By Mike Ethan Messick
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
It’d probably be irresponsible to send too many overeager fans out to Kevin Fowler’s patch of ranchland out near Wimberly, so for our purposes, let’s just call it Fowler Country. It’s a healthy-looking spot, well fed by a recent spate of much-needed Hill Country rains, big enough to raise up a rifle and take a whitetail once in a while. And it’s a projection of its owner’s personality, a laid-back redneck paradise with room enough to get rowdy, but at the end of the day just a short drive from the heart of Texas music (not to mention the comfy Austin home he shares with his wife and daughters).
The wife and kids are welcome out here, too, of course — but for the most part, Fowler Country is unmistakably a masculine hideout, centered around a small cabin propped up by well-worn logs, shaded by venerated oaks, draped in deer skins, and stocked with outdoorsy weaponry and various Anheuser-Busch products. It’s a place where one of the most popular independent Texas country entertainers of the last decade-and-a-half can kick back, unwind, and pick guitars with his buddies. And on this particular Monday afternoon in late fall, it’s where Fowler plays host to a writer invited out to discuss the road leading up to his forthcoming new album, How Country Are Ya?, over beers and a couple slabs of charcoal-grilled elk.
Lulls in the conversation are rare, from the moment Fowler pulls up to the gate on a well-worn four-wheeler, dressed pretty much the same as he does onstage (plain red T-shirt, broke-in jeans, sturdy boots) except with a light layer of dust from a day’s mostly recreational work. His drawl is deep and unmistakable, whether he’s talking about the intricacies of marketing, the thrill of big-game hunting, the Boston Red Sox, or his enthusiasm at seeing younger friends like Josh Abbott and Cody Johnson’s careers take off. His eyes are wide and friendly, his face almost unrecognizable in the rare moments when he takes off his ever-present cowboy hat. In answer to his own question, Fowler is country to the core.
“Up in Amarillo when I was growing up, my dad was a big fan of George Jones and Johnny Horton … you heard country music all the time, whether you wanted to or not,” he recalls with a chuckle. “And there was the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, Hee Haw on TV … It was big back then.”
A raucous 90 minutes or so of a Fowler concert or a laid-back listen to a couple of his records should clue you in that he took the dirt-road humor of Hee Haw to heart at least as much as the earnest folksiness of the Opry. Books may not be judged by their covers, but albums beg for that sort of evaluation, and Kevin Fowler gives you plenty to go on. The front cover of his latest features the native Texan, plain white T-shirt on his lean frame and black Stetson perched above his smiling mug, bursting out of a frame crowded with wild game, longneck beers, massive 4×4 tires and other downhome signifiers. Flip it over, and there’s titles like “Guitars & Guns,” “Weekend,” “Beer Me” … Imagine dragging Jimmy Buffett a couple hundred miles inland and replacing his margaritas with bourbon shots and Bud Light chasers, and you’ve got the idea. If you want a more up-to-date comparison, think Jason Aldean with a better sense of humor and less tough-guy posturing. Or if you like to trace all of your country music back to Hank Williams, Fowler’s definitely more “Hey Good Lookin’” than “Lost Highway.”
In theory, that might seem like a liability — at least in a musical environment where the earnest poetic influence of folks like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and even Bruce Springsteen pervades. But in Fowler’s hands, it’s a confident, tried-and-true approach that’s taken him to the top of the Texas country heap — and kept him there for the better part of the last 17 years, even throughout a somewhat disheartening, decade-long run through a couple of Nashville record deals.
Fowler wears his popularity well and unpretentiously, his ongoing climb peppered by the sort of occasional disappointments that keep a man humble but mostly defined by the sort of success that makes a treasured home away from home a possibility. Fittingly, it was here at his ranch where most if not all of the songs on his new album — his first self-released project since 2002 — were born.
“Before everything really took off for me, I’d write all the time,” he says, reflecting back on his salad days as an up-and-comer. “Just driving around in my truck, thinking about it all the time, it was just like breathing. But now things are so busy and you’ve got to schedule that time for it … which is crazy, but you’ve got to do it.”
Fowler may have a lot more on his plate today than he did during his last time at the DIY wheel, but finding time to write on his own schedule still seems to suit him a fair deal better than the more regimented, Music Row-dictated alternative. Recalling the latter, his everyday twang switches to a stilted sing-song: “‘Dammit, tomorrow I’m gonna be creative — 2-3 p.m.!’”
