Colt Ford’s Country
Imagine a record filled with steel guitar and fiddle, with songs eating cat-head biscuits, downing a few cold beers at a local bar, dealing with cheating spouses and discovering life beyond the small town. There are guest vocals from John Michael Montgomery and Jamey Johnson. On paper, it sounds like a country music album. However, when Colt Ford begins rapping the lyrics instead of singing them, the line between “country” and “not country” gets very blurry–at least in the minds of some.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say I’m not country,” Ford says. “And when I ask them why, they say it’s because I don’t sing. Well then, Aerosmith, are they country? Is Pearl Jam country? They sing.
“No, it has nothing to do with that,” he continues. “It’s what the song is about, the story, the words.”
As a 40-year-old former golf pro who tips the scales at 300 pounds, Ford doesn’t look much like country music’s current crop of superstars, and he doesn’t sound like them, either. He has worked in the hip-hop world, but country music is his first love, and while others may debate the “country-ness” of his work, he considers himself a country artist, pure and simple.
“I wanted to make a country record, and just by the fact that I can’t sing too good, this is the only way I can make it,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to combine stuff; it just worked out that way.”
Regardless of his intentions, Ford has found an audience that’s extremely receptive to his brand of country music. His 2008 album, Ride Through The Country, was released on Average Joe’s Entertainment label, and its success has made Music Row take notice. The album, more than a year after its release, can still be found in the 30s on Billboard’s Country Album chart, peaking at #24. He’s sold more than 140,000 copies of the album, along with more than 100,000 digital singles. The album has been highlighted as a “Country Pick” at Wal-Mart, and Ford performed more than 200 dates last year, from country bars to sold-out arenas while opening for Jason Aldean. He’s planning on following up that success with two releases this year, the first of which, Chicken & Biscuits, will be released on April 20.
Ford recently took his act to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, and he says he was blown away by the response.
“About half-way through “Devil Went Down To Georgia,” everybody in the place was standing up and clapping,” he says.
The melding of hip-hop and country has been tried a few times in the past, but never with any great or long-lasting success. Ford believes that his authenticity has allowed him to succeed where others have failed.
“I’m just an old fat boy from Georgia,” he jokes, “and I talk about what I know about, what I’ve seen and what’s around me, and I think folks relate to that. If you’re real and honest, and you are what you say you are and sing about what you know, people will figure that out.”
He also readily acknowledges the luck involved in having an indie album succeed in the country market, particularly without much airplay. Word-of-mouth has helped his audience grow, as his fans pass their CDs on to friends or family. However, he’s worked hard to create his own luck as well, through social networking and relentless touring.
“If people like [the songs], in this day and age of computers, people will find a way to get them,” he notes. Ford answers all of his Myspace messages himself, which helps to add to his “people’s champ” image. He also points out that he toured as much as any singer in country music last year, if not more, and he’s planning on doing the same in 2010.
As well as he’s done without the benefit of radio support, Ford would love to get played more on the radio, and he’s been frustrated about an inability to break through. He says he’s talked with radio personnel who love his work but are hesitant about playing it on their stations, yet they’ll play lesser singles from major-label artists just because they are on a major label.
“All I’ve ever wanted was a chance,” he says, “and if you play it and people don’t like it, I can totally deal with it.”
Having several well-regarded country singers like John Michael Montgomery and Jamey Johnson on his singles has helped raise his profile and garner some airplay. Ford says that he met those singers through mutual friends, and they liked his work enough to collaborate on songs. Montgomery duets with Ford on “Ride Through The Country,” while Johnson sings the chorus to “Cold Beer.”
“Jamey marches to the beat of his own drum,” Ford says. “He doesn’t do anything he likes, and he’s not a part of anything he doesn’t want to be a part of. For him to kind of endorse [“Cold Beer”] and be a part of it, that was a big plus.” The two also co-wrote a song on Ford’s album called “Tailgate.”
The guests on the album may gain some notice, but Ford believes that it’s the songs and the stories that turn casual listeners into fans, and they don’t mind the fact that he’s rapping the lyrics instead of singing them.
“If you look at the younger generation, all they’ve known is both [country and hip-hop],” he says. “If you go into most young country high school kids’ cars, they’ve got hip-hop and country CDs, and that’s just what they listen to.”
Many of the songs are good-time party anthems, similar to the songs from groups like Run DMC that got Ford interested in rap in the first place. (Ford says that today’s hip-hop songs are too graphic and demeaning to women, and he doesn’t listen to it.) Others, like “No Trash In My Trailer” and “Good God O’Mighty,” take a more humorous look at country living.
Then there are the surprisingly dramatic songs. “Waffle House” tells of a husband who has finally realized the truth of his cheating spouse and is contemplating just what action he should take. “Twisted” is about a high school football star torn between staying at home or going off to play at UCLA. The song, originally featuring Atlanta songwriter Cory Sellers, was recently re-cut with Tim McGraw and will be available this year. Ford says that when he performs the song at all-ages shows, he dedicates it to his younger fans.
“Realize that it’s okay to be country, and don’t worry about what TV is telling you,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with being a country kid, and be proud to be from the country.”
Ford’s other ace in the hole when it comes to promoting himself lies in his concerts. Despite his non-traditional approach, he says that his audience is primarily hard-core country fans.
“I would say my shows are more country than 90 percent of the artists in Nashville. That’s the honest-to-God truth,” Ford says. “I put together, unequivocally, one of the best bands you’ll ever see on stage, from a national country touring act. I would put this band against anyone that’s out there, and we do a few things with shows that other people, quite frankly, just can’t do.
“It’s like a roller coaster, man,” he says of his live shows. “We’ll take you up and down, fast and slow, spin you around, and hopefully when you’re done, you want to get back in line and do it again.” So far, people have been doing just that; Ford has several fans who attended more than 25 of his concerts in 2009.
Ford keeps the costs of his tickets and merchandise at reasonable levels to make a night out more affordable for his fans, and he stays around after each performance to meet them and sign autographs.
“That’s the reason you’re playing music, for those folks, and I try to spend as much time with them as I can,” he says. “I feel sad for artists who don’t do that or kind of forgot about it.”
A Double Serving in 2010
Ford followed up Ride Through The Country with a live album and an EP/DVD combo. His next studio release, Chicken & Buscuits, features collaborations with Randy Houser, Luke Bryan, James Otto, Joe Nichols, Trent Tomlinson, Darryl Worley and many others, including rap legend DMC of Run DMC. Later on in the year, he’ll release Second Helpings, giving him about 25 new songs total to put out in the marketplace this year.
“I record songs that I like, and I didn’t cut them just for me to hear,” he reasons. “I wanted to make sure we put them out there.”
While Ford’s rapping may turn some people off to his music, he points out that what he’s doing is hardly new to country music. Recitation or talking songs have been a part of country’s past and have been done by everyone from Hank Williams to Alan Jackson.
“If you go back to “A Boy Named Sue” or even Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me,” that’s exactly what I do,” he explains. While he notes that his songs have more fiddle and steel than many modern country releases, he also loves country-pop acts like Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift.
“I’m a fan of that, but I just want me to have a place in there too,” he says. “I just want to do my thing. I’m not trying to get in anybody else’s way; I just don’t want to get them in mine.”
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