When it came time to film his first music video, for "I Play Chicken With the Train," Cowboy Troy wasn't about to fake his way through the rapping.
"I didn't lip-synch it. I just did it over and over and over," he explains. "There have been times when I watched videos and thought, 'He ain't actually putting enough energy into that,' because you don't see any veins popping out of their head or neck or anything like that."
Cowboy Troy -- his real name is Troy Coleman -- does not want to be perceived as a pretender. Yes, he raps, but he also has a genuine fondness for country music. In the liner notes to his debut album, Loco Motive, he lists his heroes, starting with Charlie Daniels and Jerry Reed. When he was young, another kid in his Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood introduced him to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which he remembers as the coolest song he had ever heard. His parents listened to the radio while getting ready for work, and young Troy always kept an ear out for Reed's "When You're Hot, You're Hot."
"When I saw Smokey and the Bandit and heard the theme song to that, that was nuts," he says. "That was so cool. Everything that Jerry Reed ever touched, I wanted to listen to it."
Even now, he quickly cites Daniels and Reed (as well as Dwight Yoakam) as the country artists he'd most like to work with. "If they're out there listening, please tune in. Please call!" he says, enthusiastically.
Coleman, 34, is already comfortable with collaborations, as Loco Motive features MuzikMafia buddies Big & Rich, James Otto and Jon Nicholson. "If You Don't Wanna Love Me," a melodious duet with Sarah Buxton, sounds straight out of the Loretta-and-Conway songbook, if only Conway's recitations had been raps.
But Coleman dismisses the notion that too many duets will overshadow his solo career.
"My main concern as an artist and as a songwriter is to make sure I not only write good songs but also perform them well," he says. "I don't get so much bent out of shape if someone has an opinion because people are entitled to their opinion. I can respect the fact that they can voice their opinions as they choose.
"But for me to get so wound up about something that would be considered negative, I wouldn't sweat it too much. I don't have the time. I don't have the emotional energy because I'm so busy channeling that energy into other things and making sure the album is as good as everybody is expecting it to be."
So far, radio hasn't caught on to his hick-hop, as he refers to his music. "I Play Chicken With the Train" reached No. 48 in Billboard but disappeared a few weeks later. He says he hasn't talked with programmers about why they wouldn't stick with it.
"I just assumed it was going to be one of those things where they'll play it enough to get the name out there, and people will start hearing it," Coleman says. "They'll think, 'That's interesting' and start calling the station and say, 'Play it more' or 'Don't play it so much' or whatever. I want to have fun with it and not sweat it so much."
Coleman graduated from the same Dallas high school as Deryl Dodd and Steve Holy. He loved country, rock, Tejano and urban music but mostly rapped just for kicks. At a Dallas country bar in 1993, he met John Rich, whose band Texassee was evolving into Lonestar. They became friendly, keeping in touch sporadically through the years.
Meanwhile, Coleman earned a psychology degree, working as a human resources consultant and, later, the manager of a Foot Locker shoe store. At the invitation of Rich, who founded the MuzikMafia, Coleman occasionally traveled from his home in Dallas to Nashville but only if he could scratch together gas money or frequent flier miles.
"MuzikMafia started out as a ragtag group of people that were either in the music industry on the way out -- or on the fringe of the music industry, trying to get in and looking for a place to display their wares," he explains. "It came about where everybody said, 'OK, we're not getting in. Let's make our own parties and have our own music.' It started out with people making music for each other."
The idea worked, to say the least. From the tiny Pub of Love, the Mafia emerged as the coolest thing to come out of Nashville in 2004. A tour of small arenas was followed by a CMT reality series. In just a year, Big & Rich's Horse of a Different Color has sold 2.1 million copies. That's Coleman rapping on the latter's first track, "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)." He and his wife Laura relocated to Tennessee in October.
Now signed to Warner Bros., home to Big & Rich, Coleman raps about selling platinum, as well as being a "blackneck" and checking out the ladies. At times, he raps in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German, with an ultimate dream of a world tour. Until then, he says, "I want to play anywhere they want to hear the music. If they want to hear me at a dirt track somewhere with sprint cars, I'll be out there playing."
True to his word, Coleman shared a gig earlier this year at a track in Daytona Beach, Fla., with soulful singers Otto and Nicholson. (Coleman says he can only carry a tune when he's got a bucket.)
"At first, people were staring, mouths half open, like 'Goodness gracious, what are we watching?'" he says. "At the end of it, people were coming up asking for autographs. That was a neat feeling. They stayed that whole time, and afterwards they wanted to shake hands and hang out with us. So, wherever they want to hear the music, I'll play it."