By Richard Skanse
This will surely come as quite a shocker to pretty much anyone who’s ever seen or heard Kevin Fowler. In fact, it might shake your faith in everything you might think he stands for, so … turn away now if you’re the faint of heart type. But here it is …
Kevin Fowler, the man who gave the world the Bubba anthem “Beer, Bait and Ammo,” Mr. “High on the Hog” himself, the man who devotes an entire page on his Web site to hunting pictures … does … not … know … any … redneck jokes. At least, not off the top of his head. When asked for one during a recent interview, en route to a show in Huntsville, he actually consults with his bus driver — but still comes up empty handed.
Disappointing, yes. Maybe he was having an off day. At any rate, Fowler’s due a little bit of slack on the matter, because with the release of his fourth album, Loose, Loud & Crazy, Fowler proves once again that he’s perhaps the foremost practitioner of straight-up, hardcore honky-tonk on today’s Texas country music scene … certainly among his own generation. Sure, Fowler and his band can rock it, and like to keep things, well, loose, loud and crazy by throwing in country-fried covers of classic rockers like Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and, more recently, Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.” But by and large, Fowler plays and writes unabashed dancehall country music, and he does it with such conviction and honest love for and understanding of the form, nobody seems to really hold that whole early ’90s fling with Austin rockers Dangerous Toys against him. Hell, the guy did grow up in Amarillo; it’s not like he’s faking it.
Loose, Loud & Crazy isn’t just “another” record for Fowler. This is what they call “the big one.” At least, his biggest one to date, being that it marks his leap from independent DIY artist to the big leagues. Newly signed to Equity Music Group, the new “artist friendly” label co-founded by Houston-raised Nashville superstar Clint Black, Fowler has his crosshairs trained on a market above and beyond the Texas scene that he’s done so well by since his debut solo album, Beer, Bait and Ammo. But he’s not about to leave Texas behind, let alone the standards that have brought him thus far to date and won him so many fans. “I think one of the worst things you can do is go in and try to change what you’re doing,” says Fowler. “Your fans like you for what you are, not what they think you could change into.”
And sure enough, one spin through Loose, Loud & Crazy — or even one listen to the lead single, “Ain’t Drinkin’ Anymore” — and it’s perfectly clear that Fowler hasn’t compromised a thing. He’s just kicking it up a notch. To 11, if you will.
Now, if someone could just buy the guy a Jeff Foxworthy CD or two …
So do you have the new album jitters yet?
Mainly just new record burnout. You do so much stuff getting ready for it, doing all the in-stores and stuff. This time’s not as bad because we’ve got a label doing all of that. In the past, we released all the records ourselves. So this time it’s not as stressful.
Being your first record with a big national push, Loose, Loud & Crazy has a lot more riding on it than anything you’ve done before. Does that make you apprehensive at all?
Maybe a little bit. I’m just trying not to worry about it too much. If it doesn’t break nationally, worse case scenario, we’re still going to keep going in Texas. But we’re already getting really good radio outside of the state right now, and that’s what we were shooting for. We’ve had some really good adds in major markets like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Kansas City, San Bernardino and Tampa. So we’re hoping that as time goes by that we can get this sucker chugging, not only here but outside of the state.
What about when you were making the record? Did you feel much pressure to kick it up a notch?
Yeah, we definitely put a whole lot more into this record, because there is a little bit more stress when you try to take it to the next level. You want to do the best job you can. Usually I’ll write and record in three to six months, but for his one I took a whole year and a half to write and record it. I got started really early on writing. And where normally I’d write 13 or 14 songs and record them all, this time I had 24 or 25 and narrowed it down to 12. We put a lot more effort into this one than we have the other ones, and I think it shows in the songs. The songs are a lot stronger than the last two records. And we also worked with a producer, Billy Joe Walker Jr., who’s worked with Travis Tritt and Matraca Berg. I’d never worked with a producer before and I wanted to try bringing in someone so we could actually learn something. We had been making what I thought were really great sounding regional records, but I wanted to step it up production wise. Just getting better tones, better mixing, better mastering, all the little things that make a record sound very high end.
