A Hard Way to Make an Easy Living

Johnny Staats Attempts to Build a Career with 'Wires and Wood'

Monday night (April 17) in Nashville, Johnny Staats, a mandolin and guitar virtuoso from West Virginia, played for the toughest of crowds — the music industry.

His performance at The Station Inn, Nashville’s premier bluegrass club, capped a draining four-day run of activity that included several appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, a whirl of music business meet-and-greets and plenty of handshaking and backslapping.

A little jumpy at the prospect of trying to impress music industry professionals, Staats needn’t have worried. Smiling and joking throughout his set, he showcased songs from Wires and Wood, his new CD for Giant Records. The show was Johnny Staats at his best, presenting his own music in his own way and having a ball. By the time he finished, Staats and his talented musicians had won over the usually jaded crowd.

In February The New York Times ran a major feature on Staats, catapulting the mandolin-slinging UPS driver from tiny Sandyville, W.Va., squarely into the public eye. National attention followed quickly, prompting Giant Records to move up the scheduled release date for Wires and Wood from April to March 14, in hopes of capitalizing on the publicity.

Entertainment Weekly called Staats “devilishly fast and musically inventive.” Music Row magazine declared, “What an unbelievable find he is. What an unbelievable player he is … listen and believe.” USA Today added, “Staats’ breakneck playing is nothing short of astonishing.”

Television coverage included features on the Today show, CNN and CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. Local press in West Virginia was widespread, from newspaper features to radio appearances. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno expressed interest, and a French film company inquired about using one of Staats’ instrumentals in a movie score.

For Staats, a good-natured family man with a wife, two daughters and a day job, the attention has made life more than a little hectic.

“I appreciate everybody’s encouragement, but in some ways I’m not sure if I was prepared for this,” he admits on a recent cold and rainy Saturday at The Downtowner, a small café in Ripley, W.Va., just miles from his home. “It’s easy to get caught up in this web where everybody’s pulling, they want a piece of you and there’s not enough of me to do it all. I’m trying to make UPS happy, the record company, my family … even looking at myself on TV, I think I’m looking very tired.”

Even in this restaurant, consuming a roast beef lunch special and sipping coffee, Staats, 30, draws admirers to his table. A middle-school-aged friend sits down to chat for a few minutes. Well-wishers wave hello. Though he’s been a regular here for years, two waitresses shyly ask for autographs. Outgoing and friendly, Staats obliges happily.

A similar scene plays out weeks later at The Station Inn. Staats is escorted around the room, cheerfully meeting some of the music industry’s heavyweights and decision-makers. All jockey for his attention since the media exposure has made him a celebrity even before his album sales have taken off. For any aspiring artist, Staats appears to be living a dream come true.

Dreams can turn scary, however. Finding a balance between his comfortable existence as a family man and his new role as a developing artist is proving to be a challenge. Staats sees it as trying to mix his musical and creative goals with what he terms “the real world” — his obligations to job and family.

“I’m out there hitting it hard every day,” he says. “I love music, but I’ve seen artists go out there and fall flat on their faces, lose their families, end up in divorce. It’s not worth it. If you can’t make a good living at it and be happy, I might as well stay doing what I’m doing with UPS.”

What may appear to some as a quaint tale of life outside the glitter and lights of Nashville, country music’s Mecca, is to Staats just good, common sense.

“I realize that’s the story people are telling about me right now, me keeping my job and not moving to Nashville,” he says. “It’s a novelty. But I have to take care of my family, and I know that the music business is shaky.

“Here in West Virginia, if you play music, big deal. How are you going to take care of your family? With the job I’ve got now, I just can’t quit and play in the honky tonks. You can’t make a living at it. At UPS, I’ve got the chance to make good money, to have a future there. Good money, good insurance — everything the American worker always dreams for.

“People always say to me, ‘You need to pack up and go to Nashville.’ But again, if you play music in Nashville, big deal. So does everybody else. You don’t take that chance when you’ve got a family. The way I look at it is, a man who doesn’t even take care of his family isn’t much of a man. So that is what has kept me here.”

