By Lynne Margolis
Kevin Fowler doesn’t just emulate country music’s proud good ol’ boy image of a hard-drinkin’, hard-drivin’, heart-breakin’ he-man. He embodies it. Right down to his big, thumb-hookin’ belt buckle, hair-hidin’ hat, thirsty Ford pickup truck, lost ‘g’ lingo and a repertoire saturated with songs such as “The Lord Loves the Drinkin’ Man,” “Loose, Loud & Crazy” (the namesake tune of his last album), and “Bring It On” (the title of his latest). Then there’s that “100 % Texan” independent streak, which led him to self-release his first several albums before signing to Houston native Clint Black’s Equity Music Group label — an independent, of course — before recording Crazy.
And don’t forget his huntin’ and fishin’ habit. Hell, he’s even got a special Web site, www.kevinfowleroutdoors.com , for fellow fans of catchin’ critters. And instead of cruises and ski trips, his followers can sign up for a huntin’ excursion on a Texas ranch, where they can all join the “Drunk-Ass Redneck Choir” as Fowler sings one of his hell-raisin’ anthems, “Beer, Bait & Ammo.” (Visualize your favorite little bell-tingling-on-a-wooden-screen-door, last-stop-before-the-edge-of-civilization shop here.)
But hold on there just a minute, pardner. Does a guy who takes his wife and three girls — ages 13, 6 and 4 months — out for sushi on a Wednesday night in Austin sound like a drunk-ass shit-kicker to you? How about a guy who writes a love song as sweet as Bring It On‘s “Best Mistake I Ever Made” — inspired by one of his own little gals? Or a guy who so adores his country icons, he’d turn the line “don’t touch my Willie” into a tune about his reverence for Mr. Nelson?
Perhaps that’s the secret to balancing the yin and yang of being Kevin Fowler: don’t ignore your sweet side, and don’t take any of it — including yourself — too seriously.
Your bio says you’ve got a “Southern country” lean, but to me it sounds more like straight-ahead country — you’ve even got a song proclaiming you’re a “honky-tonk junkie.” Tell me what the difference is … what makes your country different?
I think it’s just country without blinders on. I try to just let it be what it is. Luckily, we don’t really play the Nashville game or the national radio game. We just get in and do what we do. I think it gives us an extra edge that we don’t try to make our music conform to any genre. It’s definitely country, but whoever’s writin’ it’s Southern country or its honky-tonk country or its new country or its rockin’ country … as long as country’s in the description, I’m fine with it.
Well, that’s good, because you’ve got a song on there, “I Pulled a Hank Last Night” and you’ve got a duet with George Jones (on “Me and the Boys”). I was thinking it’d be kind of cool to do an album full of songs with idols in the titles. I’m guessing they’d be mostly country idols, right?
Who are some of your other ones?
As far as my influences go, everything from Merle Haggard to Metallica, from AC/DC and Van Halen to lefty Frizzell. (Fowler spent a year studying guitar in Los Angeles before moving to Austin and joining a hard rock band, Dangerous Toys, then forming a Southern rock band, Thunderfoot, before turning back to country.) I’m not really a genre listener, I’m just like everybody else out there. I just like good music, no matter what they call it. I definitely still have that rock ‘n’ roll edge.
Could you see yourself duetting with Kid Rock?
I thought that would be the answer. He strikes me as one of those good ol’ Southern boys even though he’s from Detroit. But I know he lived in Nashville. You said you try to stay away from the Nashville thing, yet this album was recorded there.
I don’t try to stay away from it. I just think that we’re not a mainstream act. I’m at an independent label where I can do whatever I want without anybody lookin’ over my shoulder. We play the Nashville machine whenever we need somethin’ from ‘em. That’s it. That’s why I’ve done my career the way I’ve done it. I’ve tried to make it about fans and about the music and about the live experience and bein’ involved in the whole thing. Not about just radio. Not that we don’t play the game when we need to, but that’s why I’ve opted to try to always go with an independent label and I’ve got a great label. They understand what I’m doin’; they let me do what I want to do.
Let’s talk about Clint Black. Have you gotten to know him since you’ve been on the label ?
Yeah. I’m not around Nashville enough to really see everybody on a day-to-day basis. But he definitely is involved in the decisions of the label. And he’s also an artist there. It’s great for the artists to have an artist in that capacity. ‘Cause you know they understand what an artist needs. When they started this label, it was just ‘cause he was burned out on being on major labels and being beat up all the time by what some guy in a suit thought.
It’s a common experience. Indie labels just seem like the way to go. You self-released your first few, right?
Yeah, the first three or four we did on our own. And we had a great run with it. We sold about 200,000 units on our own. So we can’t complain about that. But it gets to a point after a while where we couldn’t do it all. We were doin’ everything in house, all the outlet promotion, all the radio promotion, and all the day-to-day junk that goes along with tryin’ to be a label. I have more sympathy now that I’m actually on a label. I understand their pain.
