Although I lived in Texas until the age of 12, I’ve never been much of a fan of country music. It’s only been lately, with the Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swifts of the world, and a weekly obsession with Nashville Star, that I’ve opened my mind to giving the genre a chance. Guess what? I like it.
Near the end of the Nashville Star season I had the chance to fly out to Nashville for a taping and interview country star and Nashville Star judge John "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" Rich on his tour bus before the show. I caught up with him again last week to follow-up on a video shoot he did for a song he penned for presumed Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Check back tomorrow for part two!
Setting: On John’s tour bus just after he drove more than ten hours back from Canada. Country legend George Jones (who told me I’m ‘pretty as a peach’) and his wife are looking on. John has an unlit Cuban cigar in his hand, a bottle of Crown beside him and a stash of cowboy hats behind him.
Have you enjoyed being on Nashville Star?
It’s exciting to watch people go from zero miles an hour to 100 miles an hour in ten weeks, it’s an exciting process. It’s especially exciting for me because I take the winner and I produce their record, so I have to decide if I can go into the studio and make a hit record with this person.
The last time country music was on network television was the Barbara Mandrell show in the 1980s and an entire generation of country music fans have grown up and songwriters have erupted and new sounds have come into country music and new fans, that no one has even heard about. They’re still calling it country and western in some parts of this country and it hasn’t been country and western since the cowboy movies. It’s country by god music, it’s the largest format of music in the United fans; the most loyal fans in any genre of music and more artists with 15+ careers in music than any genre on Earth. That is country music. It is truly America’s music, music for the country. So to be part of its re-launch onto network television is a very prideful thing for me, I took a lot of pride in being a part of Nashville Star and love seeing country music get to that stage to show people what we’ve got.
I hope that it brings millions of people into country and I think it will. I think there are millions of people who will watch it flipping through TV that have never turned on a country radio station and they’ll hear it and be like, “I don’t know if I like country music but I like that guy, and if that’s country music, maybe I like country music.’ That’s what I’m here for, I’m here to watch it grow.
Do you think the Carrie Underwoods are helping make country more mainstream?
I think Carrie Underwood is one of the best additions to country music in the last decade. How do you dispute her talent or her integrity as an artist? The songs she puts out are just flawless and Carrie as an entertainer just grows and grows and grows. I think she’s like a Reba, someone who could be around into her 40s still cutting hit records. I think she’s that caliber of artist.
How did you get your break?
Have I gotten it yet? I grew up in a trailer park in Amarillo, TX. My dad’s a preacher and I used to listen to songs off the radio and play them until I could play then note for note off my guitar when I was six-years-old. I blew off college to get in a van pulling a trailer to play with a bunch of guys playing in casinos all over North America and then got a record deal with Lonestar. I played bass in that band for six years, so that was my first break. From there it’s been up and down and now thank goodness it’s up and going very well right now. I’ve written close to 1300 songs and I’ve had 36 Top 40 singles that I’ve written over the years. It’s funny, the harder you work, the luckier you get, interesting concept.
Is it hard deciding which songs you write you want to keep or give to someone else to sing?
That easy, just no?
Yup, if I write a song and someone wants it I give it to them because I figure if I’m worth my salt I’ll write another one. There’s nothing more flattering than another artist singing something you wrote because when another artist sings something you wrote they’re basically betting their career that that’s a hit song and that song’s going to propel them for six months and sell them hit records and keep them on the map, so when someone’s willing to do that, it’s more flattering for me as a songwriter. It’s a huge pat on the back and I’ll write more.
Where do you write?
I could write a song anywhere. I could write a song right now in this interview.
Do you ever sit down and write a song with a certain person in mind to sing it?
No. The only time I did wrote specific songs for artists was Mississippi Girl for Faith Hill, because nobody could sing it besides her and Redneck Woman for Gretchen Wilson because who else is going to sing that but Gretchen. Other times you just write, you try to write something great and it just goes where it goes.
Cut to: John talking to George Jones…
John: I wrote a couple of songs for George Jones but he turned them down. But I might write a couple more because you never know.
George: Yeah, I could play them for the old folks home.
John: Trust me, remember the comeback that Tony Bennet had about 15 years ago and somehow or another he ended up on MTV. He came out of nowhere and all these young people went, ‘Tony Bennet is one of the smoothest cats I’ve ever seen,’ He’s my grandad’s age. The next thing you know Tony Bennett is hip, just being Tony Bennett. Pop music and rock got so superficial that a real cat struts out on the stage and lays it out like it’s really supposed to be laid out and everyone goes, ‘Oh, that’s right, that’s right, that’s how it’s supposed to be done. I completely forgot for the last ten years. George Jones is one of those type of people. He’s one of those people in country music that could still come out and show people how it’s done and do it with class and do it with integrity just like they always did.
That’s what I aspire to be like. How ever long I live I aspire to be someone who can always engage that audience, connect with that audience and tell them something that they didn’t know before they showed up and send them home feeling better than they did when they came. That’s what I aspire to do.
I heard you were thinking about writing a song for Jessica Simpson?
They approached me to work on her record early on. I actually went to lunch with her and her dad and got to know everybody. I think she’s one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met and she’s one of those people that as she’s grown up pop music is so much for teenagers right now that as a grown woman she doesn’t have anything to say over there right now. She’s a Texas girl on top of that and a country music fan, so it makes sense for her to have a go at the country audience and so far she’s having a lot of success at it. I like to see if reverse from the country singers go over and think they need to grab the pop crowd. I like to see the pop singers try to grab that country crowd. That’s good news for country music, hat means that the tables have shifted. The tides are turning in our favor and that’s because when gas is $4.50 a gallon and it’s all you can do to get an extra $15 to go buy that record or to get a ticket to that concert, you want to go hear something that means something to you, country music means something to people. It makes them even in hard times come together and have something to cling to and bond to. That’s why country music is surging right now. I think if you go back through history, the harder the times got, the bigger country music got.
What’s the biggest perk to being John Rich?
I get to hang out with George Jones on my tour bus and smoke illegal Cuban cigars…The biggest perk to being me is I’ve spent my whole life wanting to do nothing other than what I’m doing right now which is making great country music and being involved in great country music, whether it’s producing, singing it, being a conduit helping people meet other people, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and I’m waking up every day and doing that.
I had a concert last night in Ontario. I drove 14 hours up there, did the concert and turned around and drove 14 hours straight back to be here tonight. I’ve been in Los Angeles, Atlanta coast-to-coast and in Canada in the last six days.
Yet you look refreshed, how?
I take my vitamins (holds up a bottle of Crown and a Cuban cigar).
What are the top three things you like on your tour bus?
Crown, Cuban cigars and George Jones are the top three.
Are you dating anyone?
Am I dating anyone? Yes.
To be continued…