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Days before Carlton Anderson signed his contract to record for Arista Nashville, he was staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at Sony Music Nashville in the direction of the beer-bathed honky tonks on lower Broadway where he cut his teeth playing for tips.
 
The sky was clear and the view from the 13th floor seemed pretty lucky.
 
“I play downtown every weekend and I was just looking out the window,” he said. “Your dream when you roll into town is to end up in one of these offices. Moments like this make me stop and think, ‘You are doing something right.’”
 
Anderson grew up in Cypress, Texas, a town northwest of Houston where sports dominated daily conversation and Friday night. A defensive player with a competitive streak and a knack for knocking people down, Anderson eventually turned to the other Texas pastime: Music.
 
Touring, red dirt, and roadhouses are commonplace, but the musicianship and songwriter tradition are legendary. Every teenage son of the Lonestar State knows the heritage and the playlists of their heroes.
 
Anderson’s musical awakening started with Willie Nelson, who he refers to as “his drug” and quickly advanced to George Strait and a long line of musical mavericks. Styles varied, but the common denominator was that even though they were born in Texas their music transcended borders.    
 
“The thing I loved was when you picked up a George Strait CD you knew that it was going to be country music you could relate to on any level – if you wanted to dance, or cry, or smile, remember, or forget,” Anderson said. “That’s what country music is to me and it is what I’m trying to do.”   Anderson’s grandmother had an auto harp, but the family followed military not musical pursuits including service in World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After the service, his family found work in the oil fields surrounding his hometown. 
 
Anderson started working in the oil fields at 16 – two years before it was legal – and worked at Texas grocery story HEB after school to put away enough money to buy a guitar and small PA so he could play the honky tonks and dancehalls around his hometown after graduation. The goal was Nashville.
 
“Those hometown crowds are the foundation of who I am today,” Anderson said with complete candor. “They believed in me before anyone else did and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
 A powerful work ethic tossed with a little good timing provided the motivation to keep following the dream including opening for Roger Creager in 2013 and meeting his manager Howie Edelman, which eventually led to a songwriting cut with Cody Johnson. 
 
Three tries would discourage most people, but not Anderson. He was accepted at Belmont University three times before anyone in his family could co-sign his tuition loans. He moved to Music City not knowing a soul and immediately started looking for ways to pay the bills because as he said, “if I failed, it was on me.”
 
No sooner had Anderson moved into his dorm, he was headed downtown looking for a gig to pay the bills. He parked on Fourth Avenue across from the Swingin’ Doors Saloon and heard the band playing “In Color.” He walked in, asked to play a few songs, and the manager offered him a job. He went on to play there five more years. 
 
“I love connecting with the audience,” he said. “It’s unlike anything else because they aren’t there for you; they are there for the experience – and it is so humbling. I’ve always felt like paying your dues is so important. If you skip that you miss out on so much. You don’t get to learn what you are capable of.” 
 
Every night on his way to work, when Anderson passed the Ryman Auditorium he would rub his hand along the red bricks. Playing that stage is on the shortlist of personal milestones. 
 
“I had three things on my list when I came to Nashville: get a publishing deal, get a record deal, and play the Ryman,” he said. “Playing the Ryman is next on the list.”   Anderson was the first to graduate college in his family, which had a firmly grounded “go to work or go to war” mentality. He graduated Belmont in 2016 with a degree in Music Business, but he learned the ropes through hard work, practice, paying his dues in Texas, and playing for tourists and bachelorette parties in Nashville. He focused on “connecting” with his audience, no matter how distracted or inebriated they were. He knew he had them when they reached for their phones.
 
“You know you’ve connected when they reach for their phones because they are seeing something they want to capture and remember – or share,” he said.    
 
It wasn’t long before more than tourists were taking notice. 
 
Anderson was signed to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music and began writing with some of the most sought-after songwriters in Nashville. He gained a reputation for his work ethic and his steadfast belief in authenticity before trends. 
 
“If I’ve lived it, I can sing about it,” he said. “If I haven’t lived it, I’m not a good faker.”
 
The balance between traditional sounds and contemporary themes is evident on Anderson’s new Arista Nashville EP, which is due later this year. His first single, “Drop Everything,” will be released soon.  
 
“We’ll Smile,” features the heavenly steel work of frequent musician of the year nominee Paul Franklin. In “Drop Everything” he namechecks Marvin Gaye, but also refers to the present-day practice of hitting “decline a million times.” The rowdy “Strait to Church” is an innuendo filled homage to his musical signposts. There is also the fiddle-laden “The One That Brought Ya,” which is told from a grandfather’s point-of-view with wisdom Anderson called “hillbilly scripture.” 
 
He is particularly fond of the bridge of the song, which features the words of American writer Mark Twain: “The most important days of your whole life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
 
Anderson got another piece of valuable advice from acclaimed award-winning songwriter Tom Douglas, who told him, “There are two kinds of songwriters in Nashville. There are those who write to remember and those who write to forget.”
 
Anderson is one to remember. 
 
“I want to be remembered not for trying to fill my heroes’ boots,” he said with complete sincerity. “But I am trying to walk with them, at least. I’m just trying to take what I’ve learned and apply it to 2018 and beyond.”

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