You’ve got a lot of co-written songs on here and I was just wondering, do you prefer to collaborate or is it something that you do after you get stuck on your own?
That is somethin’ of late. (For) “Loose, Loud & Crazy” I started doin’ some co-writing. My manager at the time said, “Man, you should try this co-writing thing. I’m like, “Nope. I’m a singer/songwriter, I write my songs and that’s the way that is.” And I was kind of was standoffish about it. But on the last record, I started doin’ some. I co-wrote about half of that record and wrote half by myself. And (on the new one) it’s almost all I do. I think it’s really good in gettin’ you out of your safe place and gettin’ you out of just rewriting the same songs. You know, everybody has a style. No matter what writer you are, whether you’re Willie Nelson or you’re Merle Haggard or you’re Metallica, you have a style … that’s your style, and it really helps me to write with different people all the time, to have somebody else to put somethin’ in the soup and make it different. It really helps me to do different stuff and write somethin’ that I normally wouln’t write.
How do you decide who you’re gonna write with?
I mainly just write with friends and people I meet. Or a friend’ll say, “Man, you really oughta write with so-and-so.” And we get together and write. But most of them are friends. I met a lot of the good writers in Nashville that are really … they’re redneck writers, I call ‘em. There’s a group of Texas guys up there and I’ll have ‘em come down and just go on the bus with me or we’ll write out at my barn when I’m home or something, ‘cause I don’t really have time to go to Nashville and sit around in a cubicle and write songs.
I’ve heard it’s not the best experience.
We did 170 one-nighters last year while we were writing the thing. If you’re gonna do that, plus write a record at the same time, you gotta combine it all. But it was good; this record took us three years to get out, which was a learning experience in itself. The good thing about it was, normally, I write 13 songs and that’s the record. I don’t sit around and write and write and write. This time, I had 40 songs that went into the thing. It really shows in the songs that we really had a lot more cream of the crop to pick from this time. And I actually did three outside songs that I didn’t have any writing in. I was working with a producer, Blake Chancey; he’s done everybody from the Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry, you name it, he’s worked with ‘em. He’s a big hit-maker. He was really good at helping me be able to look at my songs objectively. Sometimes as a songwriter, you gotta look at that song and say, “You know what? That one sucks.” If I love it or not, is somebody else gonna like it? A lot of times they’re the songs that are personal to you, that you put on there ‘cause you like. (But) sometimes somebody else wrote a better song; you have to bend with that.
Is there anybody in particular who you would like to write with?
Oh, there’s a ton of ‘em. I’d love to do something someday with Merle Haggard. Whether it’s a duet or write a song or just play some shows with him. I did a duet with Willie Nelson on one record, and my buddy Mark Chesnutt came in on one record, and this one we had George Jones. I would love to (get) Merle someday; that would just be cool. Or do something from a rock artist that just brings it in from a totally different angle.
You mentioned a lot of rock sensibilities, but honestly, I heard a lot more of what I would say is country. Where do you think the rock comes in on this album?
Mmm, on track No. 2, “Feels Good, Don’t It.” It’s one of those big party anthems, (with) the searing guitar, and there’s another song called “What’s Your Point,” which is a real rocker that I wrote with a buddy of mine named Mark McKinney; he’s an up-and-comin’ Texas singer/songwriter. There’s several points on it that rock, to me. Then again, there’s “I Pulled a Hank Last Night,” there is “Honky-tonk Junkie,” the new sing-along, “Long Line of Losers” – those are just straight-up country songs. Another thing I like about this record is, you can’t really pigeonhole it. In the past, I’ve tried to make really more traditional-sounding country records. This time, I said, “Let’s just make a great record. Let’s don’t try to write to a certain style or a certain genre. Let’s just take off the blinders and get it on. Start slingin’.”
Speaking of the rock thing, you spent a year in L.A. How would you compare the experience of living in a music-industry town with living in Texas?
Well, in L.A. and especially in Nashville, I can tell you firsthand: All the labels there are looking for something that works, and then they’re trying to get everybody else in town to sound and dress and act just like that. When I was in L.A., back in the hair-metal (era), whatever was hot that day, every band would try to be, whether it was Poison or whether it was Megadeth or whatever. Every band was tryin’ to cookie-cutter it. The cool thing about Austin – I came straight from L.A., which was the most pretentious poseur place on the planet –and I came to Austin and all the sudden, there’s all these bands that’re doin’ their original thing and none of ‘em sound the same and none of ‘em dress the same and they’re actually tryin’ to do something original and it’s like, “Wow, this is cool.” The cool thing about the whole Texas music scene is that originality is encouraged. And following the pack is frowned upon, or spat upon. That’s cool, If you look at even what I call the Texas music scene today, you’ve got a Texas music festival, and there’ll be guys like myself, and Cross-Canadian Ragweed, they’re more rock, and then you might have Bob Schneider on there doin’ I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-you-call-that …
It depends what day of the week it is.
