good accident" five years ago at the venerable Eddie's Attic in Decatur.

"When I was 16, I figured I'd be a lot farther along than I am now," she said. "But in these last five years, I've realized how much work it takes to make it. I'm still paying my dues, which is good, because I realize now I wasn't ready at 16. I've learned a lot, I've still got a lot to learn and I'm very grateful."

It would appear Thomas is learning her lessons well. The winner in the country category of the recent Georgia Lottery All-Access Music Awards (which will enable her to travel to California to record in Hollywood's iconic Capitol Records Tower), Thomas also recently learned she'd been named Female Artist of the Year (for the second consecutive year) by Georgia-Country.com.

In addition, Thomas had two album releases in 2010, the full-band "The Rest is Yet to Come" and "The Acoustic Sessions." She's also moved beyond the Peach State's borders, performing at venues in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.

"I've seen my audience numbers increase and the response has been great," she said. "I've been very fortunate to have fans tell other people about me and we've got a great street team in place. Last year was an awesome year and I'm hoping 2011 will be even better."

Although her sound has been characterized as "sophisticated country" by a friend, Thomas said she's got no problem adding a few dashes of rock 'n' roll in her songs.

"When we're doing a full-band show, I like to come out with a punch and rock out a little," she said. "Then we'll do some acoustic songs and kind of touch on every kind of feeling people have.

"We definitely like to end things with a punch, too. And one of my favorite things to do is get the audience involved."

Thomas has a laundry list of impressive influences, including Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles (whose early performances also took place at Eddie's Attic), Sonya Leigh, Janis Joplin, Heart, Bonnie Raitt and Billie Holiday.

But she reserves her highest accolades for award-winning rocking blues artist Michelle Malone, who along with the Indigo Girls, Caroline Aiken and Dede Vogt, has spent more than two decades among the vanguard of Atlanta-based female guitar slingers.

"I've seen Michelle play many times and I've been fortunate to play with her a few times," Thomas said.

"I can't help but love the blues and Michelle is like the female Keith Richards. I've never seen anybody -- anybody -- captivate an audience like she does. She puts her heart and soul into every performance. I'm striving to be like her -- if I can do that, I'll be happy."

A prolific songwriter, Thomas said she has close to two hours worth of original material. But given the fact that she's often playing three- and four-hour shows at parties and clubs, she's been known to lean on a cover or two to keep the audience engaged.

"I do anything from Janis Joplin to Radiohead to Miranda Lambert to Johnny Cash," she said. "I like to have a wide variety of covers at my disposal, but I don't rap. Actually, I tried rapping, but my friends said, 'No rap.' I guess if they'd seen me dance, they'd rather see me rap."

The daughter of Carol and Tommy Thomas of Covington said her family (which includes her 17-year-old brother Hunter, who's rather accomplished with a bow and arrow) has been nothing but supportive as she climbs the showbiz ladder.

"They have absolutely been my biggest supporters," Thomas said.

"I'm very grateful for all they've done for me because a lot of young musicians don't get that kind of encouragement. They used to come to all my shows and they -- along with my grandparents -- are my biggest fans."

Thomas will take a gigantic step outside her comfort zone in February when she and her hand joins Atlanta singer-songwriter Connor Christian and his band Southern Gothic on an East Coast tour, with stops scheduled in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

"I'm super-excited about that. It's something I've always wanted to do," she said.

"I'm nervous, too, because I want to do the best I can, so it's probably good to have some butterflies. I play every show like it's my last, so it doesn't matter if there are two, 200 or 2,000 people there. Hopefully, they'll like what I do."