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Entertainment News

Sunday, 4 September, 2011 11:20 AM

Colt Ford: Talkin' Country (CMA)

Photo credit: Lisa Carpenter

Country artist Colt Ford

 

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2011 CMA Close Up News Service

|

Colt Ford and Shannon “Fat Shan” Houchins pulled into Nashville in 2007 with plenty of miles already behind them. They’d been working together for years, two Georgia country boys who had grown professionally and personally tight. There were differences between them: Ford was an imposing 300-pounder, a garrulous conversationalist who favored shades and black cowboy hats. Houchins spoke less often but more quickly, gave an impression of thinking a few steps ahead of the conversation and had a fondness for baseball caps with a Superman logo.

What they had in common was more important: an ambitious musical vision and a complete absence of connections as they took their first look around Music City. This seems odd in retrospect, since Houchins was already a hit-making record producer, although mostly in the hip-hop realm. On staff at Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Recordings and later as co-founder of 11th Hour Entertainment, he branded his name onto a number of albums by Bubba Sparxxx, Jagged Edge, Kut Klose, T.L.C., Usher and other urban heavyweights.

Their sales helped finance his company’s merger with Mindzai Multimedia, a multimedia audio and video recording facility. His work made him familiar in the upper echelons of the music industry in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.

But none of these executives quite knew what to do with the music he and Ford had been cutting since they met during Houchins’ So So Def run. The Country flavor of Ford’s vivid spoken-word compositions finally prompted an executive in Burbank to suggest they try their luck in Nashville.

“Now, you’re talking about a guy who’s sold 40 million records as a producer,” Ford said, nodding toward Houchins. “But we loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly, so to speak. And when we get to Nashville, everyone is looking at us like we’re just a couple of bums on the street.”

Much has changed since then. The label that Ford and Houchins co-founded in 2006, Average Joes Entertainment, is now headquartered in Nashville, with a number of artists — including Montgomery Gentry — signed to the roster. Ford has released three albums on the imprint, featuring guest appearances by Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Charlie Daniels, Jamey Johnson, Tim McGraw, James Otto and many others. He’s written with some of the top talent on Music Row; one collaboration, with Brantley Gilbert, yielded “Dirt Road Anthem,” a hit for both Ford and Jason Aldean. More than a million fans have downloaded Ford’s music and more than 600,000 have paid to see him onstage all to savor his “recitations,” which evoke a way of life he upholds with deep, sometimes sentimental pride.

It’s a place he takes us to instantly on Every Chance I Get, the top Country debut during its release week in May, with more than 19,000 copies sold. Produced by Houchins and Ford’s bandleader Jayson Chance, the first track, “Country Thang,” written by Ford, Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip, opens with a lowdown guitar riff and a bad-attitude beat, over which Ford intones, “Shotgun shack on the edge of town / is where I’ll be when the sun goes down. / Big money bird dog barking out back. / Wouldn’t trade him in for a Cadillac.” There’s more: On the breakdown, with Rob Hajacos’ fiddle whipping up a hot summer wind, he declares, “Take pride in working hard for a living. / Pray before meals; it feels good giving / back to the needy; greedy is not us. / Thank God for it, even if it ain’t much.”

There is a long tradition of spoken word performance in Country, and others have experimented specifically with borrowing from rap techniques, as in Cowboy Troy’s “hick-hop.” But this fusion hadn’t found real traction, a fact that still puzzles Ford. “The cool thing about some of the similarities between hip hop and Country Music is the storytelling, which is very similar,” he said. “You’re just talking about different stories. The story in the inner city is different from the story out in the woods. But the struggles and things are just as bad when a factory closes in Detroit as when a factory closes in South Georgia. Things are different but they’re the same.”