“And you know, that doesn’t always work,” he says, back to regular Kevin voice. “So a lot of this new record I just wrote out here at the ranch, low-stress and low-key. Get some buddies out here to write with, and if we get stuck or stressed, then just go ride a four-wheeler. Go check out the creek. If you didn’t write the song that day, you just didn’t write it — versus making an appointment with some songwriter and flying out to Nashville to write a song in a cubicle in some office building. Out here, the vibe’s just right. If you get tired, you switch gears: ‘Put a steak on the pit — we’ll write again this evening.’
“That’s one big step back towards making fun records,” he continues. “Those last few, they weren’t that fun to make. ”
“Big steps” are as much a part of the Kevin Fowler modus operandi as “fun records,” and they haven’t always been in a straight line. He went from his native Amarillo to Austin via California, for starters, going to a music college in Los Angeles and heading back to Texas after studies wrapped up. Almost immediately, there was a youthful detour into taking over lead guitar duties with Texas metal band Dangerous Toys in the early ’90s — one of the more fun “hey did you know …” backstory trivia facts among Texas country stars. He spent a year or so playing to packed houses of rock ’n’ roll fans before the gig fell through.
After Dangerous Toys, Fowler gave the hard stuff one more shot with the Southern rock band Thunderfoot, but that youthful inclination to “play just about anything that would piss off my parents” was losing out to a growing urge to write and sing the sort of country music he was raised on.
“I’d go and see Willie Nelson every chance I got, which was a lot around here,” he says. “And I’d think, ‘This guy hasn’t had a song on the radio in 20 years, and he’s just killing it up there. Look at all these people!’ And you know, he’d play at Stubb’s, then stand over by that bus parked on Red River and sign everyone’s autographs. Including mine. He made it all about the fans, so humble. If you’ve got fans, you’ve got a career. If all you’ve got is a hit, well … hits go away.”
Country music wasn’t a bad gamble: more than a few stars had been plucked from the Texas dancehall circuit over the course of the ’90s. Fowler wasn’t too far removed from hard-country revivalists like Dale Watson or the Derailers, who weren’t hurting for fans or good press on at least a local level, and unlike some of his peers, he was more than receptive to sharing the stage with fresh-out-of-college troubadours like Pat Green and Cory Morrow. There were residencies at the Saxon Pub (his face still graces a painted mural on the building’s exterior wall, alongside such other local heroes as Jon Dee Graham and Charlie Sexton), scattered weekday gigs at any honky-tonk or icehouse that would have him, and long drives for uncertain prospects just in hopes of getting his name out there. Compared to the Dangerous Toys days, crowds had dropped from several thousand to, well, just several on a lot of nights. But he was enjoying the hell out of it, rediscovering music that just made sense in the context of his upbringing and his personality and that aforementioned inescapable twang in his voice.
If he kept anything from his rock days, it was the “go big or go home” approach that informed his humor, his stage persona, his approach to doing business, and just about every note he wrote or sang. As anyone that caught him peddling his early self-released (on his own Tin Roof Records imprint) CDs can attest, Fowler was a crowd-pleaser even when there wasn’t a crowd. Although his 1997 debut, One For the Road, didn’t quite register, his 2000 sophomore outing, Beer, Bait & Ammo, found him swinging for the fences (albeit still on a shoestring budget). The title track was the sort of distinctly detailed yet easy-to-sing country anthem that fit nicely alongside similarly boozy, crowd-friendly numbers like Roger Creager’s “The Everclear Song” and Cross Canadian Ragweed’s “Boys From Oklahoma” on the various radio programs (and, occasionally, entire stations) popping up around Texas devoted to regional talents. Subsequent singles “100% Texan” and “Speak of the Devil” caught on, too, and though his was never an overnight success story, it wasn’t too long before Fowler could draw a modest crowd just about anywhere.
“I never had that one year, you know, where things just go from zero to 60,” he says. “For me, the change has always been slow. But slow and steady, thankfully.”