Is it possible to try too hard in that kind of situation? Where you second guess yourself too much?
I tried not to. We really tried on this record not to change anything. We tried to keep doing what we’ve always been doing, and not try to think about it as, “Will that go over well with a national audience?” Instead, just think about it as, “Is that a good song? Is it a Kevin Fowler song?” And we still used all Central Texas players on it, and we recorded it out at Willie Nelson’s place in Pedernales. We just tried to keep it a real Kevin Fowler record, but with a little better production quality. I think the worse thing you can do is try to change your sound when you make that big leap. You have to dance with who brung you, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Did Pat Green offer any advice on making that big leap?
Not really. I don’t really talk to him much about it. But he was able to make the leap. And it took him a couple of records, so I’m not going to be expecting this record to make us a CMT hit. Three Days was kind of his first national release, but he didn’t blow up until he got Wave on Wave out, and heck, that record took a year. That single was on the charts forever, moving up one spot at a time. So, I’m just trying to keep telling myself to keep patient.
How long had you been looking to sign with a label?
Just since High on the Hog. It was in the last 18 months or so that we really started pursuing it. I decided that I can’t do it all. I like to think I can — being from Texas, we think we’re badass and we can do everything — but it got to the point where I can’t be the label guy, be the singer guy, the songwriter guy, everything. Plus, being an independent artist, one of the most frustrating things is when you go out and bust your ass to create a demand for your record so people will want to buy your record, and then they can’t buy it, because they can’t find them in stores. So hopefully a major label can help keep those suckers on the shelf where people can find them.
So how did your deal with Equity come about?
Through Mike Kraski, who is the president of Equity. He was at Sony, and Sony was looking at us. Then Sony had a big turnover, pretty much canned everybody at the label, so Mike started this deal with Clint Black, and we started talking. They started flying out here to see us. We had Sony and RCA and tons of people flying out here, too, but Equity were the first ones to say, “Hey man, you make your own record, and we’ll promote it.” Everybody else kept trying to tell us what they would change about us.
It’s seems to be a pretty unique label, the way they work with artists.
It’s a great business model. They’re just trying really hard to make it where the artist involved with the label doesn’t despise the label. Most artists, you ask them about their label, and they’ll give you some bullshit answer like, “I love my label!” And really they’re like, “Those cocksuckers …” [Laughs] Everybody hates their label, because labels are notorious for screwing artists over, recouping everything out of the artist’s money. The label makes money on the record from day one, and the artist never sees a penny until it goes platinum.
So how is Equity different?
They pay the artist from day one. You get a set amount a record, and you own your masters. Artists produce their own records with whoever they want to — the label’s not into picking songs or any of that. They’re into doing what a label should be doing, which is, if they believe in you, they should trust you to make a good record. There’s plenty of hat acts around Nashville — that’s all the labels are doing, signing people they can mold. And Equity’s trying to find people who already have their own style and who are doing their own thing. It’s a good little experiment in the music business. We’ll see how it does. Clint’s record was the first one they put out, and mine will be the second.
What kind of time have you spent with Clint Black?
He came in a month or so ago and we spent a whole day together writing songs and hanging out. We wrote a song that I think might be on his next record, he was talking about recording it. It was called “Boomerang.” If he doesn’t do it I might cut it, or we might shop it. It’s a pretty damn good little ol’ song. He’s a good songwriter. He’s written a lot of hits.
Does he have any redneck left in him?
Oh, I don’t know. His thing never really was redneck. But he’s still a Houston boy.
You mentioned the single getting spins in markets outside of Texas. How big of a goal is it to you to break out beyond the borders? I mean, you could make a comfy living here and never play outside the state line.
