Jeff Bates’ sophomore album, Leave the Light On, is really about: not hiding. Bates’ sensuously seductive, passionately romantic (and, lest we forget, charmingly witty) second album is a suite of songs about the good things that happen when human beings open up to each other, and see one another for who they truly are. It’s about keeping no secrets and telling no lies, especially when it comes to love. It’s about keeping the emotional lights on, so we can see one another’s hearts.
“The sexiest thing a man or a woman can do is be vulnerable,” Bates advises. “Just let go. Stop all the pretending. You can’t maintain a façade. If you love somebody, love them. Tell them you love them, show them you love them.”
Bates can speak with some authority on the subject of what drives the opposite sex wild. Although he chuckles at the thought of himself as a sex symbol, that’s exactly what he’s become to a legion of entranced female fans who practically faint at the sound of his deep, rich, bedroom voice. But don’t go thinking that it’s only women who latched on to Bates through his 2003 debut album, Rainbow Man, or his spellbinding live performances. More than one man has approached the star to thank him for helping fellas learn to say the things women want to hear.
“I’ve had guys come up to me and say, ‘You know, your song helped save my marriage, because I was listening to it and I realized I hadn’t been showing my partner all the attention that she deserved,’” confides Bates. “Women sometimes say the same thing. I get that kind of feedback from my audience.”
He has taken all the vital, sometimes overwhelming give-and-take he’s enjoyed with that loyal audience over the past several years and poured it into Leave the Light On. For his new album, Bates wrote and discovered songs that bypass all artifice and head straight for the emotional core. “I think a great song should hit you emotionally first, and then make you think,” he says. “Every singer that I’ve respected and admired hit me from the emotional side, and made me feel something.”
Those singers include legends like Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley, Barry White and Johnny Cash—all deep-voiced icons who Bates first heard while growing up in tiny rural Bunker Hill, Mississippi, where he was raised by loving adoptive parents. “Hell, we didn’t have much, and didn’t know there was much to have,” he recalls with a smile. “We were poor. But I had a great mama and daddy, and lots of love—and I think that right there can set you up for just about anything.”
Bates developed his distinctive vocal tones by singing in church and at school talent shows (its timbre was additionally shaped later by, he admits, “too many cigarettes and too much whiskey”). By 17, he was singing in local honky-tonks, where his astonishing voice and dogged work ethic helped him work his way up through the local circuit and finally to Nashville.
But even as his star was rising, Bates was developing a crippling methamphetamine addiction that sapped his spirit, alienated him from those he loved and finally landed him, briefly, in jail. “I don’t want to see anyone get tangled up with meth,” he says. “And if they do, I want them to know there’s hope. I know, because I’ve been there.”
For Bates, jail was the low point—and the turning point. About a week into his three-month stint in lockup, with the poison finally out of his system, he came to a life-altering understanding. “All of a sudden, I'm thinking clear enough to realize that I've hurt everybody I love,” he says. “I got on the phone and started calling people that I'd taken things from, that I'd hurt, that I'd lied to and cheated. I confessed, and they forgave me.”
Just as importantly, he forgave himself. “I stopped dead in my tracks,” says Bates. “I realized that I don't have the right to judge another living human being—and if that’s true, and we're equal, then I don't have the right to judge me, either. And hey, God isn’t going to judge me until I die. That kind of realization opens a lot of doors, and it opens your heart.”
Doors indeed started opening for the now clean-and-sober Bates. He scored an audition with RCA Records in 2002—and just as it had since he was 17, his sheer vocal power and skill made a deep impression on those listening. “That's how my mama taught me to sing,” he says. “We'd sit on the porch late at night singing old gospel songs and wait for Daddy to come home. If I didn't sing loud and proud and live it while I sung it, she'd reach back and pop me behind the head. ‘Open your mouth, boy!’”
It was a lesson that served him well. On Rainbow Man, Jeff opened his mouth and let the gospel truth of his life pour out, from his deep-South upbringing and relocation to Music City (“My Mississippi”) to his mixed racial heritage (“Rainbow Man”) and the devastation wrought by his addiction (“The Wings of Mama’s Prayers”).
The public responded mightily, in some ways more zealously than anyone could have anticipated. The album was a Top 20 hit, producing the hit singles “The Love Song,” “Long, Slow Kisses” and “I Wanna Make You Cry.” But thanks to his rough-and-tumble background, Bates kept his head screwed on straight throughout the experience.
“Here’s how I keep my ego in check,” he says. “Five years ago, I was in jail. I was lost and had lost everything, was the loneliest I’d ever been and just wishing I could get my feet in the grass again. You go from that to this … I can’t ever forget that. I remember it every day. And that alone is very humbling.”
That humility was one reason Bates was hesitant to sanction a fan club. “If you work your ass off all week and you go buy the CD or buy a ticket to see a Jeff Bates concert, you’re in the fan club,” he asserts. But then a fan club formed itself—a group of Bates’ most fervent female followers dubbed themselves “Women on a Mission,” after a line in the Rainbow Man track “Lovin’ Like That.” (Their website is www.jeffbatesfans.com.)
“They did it all themselves, it’s not something I enticed them into doing,” says Bates. “They’re active and educated in what we’re doing here. I love ‘em.” The Women on a Mission have even started a program to send care packages to soldiers in Iraq, Operation Circle of Love (after another Rainbow Man lyric, this time from the Top 10 “The Love Song”).
With such a level of devotion among his fans, Bates knew expectations would be high for his second album. “We wanted to make a record, first of all, that was better than the first one,” he says.
Leave the Light On continues the autobiographical, unafraid honesty of Rainbow Man in affecting, direct numbers like the sympathetic “The Woman He Walked On,” the emotional “No Shame”—and especially “One Second Chance,” an ex-con’s plea for forgiveness that Bates obviously holds close to his heart. It also features a heaping helping of Jeff’s trademark wry wit on tunes like “Good People,” “That’ll Get You Ten,” “Hands On Man” and a lusty romp through the Billy “Crash” Craddock classic “Rub It In.” “You can’t take yourself too serious,” says Bates. “I think a sense of humor is very important—and it’s sexy. Being able to relieve stress that way is important in a relationship.”
Relationships are always Topic A at a Jeff Bates show (especially the one between Bates and his fans), and on Leave the Light On, he looks at them from all angles—the highs, the lows, and everything in between. “This is real life, this is what we do, this is how we live,” he says. “Good, bad or indifferent, in love, in pain, loss, gain. It’s all right here in this record. It’s all about relationships, and how you look at yourself and how you look at others.”
The essential message, he says, is simple. “Love each other,” he urges. “Be yourself, no matter what anybody thinks. Don’t try to be what you think somebody wants you to be.” In other words, leave the light on. It’s an idea that resonates on a deeply intimate level, which is precisely the level where Jeff Bates likes to live, work and sing.
“My goal is to make music that matters on a personal level to people,” he says. “Connect with ‘em, touch ‘em, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em feel—and to be here for a long time.”
Which brings us to the third and final meaning of that album title, “I’m not going anywhere,” declares Bates. “There’s more to come. Leave the light on for me, because I’ll be back.”
