Robin Meade

When Robin Meade was a child growing up in the small town of New London, Ohio, neighbors would catch her singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of the flagpole on her lawn. Turns out it was excellent training for the anchor of HLN's Morning Express: She's opened many NASCAR events with the song. "There's less of a chance you're going to forget the words," she says, "if it's something you've been singing since you were in kindergarten."

But Meade's repertoire goes way beyond Francis Scott Key. Her second album, Count on Me (due June 11), is much more than a celebrity vanity project: The collection of country, rock and pop tunes — including seven cowritten by Meade — was produced by award-winning songwriter Victoria Shaw, who coproduced Lady Antebellum's 2008 debut.

It's not as if Meade, 44, needs a backup plan: Morning Express has been on a roll of late. Over the last three months, Meade's breezy, fast-paced program (where stories and segments rarely run longer than 20 seconds) has topped MSNBC's buzzier Morning Joe among the 25-54-year-old news viewers that matter to advertisers. Her Salute the Troops feature, where every morning a member of one of the U.S. military branches is acknowledged, has solidified her following in small town America, where people don't obsess over the fussing and fighting at the Today show up in New York. (Over the years she's been approached about joining a broadcast network morning show. But news executives say Meade enjoys life in Atlanta where Morning Express is based. "All I can say it's good to be wanted," she says when asked about the inquiries. "How's that?"

During Meade's successful rise in TV news, her passion for music never waned. "I grew up singing in church, but my dad, a minister, forbade me from going into rock or country music," she says. "He thought everyone was either Jim Morrison or, on the country side, an outlaw. I thought maybe being a music teacher was a good idea for a while until I looked at the pay."

Her dreams were no longer deferred after she joined CNN in Atlanta and started making trips to Nashville, where she guest-hosted The Next GAC Star, an American Idol knockoff on Great American Country. There she met Shaw, a judge on the show, and asked for some songwriting guidance. "She probably thought, 'This chick will come up once and I'll never see her again,'" Meade recalls. "But we kept writing songs and, before you knew it, we had an LP's worth." That led to her debut album, Brand New Day, released in 2011.

Meade doesn't see her second career as a big departure from journalism. "You're writing about people's ups and downs and the human experience for news," she says. "And you're doing something very similar for songwriting. It's storytelling."

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