Oh yeah. Look at all the guys that do it — your Jerry Jeffs, your Robert Earls, Gary P. Nunn. There’s lots of guys who have made a living like this for decades, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But sooner or later you want to go see what else is out there and take a swing. But if this is what my career is supposed to be, just being in Texas, you won’t hear any complaints out of me.
So have you encountered any fans crying “Sell out!” yet since you signed to a label?
Ah, I don’t know. I don’t know they would. We still do what we do. I hear people say that about Pat, and I always shut ’em down, because his music still sounds like his music, he’s still sounds like the same old Pat! I don’t see how people can say he’s sold out. I don’t think you’re selling out. I think you’re buying in. The fans don’t bitch when they can go to Wal-Mart and buy the record and not have to drive around town for two days trying to find it or order it online. So anybody that would say “sell out,” they’re just idiots. Being on a label is just as advantageous to the fan as it is to the artist. The fan wants to be able to hear the stuff on the radio and be able to buy the stuff, and it sure helps having someone in your corner helping you swing.
Let’s talk about some of the new songs. Do you have a favorite?
It changes weekly. But there’s a waltz on there that I’m really digging, called “A Matter of When.” I wrote it with a buddy of mine, Tom Shepard, who wrote “Riding With Private Malone,” that song with David Ball that was so popular. He’s a great writer. I try to put a waltz on every record to try and make it at least sound like a country record. [Laughs]
How long did you have the line “Don’t touch my Willie” kicking around in your head before you wrote a song out of it?
You know, that’s from another buddy of mine. Bobby Pounds, who also co-wrote “Triple Crown,” had been writing that song, and he was just stuck on it and needing a verse. I wrote a verse, but I have to give him full credit for that song. He had that whole chorus down, and said, “Dude, you’re the only one with the balls to put out something that stupid!” I said, “You’re right!” So we finished it up in one afternoon, and started playing it live.
Has Willie heard it?
You know, I don’t think he has. I need to get him a copy of it.
How well do you know Willie? On a scale of 1-10?
A two. I’ve only met him maybe three or four times. And he was nice enough to come and sing on the last record. But I’m not like him and Pat, and all those guys. They’re close buds. They actually hang out and play golf and stuff. I’m not a golfer.
What’s the story behind “Political Incorrectness”? Did any particular incident inspire that?
Not really. The guy I wrote it with, Roger Brown, he actually had the idea for the song and we just wrote it one afternoon. It’s just a real tongue-in-cheek song about a real redneck, the guy with his truck on the lawn who pisses off all the neighbors.
Is that you?
At times. But I’m not that redneck. I’m just from Amarillo. I just act like everyone else from Amarillo — the triple-wide central on the planet. [Laughs]
Speaking of Amarillo … everybody knows you were in Dangerous Toys. But the people you went to high school with in Amarillo, would they be surprised to hear what you’re doing today, or would they have been more thrown by the heavy metal phase?
I think they were more surprised when I had the long hair. In high school I had short hair, you know the ’80s hairdo. So I think they were definitely more shocked by the rock & roll days than this. I went back for my 10-year reunion and I still had my long hair, and everybody was like, “Damn, dude, what happened to Fowler?”
What were you like in high school?
I was a band geek. Played in the school band, played a whole bunch of instruments really half assed.
You weren’t a jock?
Oh no! Hell no. I was a wussie. Still am.
Were you in FFA?
All my friends were, but that sounded like too much work to me, getting up at 4 a.m. to feed a damn goat! [Laughs]
Did you pretty much grow up on country music?
Yeah, but I’ve always been a channel surfer. But it started out, growing up, my dad wouldn’t allow any rock & roll in his house. So it was all Merle Haggard, Johnny Horton, all that stuff. Then as soon as I got old enough I had to find a music that would piss my parents off, and I started getting into Judas Priest, all the heavy metal of the day. You can’t listen to something your parents dig – that wouldn’t be cool.