The past couple of years have been a whirlwind of activity for Aaron Benward and Scott Reeves, otherwise know as Blue County. With a string of successful radio releases and sold-out shows behind them, Blue County is anxious to kick it up another notch with a new album and stage show in 2007.
Auburn, Indiana native Aaron was surrounded by music growing up. After a brief stint in college; his father Jeoffrey, a professional gospel singer, invited Aaron to tour with him. Together they played more than 130 concerts annually for several years and recorded three CD's. The experience sculpted Aaron to the techniques of duo singing, which may be one reason why he never quite hit the jackpot after leaving to seek his fortunes as a solo artist. Scott, who was born in Delight, Arkansas and raised in Los Angeles, started singing at an early age with his Uncle Jack; but, his strongest musical influence came from close family friend, Glen Campbell. After high school, Scott, who had been acting as well as playing music, picked up work in commercials and on television shows.
Aaron and Scott teamed up after meeting on a music video in Nashville. It was an instant brotherhood! After years of friendship, and a bit of gentle pressure from their wives - the guys decided to see how it felt to sing together. They discovered not only did they have a perfect friendship, but also perfect harmonies! One fateful day, the duo made it to Curb Records. There, they sat down in front of Doug Johnson, the A&R director for the Curb/Asylum imprint, and performed. When they were finished, the first words out of Doug's mouth were "Man, one of you is really gonna have to screw this up to not make it work." With that, Blue County was officially born.
With a commitment to family, faith and their craft, Blue County will continue to keep making music and enjoying the ride…as their current single I says, “There’s a lot of things I don’t have to do, I get to….”
Church's songs are as straightforward as he is. His is music that looks its listener in the eye and speaks plainly about the human condition. It is a line that passes through Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings to John Prine and Steve Earle, and is finding a handful of torchbearers in this new century.
"Honesty is my number one responsibility," Church says. "If you listen to this, you'll find out who I am."
Church grew up in Granite Falls, North Carolina, in an area known as one of the world's furniture capitals. He recalls being four years old, standing on a table at a local restaurant, singing "Elvira" to a waitress and a handful of patrons who would reward him with change.
"I was 13 when I started writing," he says. "It was before I learned to play guitar. I had a lot in me that I wanted to get out, and I started writing lyrics and singing, and I thought, 'If I'm going to play these for people, I'm going to have to learn how to play guitar.'" He bought a cheap, hard-to-tune one and taught himself to play, influenced by his parents' eclectic tastes, which stretched from Motown to bluegrass.
It was at a little bar in the North Carolina Mountains, however, when his epiphany came: "I was watching a band that had the place packed," he says. "I knew the songs they were playing on guitar, but I'd been doing them in my dorm room at Appalachian State and they were doing them in a place that was slamming, with people stuffing money into the tip jar that was being passed around. I thought, 'I can do this as well as they can,' and two weeks later I had a gig."
He had quickly formed a band with his roommate, his brother, and another guitarist, and temporarily picked the name the Mountain Boys. The first night they knew just 14 songs, but they faked their way through a four-hour set and held onto enough of the crowd to help launch them as a regional act. In a year or so, Eric was throwing original songs into the set mix and not long afterward was selling CDs of his own material. They were playing four or five nights a week in bars, at frat and sorority parties in Ashville, Hickory, and Boone.
A talented athlete, he played basketball, baseball and golf in high school, but in college, he turned to music, riding those early gigs to regional acclaim and then a trip to Nashville. "I wanted to move two years before I graduated," he says, "but my dad made me a deal. He said, 'If you'll graduate, I'll pay for your first six months in Nashville,' which I thought was a pretty good offer. I graduated with a degree in marketing and he was true to his word."
The first days were tough ones. "I was scared," he says. "I didn't know a soul. I didn't know what part of town was good or bad, didn't know the publishing companies or the industry. I just had something inside me saying, 'You have to be there.' That first week was terrifying. I got the phone book and started looking up publishers, thinking, 'I'll call these guys, we'll meet and I'll get a publishing deal.' Of course, once you've been here you know it doesn't work that way. I guess a lot of it was being young and stupid, but there's a lot to being young and stupid. There's a vitality to that. If you actually had waited a few years and developed common sense you probably wouldn't do it, but you're so young you think, 'I can do this. It's no big deal.'"
The financial cushion his father had given him gave him time to make contacts and take meetings. Six months in, he had to take a day job, but six months after that, he was signed to a publishing deal at Sony Tree. "When I got that first check from Sony Tree and they were paying me money to do it, I thought I had arrived, because I was getting paid to do something I'd be doing anyway,” he points out.
His family and his small-town background had given him a diamond-pure work ethic, which served him well. "I just kind of threw muscle into the writing, so we had a large pool to draw from when it came time to record," he says. "I think I demoed 60 or 70 songs at Sony last year, and you probably demo one out of every four you write, so I wrote a lot. I figure they're paying me to be a songwriter and that's what I'm here to do."
He began getting cuts, including Terri Clark's "The World Needs A Drink." Then, Arthur Buenahora at Sony Tree introduced Eric to producer Jay Joyce; the two clicked instantly, and began cutting demos.
"The night I got the record deal with Capitol was a really good gig," he says. "I knew that whether I got the deal or not, this was as good as I could do. It clicked. You just have those nights. During 'Lightning,' the whole crowd was hushed and I knew they were listening. I knew they were with me on the song, and there's nothing as great as a performer as to capture the crowd."
Two days later, on his birthday, he was in Capitol's office being offered a recording deal; he and Joyce then set about capturing his essence in Joyce's basement studio. The result is a CD that launches Church with a firm identity both musically and lyrically, and gives him his own niche in a diverse country landscape.
"I think we've made an honest record. I don't think there's a song on there that's not me," he says. "It's songs about what's going on in the world--this is what I think. You can agree or disagree. I just don't want them to hear it and go, 'That's nice' and move on. I personally like music that goes way out and picks a side.”
Emerson Drive’s new album on Midas Records Nashville proves they’ve definitely come to play. Over the past few years, the six talented musicians have patiently paid their dues, honed their skills and crossed the country dozens of times with a relentless touring schedule. They were virtually homeless, except for a tour bus, while they worked toward their turn at bat and now their time has come. After a year and a half of the most soul-stretching, creatively fulfilling work of their lives, they have emerged with an album that finally defines who they really are and what they’re all about.
“The title of the record basically sums up everything we are as a group,” says lead vocalist Brad Mates. “It’s the music we feel is Emerson Drive, and it’s a stamp of what we believe is our kind of country music – something our fans can really relate to.”
The fans have never had a difficult time relating to the explosively exciting band, whose live show is so engaging and entertaining that Shania Twain tapped them to open for her on her last major North American tour. In fact, after losing their record deal on Dreamworks Records a year and a half ago the band has still maintained an active touring schedule – another testament to their popularity and the unending devotion of their fans. “Our fans are so supportive and have been there for us from the very beginning. We’re lucky to have them,” explains bassist Patrick Bourque.
“The fans have been there since the success of our first 2 records but it’s definitely our hits ‘Fall Into Me,’ ‘I Should Be Sleeping’ and ‘Last One Standing,’ that have connected us to so many people. We already have a good foundation for a fan base across the country and we hope to continue to build on that with the music on this new album.”
