First Published June 2022
THE GHOST OF JOHNNY CASH
When you get to sit down and chat with a man who co-wrote country music’s song of the decade for 2010-19 (Barefoot Blue Jean Night by Jake Owen, co-written with Dylan Altman and Terry Sawchuk); who is also a co-writer on Keith Urban‘s Wild Hearts (with Keith, Brad Tursi, and Jennifer Wayne); who had the legendary Ricky Skaggs offer him advice as he waited in the wings to make his Grand Ole Opry debut; who had ‘the Gambler’, Kenny Rogers, record one of his songs AND had Kenny himself request that he be ON the record as well; and – as if ALL of the foregoing wasn’t already cool enough – he’s also the man who brought Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time…THAT, my friends, is a good day!
And OTRT had just that kind of good day recently when we sat down with the guy who has ALL of the above as part of his story. That man is singer/songwriter ERIC PASLAY, and he took a little time-out from being on tour with UK country superstars The Shires to talk to us.
On the morning we spoke Eric was in the UK where he had just completed the first few dates of that twenty-five show run opening for Ben (Earle) and Chrissie (Rhodes) on their tour, a road-trip that ended at the London Palladium just last week. With the tour having been postponed a couple of times in the last two years because of…well, you-know-what…, I began our chat by asking Eric how it felt to finally be back out there in front of fans on this side of the world again?
“They’ve been amazing, and it feels amazing! It’s still unbelievable that we’re actually here, that this actually happened. In the music business and the touring world, after over two years of having a tour on-hold, it’s kind of amazing that we’re actually doing it! And I keep telling Ben and Chrissie, ‘We’re actually here! I’m a real boy, in the UK! [laughs]. So it feels great. And obviously it’s great to see the fans again. I’ve been touring over here for about five or six years so it’s cool to see familiar faces. Yeah, we’re back. Back touring live, it’s crazy!”
Did Eric have a chance to perform much back home in the States since things began returning to something approaching normal, or were these shows with Ben and Chrissie his first chance to be out in front of fans again?
“I’ve done a few little shows here and there, some private shows, and some everyone-wears-a-mask shows, everyone is kinda feeling it out, ya know. Over the last year-ish, somewhere in there, since we’ve been able to play shows a little bit, I lean more on the safer side of things. I don’t even want a person to catch a cold at my show! [Laughs]. But yeah, I’ve been out playin’ some shows at the weekend with the band and kinda getting back to it a little bit. But this is for sure the longest tour I’ve done so far since being back and the world learning how to live again.”
Well that UK tour gave Eric the perfect opportunity to celebrate his new album, the brilliantly titled, Even If It Breaks Your Barefoot Friday Night. To those who may not know, that title is an amalgamation of some of his biggest hits as an artist and writer, namely; Even If It Breaks Your Heart, Barefoot Blue Jean Night, and Friday Night. The album is a new take on those songs, an approach I love because I think great songs – and these are definitely that – will always stand up to being reimagined. And this concept is always all the better when the writer himself is actually involved.
But what I was wondering, though, was in deciding to do an album like this one, did it mean that in the back of Eric’s mind there were always different ideas for these songs? Or perhaps, was it more that once he decided to go in this direction, that was when he started to think about different ways they might sound?
“Definitely lyrically, they’re the original [songs], there might be just a couple of words a little bit different. Actually, on ‘Barefoot Blue Jean Night’ the original name was Frankie, but I thought I’d put Jake in there [this time] since Jake Owen recorded it. My buddy Jake had his dad hook him up good, ya know [laughs]. I just thought it would be amazing to go in and record some of the hits I’ve had as a writer. I’ve had ‘live’ versions of them that we’ve recorded, like ‘Live In Glasgow’ and some other albums. But yeah, I just thought it would be fun to do that. And fans have been asking for it for years cos’ I play ’em almost every night. Then to go in and reimagine some of my own hits [as an artist] with ‘Friday Night’ and ‘She Don’t Love You’, ‘Song About A Girl’, and to do ‘The Driver’, for which Charles Kelley (of Lady A) and Dierks [Bentley] and I were nominated for a Grammy for, it was kind of a cool experience to do it. And I thought it was time. And thanks to my mother-in-law for having the genius idea of what to name it! She was like, ‘Just put all the names together!’ I tried some, and hey, it worked! And that’s fabulous cos’ it’s just kind of a fun record. I mean, I was like, what do I call this? I didn’t want it to be ‘Greatest Hits’, that would sound like I was full of myself [laughs]. I love the name of it, and I love that it’s out. We’re sellin’ a bunch of records on the road, and it’s fun to see cds get sold and fans lovin’ it. If you come to one of the shows you’ll see that I’m signing every one…my hand is about to fall of! But we’re good, we’re good [laughs].”
