If you look closely at the names of all the music-biz folks Billy Currington thanks in the liner notes for his self-titled debut album, you’ll conclude that he’s not exactly the new kid in town. And you’ll be right. The face may be fresh, but those eyes have seen a lot of action.
In his notes, Currington thanks the owner of a club he played at on his way up, the record label president who gave him his first shot and then passed on him, the publishers who hired him to sing demos, the veteran songwriter who became his roommate and fishing tutor, the star who cut his first song and the big names who offered to manage him after he finally landed a contract with Mercury Records. “I skipped so many names,” he admits ruefully, “but it was a crazy day when I wrote them out.”
He’s had a lot of “crazy days” lately. His first single, “Walk a Little Straighter,” which portrays a little boy chiding his drunken father, gave Currington instant prominence and helped land him a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. It also took him to Canada to shoot the accompanying music video. And, like all young artists, he’s had to do a whirlwind tour of radio stations to introduce himself to disc jockeys. Now, as “Walk a Little Straighter” climbs into the Top 10, he’s getting ready to beat the promotional drums for his follow-up single, “I Got a Feeling.”
Apart from the physical exhaustion, though, Currington says he enjoyed the radio tour: “I had a blast. I had a great time. I got to see so many places that I’d never seen and met a lot of nice people. It was tiring many days. You’re getting up at 4 in the morning, and you’re going until 4 in the morning. But, overall, it was a great thing for us to do.”
There’s no doubt that Billy Currington — the album — conveys a lot of its namesake’s history and outlook. After all, Currington co-wrote all but one of the 11 songs. His hard-drinking stepfather was the inspiration for “Walk a Little Straighter.” Many of the other songs — “That’s Just Me,” “Where the Girls Are,” “Growin’ Up Down There,” “Ain’t What It Used To Be” — pulsate with small-town imagery and blue-collar attitudes.
Currington grew up in Rincon, Ga., a small community not far from Savannah. His family was poor. Another person he salutes in his liner notes is his childhood friend, Matt Thompson, “for buying my lunch in school when I couldn’t.” “I never found lunch money on the table on my way to school,” he explains. “That wasn’t because my mom didn’t want to. She just didn’t have it.” Despite his stepfather’s shortcomings, he did introduce young Billy to country music via the records of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers and the Statler Brothers, among others.
It was at a friend’s church that Currington got his first chance to sing in public — and to be appreciated for it. The pastor of the church was so impressed with the youngster’s performing ability that he drove him to Nashville to audition for a singing job at the now defunct Opryland amusement park. Currington, then a high school junior, didn’t make the cut, but he did keep the dream of being a performer.
In 1992, after he had finished high school, Currington moved to Nashville. He stayed there for eight months before retreating to home. He came back about six months later, and this time he stayed on. “I played in several different clubs around Nashville with a band,” he says. “I always put a band together. Then, when I started writing songs for a living, when I got my publishing deal, I started doing songwriter nights with just an acoustic guitar, which was something new to me. At the same time that I got my publishing deal, I also started doing demos.” (A demo is a basic recording of a new song that publishers use to pitch the song to recording artists.) Currington’s first publishing contract was with Major Bob Music, the company that gave Garth Brooks his songwriting start.
“I’ve done demos for several songs that have been cut but which have never been singles,” Currington continues. “I did two that George Strait recorded. Marty Raybon of Shenandoah cut one. There was one that I wrote myself that Tracy Byrd cut. It was my first cut, called ‘Crazy Every Time.’ [The song appears on Byrd’s Ten Rounds album.] Just here lately, Kenny Rogers recorded a song I demoed about five years ago, “Home Depot Hero.”
Singing demos did more for Currington than provide him an income. It also taught him lessons in songwriting and vocal styling. “You learn so many different people’s melodies,” he says, “and you actually get to practice singing melodies you never sang before. So it opens you up to new things, new ideas.”
One of the significant figures Currington encountered as he threaded his way through the Music Row labyrinth was Frank Dycus, the writer of such hits as “Unwound,” “Down and Out” and “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” “Frank ended up becoming a roommate of mine,” Currington says. “Me and him and another guy, Mike Taliaferro, who [helps manage] Tracy Byrd, became roommates in this big old house, bigger than anything we needed. We lived together for about two years. Frank is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, not only as a songwriter but as an all-around human being. My granddaddy taught me how to fish as a kid, but Frank Dycus taught me how to really fish — to go out and catch the big ones.”
For a while, it looked like Currington might end up on one of the RCA labels. “[RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante] gave me my first shot at a record contract,” the singer explains. “He gave me enough money to go cut three songs, and I did that. And he gave me money to do a showcase. Eventually, after all that was done, he passed on the situation. He decided not to give me a full record deal and let me go on my own. During that time — it took six months or so to go through that whole process — I met so many [important] people. He never treated me like he didn’t like it or anything. He just said it wasn’t for him.”
Fortunately, Currington had by this time made another label connection. It came about through songwriter and producer Carson Chamberlain. “Carson and I met because he had put a hold on a song of mine for Mark Wills, who he was producing at the time. I happened to run into him at a local restaurant, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I want to thank you for putting that song on hold, and I’m glad you liked it.’ We talked about writing together one day, and we did. We wrote some of the songs that ended up on this record. But those songs ended up on demos first, and those demos were taken to [Mercury Records chief] Luke Lewis, who liked what he heard.” Chamberlain got the job of producing Currington’s first album, and he co-wrote six of its songs.
So have his successes turned Currington into a hometown hero in Rincon, Ga.? “Things have changed for sure,” he concedes. “I don’t know whether I’d [call myself] a hometown hero, but I think the people are excited.”