Emerson Drive’s history is based on a solid foundation which garnered them their loyal fans. The band emerged from Canada onto the Nashville country music scene in 2001 with their brand of hip country combined with stellar musicianship and signed with DreamWorks Nashville. Emerson Drive is one of the VERY few bands ever signed to a major record label who have the distinction of playing their own instruments on ALL of their records. They humbly accept this honor because they are true instrumentalists. Their first release EMERSON DRIVE garnered numerous industry awards and nominations including, ACM Top New Vocal Group/Duo [awarded in 2003]; Billboard’s #1 Top Country Artist of the Year for 2002; R&R’s #1 New Artist MVP for 2002; Group of the Year for two consecutive years, from the Canadian Country Music Association; two Top 5 hits with “Fall Into Me” and “I Should Be Sleeping”; as well as a number one music video on CMT's Top Twenty Countdown with “Fall Into Me.” Most recently the band took home top honors at the 2005 CCMA’s with coveted spots in the “2005 CCMA All Star Band,” Dale Wallace (keyboards) and David Pichette (fiddle) were awarded the distinction of being best on their instrument. Their release, the second on DreamWorks, WHAT IF, was released in June 2004 just before the band was prey to corporate restructuring and a company merger. Committed to their music and their genre the band set down roots in Nashville and purchased homes there and have dedicated themselves even more to their careers.
“We’ve all purchased homes in Nashville in the past year,” says lead guitarist Danick Dupelle, “and we feel like we are a part of the community now. We’ve set up shop here and it’s more accessible to songwriting and any other business that needs to be done. It’s nice to have a home base for our personal belongings, whereas before it was always in a hotel or on a bus. It’s just a more comfortable setting that allows us to relax more and be creative.”
The near two-year hiatus gave band members a chance to hone their own writing skills and to really take some time to select songs with messages they felt they could really relate to on a personal level. “As a singer my job is to interpret the songs, and make people feel something when I sing them. Danick and I both have some songwriting credits on this new record. The entire band made decisions on song selections this time also and I think that made a difference too,” says Mates.
When Alabama member Teddy Gentry and producer Josh Leo came out to hear Emerson Drive just after the band had been released from DreamWorks, Gentry and Leo were immediately blown away by what they heard and wanted to work with the band. It was the ultimate compliment for a group of guys who had idolized Alabama and their music. Obviously the input and direction of two industry leaders like Gentry and Leo proved invaluable to the band and added even more to their rejuvenated recording process.
We all decided to start writing together and doing preproduction for a demo. At the time, we were doing preproduction for a project that we had no idea of where or when it might be released. The great thing was that we were getting really involved in our music and that time allowed us to get to know Teddy and Josh and find all of the songs that make up this album,” says keyboardist Dale Wallace. As producers, Gentry and Leo understood what kind of sound Emerson Drive was going for, especially in capturing the band’s live sound in the studio. With Gentry and Leo at the helm, the songs took center stage and the difference is evident in the finished product. “We really let the songs breathe a little bit this time around,” says Wallace “It is a much more relaxed and more like our live sound.”
When the newly formed independent label Midas Records Nashville heard some of the material the band was cutting, they immediately became interested and later signed the band, recognizing the quality and integrity of the music they were hearing. Renowned songwriter Keith Follese and publishing veteran Brad Allen helped in the song selection and production process as well, adding to the project. Emerson Drive became the flagship artist for the new record label.
Emerson’s electrifying onstage energy also comes through at every turn on their new CD called COUNTRIFIED. Rocking tunes like “Testify” and “Countrified Soul” let the band do what comes naturally and what they do best – tear it up on stage. “Countrified Soul” kicks off with a blast of the band’s signature harmonies, then quickly turns into a full-tilt, fun-filled, “the weekend’s-herelet’s-party” romp where the guys turn it up and let it loose. Dubbed “turbograss” by Gentry, the song allows Emerson Drive’s amazing musicianship to shine through during its fiery instrumental breakdowns, and offers up a groove that is equal parts squaredance/breakdance as they break it down countrified style. “’Countrified Soul’ is the party song on the record,” says drummer Mike Melancon. “It’s just so much fun to play live. I think it really captures the spirit and energy of this band.”
At the other end of the spectrum are songs like the sweetly reverent “Everyday Woman,” perhaps the jewel of the album and a career ballad. The touching sentiment is sure to capture more than a few female hearts with its simple yet elegant message singing the praises of the everyday woman who probably seems ordinary to most of the world but is actually everything to her man. Demonstrating his versatility and range even more, Mates taps into his Southern soul on the grooving, “Sweet Natural Girl,” (a tune that paints a picture of bliss through the eyes of a man totally and completely intoxicated by love ). On “Painted Too Much Of This Town,” and “You Still Own Me,” the band deals with the flip side of love, when a heart just can’t shake that certain someone and the longing that comes with that, while their first single, “A Good Man,” celebrates the small town life and rewards of just being a good person – a sentiment the members of Emerson
Drive definitely relate and aspire to in the bigger picture.
As a special treat for fans on the album, the group included its own rendition of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” which they have been performing live in concert for years. In a flattering show of support for the band, Charlie Daniels himself recorded part of the track with them, which literally blew the minds of all of the members, especially fiddler David Pichette, who grew up honing his chops to Charlie’s songs.
“I owe a great deal to guys like Charlie Daniels and Alabama,” admits Pichette. “They gave us fiddler players something to play coming up through the clubs when we were just starting out. It was just amazing to work with both Teddy and Charlie on this record…I can’t even explain it!” The touching ballad “Moments,” demonstrates Mates’ strength as a singer by letting his vocals take center stage. The tear-jerking tune about a homeless man reflecting on the twists and turns of his life, and what he might have done differently, is sure to become another signature song for this versatile band. COUNTRIFIED and its eleven songs mark an artistic turning point for the band. They feel they have finally made a record that is truly indicative of their talents and musical capabilities.
“These songs have incredible meaning and we are really proud of this album,” says Mates. “There’s a common bond between all them. You know, it’s important to make an album that makes sense…you can pick songs all day long, but if they don’t belong together, or there’s no common bond between them, you’re basically just putting material on a disc and saying, ‘Here’s a bunch of music, I hope you like it.’ But if you actually have something you can open up from front to back and have the story run through the whole thing, that’s when you have a real album. We feel like we have accomplished that. We hope our fans enjoy COUNTRIFIED.”
Buddy Jewell’s voice is the voice of experience. It has a friendly, “lived in” quality because, as the old saying goes, he has “been around.” Born to a working-class family in Arkansas, Jewell has been singing for his supper since the age of 21, from Texas to Tennessee. He has also been a nightclub bouncer, worked as a door-to-door salesman, driven a beer truck, and labored on a loading dock. He is a husband, a father and a “man’s man”.