Was there a most fun song to record on the album?
“Man, I recorded it with Mitch Furr. Typically, I love being the co-producer, sitting there thinking every way possible that we could record a song, like, ‘Let’s add bagpipes!’, ya know [laughs]. But I love his ear, I love what he does with music. I just literally handed him everything and was like, ‘Here, reimagine! These are the only rules that I think we should have…now go break them all!’ [Laughs]. He’s just insanely talented. He’s actually a co-producer on ‘Wild Hearts’ right now, Keith Urban has that song in the Top 5 right now. Yeah, Mitch is amazing. They all turned out great. On ‘Barefoot Blue Jean Night’ I actually did add a drum-line section, this kinda drum breakdown thing. And when we played at the ASCAP Awards – I think we won song of the year that year (2015) – but we actually had the Vanderbilt drumline come out in the middle and rock it. I wanted to have that experience in this recording, and we did that really well, I think.”
The song Wild Hearts, which Eric had just mentioned – and which he co-wrote with Brad Tursi and Jennifer Wayne – has been described by NME as being “quintessential Urban”. Now for Eric, who is a huge fan of Keith‘s first and foremost, that must be pretty cool to read. I asked him if he’d mind taking us back to what it was like to be a writer on that one, and also, to share what Wild Hearts means to him as a writer…
“First of all, yes, I love Keith! I mean, dear Lord. He’s our rockstar, he’s the Mick Jagger of country music! And he’s just such a good dude. A mind-blowing guitar player, such a performer. They played it on the CMT Awards and he’s up there [on stage] spinning around, doing whatever his feet do. I mean, even his feet are rockstars! What in the world! [Laughs]. Brad Tursi, Jen Wayne and I wrote the song, we had the verses, we had the chorus. And I remember talking to my wife, my wife is a music publisher, she got all these songs recorded for me, she’s just incredible. I was thinking that this song ‘Wild Hearts’ was really good. And even Jennifer Wayne was like, ‘Eric, it’s your next single!’ But I’m an independent artist, I don’t have a million dollars to get on the radio right now! So I was like, ‘No, let’s pitch this thing, it’s a hit, I know it is!’ [Laughs]. And Keith heard the song and he passed on it because he didn’t like the verses. And that’s kind of a Keith rule: if he doesn’t like the whole song, he’ll just pass and someone else can do it. But I’m tellin’ my wife I think we should rewrite the verses. They were great, but they were almost too musiciany, ya know? Like, almost too much about music people. And literally the next day Keith Urban called me on the phone – and he doesn’t call me every day [laughs] – and he was like [Eric adapts an Australian accent]…, ‘Hey Man, what ya doin’?’ He was like, ‘Man, I cannot get that song out of my head. But the verses don’t fit me. Are you cool if I rewrite the verses to see if it can fit me?’ I was like, ‘Dude, buddy…if you were in the room that day – it was Brad Tursi from Old Dominion, Jen Wayne from Runaway June, I’m an artist – so why not have four of us in the room?’ Then he goes, ‘Well what do you think about this?’, and he sings the verses for me. I told him I wanted to call up Brad and Jen to rewrite it, ya know, like, ‘Heeeey, ya want to rewrite this thing?’, but typically in Nashville we just write a new one. So everything about it – how it happened – just felt perfectly right.”
Eric went on, “And I said to Keith that I was actually glad he wasn’t in the room that day because then maybe he wouldn’t have written these verses that were just perfect for the song. And yeah, the song means the world to me. For one thing, because Keith recorded it, and we’re actually having a hit with it. And the song is about the experience of what we do, telling people to not stop dreaming, do things that your hometown might not understand because it’s not what everyone does in your hometown. That’s nothing against your hometown. There’s beautiful things that we’re all meant to do. I don’t take it for granted that I get to make music. I don’t have a ‘real job’, but I work all the time, I just love doin’ it. Yeah, Keith’s amazing, and I’m so thrilled that the record came out great.”
In promoting this new album, Eric has done something that I haven’t seen any other country artist do yet, and that’s bring NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) into play. Now, like most people, I probably have a vague understanding of what NFTs are and how they’re supposed to work, but I was really curious to know what sparked the idea for Eric to introduce them into his career as part of how he wanted to connect with his fans?