Remaining in West Virginia limits his contact with the music business in Nashville. He relies on his management, producers and record label to make decisions and act on his behalf in professional matters. While Staats is committed to his music (“the easy part,” he calls it) he is still learning to handle the business aspects of his career, especially the demands on his time.

“I told my wife when the media started coming, ‘I can’t find time to practice,’” he recalls. “I’m working 55 hours a week, coming home and being a dad, and on the weekends I’m doing music business stuff. When am I going to have time to practice? I miss it. I believe I could have written more songs if I had the time, that I would be better than I am. It’s hard. I mean, I get home from work and then I’m up until 1 o’clock in the morning returning phone calls and doing business. It’s a lot of red tape.”

Staats’ wife, Lori, has watched her husband get tangled in the red tape. “If it gets too bad, the phone ringers go off,” she says while preparing for daughter Jessica’s 10th birthday party later in the afternoon. The old, comfortable farmhouse where the Staats family lives used to belong to Johnny’s grandmother. Soon, it will be filled with Jessica’s friends. “It’s stressful doing what one person says, then another, trying to make everybody happy. We might go for a drive or do something to get away from it for a while, just for sanity. It’s a big change and adjustment, but we’re grateful for the opportunity. It’s a little difficult, but we’re getting through it.”

Staats understands that the people in his community want to see him succeed. He also feels that the burden of his career rests squarely on his own shoulders, though sometimes he needs some help.

“Sometimes people don’t see what goes on behind the curtains,” he says. “They see you get up on stage and play music, and how hard can that be? But it’s more than that. The only thing I think I regret a little is everybody making decisions for me. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I can’t do it all.”

Despite the frustration he feels, Staats still retains the thing most important to him — creative control of the music he makes — whether he’s writing a new melody or arranging someone else’s song. Back at The Downtowner, talking with Scotty Staats (no relation), his friend and occasional playing partner, Johnny lights up when the subject turns to music.

“I wanted to come up with my own arrangement on [Billy Edd Wheeler's] ‘Coal Tattoo’ without listening to previous versions of it,” he notes. “If you hear earlier versions, then you’ll end up taking ideas from those and lose a bit of your own originality.”

Scotty agrees. “Johnny’s got a real talent for that. He’ll put some licks and chops into a song and you’ll think, ‘Who would have thought to do that?’ He’s just a natural.”

Staats knew exactly what he wanted when his record label suggested he put together a band. He felt he needed the homegrown touch to present his music to a new audience, so he looked no further than West Virginia’s mountainous borders.

“I told them, ‘I’m so proud of this state, I want to have West Virginia pickers.’ They had the attitude of, ‘West Virginia pickers? Are they good enough?’ And I told them, ‘Believe me, these guys are good. They just haven’t been heard.’”

Staats has as much devotion to his fans as he does to his band, job and family. Performing on stage since age 9, he recognizes the importance of the audience to a musical career.

“Look, I realize that people work hard all day, and they come to watch your show,” he states emphatically. “You should do the best that you can because the audience has traveled to see you. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not, the show goes on, so that people know they got their money’s worth. I think part of what helped make Garth and people like Neal McCoy is the fact that they are great entertainers.”

After wowing another industry crowd in March at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Staats looks forward to sharing his music with an even larger audience. With influences as varied as Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Eric Clapton, Mozart and Beethoven, he seeks to bring a new element to music.

“I want to create a new style, something different than what we’re hearing on the radio now,” he says. “I like adding excitement to music, putting twists and turns into songs to make it a little different.”

On the six original numbers on Wires and Wood, Staats exhibits both instrumental virtuosity and songwriting talent. Writing in the style of his classical influences, in songs such as “Escape From Taiwan” and “Legend of the Ghost Coon” he explores variations on a theme, gathering them in separate movements rather than in the usual verse-chorus-hook-bridge style more commonly found in country and bluegrass. Critics and fans seem to love the way he blends the styles with an air of true originality.

At The Downtowner, Scotty and Johnny plan the details of an upcoming gig they will perform together. If only for a few minutes, Johnny seems to relax. “I hope he doesn’t get too busy for us to play together anymore,” Scotty says as the two men dissolve into laughter. “It’s hard to find a sidekick as good as he is.”