The year that followed his win on Nashville Star was truly a dream fulfilled for Buddy. He earned major award nominations from the ACM for Best New Artist, the CMA for the Horizon Award, a CMT Flameworthy Breakout Video nod and a Grammy nomination for his participation on the country gospel compilation album, Amazing Grace III.. He also won critical acclaim from ABC Radio Network’s for their 2003 Listener’s Choice Award for New Artist of the Year and Music Row magazine’s Critic’s Pick Award. But, perhaps his proudest moment was in April 2005, when Buddy was honored by the National Fatherhood Initiative as a recipient of their annual Fatherhood Award. Recipients of this award are individuals who exemplify the ideals of involved, responsible and committed fatherhood.
Buddy was mainly raised in Osceola, Arkansas, a small agricultural/industrial community in Northeast Arkansas. . That’s not far from Dyess, where his mother and father grew up with Johnny Cash. Conway Twitty hailed from nearby Helena, and Glen Campbell is a native of Delight. Both of his parents were musical, and there were stacks of classic country records around the house. His Uncle Clyde taught Jewell to play guitar around age 15.
Buddy Jewell was a natural athlete, playing baseball, basketball and football. He was team captain and quarterback of his high school team and played college football at Arkansas State University as well. But while in college, he began to perform in clubs and talent contests, igniting his passion for writing and singing country music.
Jewell’s first son, Buddy III, came along in 1989 while living in Dallas. In 1990, he landed a job singing at Six Flags Over Texas. But that show wanted him to cut his hair, so he quickly took a role in the park’s cowboy/gunfight production instead. At night, he continued to sing in clubs. In 1991 he entered a talent contest sponsored by the superstar group Alabama, which led to him opening for the band in concert. The following year he competed on TV’s Star Search, winning Male Vocalist on several episodes. He was making progress, but finally realized that if he was going to get anywhere musically, the family would have to move to Nashville.
In between all those working-stiff jobs, Jewell began to make contacts on Music Row. His larger-than-life voice eventually made him one of Nashville’s most popular “demo” singers. That’s an anonymous vocalist who is hired to record a demonstration of a song that is then played for a star’s consideration. George Strait’s “Write This Down,” Lee Ann Womack’s “A Little Past Little Rock,” Clay Walker’s “You’re Beginning to Get to Me” and Gary Allan’s “The One” were all first sung as Buddy Jewell demos. He has recorded more than 4,000 such tapes. In 1997, alone, Jewell sang 663 song demos. But he yearned for something more. He wanted a shot at the big time.
Songwriters and music publishers loved him. The record companies did not. Buddy became increasingly frustrated as he was turned down for a recording contract by one label after another on Music Row. One offer evaporated when the interested label shut down. Another one vanished when the label was sold. He kept on patiently singing demos with dignity, slowly letting his recording-contract dream die. Daughter Lacey came along in 1993. Second son Joshua was born in 2000.
Encouraged by a church friend and his wife, Tené, Buddy entered the USA Network’s contest Nashville Star in 2003. More than 8,000 performers tried out for the show; 125 of them made it to the semi-finals; 12 were chosen for the nine-week series. The national television audience reacted powerfully to Jewell’s heart-in-throat vocal performances and voted him the champion. Columbia Records rushed him into the studio with producer Clint Black, and within weeks Buddy Jewell delivered his superb debut CD.
“I had a little website. The first night I sang ‘Help Pour Out the Rain’ on the show, it had so many responses that it crashed the website and cost me $600. I didn’t have a clue that the song would have that kind of impact. Tené and I started printing out emails off the site. A lot of them were from parents whose children had died. I got hundreds of letters. We collected the print-outs and letters and put them in a binder. Not for public consumption. Just for ourselves. I’m honored that I had a hand in creating something that means so much to people. But it was bittersweet. You wish that it was for a happier reason.
“A week after I won on the show, I was getting offers to do concerts. I had to make decisions quickly. I had to make the record, chose a manager, find a booking agent, get an accountant, put together a band and hire a road manager. When you utter those words, ‘I want a record deal,’ you never realize what you’re asking for!”
“I went from somebody who was home all the time to somebody that was doing 120 shows or more a year. When I leave on the bus, the kids sometimes get pretty teary-eyed about it. But all in all, I think we’ve adjusted pretty well.”
During the school year, sometimes the family travels with him if he’s just going out for a weekend. In the summer months, the kids enjoy going to the various fairs where Jewell is booked, romping on the midways, riding rides and eating corn dogs and cotton candy Ever the fan, Jewell is thrilled that he’s met such idols as George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, in the past couple years.
“When I was nominated for the Horizon Award at the CMA’s, I got to share a dressing room with Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams Jr. At the BMI banquet, Loretta Lynn kissed me!”
Buddy Jewell has become one of Nashville’s most visible charity volunteers. He has been the spokesperson for the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, frequently does events for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, participates in the Angel Tree fund drive, performed on the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon, volunteered for Compassion International and is active in a number of other causes locally and nationally.
“I see this as an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. And maybe that is really what my purpose as an artist is. If they want me, I’ll do my best to be there to hopefully make a difference, especially if kids are involved”.
“I’m the same guy I’ve always been. Same house. Same car. But the car is paid off now, and hopefully in another year the house will be, too. We’re doing little things, fixing it up one room at a time. Only one thing has changed: I’m having the time of my life.”
Craig Morgan is country music's stealth star. He's had back-to-back #1 singles, massive radio airplay--including country's biggest hit of 2005, solid album sales and a belated nomination in 2006 as the Academy of Country Music's new male vocalist of the year, yet his recognition factor has not quite caught up to the scope of his popularity and his level of success.
That is all about to change with his latest CD, “Little Bit of Life.”
Morgan likens his career to a catapult that has been stretched all the way back through hard touring, steady radio airplay and media exposure and is now poised to heave that career forward with projectile force. He has two secret weapons in his arsenal. As a singer, Morgan has a clearly identifiable voice. As a songwriter, he displays a distinct point of view.
“Little Bit of Life” is Morgan’s fourth album and third for the red-hot independent label Broken Bow Records. His previous albums spawned such memorable hits as “I Got You,” “Redneck Yacht Club,” and the poignant “Almost Home,” as well as “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 and ended 2005 as country radio’s most played song of the year, surpassing hits by Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, George Strait, Sugarland and Faith Hill, among others.
Morgan finished 2005 in the top 10 on Billboard magazine’s top male country artists chart (ahead of Alan Jackson and Josh Gracin) and in the top 20 on the magazine’s overall list of top country artists (besting Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Big & Rich and numerous others).
Billboard has called Morgan “a writer and interpreter of highly visual story songs,” something he acknowledges is his specialty. He’s known, he says, as “the singer-songwriter who writes songs about the little things in life,” a reputation he’s grateful for. “As an artist you strive to have an identity at all. I’m proud that that’s the one I’ve been stamped with.
“I have a passion for making little things very visual and big, stuff that can be easily overlooked,” Morgan says of his colorful songwriting style.
Even on songs he didn’t write, like the tender and moving track “Tough” from his new CD, Morgan wrings every bit of emotion out of the vocal without ever sounding anything but natural.
“Little Bit of Life,” which features four of Morgan’s own compositions, is more personal than any of his work to date. In songs like “I Am,” which Morgan wrote with Phil O’Donnell and Shane Minor, listeners get a glimpse of the real Morgan, a down-to-earth family man and Army veteran who grew up poor and still values hard work and life’s simple pleasures like hunting and racing his off-road motorcycle.
