By Courtney Sudbrink
(March/April 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 2)
When a film or TV star decides to throw their hat into the music ring, the results more often than not lean toward the cringe worthy. The cynical perception — usually warranted — by all but the star’s most devoted built-in fanbase is that such endeavors have less to do with sincere artistic expression and more to do with trying to cash in on or further one’s fame. But if that’s the rule, count John Corbett among the welcome exceptions.
Yes, Corbett is best known as an actor; on the big screen, he played the groom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, while his TV credits have included beloved recurring characters in the hit series Northern Exposure and Sex and the City. But music was a part of his life long before he even considered acting. And as proven by the sincerity and natural confidence heard throughout his new album, Leaving Nothin’ Behind, Corbett’s music still comes from a place of passion and heart, not ego.
Leaving Nothin’ Behind isn’t the 51-year-old Corbett’s first trip into the Americana/country music arena this side of his acting success, either. He released his first, John Corbett, back in 2006, and saw the album climb to No. 45 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine lauded it as a “winning debut” with “more than its fair share of hooky, memorable tunes.” True to its title, all of those qualities can still be heard on Leaving Nothin’ Behind, which was produced by Gary Paczosa (Sarah Jarosz, Kelly Willis) and accomplished songwriter/guitarist Jon Randall Stewart (Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark). The album also demonstrates Corbett’s natural penchant for interpreting the words of others, with his familiar, earthy voice ringing as authentically in songs like the opening “Steal Your Heart” as fellow thespian Jeff Bridges’ did in both Crazy Heart and on his own recent solo album.
In HBO’s Sex and the City (and the 2010 movie Sex in the City 2), Corbett played everyone’s favorite boyfriend, Aiden Shaw — the tall, ruggedly handsome and seemingly normal counterpart to Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sara Jessica Parker) other great love, the emotionally resigned playboy Mr. Big (Chris North). Shaw may have only been a fictional character, but Corbett exudes the same laidback energy and downhome humility in real life as he did on screen. A native of West Virginia, Corbett clarifies that although his youth wasn’t spent in the rural Appalachian landscape that first comes to mind when one thinks of the Mountain State, his environment did in fact spawn an avid appreciation for classic country. He grew up in Wheeling, only five blocks away from the legendary Capitol Theatre, home to the long-running Jamboree USA radio broadcast, which fostered his love of country music at an early age.
“They’d have all kinds of great acts — Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Waylon, Merle Haggard,” Corbett enthuses. “They’d come through on Friday and Saturday night and play this place and my mom and I would go down and watch them all get off the bus and take photographs. Porter Wagner would have his sequin outfit on and his cool Silver Eagle bus.”
Inspired by the legends that passed through his town, Corbett began playing music at the age of 7, after his mom bought him a cheap department-store guitar. It was not an easy instrument to learn on, with high action that made it seem like the strings were “six inches off the fret,” but Corbett kept at it. “I got pretty good at it, then pretty soon she bought me a slightly better guitar, and I’d keep practicing and my fingers would hurt and bleed,” he says. “Then she bought me a really nice guitar when I was 14 — an Ovation, because Glen Campbell played it.”
While music was a passion for Corbett from an early age, acting was something he fell into later in life. After graduating from high school, he left Wheeling for Los Angeles and took a job working with his welder father, who he didn’t really know growing up. “He got me a job in the steel factory,” he says. “I worked there for six years or so as a boilermaker until I hurt my back. Then I went to junior college because I couldn’t do that manual labor anymore; I was walking with a cane and I thought I’d get an education, but that only lasted two weeks because I was a bad student in high school, and here we are six years later, I’m just lost.”
But it was during his short stint at Cerritos College that Corbett found his first career path. After meeting some actors in the school cafeteria, he decided to take an improv class and quickly fell in love with the craft. Shortly thereafter, he was playing the lead role in a production of Hair. His first big break came via his five-season, early-90s run as Alaskan disc jockey Chris Stevens on Northern Exposure, a role that netted him an Emmy nomination.
Even as Corbett’s acting career took off, though, he never lost his love of playing music. He came to recognize both as equally satisfying creative outlets. “When I did improv, I discovered I could create something from nothing and make people laugh,” he explains. “Having people react to it, it’s the same for music. If you go out there with your boys and play a three-minute song to people, they’ll dance to it or get quiet and listen to it. You get a reaction from them and it feels good.”
Corbett has always felt a kinship towards musicians, and musicians have always gravitated towards Corbett. “I like hanging out with musicians more than actors,” he says, “because it’s tough to have an actor come over to the house and say, ‘Hey you wanna do a scene from Macbeth?’ But if a guy brings a guitar you can say, ‘Hey let’s play something.’” He counts among his musician friends Austin honky-tonker Dale Watson, who he met at Los Angeles’ legendary Palomino, and the aforementioned Jon Randall Stewart — who in addition to co-producing Leaving Nothin’ Behind also wrote or co-wrote eight of the album’s 10 tracks.
“I don’t really write,” Corbett admits. “Well, I do write, but none of my songs are on that record because I don’t write as good as Jon. But I picked all of the songs on it because I could relate to them. I listened to literally hundreds of songs before I whittled it down to those 10. I just picked songs I felt like I wrote, I felt like I could tell those stories. And no one has really heard these songs before, so when people hear them, they say ‘I like that guy from Big Fat Greek Wedding, I really like this song he sang.’”
He laughs as he says this, naturally, readily acknowledging his gratitude to Randall for providing both solid material and his valuable time and expertise in the studio. “I cut two of [Jon’s] songs for my first record six years ago — a song called ‘Cash’ and song called ‘Bottle of Whiskey’ — and we became buddies,” says Corbett. “He’s one of my favorites as far as singer-songwriters go, and he’s an amazing guitar player, too. I just called him up a year ago and said I wanted to make a new record, and I asked him if he’d be interested in producing it. He and Jessi [Randall’s wife and Corbett’s sometime band member] were having twins, but he made time in his schedule. I’ll never forget that he took time to do that. He had twins and we were in the studio a week later.”
Together, they made an album that runs the gamut of traditional Americana sounds, full of soothing, soulful tunes that evoke Corbett’s Southern roots (“Tennessee Will”), easygoing but sometimes funky demeanor (“Satin Sheets”), and a little bit of honky-honk (“Backside of a Backslide”). There’s even a moody, Texas gunfighter border-ballad — “El Paso,” a Randall original that alludes to the Marty Robbins classic of the same name. It’s a solid effort that Corbett can be proud of, both on its own and as a collection of new songs to take out on the road. And as for any skeptics chomping at the bit to lay into another actor testing his music chops, well, he can take it.
“I don’t respond to the criticism,” Corbett offers matter of factly. “I couldn’t care less if someone doesn’t like what I’m doing. I only care about the people who come to my shows and buy tickets. I just want to give them a great show. They went through a lot of trouble to come see me. They got a babysitter, drove 20 miles, spent money on dinner earlier, bought tickets at the door, paid to park their car, bought drinks at the place. And as they’re driving home, that man and wife, who are each 39 years old, who could have stayed home and watched HBO, I want them to say, ‘I’m glad we did that.’ That’s all I want. And I don’t care about anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of that. They can do something else.”