“I came across a company that does NFTs in Nashville. And like everyone, I was like, ‘WHAT is an NFT?!’ [Laughs]. Why are people paying for a picture on their phone?! So I had to re-think it for the music world, of block-chain technology, etc, so it will help with ticket-sales to make sure you’re not scalped. That’s another whole interesting world of making sure the receipt is the receipt, you can’t lie about what’s on the black-chain, which is cool. But to me, I’m just kind of viewing it like the first one, like here’s a golden-ticket. There was a $25 ticket – a hundred of ’em – we sold out pretty quick. It’s kind of like the hundred NFT community, fanclub with the never-ending ticket. So my goal is never-ending value, unpredictability, anything can happen from shows, to hangs, to asking ’em what songs they think I should record for the next album. I’ll play ideas for them. The first meeting I gave away one of the lights that I built that we ended up having as a second NFT, it was called the ‘Light Out of Darkness’, these antique lights. I love those because they cast these amazing shadows. I built the base out of a black wallnut tree that fell in our yard during a tornado we were hit by in Nashville.”
“And right now”, continued Eric, “the third NFT that we’re doing – I mean, they all have a digital aspect to them, the lights are spinning…one of those lights I built that just keeps spinning, ya know – but the one now is sort of like a 3-D image of my head that we did, it spins forever [laughs]. But the biggest part about the third NFT is I’m literally selling away 10% of the album. I’m selling ten 1% ownerships in this album. We’ve auctioned off the first one so far, it went really well. I’m probably still giving everybody a [good] deal, I don’t know! [Laughs]. You’re guaranteed to have five #1 hits, the Song of the Decade in country music, and two Grammy nominations, two ACM nominations, and a CMA nomination…here, would you like to own this album with me? So it’s interesting to see that. And hopefully everybody makes way more money that they bid on it. As a music fan [myself], I think that’d be cool. I wish I could have owned a Keith Urban record, ya know, or a part of it. The more it’s played, the more you get paid. It’s fun. So that’ll be a whole new experience too. I’ll probably have a hang with the ten, or the one! There might be one dude, or lady somewhere, buying up all ten. I don’t know. So we’ll see what happens. Every three days we’re selling another 1% of the album, and there’ll be ten of those. It lasts for thirty days, and it’s still going on right now.”
To the best of my knowledge anyway, Eric is also the first country artist to do anything like this…
“Yeah I was wondering if there’s like a Wikipedia for it, like ‘First Country Artist to Have a Website’, ya know? [Laughs]. No-one really cares, but it’s interesting. But yeah, I think I am the first country artist to sell-off part of my record. I know they’ve done it in the EDM and pop world, but here we are. I’ll just try to lead the way and show people what might be possible.”
Eric played the Grand Ole Opry again just a few weeks before our chat. For me, as a country music fan, anytime I get to talk to an artist who has actually played the Opry is always a count-my-blessings moment. And anytime I talk to someone who has played it, they feel that same way about getting that opportunity. So for Eric, what’s his favourite Opry moment or memory?
“The one that sticks with me the most at the Opry is the first time I got to play it. I lucked out. Pete Fisher was the general-manager at the time, and I knew him for years. We were at a Christmas party, and I think I’d been signed to Capitol for a few years [at this stage], maybe a year. But typically, as soon as you get a record deal the Opry might ask you to play. And I kept thinking, like, ‘God, Pete hasn’t asked me to play the Opry yet, jeez, what did I do wrong? I thought Pete liked me!’ [Laughs]. So we were at this party standing around, and he was like, ‘Eric, you’ve played the Opry, what? Ten times now?’ And I was like…’I’ve never played it.’ He was stunned, like, ‘You’ve NEVER played it?!’ [Laughs]. But it was in December, that’s how I lucked out, because a week or two later I got to play the Opry, and it was actually at the Ryman Auditorium where the Opry originated. It was cool to play the Opry, and in the original room, ya know. I remember standing there, about to go on stage, and Ricky Skaggs is standing next to me. I mean, it’s frickin’ Ricky Skaggs! One of the best bluegrass musicians ever, he’s incredible. And he goes to me, ‘Ya nervous?’ ‘Yeah’, I replied, ‘It’s the Opry and you’re Ricky Skaggs!’ [Laughs].”
“Daryl Worley was another great artist who was there that night”, remembers Eric. “He said to me, ‘Man, I hear you’re a little bit nervous, but I heard your voice, you sounded great. You kinda have that Johnny Cash vibe in your voice.’ And he goes, ‘So you’re nervous?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, man! Ricky Skaggs was standing beside me asking me if I was nervous, and then I’m playing the Opry for the first time!’ [Laughs]. Ricky looked at me and said, ‘Ya know what? Your heart’s not in the right place if you’re not nervous at the Opry.’ And it’s true. When you play a room or you play a stage that all of the people you’ve looked up to have…and even at the Ryman Auditorium, you look at the rock acts and the pop acts, everybody has played that room, it’s insane. We’re playing these amazing theatres every night here in the UK, and I love it, I get a rush from it. But sometimes, when you play a lot of shows, you don’t get the butterflies as much as you used to. So it’s cool to go the Opry and you’re still kind of a little nervous. You’re like, the ghost of Johnny Cash is watching me, I better not mess this up! It’s a really special place to play. Maybe someday I’ll pull all the right strings and become a member [laughs]. I’ll just throw that out there [laughs]. But I think anyone who plays the Opry would dream of being a member someday. I remember watching it with my grandmother growing up, and my grandfather was a musician, so I’m sure he and his brothers would get a kick out of hearing me on the radio in heaven sometimes.”