In “I Am,” Morgan alternately describes himself as “a good ole boy,” “country and willin’ to take a stand,” “a dreamer with my feet on the ground” and “down to earth with my head in the clouds.” He says he’s all of those things and more.
“We grew up tough: dirt road, singlewide trailer,” Morgan says of his childhood, recalling that his mother would milk a neighbor’s goat to make butter.
Perhaps because of his upbringing, a genuine air of what he calls “positive gratefulness” pervades Morgan’s demeanor, even coming across loud and clear in his high-energy live shows. And he’s not afraid of hard work. Long past the point where he needs to, Morgan still sometimes helps his crew load in gear on show days.
“I don’t want to be so good that I can’t help lift boxes,” he says. “I don’t think we should ever get so far away from the people that are out there paying the good hard-earned money to come see us.”
For the new CD, Morgan and his longtime co-producer O’Donnell added a third man to the mix with uberproducer Keith Stegall -- best known for his work with Alan Jackson and Terri Clark -- joining them behind the board. Morgan says Stegall brought his “experience and an ear for great songs” to the recording process.
For the first time with “Little Bit of Life,” Morgan feels like he’s closely captured the sound and energy of his live shows on a CD. Vocally, he says, “I really opened up” in the studio, resulting in an album that’s “a lot more me and a lot more relaxed. After doing this for a while you get a little more comfortable and confident.
“There’s nothing more rewarding as an artist and more discouraging as a producer than to have people come out [to shows] and say ‘You’re even better live than your record.’ I just want people to hear on the record what they hear live,” Morgan says. “We try not to manipulate in the studio too much. When you go to tweaking and changing and tightening and cleaning you take away from the personality that’s in the vocal.”
Through the process of recording his own albums, Morgan has gotten so comfortable in the producer’s chair that he plans to produce projects for other artists down the road as his hard-touring schedule permits.
The father of four children ranging in age from 8 to 17 routinely performs more than 200 dates a year. He is a fan favorite on the legendary Grand Ole Opry, where he has been invited to perform more than 150 times in his career.
In addition to his Opry appearances and regular touring schedule, Morgan frequently performs at military bases both in the U.S. and abroad, remembering how much those visits from entertainers meant to him during his 10 years on active duty. He’s glad to have achieved enough notoriety in his career that his appearances can now boost the morale of his fellow armed service members.
Through all of his successes, one thing that hasn’t changed about Morgan is that he IS his audience. A grounded, regular guy, Morgan enjoys his downtime at his home near Nashville as much as he loves hitting the road and entertaining thousands of fans at a time.
Just to prove that point, amid the normal musician credits in the liner notes of “Little Bit of Life,” one unusual thing stands out. Listed among the A-list Nashville session players who contribute guitars, drums, fiddles, steel guitar and dobro to the project are several people who get credit for “tractor.”
Morgan is not just having some fun with his fans. In an album chock full songs reflecting the rural themes and everyman issues the artist has become known for, it’s fitting that actual tractor sounds are featured on “International Harvester,” an album track named for the iconic farm equipment brand.
Craig Morgan Discography:
2006 “Little Bit of Life”
2005 “My Kind of Livin’”
2002 “I Love It”
2000 “Craig Morgan”
There is an undeniable division in Danielle Peck’s voice. A bluesy pull, a reluctant smokiness that, when it breaks, yields soaring, ringing, soul-stirring power and clarity. That tantalizing slow-pour tension is a fitting reflection of the artist herself. Is she an exuberant young country singer or an experienced and purposed entertainer? Is she the self-described “plain Jane girl next door” or a statuesque brunette bombshell? Is she a former waitress fighting for her big break or a prolific songwriter who contributed eight of 11 songs to her upcoming album? Danielle Peck is all that and much more.
That self-titled debut release, preceded by the chart-rocketing first single "I Don't," reveals all the complexities associated with being a young woman making her way in a new millennium. As a songwriter, she's grounded enough to write a glowing affirmation like "Isn't That Everything," and honest enough to acknowledge the emotional despair of a breakup in "Fallin' Apart." As a vocalist, she offers shades of her influences, sounding by turns as rooted in country as Reba McEntire or as slyly sexy as Shania Twain and Faith Hill. The sum of those seemingly divergent parts is, ultimately, a message, sound and style unique to Danielle Peck.
Born in Jacksonville, NC, the daughter of a U.S. Marine, Danielle grew up in Coshocton, OH, where the family had strong musical roots. Her mother’s side of the family traveled and sang in churches. Her father’s parents and grandparents were steeped in country music, playing dances in the area. Danielle could sing before she could talk and by the time she was three she would sit on a counter banging on pots and pans as her extended family played country music. The first song she learned to sing was Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues,” a song that has been part of her live show to this day.
She wrote her first song before she was 10 and made cassette labels for her imaginary Danielle Peck records, complete with song titles and cover art. She sang in church both as a soloist and in the choir. At age 16, she joined a local band, the Neon Moon Band, and played bars in her native Coshocton, Ohio area.
"I wasn’t supposed to be in there (bars) because I was underage," she says, "so I had to dress older, act older, sneak in through the back door, do my show, and then slip out the back again before anyone could figure out I was underage! I never thought twice about it because singing was all I’d ever thought about doing from the time I was a little girl – I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to… and of course my dad was always close by just in case…""I was the girl singer," she says. "I would sing Reba and Trisha and a lot of Patsy Cline. We played weekends and hit the local summer fairs. While my friends were into sports – I was consumed with music." At 18, her dad bought her a sound & light system that the family jokingly referred to as her ‘college tuition’. When she graduated from high school, she hit the road leading her own band adding regional fairs and festivals to the schedule.
After several years on the bar and festival circuit Danielle made the decision to chase the dream and make the jump to Nashville. She quickly took a Nashville job waiting tables and spent the rest of her time working on her songwriting.
"I'd wake up at 8 in the morning, go and write songs until 2 in the afternoon, change clothes, work the restaurant until 2 or 3 in the morning, get up early the next morning and do it again," she says. "I became a Starbucks addict but I was having the time of my life! I was in Nashville, meeting people, starting to write with some great writers, I was loving every minute of it."
Soon after her Nashville arrival she met publisher Clay Myers who recognized her talent and helped secure a songwriting deal with Barbara Orbison’s Still Working Music. She soon began writing with staff writers Clay Mills and Tommy Lee James, as well as other established hit writers like Blair Daly and Taylor Rhodes. Those writing sessions would ultimately form the basis for her debut album.
That release had to wait, however. Signed to a recording contract with DreamWorks Records by executive Scott Borchetta, Danielle's album was a casualty of that company's merger with Universal. Borchetta, however, wouldn't let his belief in her music die and when he later left Universal to form his own Big Machine Records, Danielle was one of his first signings.
The single release "I Don't" finally introduced country audiences to Danielle, and the response has already been overwhelming. Already a hit and still climbing, the song also draws huge response at her live shows opening for, among others, Toby Keith. Fans are drawn to the emotional honesty of an artist who so readily reveals all facets of her personality.
