Photographed exclusively for COWGIRL by Audrey Hall
Makeup: Fumi Nagai @fumimakeup
Hair: Brook Spain – Brooklynn Studio @brooklynnstudio
OPENING SPREAD: Stephanie and her horse Magic on her ranch outside Bozeman, Montana.
Stephanie Quayle is country music personified. She is also a cowgirl, which is central to her ethos and integral to her spirit, and it’s the foundation upon which both her songs and her attitude are built. While her musicality, writing talent, and people-forward personality are undoubtedly innate, her resilience, independence, work ethic, love of nature, and comfort in wide open spaces are hallmarks of being a daughter of the mountain West.
“When I consider my upbringing,” the artist reflects, “I’m reminded of the sentiment, ‘find a way.’ Growing up with an entrepreneur for a father, a loyally loving stepmom, and a resilient mom married to my stepdad who was a veterinarian and farmer, we lived by those three words. A farm never sleeps, with animals to keep and lives at stake every single day. Living in that kind of determination doesn’t leave room for error; there’s too much at stake. I think that is branded in my soul. It’s unchangeable and it’s why I continue to strive to champion everyone else and compete with my yesterday’s self.”
It also may explain how she’s been able to successfully weather unimaginable personal loss, and why she’s been able to navigate the stress of breaking down overnight a business structure that took years to build, pivot her work life on a dime, and emerge, mid-pandemic, still smiling, creating, sharing, and practically pulsating with an infectious positive energy.
Stephanie grew up on a farm outside Bozeman, Montana, with her mother, her stepfather, and “a whole herd” of half-siblings and step-siblings on both sides of the family. They raised bison and cattle, kept draft and riding horses, and grew alfalfa. From the youngest age, she was on the back of a horse; childhood memories include feeding the livestock using a team of draft horses to pull a wagon loaded with hay that they’d grown themselves. “We’d go out into the fields and pastures with my stepdad driving the team, and we’d push off the hay,” she recalls. “I was just a little kid in a snowsuit. We didn’t know the magnitude of what we were doing, but one thing ingrained in us kids was respect for what those animals provided for us. Growing up on a farm, you get to experience so much. And if it’s not taught, it’s not known.”
Stephanie’s upbringing included music lessons taught by her stepdad’s mom. “She was as tough as nails, and she taught piano. So it was a requirement—an awesome requirement. And it’s one of the greatest gifts.” Stephanie’s mother, a horsewoman, also had an outsized influence. “I grew up with horses and we used to drive little ponies. Now my mother trains Friesians to pull carts and do obstacle courses. She’s such a cowgirl. Every time I speak to her, I think, ‘I need to step it up!’ ”
Despite all the activity, Stephanie had plenty of alone time on the farm and this is when her creativity flourished. “My pals were my animals. I wrote stories, I wrote poems, I remember journaling.” When she first picked up the guitar, she recalls, “It was just another extension of the piano.”
Her teenage years were challenging—primarily due to bullying—but she had music, and “music can change your chemistry in a note.” Today, she says, she is “absolutely grateful for those challenges.” If she had loved high school, for instance, she’d have never gone to Switzerland junior year, and if she hadn’t gone to Switzerland, she might never have become the lead singer in a Swiss band—something she was able to do by spontaneously offering herself up, in broken French, after overhearing some people in a coffee shop talking about how they’d lost their lead singer.
After returning to Montana and graduating from Bozeman High School in 1998, Stephanie moved to southern California to start her music career. “California was familiar, it was the West. But Nashville was the long game.” She stayed 10 years, performing whenever she could and working jobs that would keep her going but also teach her something that would be useful later, such as hostessing in a French restaurant to further her French, or working in retail, since she knew merchandise would one day be part of her business.
Her career was on a promising trajectory when, in 2009, Stephanie experienced a profound tragedy that for a time robbed her of her voice. Her boyfriend, with whom she was in a serious committed relationship, died in a plane crash. And her life changed in an instant. “It was a defining moment that made me question everything and wonder if I was ever going to sing again,” she says. “At 29, my whole world stopped. I had to re-evaluate and consider ‘Where am I headed and what do I have to say?’ ”
She describes a dark time of mourning—“I was face down in the dirt for a while,” she admits—but with the help of family, friends, therapy, and, of course, animals, she pulled herself and her career back to the light, over time becoming celebrated in Nashville and beyond, and her career flourished.
In 2012, the head of the North Carolina state agriculture department invited Stephanie to perform. There, she met David Couch, a businessman and farmer whose love of country life and interest in sustainable agriculture matched her own. In early 2014, as they got to know each other, she realized a deep love was possible again—especially after Couch visited Montana and fell in love with its wild beauty. They married in 2015. Now, when not on the road, she divides her time between Nashville, the North Carolina farm, and rural Montana. In that way, her life has come full circle. “I had had a lot of heartbreak,” she says. “But to fall in love in Montana, and to have him fall in love with Montana … I’m proof that love can find you if you allow it.”
Stephanie outside The Old Saloon in Emigrant, Montana.
