Trent Willmon may just have the longest song title in country music history: “Dixie Rose Deluxe’s Honky Tonk, Feed Store, Gun Shop, Used Car, Beer, Bait, BBQ, Barber Shop, Laundromat.” Earlier this year, he also made a name for himself with “Beer Man.” Both are catchy tunes, to be sure, but this 31-year-old Texan digs deeper with topics like shared custody (“Home Sweet Holiday Inn”) and broken engagements (“Population 81″).
Here, Willmon talks about his small-town upbringing, the lack of hillbilly rednecks on Music Row and the one thing he’ll watch on TV.
CMT: What do you remember most about growing up in Afton, Texas?
Willmon: It’s pretty slow. A lot of things haven’t changed in Afton, Texas, in the last 50 to 80 years. You are really stepping back in time in a lot of ways. As far as the fashion trend, we are probably at least 20 years behind. I’m still wearing the same clothes I wore in junior high. It’s farmers and ranchers. It’s cow country. There are not a lot of people there. I didn’t have neighbor kids to go down and play with. Counting me, there were eight kids in my graduating class — a really small school. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s a great place to grow up.
What were your weekends like?
We grew up without a television. We did have a radio station. It was a country station. Every now and then, when the wind was just right, we could get a Lubbock station. But, for the most part we had our one little station. So, I always loved music. My mom was from Houston. She’s kind of an artistic type and fairly cultured, and she married my dad, who’s not. When she moved out to the ranch, she was bound and determined to give her two sons some culture. My brother got most of the culture, but I did learn how to read. Not having a TV, it was kind of the only thing to do. It was a great way to be raised. I got involved in 4-H and FFA, and then I finally started having some kind of social contact with other kids, and that’s also where I started singing. For country kids, that’s just about the only way to stay out of trouble: to get involved in 4-H and FFA.
As you get older, what kind of social activities do you have in Afton?
In the summertime, there’s a rodeo somewhere every weekend, not just in the summertime. The social thing down there … like I said earlier…a lot of things haven’t changed there in many, many generations, and we still have dances out there. If there is a rodeo, there’s a dance after it. If there’s an excuse, there’s a dance, for anything. So I grew up listening to live music. And there’s a lot of Western swing, a lot of fiddle music. I learned how to two-step when I was a youngster. Even the Baptists dance out there. I know it’s probably a slice of life. You tell people about it, and they look at you funny, like you’re lying, but it’s the truth. You step back in time when you go out there.
Did that simple way of life affect your songwriting?
Possibly, that may be true. I just can’t be still for more than five seconds. I’ve always got to have something to do. I get bored fairly easy. If I’m not staying busy, I’ll find something to do, like the boat thing. I just got cabin fever one winter and decided I would build a boat. Everyone told me I couldn’t do it and so, by golly, I did it. Having grown up a little hard, and I’m still on that lower-middle class level, that teaches you to identify with things that country music is about. If you can write a song about something you’ve lived, I think people do get that. They will grasp onto that and identify with it.
When did you move to Nashville?
I’ve been here about nine years. Somewhere around there. I’ve lost track, to be honest.
What do you remember most about your first few weeks in town?
When I first moved to town, I had considered myself a guitar player, and it was not very long after that, after coming downtown and seeing what guitar players really were that I sold pretty much every musical instrument that I had. When I got up here, it was totally different than what I thought it was.
I thought moving to Nashville that there would be a bunch of hillbilly rednecks like me driving around in pickup trucks, and I got to Music Row and it wasn’t like that. It was the music business. So over the years I’ve tried to learn the music business. I haven’t really adapted that well. … It’s just so much different than what I thought it would be. When you’re listening to the radio, as a kid growing up, you don’t think about the music business. You think about the guys you see on TV playing the guitar and singing. I had a lot to learn.
How often did you play out in the clubs?
I didn’t start playing music ’til about four years ago with my own band. When I first moved up here, I did play some until I realized I wasn’t a player. I got a job working on a horse farm, and I did that for a while and then started writing songs. And the thing about the songwriting deal is that it meant I didn’t have to have a 40-hours-a-week job. I could play two nights a week and write the other five. It was a good thing, and it always fueled my songwriting and changed my songwriting by playing out loud.
We started this band, just a bunch of my buddies, and there was a dancehall down in Lewisburg, Tenn., called Big Jim’s. It is a redneck joint. They don’t actually have chicken wire in front of the stage. It’s just a great slice of America, a great training ground for playing live music. We started that about four years ago, and then we started playing downtown about two years ago. We started doing both and then got to where I was just exclusively playing down on lower Broadway, at Tootsie’s, Legends and the Stage. That was the best thing I ever did as far as wanting to be an artist. That’s like going to college.
Why was that the best thing?
The funny thing about music is, in Nashville, sometimes we tend to think that we are the music, and we make the music, and we control everything. The truth of the matter is, what we do exists because of Friday and Saturday night when every blue-collar person in the world gets off. They have had a long week, and they go out, and they want to have a beer and listen to a live band. That’s why we do what we do. That’s the only reason.
I’d kind of forgotten that … but when I got into the honky-tonks, it was the real world again. Not only did I build up my vocal ability by singing for four hours straight, but I learned what people wanted to hear. I learned what real people could identify with. That’s why it changed my songwriting, and it changed my whole outlook. I had done that before, when I was younger, but I had just totally forgotten. I got so focused up here with trying to impress my peers by writing a crappy song that I didn’t realize what was going on in the rest of the world.
There’s a lot of sports footage in your video for “Beer Man.” Do you like sports?
Well, I am fairly athletic, but I’m not what you call coordinated. I’m not one of those people who was really good at sports. We had limited choice of sports in my high school of 28 people, anyway. In the video, there are all kinds of sports. We got some great shots of people playing football and baseball and those kinds of things. … I have to be honest and say that I didn’t know what lacrosse was until the video. I can’t sit still long enough to watch TV because I grew up without a TV for one reason. But I’m an outdoor kind of person. The only way you’ll get me to sit in front of a TV is for a football game. I love football.
Tell me about what inspired you to write the song, “Home Sweet Holiday Inn”?
I’ve been trying to write something like that for a long time, and I had never found the right way to say it that did it justice. My daughter is 6. Daddy moved away when she was about a year old. I think it was a tough deal, and I’ve had to learn how to deal with that over the years. I wanted to find some way to tell her in a song that I still love her, no matter what, even though I don’t get to see her every day. I think there are a lot of people that are in that same situation that will be able to identify with that.
You’re arriving at a time when there are so many new male artists. How are you going to set yourself apart?
For the most part, just picking great songs. We were blessed in that aspect. We had access to some great songs. We kept the record more like a live feel. We didn’t slick it up as much as a lot of Nashville records do. If you listen now to the record, you can sit back and imagine that you’re down in a dancehall somewhere and listening to a band. Hopefully that does set us apart, but I think more than anything, it would be the caliber of songs that we were blessed to get a hold of.