You could have all these different people and they’re all on the same bill with the same core fan base. They don’t expect their artists to all sound like one thing. Actually, they want ‘em to sound different. And that’s the cool thing about Texas. You can do whatever you want. If it doesn’t suck, people will like it.
I wonder if that has something to do with the streak of individuality that seems to run through everybody in this state. Kind of, “We don’t need to do what everybody else is doing; we’re Texan.”
I think that’s it.
I’ve lived here almost four years and I’ve really noticed that. But it grows on you. I think that’s one of the reasons that so many Texas natives come back. Did you always know you were gonna come back?
Yeah. I didn’t want to stay out there. I went out there to go to school (the Guitar Institute of Technology) and I knew real quick that I didn’t fit in there. And as soon as I got out of school and saved enough money, I was back home. And I actually just came here on a fluke. I’d heard Austin was a great place. I came up to visit and just never left. But you’re right about the Texans. They’re definitely an independent lot. I think that’s why a lot of outside companies and outside firms have a hard time comin’ here and marketing to Texas people. ‘Cause they don’t understand, why would a state want its own Lonestar edition pickup truck? If you look at Bud Light, the ones in Texas all have a big Texas Lonestar emblem on there. Texans want their own beer, their own trucks, their own everything, and they don’t want anybody else to encroach on their Texanness.
“The Best Mistake I Ever Made” really sounds like a song the women are gonna love. You’re gonna win points with the ladies. (It’s about a guy who gets drunk in Vegas, marries a woman he just met, and … you can figure out the rest.) How did that come about?
Me and my buddy of mine, he’s from Austin, a guy named Bobby Pounds — we wrote “Don’t Touch My Willie” and “Triple Crown” on the last record together and we’ve been co-writing for a few years – and we were over my house in Austin we were writin’ and my youngest daughter at the time, she’s now my middle daughter, she kept comin’ up there and just kinda watchin’ what we were doin’ and kinda buggin’ us and we’re tryin’ to get some work done. And she left us and I said, “You know, that’s the best mistake I ever made.” I was talkin’ about kids. And we both had two daughters at the time. We were actually writing on somethin’ else that day. So we just looked at each other and said, “You know, that’s the song we should be writing.” That one just came right out. It’s one of those songs that wrote itself. Those are always the best ones, the ones that you don’t toil over. If I ever toil over a song, and just overthink it, it doesn’t just come out – it’s another one of those songs you gotta throw in the scrap pile.
So now is your daughter gonna spend her life thinking she was a mistake? Or are you never gonna tell her?
(Laughs.) The song is about more than kids. It’s just about, you know, normally, the best things that I’ve really done are the things I didn’t mean to do. And if I meant to do it, it was probably a bad idea to start out with.
So, what are you driving?
A Ford F250 4-wheel drive diesel. A gas-guzzlin’, pollutin’ machine.
Not on Willie Biodiesel, yet, huh?
No, I haven’t even tried it yet. A lot of people are putting it in their tour buses, but it’s hard to find. That’s all that’s holdin’ people back.
Where are you going to dinner?
We’re goin’ to eat some sushi. That don’t sound very redneck, does it? I like a fine piece of fish.
Anything else you wanna talk about?
New single’s out and it is doing really well. We’ve never had one do this well right out of the box. We’re No. 6 on the Texas Music Chart. This is our third week into it and it’s just kickin butt. And “Best Mistake I Ever Made” is gonna be the second single. The first single, “Long Line of Losers,” we’re just working it in the Southwest and Midwest. In the “redneck” states. And the next thing we’re gonna do will be a full-on, national push with a video.You know, the big radio tour and the whole nine yards.
When do you think you’re gonna kick off the video and the whole push?
Probably later this year or early next year. Late November, early December, we’ll get it rollin’ before the holidays and then really get after it in January.
How do you decide what the leadoff single is gonna be?
You know, since we were workin’ this mainly to our core fan base — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska — where we already have a familiarity and a relationship with radio that’s played us a lot in the past … we wanted to find a song that really fit that area, so we went for more of an outlaw song, and it’s payin’ off. Those kind of real country songs don’t work well on the West or East coast. But they work really good right down the middle.
Well, that’s your audience.
That’s where our people are.
Well, there’s country on all sides of the country … in order for you to get really big, you have to stretch nationally, right?
Yeah, but I was thinking about that the other day; all artists are really regional artists. It just depends on what your region is. We’re a regional artist, but so is Kenny Chesney. His region is the United States. Our region is the Midwest and the Southwest. I think everybody has a region and if it goes on bigger nationally, that’s all great. But if it stays right where it is, and we just keep doin’ this for the next 10, 15 years, I’ll be totally happy. I mean, we have more work than we can do. My band is makin’ a livin’ playin’. I’m making a living playin’. I’m writin’ songs that I enjoy to play. I’m getting to play live, which is the reason I got into this to start out with. We haven’t fallen under 150 shows a year since probably ’99, ’98, so I’m doin’ exactly what I want to do. If it blows up, that’s just more icing on the cake. The cake is already fulfilling.