Beyond the single, Danielle explores the difficulties of love on "Fallin' Apart," "Sucks To Be You" and "Only The Lonely Talkin'." She smolders with slow burn passion on "Kiss You On The Mouth" and "Thirsty Again." And the fun side peaks through on "Findin' A Good Man" and "Honky-Tonk Time." In every case, the emotions ring true.
"Everything comes down to being real," she says. "Every song I do reflects something I’ve been through or something I’ve felt. My songs are my journals. Whatever I feel at the moment, whatever emotion I’m going through, is what I write about. When it's time to sing those song, whether it's on stage or in the studio, those feelings are right there."
And so the many facets of Danielle Peck -- a modern country girl, vulnerable and confident -- shine through in a way that's already capturing the ears and hearts of country fans nationwide.
“Since the release of My Kind of Music about a year ago, my life has changed immensely. I've been so humbled, so excited to see so many crazy crowds all across this big ol' island we call the U.S. It's a dream come true to see the way folks have been responding to ‘my kind of music’ - the album as a whole, singin' along, knowing the words to every song.”
- Ray Scott
Warner Bros. Records released Ray Scott’s debut album in November 2005 to an overwhelming enthusiastic reception. My Kind of Music became the #1 selling country album on Billboard’s “Heatseeker’s” chart that week and the #1 selling album on CMT’s (Country Music Television) sales chart. The album landed on the “Top 10 Albums of 2005” lists in Billboard, Dallas Morning News and the Miami Herald to name a few. He has been featured in the pages of Country Weekly magazine and on television programs across the Great American Country network.
When that voice rumbles out of the speakers like rolling thunder, it's obvious there's a different kind of cowboy on the scene, one who writes songs with the plainspoken poetry and emotional directness that turned the songs of Kristofferson, Jennings, and Nelson into a movement. And if you want to call Ray Scott an outlaw, well, he's alright with that.....
It's his attitude. He does it his way. He says it his way. His way takes aim at the heart, scoring a direct hit by chronicling the beauty and the tragedy of everyday life. He knows where country music's been and he knows that he's taking it someplace new. His way is the way of the steel guitar. It's recitation and gospel, with a little blues and rock thrown in for seasoning. But when it simmers to a boil and he serves it up in that deep Carolina drawl, you can't call it anything but country music.
That's because Scott comes by his country roots honestly. Raised in the rural farming community of Semora, North Carolina he grew up among the blue collar folks who populate his songs. He also grew up the son of a country singer. In fact, it's his dad, Ray Sr., he credits as his biggest musical influence.
"A lot of people name off artists as influences and I have those too, but the biggest impression on me was my dad," says the Warner Bros. Nashville newcomer. "He was a singer and I heard his interpretations of all those great country songs growing up. I realize more all the time that listening to his versions and comparing them to the originals I heard on the radio taught me a lot about how to make a song your own."
The father's dream of musical success was soon officially passed down to the son, and after a youth spent soaking up his Daddy's music, Ray began to find himself drawn to the authority and gritty realism of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. "Those guys defined an era of country music," he says. "They left a permanent impression on me that I wear like a badge of honor. I loved the realness of their music. That stuff will always be great, always stand up to time. Those old boys meant what they were saying. They lived it."
That impression is evident in his music. Dallas Morning News labeled Ray a “real-folks poet, much like Merle Haggard” and the comparisons to the genre-defining artists of the ‘70s outlaw movement don’t stop there. But, to categorize Scott solely as an apprentice of these great masters is to miss the modern day swagger, unique phrasing and gritty realism that Scott brings to the country format.
Ray loved great vocalists, but found himself drawn even more intently to artists who write their own songs. "You listen to their music and you get who they are," he says of his affinity for songwriters, especially those who weren't afraid to buck the system. "You feel like you know them. I respect the guys like Kris Kristofferson who said what they had to say and didn't compromise because of what was going on in the industry at the time."
With so much surrounding him, a music career was almost inevitable. By the time he was 19, he'd formed his first band in Raleigh, North Carolina. That band promptly fell apart because, among other reasons, none of the members had much music business savvy. Realizing he needed to learn a few things if he wanted a career instead of a hobby, Scott moved to Atlanta and got an Associate's degree from the Music Business Institute.
He moved back to Raleigh after graduation and started another band. All the while, he kept getting advice to move to Nashville to advance his career. It took a near-mystical experience, however, for him to finally make the move.
"A buddy and I were on our way back to Raleigh from a road trip," he explains. "I was driving through Nashville and I looked out over the skyline and got this really strange feeling. It was like a moment of clarity, telling me this was where I needed to be. Something seemed to saying, "No need thinking anymore about it, your mind's made up." Within another six months, I was here...
Like most young writers who move to the songwriting capital of the world, it didn't take long for him to realize he was as green as a gourd. He still had a lot of learning to do, so he dug his heels in and began writing in earnest. He studied the craft of songwriting, trying to learn everything he could about what makes a great song great. Eventually, his music caught the ears of noted producers Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, who cut several tracks on him, hoping to score a record deal. That deal never materialized, but the experience was golden.
People began to pay attention the name Ray Scott and he landed a publishing deal with Tom Collins. The years of dedication to his craft finally began to pay off when Randy Travis ("Pray for the Fish") and Clay Walker ("A Few Questions") had hit singles with his songs.
However, it was the hard-driving, attitude-drenched "Plowboy" that changed things for the better. It was the song that became his calling card, the one that prompted Paul Worley at Warner Bros. to give the green light on a record deal. It also knocked down the door of creativity and cleared the way for a batch of songs sure to establish Scott as a working class poet of the highest order.
The songs on his Warner Bros. debut, My Kind of Music, range from odes to the working man ("Dirty Shirt") and gut-wrenching ballads ("Fly with an Angel") to morning-after regrets ("Bear with Me Lord"). Mix in the earthy sensuality of his new single, "IDidn’t Come Here to Talk," and personal manifestos like "Different Kind of Cowboy" and "My Kind of Music" and you've got all the ingredients of a classic album. One that will, like those of his heroes, stand the test of time. An album that will show country fans the world over that he's a different kind of cowboy. One who's always true to his roots, his heart, and his music. One you won't soon forget.
In a perfect world, an honest singing cowboy would never have to choose between the stage and the steed, the honky-tonk and the ropin’ pen. There’d be time enough for both, with every rodeo championship win celebrated with a triumphant return to the Grand Ole Opry stage. And all of this would be possible without ever having to leave the Lone Star State, where everyone knows that real BBQ means brisket and pork is something you only really eat around Easter time.
No, wait … that’s a Texan’s perfect world. Or rather, the perfect world Trent Willmon probably fantasized about over a cold sympathy beer the day he had to sell his last horse. Not because of hard times so much as lack of enough time to ride.
“I had to sell him about three months ago, because I’d come in off the road and want to go rope, and he’d be out of shape,” rues Willmon. “I figure the next one I buy, I’m going in partners with somebody who can keep the horse tuned up, so that when I want to come in and play cowboy, I can. But honestly, I haven’t had any time in the last six to eight months to do any kind of riding. I miss it, but this is just what I gotta focus on right now so I can get to play later.”