The years leading up to the pandemic were incredibly productive and exciting for the artist. To maintain control over her work, Stephanie founded her own record label and was turning out new material with a number of co-writers. She was traveling and performing constantly to an ever-growing fan base. In 2017, her song “Selfish” cracked the Billboard chart. Two years later, her “What You Drinkin’ About?” charged up the charts, gaining momentum, seemingly on its way to hitting the Top 40. A female country singer with an independent label—who had appeared onstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry 11 times—was now on the brink of breaking through to the top. Then along came COVID-19 and abruptly shoved everyone off stage.
In March 2020, Stephanie was in the middle of a multi-state tour on her way to perform at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo when venues began to shut down. In one day, she had to cancel 40 concerts, an agonizing experience for a musician who is also an entrepreneur. “It was not only a jolt to the system from an artist’s standpoint, but also from a business standpoint,” she recalls. “It was ‘How do I make the right business decisions, and how do I take care of everyone?’ ”
Ultimately, though, the most challenging period in her business life to date turned out to have bright silver linings. Stephanie and her husband were able to live together as a married couple for the first time, and she got to know her stepdaughter in a way that wouldn’t have been possible on the road. She quickly pivoted her work life, finding new ways to stay connected to—and even grow—her fan base while bringing music and telegenic farm animals into the lives of newly isolated and stressed-out people. She started livestreaming to fans and even recorded an album virtually with musicians in Nashville.
“I had zero control over the situation, but I did have control over how I reacted,” she says. “I decided to be present for what I could and be the best that I could. I had to let a lot of people go and that was really hard, but then I did 80 virtual performances in 80 days. Once I knew how to Zoom and screen-share, I was doing it all. I’d taken a beating but I kept going. I also created a virtual live series and did 50 episodes, sharing news and baby animals. As a person who loves people, it was very satisfying. And it really amplified the importance of making sure everyone counts.”
Stephanie at home in Montana.
The upending of the status quo proved inspirational in other ways. This past summer, Stephanie brought one of her favorite songwriters, Tori Tullier, to Montana and experienced an unparalleled burst of creative energy. For four days, “We went on walks, saw double rainbows, got caught in a storm, listened to the creek—and wrote an entire album from start to finish.”
Writing, for Stephanie, is work but it’s also a creative outlet, a way of processing the world, and is a central aspect of her persona. She thinks of songs as three-minute movies, as stories that take people on a journey. “Songwriting is a craft and a business,” she says, “but the divine magic happens when I separate the two so I can get to my most authentic self.”
While writing has always been a priority, this time, she thinks, the crucial difference was that she “created the space to write with no intention other than to write. I’ve been writing and recording since I was 16, and I’ve been doing it in Nashville for 10 years—that’s a long time. But there was a shift, recording in Montana. I allowed the songs the space to just be songs and it was like a dam broke. It was very fresh and when I’m able to create fresh and new, it makes me want to keep going. There’s no more force; there’s no more ‘We-have-to’. That allows it to be what it’s meant to be, and I am where I need to be. Montana,” she adds, “is good for my creative soul.”
At 42, Stephanie Quayle has successfully straddled the line between East and West, town and country, dividing her time between a North Carolina farm, an in-town Nashville home, and a mountain property just north of Yellowstone. She’s appeared on The Kelly Clarkson Show and shared hairspray backstage with Jeannie Seely at the Grand Ol’ Opry for Dolly Parton’s 50th Anniversary. She’s been named “An Artist You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone and a shout-out in Billboard for her “captivating storytelling.” During an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that halted many musicians in their tracks, she pivoted from running a staffed-up tour schedule to living in rural isolation as a solo artist. Meanwhile, she showed up for her fans by livestreaming performances from a barn every evening for weeks and recorded a whole album virtually. Recently, Stephanie has further embraced her inner cowgirl by serving as an ambassador for such brands as Lucchese, Wrangler, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela’s.
Stephanie and her horses at home in Montana.
In music and in life, Stephanie is making decisions that speak to her cowgirl self and keep her close to her roots, because embracing that way of life is what drives her passion, her happiness, and her creativity. While the vagaries of living are sure to bring us to our knees from time to time, Stephanie knows the key is getting back up with an open heart, ready to give, to interact, and to create.
“I’ve learned ‘You’re right on time’ is the most accurate statement of my life,” she reflects. “It’s hard to stay in the hard stuff, but, what if, in every one of those moments, you’re actually right on time?”
Stephanie’s calling over the next few years includes writing, live performances, connecting with fans, working with the brands she loves, and seeing where the adventure takes her. “People ask, ‘Who are you like?’ I’ve been inspired by so many, but everyone else is taken. I want to be the best Stephanie Quayle I can be. My goal is to encourage us all to be our kindest and best selves and to go chase our dreams. When people tell me a song helped them, that’s what keeps me going. That’s the power of music and I feel it’s my calling, my purpose. I try not to be too pushy with my love of life, but I want people to just grab hold of it.”
Having experienced the deepest despair, the heights of joy, and two years of a pandemic, now, she says, “My appreciation is for the finite, for the in-between moments. That’s where my focus is. Of course, I have giant goals, but—like the flicker of a leaf as it changes in the seasons—it’s really the little stuff that makes the big stuff.”