Sometimes good fortune stepped in, like the Dallas deejay who happened upon Fowler’s music on an Austin radio station while in town for a softball tournament, then made it a point to swing by Waterloo Records to pick up the CD and started playing it on the Lone Star 93 morning show to unprecedented fan interest. Fowler was one of several boats on the rising tide of goodwill towards locally-grown acts, mostly unbound to the norms of a mainstream country scene that seemed to be overrun by wholesome blandness in the early 2000s. In time, larger and larger venues began to appreciate the fact that the bigger independent talents could outdraw some of the overpaid major label acts.
“One of the most amazing things has been watching the way this whole Texas music industry has just changed,” Fowler says of the movement that’s grown in tandem with his own career. “Back when Beer, Bait & Ammo came out, you couldn’t even rent a bus around here; we bought an old Greyhound bus and took the seats out, had old couches in there to sleep on. Beer, Bait & Ammo had a promotional budget of $250, which was pretty much just postage and us burning a bunch of CDs and sending them blindly to any radio station that the Texas Music Office guidebook said played country music. But now, all the components are there … We’ve even got radio promoters who specialize in it.”
Another key component, of course, was the rise of online social media. “In 1998 the only promotional tool we really had was going to Kinko’s,” Fowler recalls. “You made flyers, made postcards, and sent ’em out to all your friends and tried to grow a mailing list, because you didn’t have a Facebook.” Soon enough, though, just about everyone was on the Internet and therefore potentially in on the discussion of where good non-mainstream music could be found — and not just college kids but the sort of full-grown, various-shades-of-redneck folks prone to liking Fowler even better than his frat-guy contemporaries.
“Suddenly whatever little niche you were into, you could find people that played it and other folks that were into it,” he continues. “Thank God for the Internet, honestly, because otherwise I’d be working at Whataburger.”
The last release of the Tin Roof Records era, 2002’s High On The Hog, featured sharper songwriting and production and gave Fowler another regional radio anthem with “The Lord Loves the Drinkin’ Man.” It was unpretentious, cheery, and didn’t do anything to dissuade the 30,000 or so folks who’d bought Beer, Bait & Ammo from coming back for more and dragging friends along.
By the time Fowler built his Live At Billy Bob’s record around the signature songs from those Tin Roof Records years, his fans were getting so loud that folks up in Nashville couldn’t help but hear them. Holdover stars from the mid-90s country music boom like Sammy Kershaw and Mark Chesnutt began to hit him up for material, and Houston-bred hit maker Clint Black went so far as to invite Fowler to sign with his newly founded record label, Equity Music Group.
Fowler and Nashville weren’t necessarily a perfect match. It didn’t take the DIY Texan long to feel the business chipping away at the rough edges and downhome approach that had been so instrumental to his success from the get-go, and his first release for Equity, 2004’s Loose Loud & Crazy, didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Still, there were reasons aplenty to be patient — optimistic, even — and not just because he had a family to support. The country legends he admired and the more recent stars he’d befriended had all seen a few ups, downs, and compromises themselves, and for the most part things were looking up. For starters, working with experienced Nashville industry types certainly cut some paths to new opportunities.
“I got to have George Jones sing one of my songs, which was just … wow,” Fowler marvels. “Even got to record a duet with him before he died. Got to sing with Willie Nelson; sing with Mark Chesnutt; Montgomery Gentry cut one of my songs. Got to see places I never thought I would, too. Me and the band actually toured Alaska, went to France and England and Scotland and Italy, got to see the world. It’s just amazing to me that your songs can do that for you.”
And although the records he made in Nashville weren’t track-for-track what Fowler always had in mind, they weren’t without some pretty notable bright spots. His rich twang actually held its own against the denser, brighter sound of bigger-budget production. “Loose Loud & Crazy” laced the party-hearty sentiments with an appropriate undercurrent of regret; “Hard Man to Love” was one of the prettiest and most mature songs of his career; and “Me and the Boys” was a dream-come-true duet with the George Jones. And both “Cheaper to Keep Her” and “Long Line of Losers,” off the 2007 follow-up, Bring It On, were funnier and more down-to-earth than pretty much any of the comedic redneck songs that actually did crack the Top 40 that year (Brad Paisley’s “Ticks,” anyone?).
Perhaps most encouraging of all, though, was the fact that most of his fans back in Texas weren’t the sort of cred-obsessed reactionaries who’d backlashed against his home state buddies like Jack Ingram and Pat Green when they made their own mainstream inroads. So when Equity Music Group folded under financial pressure a year after releasing Bring It On, Fowler took it in stride.