Given that the “this” Willmon speaks of is a burgeoning country music career that has already taken him from the dancehalls of Texas to the hallowed Opry stage and countless other venues across the country — including the National Finals Rodeo — chances are he’s not doing too much crying in his beers these days. Deep in his heart he still dreams of the day when he can buy a good piece of the beautiful Texas hill country and ride till the proverbial (or rather, literal) cows come home, but he’s having too much fun chasing his other dream in the here and now to waste time with regrets. The title of his sophomore Sony Nashville album sums up Willmon’s present agenda in no uncertain terms: A Little More Livin’.
“The title comes from a line in the song ‘A Night in the Ground,’” explains Willmon, “but it’s also kind of my motto on life. I’ve learned to live life as if I didn’t have tomorrow. I know that sounds kind of cheesy and mushy and all that, but it’s a good way to keep things in perspective.”
Not that keeping things in proper perspective has ever been much of an issue for Willmon. A Little More Livin’, like Willmon’s 2004 self-titled Columbia debut before it, offers further proof that it’s possible for even the most diehard of Texans to make a record in Nashville that has mainstream country appeal while still staying true to their roots. Maybe it’s the fact that, as on that first record, Willmon’s songwriting is as prominent here as his singing (he co-wrote seven of the album’s 11 songs). Maybe it’s the unmistakable studio fretwork of Texas guitar hero David Grissom (of Joe Ely fame and the band leader for the Dixie Chicks’ blockbuster Top of the World Tour). Or maybe it’s all the Texas-style brisket Willmon cooks up in his own custom-built smoker every time he gets homesick, or his habit of sneaking off to hang with the “real” cowboys before and after every one of his band’s performances on the rodeo circuit.
“The guys in my band are my friends and my family, but honestly, I’d rather hang out with cowboys than most musicians,” admits Willmon. “I’d rather sit around and talk about horses than talk about gear!” To wit, Willmon’s band, Four Finger Nate, is named after one of his ropin’ buddies, who’s name-dropped in one of the new album’s two cowboy songs, a paean to the joys of “The Ropin’ Pen.” The other, the closing “Good Horses to Ride,” is a stirring salute to all the larger-than-life old cowboys Willmon grew up around in West Texas. Even though he chose a different path in life, he still credits those cowboys and their stories as one of his primary influences — every bit as much as his mother’s eclectic record collection, the radio and all the Willie Nelson and Joe Ely concerts from which he still channels inspiration in his own performances today. When Willmon admits his songwriting is at it’s best when he’s in storytelling mode, that’s the cowboy in him.
“All the real cowboys I grew up with were just real good at telling stories,” he says. “It’s just part of who they are, almost like a tradition — like fancy saddles and cowboy hats. Part of it comes from spending a lot of time alone on the range — time to really think about things — and part of it’s because of the colorful life they lead. Ty Murray (seven-time World Champion “All Around Cowboy”) is a friend of mine, and I overheard him flirting with this girl once. He said, ‘You know why they call us cowboys, ma’am? It’s because we never grow up!’ And that’s true. The cowboys I know can be 70 years old, but they’ve still got that great sense of humor … and they’ve still got that boy side of them, too.”
Willmon’s got a great sense of humor himself, as first evidenced on the singles “Beer Man” and (deep breath!) “Dixie Rose Deluxe’s Honky Tonk, Feed Store, Gun Shop, Used Car, Beer, Bait, BBQ, Barber Shop, Laundromat” from his debut and this time out on the gleeful revenge fantasy “Surprise” and irresistible shuffle, “Sometimes I Miss Ya.” “That one’s for anybody who has ever fallen in love with a high-maintenance woman … which I tend to do,” chuckles Willmon. “But it’s a fun song, written with kind of my own West Texas perspective.”
Willmon’s other co-writes on A Little More Livin’ include “So Am I” (“A poor boy’s love song” he says), “Island” (a heartfelt love song inspired, like the first album’s “Home Sweet Holiday Inn,” by Willmon’s 8-year-old daughter, Montana) and “Louisiana Rain,” in which he showcases his bluesier instincts. “That’s part of who I am,” he explains. “When you play the honky-tonks in Texas, like I did starting out, you play shuffles, you play Bob Wills and you play some Stevie Ray Vaughan, too.”
While the abundance and quality of his own songs on the record put Willmon in that all-too-rare class of mainstream country artists who can write as well as they sing, he brings the same level of passion and commitment to the handful of songs by outside writers, including the aforementioned “A Night in the Ground” and the first single, “On Again Tonight.” And with its references to Shiner Bock beer and Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Good One Comin’ On” sounds like a song Willmon surely would have gotten around to writing had David Lee Murphy, Lee Roy Parnell and Gary Nicholson not written it first.
“I still love the first record, but I think this one is maybe even tighter because we took the time to dig down and find some of those outside songs,” says Willmon. “I think it’s a mistake sometimes for a songwriter to think they have to write every song on their own album. I think I’m a good songwriter, but I’m better at the story songs than some of those wonderful, positive up-tempo radio songs. Now a lot of times I’ll hear stuff like that and the rebellious, musician side of me just can’t get around the commercial part of it, but sometimes you hear a song and it’s an undeniable hit, and you just know that you can make it your own. Being a songwriter will always be a real important part of who I am, but if someone else’s song fits me and I believe in it, I don’t feel like I’m being any less me by doing those, too.”
But it’s not just the songs — whatever the source — that make A Little More Livin’ such a pronounced improvement on his immensely promising debut. It’s the performances. Produced, like it’s predecessor, by Frank Rogers — who signed Willmon to the publishing company he co-owns with Brad Paisley and Chris Dubois seven years ago — A Little More Livin’ swaggers with the kind of assured confidence that, true to it’s title, can only come from experience.
“I think my voice has gotten a lot stronger from being out on the road and singing as much as I did last year,” says Willmon. “That just comes from wet saddle blankets, you know? We also had a great opportunity that a lot of guys don’t get, in that we got to road test a lot of these songs and see how people reacted to them. I also really think this record shows more of what we do sonically at our live show, when we’ve got the fiddle and the electric guitar turned up loud, right up front and in your face. Thanks to having guys like David Grissom and (Grammy-winning fiddler/Asleep at the Wheel vet) Larry Franklin in the studio this time, I think we captured more of that vibe.”
The end result is a record that will probably keep Willmon far too busy on the touring circuit to return to the ropin’ pen anytime soon. But that’s OK. Fifteen years ago, when the play-in-a-band-for-class-credit curriculum at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, seduced him away from his agriculture science studies, Willmon fully committed himself to a life of music. It’s a commitment that’s weathered the misgivings of his conservative rancher father (“Even today, he still doesn’t really understand that it’s a real job,” chuckles Willmon), a few rough years on the Texas dancehall scene (“I moved to Nashville just before the Texas music resurgence kind of exploded”), a few even rougher years trying to adjust to the rules of Music Row and Tennessee style BBQ (“I still haven’t — that’s why I started my own catering business on the side!”) and, as Willmon candidly admits, a debut album that didn’t quite make him an overnight country music sensation.
