Sheridan Gates practically grew up on stage.
“My parents say I was singing in my high chair,” says the former Pennington resident and singer-songwriter who, at age 26, is chasing her dream of becoming a country music star. “Music has always been part of my life.”
She started performing when she was 7 years old, in a community theater production of Charlotte’s Web. She did it with her dad, Tom Gates, who is better known in the area as a mortgage banker, but who has also done some acting over the years.
“He thought it would be fun to do a father and daughter thing,” Gates says. “I’ve never looked back after first setting foot on that stage.”
They did another community theater production together, then Sheridan went out on her own. She landed a coveted role two years running in the children’s chorus of McCarter Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, and when she attended Timberlane Middle School she was a regular in all their musicals and plays.
Then it was on to Princeton Day School, known for its strong theater program, and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she was double majored in theater and psychology. From there she was on to New York City, where she explored the stage scene for two years, and now on to Nashville, the heart of country music, where she has been living for a year and a half.
And now, her love of performing is taking her back home. Gates will be at the Historical Society of Princeton’s Updike Farmstead to sing at its seventh annual Concert Under the Stars fundraiser, scheduled for Saturday, June 9 from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Nashville-based artist Chas Collins will be on the main stage with Gates providing porch-side opening entertainment.
“It was such an honor for them to ask me to play,” Gates says. “Pennington and Princeton are very near and dear to my heart.”
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Gates spent a spell in Nashville after her sophomore year at Bucknell. She did a summer internship with a country music news TV show called Headline Country, which was broadcast on the Great American Country cable network.
At the time, Gates was trying to figure out what her future should look like. “I was unsure of what path I wanted to take,” she says. “Did I want to work behind the scenes and have a steady income, or to really pursue my dreams?”
Storme (“Stormy”) Warren, now a host on Sirius XM’s new country channel The Highway, was the host of the show, which aired for 12 years before ending its run. She had been introduced to Warren by her cousin, who lived in Nashville and happened be Warren’s neighbor. They got to talking and Warren offered her the internship. “It was this perfect way to get exposed to the business side of the industry,” she says.
For the internship, she got to interview some of country music’s big stars and experience the industry behind the scenes. The work was rewarding, but in the end it convinced her that she wanted to be the one answering questions, not asking them. “It made me want to be on the artist side more than anything,” she says.
After she graduated from Bucknell in 2014, Gates still wasn’t sure if she wanted to be an actor or a musician. She decided to move to New York to focus on acting. She took acting classes and did a little stage work, a little film work. She also started taking singing lessons from vocal coach ILana Martin of The Vocal Workout Singing School.
She credits Martin with totally changing the way she sings — for the better. “It wasn’t until I started working with her that I felt music was one hundred percent my calling and what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I realized that while I still loved acting, to pursue something like that, you have to really go after it. The passion wasn’t there for me like it is for music here in Nashville.”
She still had friends in Tennessee from when she had done the internship, including one named Matt Leigh, whom she had stayed in touch with over the years. She knew he was in the music business, although she didn’t know exactly what he did. She contacted him and told him she was thinking about changing career gears.
Leigh turned out to be a pretty good contact to have. He is the manager and head recording engineer for one of the most storied recording studios in Nashville, called The Tracking Room. Everyone from Willie Nelson to Taylor Swift to Bon Jovi has recorded there.
Gates realized he would be the ideal person to help her get acclimated to the scene. She asked him if he would be willing to work with her and he agreed to do it. She flew to Nashville a few times before moving there and Leigh set her up with music-writing sessions and meetings with talent managers and other musicians. “I have him to thank for getting me started here,” she says.
She and her boyfriend Colin Montemarano — who is also from Pennington — moved to Nashville in October 2016. She had grown up idolizing pop country stars like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks and singing along with their songs, and now she was going to try to follow in their footsteps.
She was excited to be back. “There is an energy (in Nashville) totally unlike anything I’ve experienced on the East Coast,” she says. “Everyone is so encouraging and helpful. Yes, it’s saturated with a lot of musicians and songwriters, but it doesn’t feel like a competition. It’s more like ‘let’s help each other out and get to the top.’ Like, everyone co-writes songs here, songs are hardly ever written by one person. That’s kind of what drew me to Nashville in the first place.”
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Leigh’s connections gave Gates a nice head start. By the time she and Montemarano moved to Nashville, she had some songs already written. She could jump right into the studio to record.
Musicians need a steady income to be able to afford costly studio time, so once she was settled in, Gates started taking jobs: personal assistant jobs, nanny jobs, anything she could do to make some money. Meanwhile she continued to take part in songwriting sessions and meet more people.
One day when she was at The Tracking Room, she noticed a plaque in the studio commemorating the recording of Shania Twain’s record-breaking album, Come On Over. The all-time best-selling record had been recorded right there. “When I saw that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the stars are aligning.’”
Gates played piano growing up, learning to read music and play classical pieces by rote. She still plays the piano, but for a variety of reasons she has spent the past several years teaching herself to play the guitar, which she says is a useful skill to have in the songwriting process.
She spent time in the studio last year recording songs for what will eventually become her debut EP album. Since the fall she’s been releasing songs as singles every few months: “Pick Up Line,” “Girl Like Me,” “Keepin’ On” and her latest, “Things I Swore I’d Never Do,” which she released on April 6.
She plans to release another single in the coming weeks, then one more after that alongside an EP album that will comprise all six songs. Building a following one song at a time through platforms like iTunes, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is the norm for musicians these days, Gates says. “People aren’t buying albums. They’re streaming songs or buying a song or two,” she says.
She feels fortunate to have always had the full support of her parents. She grew up in the Pennview Heights section of Pennington with dad Tom, mom Tracey and brother Ren, now 28. Tom Gates, in addition to his lending job and amateur acting career, likes to volunteer at Double Brook Farm. “He loves getting out in the dirt,” she says.
Tracey Gates was a stay-at-home mom during Sheridan’s childhood, but recently she has embarked on a new career as a health and wellness coach. She started a new business, Tracey Gates Life and Wellness Coach, six months ago and is looking for clients.
Gates has found steady work as an assistant for Songtown, a website for the country songwriting community. It’s regular but part time, enabling her to continue to write and sing, play guitar and make still more connections in the business.
She’s also doing all the things a budding music star would do. In 2017 she competed in Nash Next, Nash FM Radio’s annual nationwide contest to find hot new country talent, finishing in the top 10 of the local Nashville section. And she recently completed a house concert tour of the Northeast, where she and another musician to give a series of performances in private homes. She says it was a great way to reach new audiences and interact with new fans.
“I want my music to reach as many people as it can,” she says. “I definitely want to continue touring. A year from now I’d love to be on tour with a bigger artist, maybe opening for them, and see that continue to grow. I’d love a record deal, that’s something I’ve definitely got my eyes on. But one step at a time. It’s a grind, but one I woldn’t trade for the world.”
Tickets to Concert Under the Stars are available online at princetonhistory.org or by phone at (609) 921-6748, Ext. 106.