Writing a biography can be similar to writing a song, I suppose. If I make a commitment to preserving my stream of consciousness and resist the temptation to stop and judge myself it might even be as therapeutic. The problem is the scope. Thirty-three years is a long time to squeeze into a few paragraphs and I'm not sure my inner voice is capable of being so concise. Where do I begin? Where do I end? What do I include? What do I leave out? Yep. This is a lot like songwriting.
I'll start with the present—the so-called gift of now—though I'm home alone and it hardly feels like a gift. Shannon and the boys (ages 4 and 5) left yesterday to visit family in Ohio. I would've gone with them, but I'll be leaving first thing in the morning for a string of dates in the Southeast. The empty house is unnaturally quiet and it's driving me nuts. Surprisingly, I find myself longing for the noise and commotion that I'm normally trying to suppress. It goes to show that sometimes I don't know what the hell I want.
I'm glad to be home though and if nothing else, the peace and quiet provides an opportunity to clear my head and focus on the task at hand. Fortunately, my best writing happens here at home, where I'm most at ease.
Our house is just beyond the city limits of Jefferson, a small town nestled in the hills of northeast Georgia, an hour from Atlanta and only 25 minutes from Athens. It's the town where I was born, where I spent most of my youth, and the only place I've ever been truly happy. Although there was a time when I wanted to get as far away as possible, I now realize it's the only home I'll ever know.
During most of high school, Jefferson seemed like a prison and I dreamed of escaping. I knew almost everyone but I felt like a stranger, never quite fitting in. I wasn't a jock or an academic, a redneck or a thug, but a nameless face, lost somewhere in the middle, struggling for an identity. It wasn't until my senior year that I began to find one. Equipped with my acoustic guitar and a genetic predisposition for boozing it up, I became the human jukebox, singing and partying with almost everyone in town.
Of course, I still wanted to get the hell out of here; or at least I thought I did. I found out otherwise when I was in college. I spent a summer in Paris enrolled in a study abroad program (hooray for scholarship money and student loans!). It was the chance I'd been waiting for—finally on my own, an ocean away from everything and everyone I'd ever known. Living in a sprawling city, immersed in a new culture, I was free at last from the chains of my simple, small town past. Yet, much to my dismay, I was miserable.
Within a few weeks I was painfully homesick and, if not for my CD collection, I probably would have dropped my classes and caught an early flight back to Atlanta. However, music was as meaningful then as it is now. The sounds of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd made my lonely dorm room in the 15th Arrondissement feel like my bedroom at Grandma's house.
By the time I graduated from UGA, settling down in Jefferson was almost automatic. I married my college sweetheart, landed a job teaching high school, and bought a house less than a mile from my childhood home. Graduation, marriage, job, mortgage, kids—it all happened so quickly I don't think we had time to consider anything else. And in retrospect, I wouldn't have it any other way. My attachment to home has shaped my family, my songwriting and my music career. It is the foundation of the life I now love.
As I look around my cluttered home office, I see newspaper clippings, old concert posters, photos and a collection of road-weary guitars. I'm briefly lost in a room full of memories and then suddenly I realize why putting my journey all into words is so difficult. How can I truly describe it? How can I hint at it without doing some injustice?
Suffice it to say that music has played an increasingly important role in my life. At first it was something I did for recognition, but then it grew into a kind of therapy, a way of coping with the struggle. I realized later that it was the key to unlocking my dreams and the chance to give my family a better life. Now, with the security of my teaching career five years behind me, it's how I survive.
By the time I quit my day job, I had already recorded three albums and was playing eight to ten acoustic gigs each month. I had already headlined the well-respected Georgia Theatre in Athens, selling it out my first time there in December of 2005. (Fun fact: The Zac Brown Band opened the show.) The crowds were swelling and my sock drawer was filling up with extra cash. Although saying goodbye to my students was difficult, the decision to leave the classroom was not. I resigned from my teaching position and began making my living as a barroom troubadour.
To say my music career has exceeded my expectations is an understatement. In the past five years I've played 700 shows from Georgia to Texas to Colorado to Vermont; sold over 700,000 tickets; and grossed $9 million in revenue. I've come to appreciate the exhilaration of sold out amphitheaters close to home as well as the warmth of crowded bars far away. My six independently released albums have sold over 250,000 copies and 1.2 million singles—well short of platinum, but more than enough to turn the heads of some major players in the music industry.
I doubt anyone could’ve predicted my career path. By largely bypassing Nashville, it looks remarkably different than most other country artists' careers. However, unearthing my roots in Jefferson in hopes of finding fertile ground in Music City was never of interest. Likewise, a major record deal was unfeasible. Therefore, out of practicality, I came to rely on social networking, file-sharing, and word-of-mouth marketing combined with heavy touring and a constantly evolving live show. I continued writing, producing and releasing albums—learning as I went, refining my style and identity. Yes, necessity is the mother of invention.
But my needs are different now. New dreams have emerged, replacing the ones which have already come true. Exciting new frontiers are waiting to be explored and calling me away from the comforts of home. Though I refuse to uproot, I am changing, reaching higher and growing.
My newest album, The Broken Record, epitomizes where I am, both personally and professionally. It is my salute to continuity amidst the trumpets of change, reconciling the freedom and recklessness of my youth with the security and responsibility of the present. It contains old songs brought to life with more color and drama as well as new songs stripped down to their essentials. For newcomers, The Broken Record will be a definitive and comprehensive introduction while long time fans will discover it is my most revealing self-portrait, underscoring the familiar alongside the unexpected.
As I look ahead to the album release and another exciting year of touring, I'm reminded how far I've come and how far I've yet to go. I stare out the window across the pasture behind my home, thinking of my family and friends; our community; and the thousands of people across the country who've been in my corner over the years, cheering for me, believing in me, and inspiring me. I realize that music is more important than ever and I that I am no longer content to use it as a means to only survive. I desire to thrive.
photo courtesy of Daniel Ray