NASHVILLE - When Trisha Yearwood signed her first record deal in 1991, there was one route for a country singer who wanted to make a big splash.
"You had to be on a big label and have major distribution," she recalled recently.
Yearwood parted with MCA Nashville this year and signed with the much smaller independent Big Machine Records. Her first album for the label, "Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love," came out Tuesday.
"If you would have told me 15 years ago that I would have gone to a label like Big Machine, I would have said it was a death wish," she said.
With the new label and the new record, Yearwood feels a little like she did when she released her debut. She recorded it in a month and said she had a blast doing it.
The 43-year-old singer had weathered a number of changes at MCA, and it began to wear on her. She wanted the label to give her more control over her catalog. She wanted it to put more muscle behind her 2005 album "Jasper County." When her contract came up, she decided to leave.
"The only thing that made me want to stay at MCA was that my catalog was there," she said. "I wanted a partnership in saying what the cuts are, for instance, on a greatest hits album, or how the artwork is done. Those were the most important things for me rather than more money.
"When it became clear that was not going to happen, I decided to go somewhere else where there's new energy and new excitement."
Big Machine Records is part of a wave of independents going toe-to-toe with the major labels on Music Row. It's only two years old, but it's made inroads with Taylor Swift, Jack Ingram, and Danielle Peck. The 17-year-old Swift, in particular, has become one of Nashville's hottest acts.
Yearwood was also comfortable with Big Machine president Scott Borchetta, whom she's known since she answered phones for Mary Tyler Moore's MTM Records some 20 years ago.
With Yearwood, Borchetta gets a flagship artist, while Yearwood in turn gets a level of personal attention that would be hard for a major label to match.
"She can pick up the phone at any time and call anyone on the staff," Borchetta said. "Each artist is their own unique brand, if you will, and they don't all react the same and they don't do all the same things."
The new album, "Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love," captures the exuberance of Yearwood's fresh start. It's more uptempo than some of her other discs, and there's a playfulness in songs like "Cowboys Are My Weakness" and the sassy "Nothin' About You Is Good for Me."
The first single, the gospel-flavored title track, has cracked the Top 25.
"This batch of songs just kind of showed up," she said. "I'm not a songwriter, so it's hard for me to find those 10 or 12 songs that feel like me. But this time, there they were."
Yearwood has come a ways since her childhood in Monticello, Ga., where she grew up admiring Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. After high school she moved to Nashville, where she majored in music business at Belmont University, sang demos, and worked as a receptionist.
She made two of the most important contacts of her career in those early years, both of them named Garth: producer Garth Fundis, who went on to produce all her records, and Garth Brooks, who pledged to help her any way he could if he ever made it big.
Of course, Brooks did make it big and, true to his word, he invited Yearwood to open his first headlining tour and to sing on his albums.
The two married a couple of years ago and live together in Oklahoma. This month, she performed with him at a string of sold-out concerts in Kansas City.
"Our careers are very different," Yearwood reflected. "My live shows are intimate and really conversational with the audience. Garth's shows are events, these huge spectacles. When I go out onstage and sing with him on his show there's an energy onstage that you have to rise to."
Besides her singing, she's also worked as an actress, most notably in a recurring role on the TV series "JAG."
But music is what defines her most. She has had five No. 1 hits, gold and platinum albums, and poignant ballads like "How Do I Live" and "Walkaway Joe."
With the new record, Yearwood has something else, too.
"Sometimes you just need to change the ground underneath your feet to feel new momentum. I think the biggest difference I feel with this new music is energy."