So what swung you back to country?
Oh I’ve always been an across the board listener. I’ll still today, I’ll listen to anything from old hair metal to Billy Joe Shaver in the same sitting.
When you’re at home, do you ever plug in your electric guitar and just shred, like the old days?
Oh yeah. Occasionally. Bust out the pod, the heavy metal, rock ’n’ roll pre-amp, and just rock out. There’s still a lot of rocker in there.
You went to the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles when you were 20. What was that like?
It was a 12-month course, five days a week for 52 weeks. Kind of like a crash course in music. It was really cool. That’s where all the shredders went. That was back when I was really into shredding. You had to have long hair and a Marshall stack and shred to get girls back then. But it was kind of overwhelming. So many players from all over the planet went there — it was only 60 percent American. There were a lot of Japanese, and all the Japanese were just incredible players because their study habits were insane. But all those different people … it was a real cultural lesson for me, coming from Amarillo where it ain’t nothing but white people.
Did it make you a better guitarist?
Oh yeah, totally. But I don’t even consider myself a guitarist anymore. I’m just a songwriter dude. Use it or lose it, right?
There really is a strong traditional country element to your music. I mean, you do the Queen cover and stuff like that, but so much of it is straight-up honky-tonk, moreso even than just “Texas country.”
That’s something I’ve always strived for, because that’s just what I’ve always liked — some good ol’, booger-nosed country. Before this whole Texas music scene turned into what it is now, we were doing dancehalls and little honky-tonks. I tried to write everything to be danceable, because if they didn’t dance, they didn’t stick around, didn’t tip the band and didn’t buy beer. But when you play Club 21 or Gruene Hall or Floore’s Country store, and you can get an ocean of people dancing, that’s my mosh pit. That’s when you know they’re having fun. I like to see a crammed dance floor just swirling. Most artists don’t really dig that, but I like it.
How would you describe your audience these days?
We’ve always had a pretty wide fanbase, from 8 to 80s. From kids to grannies. That’s one thing that’s totally different about us from everybody else right now, is we’ve got this weird family thing going on, and we’re really not a family show at all. We actually have a whole line of merchandise just geared towards kids — kid shirts, kid bandanas. And when I say kids, I mean 6 to 12.
Speaking of merchandise, you’ve also got a lot of Kevin Fowler hunting team stuff. Exactly how often do you hunt?
Every chance I get. I hunt at least six to eight weeks a year. The last couple of years, I let hunting season slip buy because I was so busy, but I’m bound and determined to take some time off this year. I’m taking time out in September to go bow hunt elk in Colorado. I’ve been hunting since I was born pretty much. My dad was always a big bow hunter.
What’s the thrill? Is it the sport of it, or do you just really, really like wild game?
For me it’s not so much killing something, because with bow hunting you only kill like one animal a year. Mostly it’s just an excuse to get out away from everyone. Leave the old lady at home and the kids, and sneak out.
Not to get all PETA on your ass, because I’m hardly a vegetarian, but do you ever feel remorse after a kill?
No, not really. I don’t kill anything I’m not after to eat. I’m thinking about eating them for the next six months. Mmm mmm!
Are you a good cook?
Not unless it’s on a pit. I can barbecue and smoke pretty good, but that’s the end of my expertise right there.
Last question … I’m sure you know this, but I just discovered that actor Kevin Spacey’s real name is Kevin Fowler.
Yeah, isn’t that weird? When I first started Kevinfowler.com, I got all these weird emails from his fans. “You’re not the real Kevin Fowler! Why are you trying to use his name?” Like, what? What is going on here? And I went to Google and typed in Kevin Fowler and it came up with Kevin Spacey, and I went, “ooooh.” But even in Austin, there’s six Kevin Fowlers. One of them is a Sunday school teacher. I keep my phone unlisted, but he gets these late night calls, “Dude! Kevin Fowler! What’s up?” I’m sure he hates me.