“I’d rather have a 100,000 fans that are gonna stick around than a million fans that are gone when you don’t have that next hit,” he says. “Some of my friends went from being on the country chart to a year later, they were literally selling insurance, working for their dads.”
Fowler knew he still had plenty of loyal fans back home that would be happy to put him to work. But he wasn’t done with Nashville for good. A few years after Equity’s closing, he signed with the Average Joes Entertainment label, headed up by country rapper Colt Ford. For Fowler, it seemed like an opportunity for both artistic freedom and some in-your-face promotion. And as unconventional as the match might have seemed, to the label’s credit, they didn’t expect Fowler to rap on 2011’s Chipping Away. But then again it was hard to get a handle on exactly what was expected of him.
In the wake of trying to figure it all out, Fowler ended up with yet another record he wasn’t 100-percent thrilled with. Meanwhile, as far as all that expected in-your-face promotion went, when all was said in done, Chipping Away netted him nothing more than a couple of successful singles on the Texas Music Chart — something he probably easily could’ve done himself about seven years prior.
The suspicion that he could’ve had more fun doing it himself wasn’t lost on Fowler, either.
“I was thinking … maybe it’s time I just take the blinders off,” Fowler recalls. “Write and record a record the way we used to. Those biggest standards we still play every night, ‘Lord Loves A Drinkin’ Man,’ ‘Beer, Bait & Ammo’ — all that early stuff that really allows me to make a living was put out on my own label. I wrote those by myself in most cases. I knew we could do that again. The scary part, of course, is if something sucks … only person I can blame is me.”
He doesn’t mention the self-evident flipside of that: that he gets credit for the stuff that works, too. And there’s no shortage of stuff that works on How Country Are Ya? — most notably the earnestly detailed “Panhandle Poorboy,” which makes for a new peak in the Fowler songbook.
“You can’t deny that how you grew up, and really where you grew up, affects who you are,” he observes, then chuckles. “No matter what great things happen in my career or the rest of my life, I’m still the same old broke-dick from Amarillo, Texas. The kid who got to see those thunderstorms come in from a 100 miles away, see a tornado drop right out of the sky. Same kid who got pissed off because his first car got scratched up by a tumbleweed. We might have been 10 years behind Houston, but that’s OK.”
There’s no denying the unabashedly cornpone nature of the album’s title track, either, and truth be told, the song was met with grumbling and eye-rolling by some fans when it was released as a single and video in 2013. Which is fair enough if that sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea (or can of beer, as it were); but “yeps” and all, “How Country Are Ya?” does underline the fact that Fowler’s enthusiastically boomeranging back to his aforementioned Hee-Haw roots.
The new album comes loaded with plenty of guest spots, too, but to Fowler’s credit, this time around it’s relative newcomers like Cody Johnson, Amy Rankin, Los Texmaniacs, and Granger Smith (introducing the album in his comic “Earl Dibbles Jr.” persona) who stand to benefit from sharing the mic with one of the most popular stars in their genre. Fowler’s drummer Ken Tondre produced, probably not a bad feather to have in his cap going forward, and unjustly obscure Texas honky-tonk veteran Davin James shows up on “Chicken Wing,” a bouncy acoustic jam that may be the record’s most charming track. It showcases a brotherly interplay between two similarly talented guys who’ve had wildly different career paths but, from the sound of the song, ended up on the same back porch shooting the breeze (and, probably later in the day, several dozen rounds of ammo).
“I’ve been lucky, really, to stick around this long,” says Fowler. “Hopefully I can stick around another 15, 20 years, just keep doing it. You love doing it so much, you hope you don’t have to stop.”
Coming from a lot of artists who’ve achieved his level of success (or higher), such a statement might carry a ring of false modesty. But there’s a genuine, aw-shucks sincerity to the way Fowler says it that makes him sound very much
like a wide-eyed, guitar-slinging kid just getting started.
“It’s like a ride at the state fair that you hope just lasts forever,” he continues. “And I don’t even need to be the main guy. I’d be the Gary P. Nunn, the Jerry Jeff Walker, after they’re done being that. I’d be honored.”