Jason Michael Carroll's second album, Growing Up Is Getting Old, came out this week, and he feels pretty confident about its sales prospects. But he knows the stakes are high.
"As much as I hate reality shows, this is kind of the reality show of the music business," he says with a chuckle. "If this record does well, I get to stick around. If not, I get voted off the island. This is a make-or-break album -- although I don't really have a Plan B."
So far, Plan A seems to be working. "Where I'm From," the first single from the album, is in the Top 20 and still rising. Moreover, Carroll made a lot of radio programmers sit up and take notice when he previewed songs from the project during the recent Country Radio Seminar.
Carroll's first album, Waitin' in the Country, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's country charts and yielded two Top 10 hits -- "Alyssa Lies" and "Livin' Our Love Song."
But the album has sold only a modest 395,000 copies since it emerged two years ago, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the company that tracks such data.
"I called Don Gehman, my producer, the other day," Carroll continues. "I said, 'Don, I really have a good feeling about everything we've done on this record. I think it's going to be a big record for both of us.'
"He said he had the same feeling -- which made me feel good because he's done records with Hootie & the Blowfish, John Mellencamp, Tracy Chapman, R.E.M. and all those folks."
There's no doubt the new album has plenty of musical muscle, whether it's the full-bodied romp of "Barn Burner," the chest-thumping pride of "Where I'm From" or the desolate cry of "Tears."
Carroll is a powerful vocalist who can summon up just about any shade of emotion the lyrics call for. He co-wrote three of the project's 10 songs and turned for the rest to such other A-list writers as Tom Shapiro, Keith Anderson and Patrick Davis.
"[Don and I] didn't put a lot of thought into the 'sophomore curse' thing," Carroll says. "We honestly felt that if we thought negative thoughts, it would have brought [negativity] to it. We focused on making a record that would mean something to us."
Although the two men knew the kind of album they wanted to create, they had only a few songs in hand when they began recording. In fact, Carroll wrote all his songs after the recording started.
"The album definitely grew organically," he says. "We put pieces together. I believed in 'Where I'm From' so much after our first session in the studio, back in April of last year, that when we went out on tour with Carrie Underwood in June, I included it in my set then.
"One of my main goals -- something that's very important to me -- is keeping the music so that a fan can listen to one song on this record and walk away with a little piece of an idea of who I am."
Carroll says the album is "almost biographical," adding, "For every song on there, I can tell you how I relate to it. That was a big deal to me. A lot of fans may or may not get the chance to ever meet me or come see me at shows. So for those fans, I want them to be able to pick up a CD and get just as much about getting to know me as if they were able to come to a show."
One song on the new album, "We Threw It All Away," Carroll regards as a thematic sequel to "Livin' Our Love Song." He should know. He co-wrote both. And both center on his real-life relationship with his wife, Wendy.
"'Livin' Our Love Song' came from the fact that Wendy and I dated in high school for a while," he explains. "Her parents found out and didn't like it. They sent her away to college. Several years went by, and Wendy just happened to come into a nightclub where I was playing in my local cover band back home [in North Carolina]. That was seven years later, and we started talking like we'd never missed a day. People said it would never work out, but look at us now: That's 'Livin' Our Love Song.'
"Well, you fast forward a few years, and 'We Threw It All Away' kind of takes you to that spot where Wendy had gone through college, become an X-ray tech, worked at a great hospital and her parents were very proud of her. I -- after all those years of being in a band and trying to do what I could -- had finally gotten my record deal.
"I remember a couple of months later we found out that Wendy was pregnant. And I'll never forget -- her mom and my mom, her dad and my dad were all telling us the same thing: 'You're throwing everything away.' Although it wasn't the exact way we would have planned it, Wendy and I never felt like that. So that's where that song came from."
A highlight for Carroll in the recording process was getting to write with prize-winning composers Casey Beathard and Paul Overstreet. Their joint contribution to the album is a tune called "That's All I Know."
"I remember walking into the studio that day," Carroll says, "and I really felt we all knew we were going to write something big. The feeling in the room was there. But we were kicking out ideas, and nothing seemed to be as big as we wanted to write it.
"After about five minutes, I looked down at my sheet of paper, and I've got this list of things we've come up with. I said, 'Guys, what if we take this list of things we've been mentioning? They don't really mean a whole lot on their own, but if you put them together, they mean everything.' That's the way we wrote 'That's All I Know.'"
The album's title tune, whose tone is reminiscent of Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)," was one of the last songs Carroll and his producer selected to record. Even though he had no hand in writing it, Carroll says it summed up his feelings perfectly.
"I liked this song from the first time I heard it -- from the opening line, 'It's been a while since I did something I could be arrested for' to the second verse, 'My buddy and I used to raise 'em high and stay out 'til four/But now his new wife won't let me crash on the couch no more.' I love this song because I've lived every piece of it."
To date, Carroll has opened shows for Arista Records labelmates Carrie Underwood, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. If all goes as planned, he'll hit the road this fall with another superstar act. Between such major swings, he'll continue to work the fairs and festivals circuit, which he's cheerfully dubbed his Corn Dog & Funnel Cake tour.