Even so, it was a hard idea to sell once Ford and Houchins hit Nashville. “We played our record for a lot of people,” Ford recalled. “A lot of them were like, ‘This is awesome! There ain’t no way in Hell I’m going to do anything with it!’ We were used to L.A. and New York, where the urban world is like, ‘Hey, we going to do this? Cool, let’s do it!’ Next week, it’s done. Then we got here and it’s like, ‘Let’s have a meeting. Three months from now we’ll meet again and talk about the next meeting, which will be six months later. We ought to be able to figure this out in two or three years.’ Finally, we just realized that if it was ever going to get done, we would have to do it on our own because nobody was going to do it.”

They did hook up with some significant people, mostly artists who sensed something different in Ford’s work. Another early contact was publicist Ebie McFarland, who had just launched her own company, Essential Broadcast Media. Acting on an enthusiastic recommendation from John Michael Montgomery, she listened to and fell in love with the music. Significantly, she heard it not as a cross-genre oddity but as something important in its own right, though that also meant it would be a challenge to market.

“Initially, we used quotes from artists to get people’s ears to open up a bit,” she said. “It was extremely frustrating to not have those go-to people that would at least give it a chance. But slowly the bigger mainstream tastemakers became believers. Jon Caramanica really championed Chicken and Biscuits at The New York Times. Chuck Eddy came onboard at www.Rhapsody.com and The Village Voice. Our history was to break an artist primarily from standard Music Row publications or critics and grow outward. This one we built in Athens, New York, Atlanta: We found these pockets of media that would take it, really give it a listen and run with it.”

Songwriters also took note, seeing him as a new type of interpreter of their work. In the midst of writing “Doing It with My Eyes Closed” with David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble, labelmate Ira Dean began to sense that this song was well suited to Ford. “Colt came to mind about halfway through our writing because of those verses,” he said. “Rap is a bad word in Country, but his lyrics are more Country than 90 percent of what you hear on the radio. I could just see him out there, ‘busting his knuckles in the hot sun.’ It was honest for him. He wouldn’t be lying. He’s as Country as cornbread, and those verses just sound like him.”

This down-tempo tune is unusual for Ford, who prefers matching his words to a more driving groove. He was up for the challenge, though, and even more so on “She Wants to Ride in Trucks.” The intro is pure Country ballad, but in place of the anticipated melody Ford relates a wistful story about his daughter Annesly, complemented on the choruses by Craig Morgan’s evocative singing.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done,” Ford said. “It’s very emotional. The music is very open and breathing, with beautiful piano and brushes on the drums. And I’m being very vulnerable because I’m talking specifically about my child here. The things I’m saying are very real to me. It took me forever to get it recorded because I had a very hard time with it.

“It also took me a long time to finish writing it, to get it exactly where I wanted,” he continued. “I wrote the chorus with Noah Gordon and Thom Shepherd. Then I said,‘This will be unusual for you guys because I know you’re used to finishing songs together. But I’ve got to write these verses myself because you don’t know what I’m feeling about my daughter.’ Now it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”

It also illustrates Ford’s concept for balancing spoken and sung material. On that track, he chose Morgan to handle the choruses specifically because of the emotional intensity he can convey.

“People that know me would tell you that this isn’t normally my type of music, but I love Colt to death,” Morgan said. “I like what he’s doing because he’s real honest about it and the material speaks to country people. You don’t hear a rap record talking about pickup trucks and barbecues and girls growing up. I was very honored that he asked me to sing on something that was that important to him.”

“I’m talking about my daughter and Craig has boys that age, so he’s on the other side of the fence,” Ford added. “At the same time, I’ve got a son that’s 11, and when he wants to go off, it’ll feel the same as it does with my daughter.”

As he speaks about his kids, Ford tears up for a second. Clearly, his music isn’t just a cerebral exercise; it comes from his immersion in the country lifestyle’s values, sights, sounds and rituals, from raising a family to raising a little Hell now and then.

“Hey, I can’t give you anything other than what I am,” he concluded. “At the end of the day, I just try to talk about stuff I know. I am Country. I lead a Country life. It’s who I am.”

On the Web: www.ColtFord.com

 

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