"There's a whole bunch of circles in this thing," says Jason Michael Carroll as he recounts some of the ironies that have marked his serpentine career path. These days, the North Carolina native is scaling the charts with "Alyssa Lies," a heartbreaking tale of child abuse. His debut album, Waitin' in the Country, was released Tuesday (Feb. 6).
The ironies begin with Carroll being raised by parents who forbade him to listen to any kind of music except gospel. Of course, that was before his mom, excited by his burgeoning singing abilities, entered him in a secular talent contest -- without his permission. Then there was the time his band fired him for getting it a gig that was too good.
Carroll was born in Houston, Texas, but his family moved to North Carolina when he was 5, and he considers that his home state. His father was a strict fundamentalist preacher who viewed all kinds of popular music as the siren call of sin. Naturally, the kid rebelled, albeit it furtively. "When I would sneak off with friends of mine on Sunday afternoons, we'd listen to [secular] radio stations," he recalls with evident satisfaction.
Still, until he left home at "18 or 19," Carroll grudgingly abided by his father's prohibition. Once he was out on his own, however, he embraced the forbidden music.
"I wound up calling into a local pop station in Raleigh," he explains. "I was at work one day, and they were doing a karaoke contest. You had to call in and audition to get a spot to come into the studio. I called in and got my spot and finally won the competition. A band that was listening to the radio station that day asked me if I'd be interested in becoming a singer for them. That was my very first band experience -- probably back in '97."
The band Carroll joined dubbed itself Chasin' Country. It quickly became clear the group was chasing country with measurably less eagerness than Carroll was.
"I constantly wanted to make myself better and move up to different venues," he says. So after six months of playing "little cinder-block honky-tonks all over Durham and Raleigh," Carroll persuaded the manager of Raleigh's historic Longbranch Saloon to book the band without ever seeing it perform.
Carroll's triumph was short-lived.
"I went and told my band that night after I got [the Longbranch] to agree to it, and they sat me down and gave me a pink sheet of paper," he recalls. "No lie. It had basically 'letter of termination' [written] on it. I'd been fired from my band with an actual pink slip. I thought my musical career was over. They said I had had different goals and different views from where they wanted to be. They were happy playing these little cinder-block buildings -- and I was, too -- but I wanted more from it."
It would be another six months before Carroll got to play the Longbranch -- this time with his own band. "My first experience [there] was opening for Brad Paisley," he says, "and now I'm on his label."
Having learned a painful lesson about group dynamics, Carroll named his new band after himself. "If they ever left me," he reasoned, "I could still have my name."
Carroll continued to play the clubs and honky-tonks as much as he could. "I kept a day job until about two years ago," he says. "I was working a full 40 hours-plus a week and then doing the band thing. It got pretty tiring. I did everything. I'm a jack of all trades and a master at none. I can roof your house. I can roof your business. I did some landscaping work for a little bit. I delivered for an appliance company. I did some customer service representation. Made phone calls. I've done quite a bit."
In 2004, his mother made her move. "She had been begging me for years to get a shot on, like, American Idol or Nashville Star or something like that," Carroll says. "I'd kind of blown it off because, honestly, the real reason anyone watches those shows is to see the terrible [performers] at the beginning of the season. Eventually they get to the Carrie Underwoods. But that's not where it starts at.
"So I told my mom I wasn't going to do it. Then the local Fox station [in Raleigh] decided to have a contest called Gimme the Mic, which was kind of a local American Idol contest. My mom went online, downloaded the [entry] form and filled it in with my name. Then she called me up and said, 'Jason, I know you have a show two hours away on Friday night. But be at the mall bright and early Saturday morning. Do it for your mother.' What do you say to that?"
Reluctantly but dutifully, Carroll auditioned and won.
"The prize was getting to go to New York City to audition for record labels," he says. "What they didn't tell me -- a country boy from North Carolina -- was that I would be going and singing country music in New York City to rap records labels. All the label people told me that they 'really liked country, dog,' and they wished me luck. I'm the kind who tries to make the best out of everything. So I did get to see the Statue of Liberty, which was very cool."
After returning from New York, Carroll met a man who was so impressed by his music that he offered to introduce him to Don Gehman, the producer of such acts as Hootie & the Blowfish and John Mellencamp. "I went and sang some songs for Don with my acoustic guitar," says Carroll, "and he said, 'OK, let's go to Nashville.'"
Carroll began writing songs when he was 12, and his earliest one was about the death of the family cat. At 16, he wrote another that was good enough that it later became a part of his band's repertoire. He remembers that one of the first songs he heard when he began listening to country music on those long-ago Sunday afternoons was Radney Foster's "Just Call Me Lonesome."
"My very first writing trip to Nashville, Tenn., was on Dec. 15, 2004, and it was to write with Radney Foster," Carroll says with a sense of wonder. "That was one of the coolest moments. We wrote a song that I still play live. It didn't make this album, but I'm very confident it's going to make one in the future."
During this same pivotal period, Carroll finished writing "Alyssa Lies." He says a poem a friend wrote about child abuse inspired the song.
"It really struck a nerve," he explains. "I thought about writing it, and then I tried to put it out of my head. Two days later, I turned on the TV and saw a story on the news about [child abuse]. I said, 'Well, two times in two days, I'm definitely supposed to write this song.' It took me a week and a half to write the first verse and the chorus. Then, after that, I struggled to the point of migraines for a year and a half before I finally finished it."
Almost a year to the day after he journeyed to Nashville to write with Foster, Carroll signed his recording deal with Arista Records. (Not only is Arista Paisley's label, it was also the label Foster was on when he recorded "Just Call Me Lonesome.")
Carroll wrote or co-wrote five of the 11 songs on Waitin' in the Country. He composed one of them -- "No Good in Goodbyes" -- with pop singer-songwriter Jewel, who also sings with him on the cut. He linked up with Jewel in a characteristically roundabout way.
"I was watching music videos one day," he says, "and I saw this one by Willie Nelson called 'Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me).' It's actually a Rob Thomas song, and he's in the video. I started thinking, 'It would be cool to write with Rob.' So I asked my manager to try to line it up. He called New York, and we got a phone call the next day saying that Rob was on tour, but how would I like to write with Jewel.
"I had three copies of the Pieces of You album, which was Jewel's biggest CD and an amazing record. The reason I had three was because my bass player kept stealing them. So we lined it up. I flew to Dallas, Texas, and drove two and a half hours to Stephenville. [There] we spent two days on [Jewel's boyfriend] Ty Murray's ranch having a great time. ... One of the coolest things about that weekend was that we sat around a campfire in front of one of Ty's bunkhouses the last night I was there, with Jewel and me playing acoustic guitars and singing songs back and forth. And in between the songs, Ty was telling stories about the rodeo. There were a few Keystone Lights [beer] in there, too."
Several other prominent songwriters contributed to Carroll's debut album, including Craig Wiseman, Jim Collins, Rivers Rutherford, Shaye Smith, Casey Beathard, Jeffrey Steele, Liz Rose, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride.
Carroll began recording the album last May and thought he had wrapped it up by early fall.
"After we got finished with it, we were in the middle of the radio tour, out there promoting the album, and I wound up writing a song that the label just went nuts over," he says. "They came to me the week of [the CMA awards] and said, 'Jason, you've got one week until deadline. We want you to go into the studio and record the new song, "Livin' Our Love Song."' So we went in and finished it the day of the deadline and turned it in so [the album] could be sent off and pressed."
With a sure hit already in hand, Carroll is now shopping for a summer touring slot.