Staying with the Opry, I’d recently caught sight of a throwback post on Eric’s Instagram that was Steven Tyler‘s (yes, folks, THAT Steven Tyler, the dude from Aerosmith) first time at the historic venue. And whatsmore, it was Eric who was responsible for making it happen!
“Yeah! So, Steven recorded a song that I wrote called ‘Love Is Your Name’, he did a country record and this was a single. I mean, this is a complete Hollywood story. Steven was at the Bluebird Cafe, which is like the place where Garth Brooks, and Faith Hill, and Taylor Swift, and everyone was discovered. But it doesn’t always happen like that, it’s not as cool as it sounds. But Steven was at the Bluebird, heard my co-writer – Lindsey Lee – play the song, and he loved it. So he recorded it. Then he wanted to write with us. He came to my house and we got to write for a couple of days, and then I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go, I’m playin’ the Opry!’ And I was just like, ‘Dude, what are you doin’? You want to come to the Grand Ole Opry with me?’ And Steven was like, ‘Yeah, man! The Grand Ole Opry! No-one’s ever invited me!’ [Laughs]. So yeah! I got to bring Steven Tyler to the Grand Ole Opry! He had a blast. He didn’t play that night, and we’ve got to get him to if he hasn’t by now. I mean, I got to introduce Steven Tyler to the Grand Ole Opry and have him come out on stage to say hi to the crowd. He’s a blast. And I mean, my goodness, his voice… you’re just sitting there when he’s singing ‘live’, and you’re like, ‘You’re Steven Tyler. And you sound like him!’ [Laughs]. He’s incredible, and I miss seeing him. I haven’t seen him, or anybody really, in a couple of years. Amazing guy.”
Staying with good stories, which Eric’s tale about Steven and the Grand Ole Opry certainly was, what better way to bring our chat to its conclusion than with another! And who better to be a part of this one, than the late Kenny Rogers. Now Kenny actually recorded Eric’s song, Turn This World Around, which is awesome in itself. But even more cool, is the fact that Eric ended up IN the studio while Kenny sang, and ended up ON the track as well…and because Kenny himself wanted Eric there!
Eric takes it away…
“Yeah, man. So that was a time where I was writing two, maybe three songs a day. I was on tour. I was radio-touring. I was crazy, crazy busy. I remember this one day, I didn’t have time to go home, but I didn’t really have time to do anything else either, so I just thought to myself, well I’m just gonna drive around Nashville! All of a sudden my phone rings. The producer is on it, and he’s like, ‘Hey, is this Eric? I say yes and he goes, ‘Hey, who sang backgrounds [vocals] on ‘Turn This World Around’? Kenny Rogers is recording it.’ I said yeah, I heard he might be, this is amazing! Then the producer says, ‘Well, we recorded it, and he’d love to have your voice on it if you’re the one singing the backgrounds and the harmonies.’ I said yeah, that would be great, but man, I’m crazy busy right now, I don’t know when we can schedule it because I’m out on the road…!’ But then he asked me what am I doing right now, and I actually had like two hours! [Laughs]. So he tells me to come by the studio and we’d do it. So I pulled in, he’s got this little studio behind his house, a cool little pool out the back. I walk in and…there’s Kenny Rogers! He’s there! They didn’t tell me Kenny was there! It was just him and the producer.”
“And seriously, Kenny was just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been around. The best storyteller.”
And through that friendship Eric got to open some shows for Kenny, who he describes as having been, “Just an incredible performer”.
“I remember standing in the studio singing, just layering these harmonies, there was a lot goin’ on, ya know. He taps on the glass, ‘Eric! This sounds amazing! I have to leave cos’ I really need to pee! I’ll be right back. I’m not leaving cos’ it sounds bad, you sound amazing!’ [Laughs]. He just knew how to make everyone feel extremely comfortable. Like I just met the guy. And he’s Kenny Rogers! One of the most famous people on the planet. And after that, I actually received a letter in the mail, he literally wrote me a hand-written letter and signed it thanking me for the song and for sharing my time with him. And I got to see him on his last tour. I know the world misses Kenny Rogers, but I’m glad he was here to share his love with us. I will always cherish that memory, and being able to say that Kenny Rogers was my friend, and a really good guy.”
~ EVEN IF IT BREAKS YOUR BAREFOOT FRIDAY NIGHT, the NEW album from ERIC PASLAY, is OUT NOW.