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As far as where I’m at with my new music and my new label, Red Bow, this is more than a new chapter. It’s a new book. My new single “Sunny And 75” is getting as great a reception as anything I’ve ever done, and the album it comes from is something I might have hoped I could do at other points in my career, but have been held back from. And I’ll be the first to say that the holding back has mostly been me. What strikes me this time is how much freedom I’ve felt in this process, the depth I have in my relationships – personal and professional, it really is a family thing. And, to be honest, just how much fun I’m having. Freedom, family and fun ... there’s your sound bite.
The hard part of this journey, if that’s not too cliché a word for it, was leaving my last label, because the wheels in Nashville just turn really slow sometimes. And time turned out to be our enemy and our friend. The more distance I was able to get from the last few years of stops and starts, the better. But our enemy was losing a consistent presence with the fans and radio. That hurt, but it set up some anticipation for something new; it was also very healing and kind of humbled me a little bit.
I went into the studio to start making music with my own money. One of those sides, a song called “Yeah,” will probably be a single on this record. The other was a stone-cold country song called “Billy Graham’s Bible.” So, we walked into labels with something to play for them. Quite a few were interested, but the majors tend to have a lot of artists in line and wanted me to look at a late 2014 release. I wanted to be in business with somebody who had the same sense of urgency about me as I do, and Broken Bow did. Being one of the flagship artists on their latest imprint, which is a joint venture with Sony Red, helped this all feel brand new.
The one thing about my approach to this record that I was almost militant about was that I wanted to find hit songs that might be a bit unexpected. Having a hit, writing or making good albums has never been a problem for me, it’s been that momentum you get from a consistent series of hits. That’s why I wanted to be rigorous about finding songs that cut through, even if they didn’t seem to fit the idea people have of what I should sound like. I wanted to be able to say we’ve got six singles on this album. Or ten. And that meant being open to songs and sounds a lot of folks wouldn’t have thought would work.
The interesting thing is that we’ve ended up with a very balanced record. There are lots of songs that feel like they’d sound great getting heavy airplay, and there are also some that I think people will say, “That’s a cool moment on this album.” Sometimes those coincide.
A lot of that has to do with my relationship with the label. People warned me that Benny Brown, the founder, is very involved in the A&R process. At first I didn’t know how that would go because I’ve been very hands-on with the music throughout my career. After working with Benny, I can say he’s very involved, but all in good ways.
When he finds something he’ll say, “I like this for you, what do you think? Would you try this for me, because we don’t know how it’s going to sound until you try it.” That’s a push in a healthy direction with the understanding that if it doesn’t turn out in the studio, we don’t have to show it to anyone.
That was comforting and allowed me to try things with nothing really to lose. It was freeing and very different from where I’ve been in the past with the A&R process. In some more jagged situations, I probably did become a bit of jerk about cutting what I wanted to cut. So Benny’s approach let me gracefully bow out of that kind of attitude. I was able to approach this album with a new heart for the music and a new set of ears. It’s worked out tremendously.
Several are songs I probably never would have found or thought were right for me if I had found them. Having Benny bring them to me and having that ability to try, to see what something sounds like, has been great. My producers, Mickey Jack Cones and Derek George, have also helped me understand that whatever I do vocally, it’s going to bring it back to traditional no matter how far out there we get.
Just as the drive for hit singles led to a balance of material on the album, my voice and the ability to be edgy with song selection created a balance, too. In an organic way, it made for a unique sound. You can have a rock-pop feel with the track, because the traditional vocals bring it back. There’s always going to be a traditional element in my music that I won’t change, and really just can’t change. But I can reach beyond my comfort zone, too. Certainly in 2013, it would be foolish not to try.
I realize there are purists who could be let down by that mindset, and there have been times I have absolutely felt that I was letting people down by trying new things. And, of course, that created massive fear in me that probably led to decisions that hurt my progress. So I’m glad that I now feel comfortable enough in my own skin to know what being true to myself really is. I am true to traditional country music and always will be. I have bled and sweat and cried country music my entire life. And broadening my approach won’t change that one bit. That’s the freedom – to be happy and successful and make music I’m proud of.
There are layers to my relationships and the people around me. There’s a depth there that I’ve never felt before, especially in a working environment. I care passionately and deeply about the music, as well as the people I’m working with. I care about the overall well-being and success of everybody. That is a wonderful feeling, and way more important than having hit records and looking good to the outside world. This is family.
I have been a Nashville guy for a long time and would move back there in a heartbeat, but I also love Texas because it’s the place I want to raise my children. It’s just a great way of life here. When I’m home, there are no crowds, no industry events to go to, none of that. It’s just family, friends and a normal pace of life.
The new music is going over awesome on the road, especially “Sunny And 75.” The other new songs we play get an incredible reaction, too. As far as the crowds go, I’ve been almost two years without a single at radio and people are still showing up in awesome numbers. I’m impressed and incredibly grateful for country fans, because they are amazingly loyal.
I’m also thankful radio is welcoming me back with open arms. I love that I have true friends there who care about me beyond the music and career stuff, because I care about them in the same way. So I’m especially proud to give them music they can play in good conscience. It’s not just my friends hooking me up with airplay, it’s something deserving, and I hope to continue giving them that.
The biggest thing I feel is just that it’s a new day. I’m wiping the slate clean and starting something brand new. I love my old catalog of music – “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” “Brokenheartsville,” “The Impossible,” “Gimme That Girl” and the rest. But I’m starting the first chapter of that new book now. I’m pretty sure it’s got a happy ending, but I also hope there are a few surprises for people along the way.