The throng of a bluegrass guitar, the clack of a heavy steel-toed cowboy boot and the twang of a deep, raspy southern voice mixed effortlessly at Y108’s “8 Man Jam” on Thursday, May 23, at The River’s Casino on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. The Green Team was there in the midst of all the action again, snapping pictures and rubbing elbows with today’s hottest up-and-coming country music artists – from the glamorous American Idol stage to the great prairies that span our nation’s southern lands, these eight country guys know how to live the simple life. And they love singing about it, too.
The featured men of Y108’s jam included American Idol season 10 winner Scotty McCreery, Chris Cagle, Craig Campbell, Randy Houser, Joel Crouse, Chris Janson, Rodney Atkins and David Nail.
I’ll admit, I felt way out of my comfort zone interviewing country artists – I’m a city kid, with pop, electronic and house beats pulsing through my veins. I quickly learned, though, that country singers are some of the most humble, simple people Nashville churns out – they’re down to earth, can relate to the everyday struggles of many Americans and are more accessible than any other of today’s chart-topping artists. That’s just one reason why Faith Teyssier of Upper St. Clair says she is a true country music super fan.
“I love the music, you can understand it, it tells a story,” Teyssier said. “Whatever mood you’re in, you’ll find a country song that’ll fit that mood. And you can understand the words. You don’t have to be ashamed to listen to it; I can listen to country in front of my mom, my kid, there aren’t that many swear words. That’s one thing that’s important to me.”
Teyssier stood in line with me as we waited for our photo to be taken with each of the headliners – it was evident that her love of country music went way beyond just knowing the lyrics to her favorite songs.
“When I get the opportunity to meet an artist, like when I go down to the CMA fest every year, the artists are all very accessible,” said Teyssier. “I get my meet and greet pictures, put them on my computer, put a file away and then I use Shutterfly. When they offer a coupon that says ‘50% off photo book’, I make a book of all my meet and greets, so the next time I get to meet that artist, I have them sign the picture.” As we stood in line, creeping closer to our photo opp, Teyssier hurriedly grabbed her stack of photo books to show them to me – as she flicked through the endless snapshots, she beamed with joy and smiled as she shared the memories and stories behind each picture.
“Some of them do remember you, of course Phil Vassar I’ve seen over eighty times so he knows my name, I know his mom and his aunt,” Teyssier proudly touts. “That’s how down to earth country music artists are – they can talk to you about anything.”
Teyssier’s words rang true throughout the evening as I interviewed three of the night’s performers after posing for photos in front of the Y108 media backdrop. Up first, Chris Cagle – a cowboy through and through, who told me that his recent reentry into the business was “really a rebuilding process.”
“What I did was, I pretty much quit. I was just – tired of the business, tired of record labels and all that crap,” Cagle told me. “I love the music and I love the fans, it was just one of those things where you know, it’s a tough enough business as it is to be signed to a label and then put on another label and not feel their support. I just, you know, hung up my boots and went home – started building a ranch; I think it was 2007, 2008.”
Cagle said that when you quit a business like music, you don’t just fall right back in – he says in his case, though, he’s lucky.
“A couple years ago [after I quit], Bigger Picture called, said we wanna do it your way, we wanna make a record the way you wanna make it, we wanna make you a partner in it,” Cagle said. “So I thought I’d take a chance on them, they were taking a chance on me. And – here we are.”
Cagle told me that he didn’t quit music and leave the industry because of poor performance in the charts.
“The good news for me was I didn’t leave because they weren’t playing my music – we still had a lot of great relationships in radio out there, especially like here at Y108 in Pittsburgh. So we came back in and started doing our thing and servicing radio and just, rockin’ along.”
Cagle’s “Let There Be Cowgirls” is a fan favorite – I wanted to know where the song’s inspiration came from.
“My wife – I was at the ranch, my wife was riding a horse. I was just looking at her, and at the time in my life I was thinking about the power of speech and the power of when we write a song and people sing it, it goes into forever,” Cagle said.