“In all honesty, because we didn’t have a big hit off that first record, there was no reason why I should have gotten to make a second one,” he says. “John is a guy who’s just all about the music, and he believes in me. That’s why I signed with Sony even though we got offers at that showcase from three different labels.”
Or, as Grady himself puts it: “(Trent) is not just a country singer — he is a poet, an artisan, and, quite simply, the most interesting man I have met in my stay in Nashville. I challenged Trent and Frank Rogers to explore and grow on this next record, and they have done both, with enormous success.”
Best of all, Willmon — a Texan through and through — did it his way.
“One of the mistakes that I did early on when I first moved to town was trying to fit into the Nashville mold,” he says. “Actually, that wasn’t really a mistake, because it taught me to be a more poignant songwriter: I learned that I couldn’t just write things that appealed to me. And then when I got my band back together and started playing the honky-tonks again, I found a happy medium and my own little niche where people would come see us and relate to what we were doing, but I could still be me. That’s why, at the end of the day, even if this record flops or doesn’t do anything, I’m still extremely proud of it.”
And in an admittedly less than perfect world, what more could an honest singing-cowboy ask for?
An air of high expectation and inevitability has always surrounded Chris Young. Anyone who heard him sing, and anyone who experienced his poised and engaging stage show, inevitably decreed that this tall fellow with the friendly smile had what it takes. When they found out he also wrote the best of his songs, people would just smile, shake their heads and say, “That boy is going to be a star.”
Indeed, Young lives up to everyone’s predictions with his self-titled debut on RCA Records. Working with Kenny Chesney producer Buddy Cannon, Young has created a potent debut that puts an up-to-date, contemporary edge on traditional country music.
“For as long as I can remember, I told everyone I would be a country singer,” says Young with the straightforward, aw-shucks attitude that has already won him a nation of fans. “I’ve always been sure that this was what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I’d be successful, but I knew I would be singing, even if it meant doing it on the street with a cup in front of me. I love it that much.”
Like his heroes Keith Whitley and Randy Travis, the 21-year-old seems to own an old soul and a lived-in voice custom-designed to sing country music. Like those idols, he ushers country’s classic sound into the modern era, energizing the genre’s core themes and values by making them as current as tomorrow’s news.
“I don’t worry about labels,” he says. “I know that whenever I sing the music I love, I see people my age, and people of all ages, really responding to it. I know they hear the same things I hear in the music. It’s about life—all the joy and all the heartbreak of living, right there in three minutes and 22 seconds.”
As it turns out, that’s the length of Young’s first single, “Drinkin’ Me Lonely,” the self-written song that’s already made a star of the hometown boy from Murfreesboro, Tenn. He’d already been labeled as the frontrunner among finalists of the 2006 version of the television talent series Nashville Star, when, on a show dedicated to contestants performing their own original songs, Young floored the crowd with this restrained, emotion-rich slice of classic country craftsmanship. They could’ve given him the crown that night.
“I’ve always believed in that song,” he says of the highly anticipated single, which he wrote with Larry Wayne Clark. “But I’ve had so many people e-mail me and tell me they love that song, and I’ve had the same reaction when going around meeting radio people. There’s a theory in Nashville that you don’t start your career with a ballad, so maybe it goes against the grain. But I feel real confident about it because it’s already opened doors for me.”
Young’s debut shows how deep his talent goes. He reaches into his own song bag for the Southern rocker “Lay It On Me” and the celebratory “Small Town, Big Time,” both co-written with Tim James.
Meanwhile, the touching “Center of My World,” which Young co-wrote with veteran David Lee Murphy, shows how well he can handle a believable love song. It’s a tune destined to be a future prom-night, wedding-party favorite.
“Songwriting became this obsession early on,” he says. “I wrote my first song in middle school. I just kept working at it, and at some point it becomes natural, like speaking. I love singing and being in front of an audience, but I love writing songs just as much.”
He figures he came by his musical obsession naturally. Some of his earliest memories involved listening to his grandfather, one-time Louisiana Hayride performer Richard Yates, play piano and guitar at family gatherings.
“He gave up his career when he married my grandmother because she didn’t want him playing in bars,” Young says. “But he never stopped loving music. Hearing him play music changed me somehow. I understood why he loved it so much.”
By grade school, Young performed in children’s theater, leading family and friends to discover his innate singing talent. The youngster enjoyed the full support of his parents from the start; whenever he asked for help, they came through without hesitation, whether it meant paying for vocal lessons or buying his first guitar.
“A lot of parents discourage kids from music, because they know it’s a long shot and it can be disappointing,” he says. “But I got to do what most kids didn’t because my parents always encouraged me and supported my dream.”
In high school, while most tall and handsome young men devoted themselves to sports, Young focused on getting better at music. With help from his family, he and his friends rented out a storage unit and, despite a lack of air conditioning in the intense Southern heat, they practiced daily, giving up summer afternoons to practice music.
“It would be 98 degrees outside and even hotter inside that little metal box,” Young says with a laugh. “But we’d set up the drum kit and the amplifiers and play all day long.”
His tenacity paid off. Young and his partners quickly started getting gigs at prestigious Nashville music clubs like 3rd & Lindsley. The week the A-student took his finals as a senior in high school, he put out his first album. His earliest fan-club members still treasure it like gold.
He went to college, taking music business classes, first at Belmont University in Nashville, then at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. After two years of studying, he was performing more than 150 shows a year. “It’s hard to perform three shows a week and stay in an honor’s program,” said the high-achiever. “So I put my classes aside for the time being to pursue music full-time.”
Young soon gained the attention of talent scouts from leading Nashville record labels and top music publishing companies, impressing them with his voice, his songwriting and his hard-work ethic. The Music Row insiders encouraged him, but also suggested the teen singer continue to write and gain seasoning.
Still, he grew impatient. When a Texas nightclub agent invited him to front the house band at the famous Cowboy’s honky-tonk in Arlington, Texas, Young excitedly took the job. “I got to perform four nights a week in front of an audience of Texans, who are the most discriminating country music fans around,” he says. “In Texas, you better impress them, or they’ll push you off the stage—especially if you’re not from there. Fortunately, I got a great reception and picked up a whole lot of fans.”
One of his more faithful fans insisted he audition for Nashville Star. Young at first balked, until the friend told him that this year’s winner would, for the first time, get a recording contract with RCA Records.
“When I heard that, I got interested,” he says. “RCA has always been the label I wanted to be on. It’s where my heroes recorded, guys like Keith Whitley, John Anderson, Ronnie Milsap and Alan Jackson. I knew they were the best of the best.”
The friend paid for Young’s ticket to audition in Houston. The rest is history, as Young stood head and shoulders above the competition at every level. The fans and judges at every step recognized him as the star he is.
“I’ve always felt this was my destiny,” says the singer. “But I also realized early on that hard work is as important as talent. I love to work just as much as I love music. So I’m having the time of my life right now.
“Still, I’m waiting for that day when I hear my song being played on the radio next to George Strait and Brooks & Dunn. That’s when I’ll celebrate. At that point, I’ll know my work is just beginning, but I’ll also know that dreams do come true.”