When Rockie Lynne phones from his car in Nashville, he's still bubbling. The night before, he and his band rocked the crowd at Music City's Wildhorse Saloon, and a few hours hence, he'll be making a return engagement at the Grand Ole Opry.
Sweeter still, Rockie Lynne, his first album for Universal South Records, is just out, as is his second single from the album, "Do We Still." His first single, "Lipstick," made it to No. 29 on the charts. So who wouldn't be excited?
While he has lived near Minneapolis for the past several years, Lynne served his musical apprenticeship in Nashville between the late 1980s and the mid-'90s. In Nashville, he played on demos, fronted a band at a Printers Alley nightclub and toured with such fledgling major label acts as the McCarters and B.B. Watson. All the while, he was writing songs.
Lynne was officially discovered, however, while performing at a club in Prior Lake, Minn. Strictly by chance, a guy who worked in sales and marketing for Warner Bros. Records caught Lynne's act and liked what he saw and heard. Through a friend, he managed to get a copy of one of Lynne's self-produced CDs to Kevin Law, the head of A&R for Universal Records in New York. Law was so impressed that he flew Lynne in to meet Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group Worldwide, in the fall of 2004.
After hearing Lynne sing three songs, Morris signed him on the spot to a recording deal. Not long after that, Lynne was assigned to Universal South Records in Nashville. Tony Brown, who jointly heads Universal South with Tim DuBois, agreed to serve as one of Lynne's producers, along with Law and former Dixie Chicks producer Blake Chancey.
A native of Statesville, N.C., Rockie Lynne Rash found his musical influences not only on the Grand Ole Opry's radio broadcasts but also in the gospel group that lived next door to him and the records he heard on radio. When he was in the seventh grade, he did odd jobs until he'd scraped up enough money to buy a guitar -- which he then taught himself to play. It has been his main passion ever since.
"By the time I was in high school," Lynne says, "I had pretty much given up every other thing in life except for guitar. When I started, the first song I learned to play was 'Wildwood Flower,' which is an old bluegrass standard. I learned a whole bunch of bluegrass tunes because the gospel band next door would play those, and I would listen and try to figure out what they were doing.
"But the first two records I owned were [by] Kiss and Jimi Hendrix. ... The country music that really moved me when I was a child was, like, Ronnie Milsap and Gary Stewart. ... When I got into high school, I'd buy a record every week. I'd mow yards. I was in a band by the time I was 14, playing with adults. I'd take the money that we made on the weekends, and I'd buy albums. I was into everything -- Al DiMeola, Return to Forever, Kansas, Rush, all that kind of stuff."
As his guitar heroes and models, Lynne ticks off such names as Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Buck Owens' longtime sideman, Don Rich. "Some of the best musicians in the world," he declares, "are country musicians."
Lynne, who served for three years in the U.S. Army, came to Nashville initially to play in a Christian rock band. It wasn't long, though, before he was drawn into the country music vortex.
"I did hundreds, maybe thousands of demos," he says. "That's how I made my living. Not big demos, not masters at all, but mostly publishing house demos, guitar and vocal demos. When I wasn't playing on the road, I was the bandleader down at Barbara's in Printers Alley. I was the bandleader there for almost three years, six nights a week. Then, during the day, I would do recording sessions. When I had a road job, Barbara would let me go on the road. But when I came back to Nashville, my gig was always there. ... Those times were really good for me -- to get to meet those kinds of people. It was encouraging for me and made me feel like I could do it, too."
By the mid-'90s, Lynne had become determined to make a career playing his own songs. His wanderings finally took him to Minneapolis.
"I think Minneapolis is kind of an epicenter for cultural development in our nation," he says of his adopted hometown. "It's a very forward-thinking, modern city with lots of art and music and a history that is so rich. Admittedly, I was one of the few country elements in Minneapolis. That's why I moved there, because there wasn't a lot of authentic country. But there's so much rock and blues -- Prince and Jimmy Jam -- so much music there. And the people have such a love of music there that you can actually make a living playing original music as opposed to having to play cover music. The people are open-minded enough to listen."
Success didn't come quickly or evenly, however, for the young troubadour.
"There were times when there was nothing," he admits. "There was one period in particular when I'd just built up to have a pretty good size PA system. We traveled in a van and trailer, and we were getting to where we'd get two or three hotel rooms instead of one. Then one night in Des Moines, Iowa, we played at a club where they had all the gear provided except for stage gear. For some reason, I took all my guitars out [of the trailer that night] -- I usually took out only the ones I was going to use -- and someone stole the trailer with the all PA and lights in it.
"So I went from doing pretty good to nothing. For the next six months, I would sleep in the van. I pawned every guitar, every amp that I had just so we could perpetuate the gigs. I'd put the band up in a hotel room, and I would stay in the van. There were times when I had nothing, and there were times where we went pretty good. But [I decided] this is what I'm going to do."
During the past 10 years, Lynne released several albums on his own label, including A Boy Like Me (as Rockie Rash) and Big Time in a Small Town (simply as Rockie).
"People always made fun of Rocky Rash," he explains. "Then the record company got the bright idea of using my middle name [for my last]. But that worked for Toby Keith." (Keith's legal last name is Covel.)
Lynne now owns his own recording studio in Minneapolis, where he has produced a number of local acts. He's also active in civic affairs, including the Books for Africa program sponsored through the Rotary Club. It was through this charity, he explains, that he got to meet the president of Kenya.
A voracious and wide-ranging reader himself, Lynne says he manages to polish off at least one book a week while he's traveling on airplanes and buses to promote the new album. Apart from an appreciation for such classics as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, Lynne is also high on a range of contemporary authors, among them nonfiction writer Jon Krakauer, novelist Christopher Moore and musician-biographer Charles R. Cross.
Lynne wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the new album, sometimes teaming up with such notable composers as Monty Powell, Dennis Morgan, Richard Leigh, Sharon Vaughn, Rob Crosby, Will Rambeaux and Kostas. Unlike most artists, Lynne owns all the rights to his songs.
"I guess I'm not really interested in signing a publishing deal," he says. "If you read Born to Run [a Bruce Springsteen biography], To the Limit [about the Eagles] or pick one by any major artist in the last 40 years, [and you] ask them one question [about] what they would do different, the answer you're going to hear is 'Keep your publishing.'"
All the songs on Rockie Lynne were written before he began recording the album. "If you like this record," he promises, "I got a whole lot more coming at you. ... I know exactly who my audience is and who I'm singing to. I write about what happens right in the middle of life. I don't drink. I've never had a drink in my life. So there's not drinking songs or party songs because they wouldn't really translate -- because it's not real. That's really what country music is -- people taking their own experiences and relating them to other people."
The rigor of promoting an album is something Lynne relishes. "I'm not taking any days off," he vows. "On the weekends, when the [label's regional representatives] can't go with me, I rent a car and use the Neverlost [global positioning] system. I go to small markets and indicator stations and drop my CD off. ... I'm going to take every minute of my life until this thing breaks, and I'm going to go tell people about our record."
This regimen has its toll. Lynne doesn't spend as much time as he'd like with his three daughters -- ages 16, 13 and 3 -- and he swears that since last August he has spent only seven hours in Minneapolis. The schedule won't get appreciably easier this summer and fall. He's already been on tour with Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert. Later this year, he'll work the road with Carrie Underwood and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And he'll put in time on the Riverfront Park stage in Nashville at the CMA Music Festival in June.
At 40, Lynne has the savvy to know how capricious the music business can be and the perspective to recognize how well he's survived it. "I didn't know I would get this opportunity," he reflects, "and I'm so terribly grateful for this chance."