“Thinking of the songwriting side of it, when I saw my wife riding the horse I was just like man, I don’t know what God did or when he did it but when he said let there be cowgirls, I’m pretty grateful that he did because, you know, that’s my woman.”
Missouri native Chris Janson is a young artist with the true grit and grime of the men who came before him – he’s a talented songwriter, too, having co-written Tim McGraw’s 2012 hit “Truck Yeah”. I, of course, wanted to know more about how that song got its name.
“A couple friends of mine and I wrote it – we got together and literally man, pulled into a parking lot in my truck in Nashville to write a song and one of my buddies pointed and said ‘that’s a cool truck’,” Janson said as he smiled. “I said the alternative truck yeah – which, I’m sure you can imagine what that is. One thing led to another and 45 minutes later we had the song, then Tim cut it two weeks later.”
I asked Janson what it meant to him to have country music megastar Tim McGraw record his song.
“[Tim] was my first cut as a songwriter, it was just huge – a big ol’ blessing from God, man.”
Janson’s current single, Better I Don’t, is a regular on country music radio around the country. He told me the message behind this lesson-in-disguise melody is real simple.
“I wrote Better I Don’t with my wife – she encouraged me to just, you know, tell some stories out of the past,” Janson said. “It’s kind of funny – it’s real, first of all, its just some things that are better I don’t do: ride a Harley drunk, go out and chase women in bars – things of that nature. I think the song is just what it needed to be, and you know, its thankfully getting played on the radio – everyone around the country is showing it some love and I’m real thankful for that.”
As far as songwriting goes, Janson said his life is all he needs for inspiration.
“My wife, Kelly, my kids, my truck, taking drives in the country – just everyday life, really, anything that happens…ups, downs, lefts and rights, I pull from everywhere.”
I made my way over to Randy Houser, a commanding guy with a similar look to that of Rascal Flatts’ lead singer, Gary LeVox (just with darker hair). Houser has been singing and writing music since he was a kid. He credits his father with sparking his passion for country music.
“My father was a professional musician, that’s where I learned to play and found my love for music at a very early age, from my Dad,” Houser said. “I did the church [singing] thing, then I got a little older and I went straight from the church to the bar,” he says with a loud laugh.
Houser has done jams like this in the past, he said, and enjoys the different experience they provide.
“It’s just getting to hang out with some of my buddies that are also great artists, and these things are usually so kind of just chill and relaxed,” Houser said. “We get to play our music just like it was the day we wrote the song. It’s more intimate, a more intimate setting with the jams of the guitars kind of like a campfire.”
In 2005, Houser wrote Honky Tonk Badonkadonk for fellow country music star Trace Adkins. I asked Houser if he’s gotten the chance to congratulate Trace on his Celebrity Apprentice win a few weeks ago – he smiled and said, “nah man, not yet.”
About one of his more popular hits, Boots On, Houser said it was something he heard all the time growing up.
“Boots on was something my dad always used to say when I was a kid,” Houser said. ”You know he’d always say, ‘if you’re gonna go through life, do something you love.’ That way, when you go out, you’ll go out with your boots on.”
My interviews were over and I let out a relaxed sigh of relief. Meeting the voices, hands and minds behind the music adored by so many fans at Y108’s jam was surreal for me, despite my electronic, house music background. Mingling with the crowd, I learned just how dedicated and serious these fans are about their favorite artists and tunes – I think it’s safe to say it nearly rivals their devotion and love for the Pens and Steelers.
After the meet and greet sessions were over, the skies let loose a deluge of spring rain that delayed the 7PM concert start time but didn’t put a damper on the crowd’s mood, not even for a second.
With ponchos, coats and umbrellas on the ready, fans flanked all sides of the stage set up near the river’s edge for a night of the simple life put to a tune. Guests swayed in unison, drank to their favorite phrase and snapped photos of themselves decked out in rainy weather gear, as the smooth hum of the 8 Man Jam played on in the background.
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