JJ Lawhorn Interview: Newcomer Talks Debut Album, ‘Original Good Ol’ Boy’
Rising country star JJ Lawhorn has an unusual story. Discovered by powerhouse Nashville producer Jeremy Stover via a random video online, the young native of rural Virginia started working with some of the top talent in Nashville when he was still in his teens.
Lawhorn released his debut album, 'Original Good Ol' Boy,' via Average Joes Entertainment on Tuesday (July 16). The album's current single, 'Stomping Grounds,' has already been featured heavily on Sirius/XM’s popular The Highway channel, selling 16,000 digital downloads prior to its radio push. Its parent album reached No. 2 on iTunes the day of its release.
The Boot caught up with Lawhorn last week to discuss everything he's got going on. The young singer-songwriter's down to earth, tell-it-like-it-is style is a far cry from many of Nashville's cookie cutter acts -- as is the music he's making. Lawhorn talked to us about his new album, unusual path to success, and why the fans are the most important thing.
Your bio says you were basically discovered by accident on YouTube. How did that transpire?
Basically I was grounded. [Laughs.] So I decided to put up a video of me singing a Justin Moore cover song. I put it on YouTube to see what people thought of it, see if I could get some feedback. I didn't really expect anybody to see it. I think it had a couple of hundred views on it or something. I posted it as a response to one of Justin Moore's new music videos.
His producer went on there and seen it; went to watch the new video and saw my little video at the bottom, and he clicked on it. So I get this little message, and it says, "Yeah, this is Jeremy Stover, I produce Justin . . ." and all that. So I Googled the name, and I said, "Well, anyone can use a name." I checked his profile out, and he had just made it, because he wanted to message me. So it was blank. And I thought the dude was a daggone pedophile or something, you know? [Laughs.]
I checked out the number that he left me, I called it, and nobody answered, but the message said, "Hey. this is Jeremy, if you'll leave me a message ..." and whatnot. So a couple of days later he calls me, and I'm in school. I'm in Ag class, and my teacher is out back at the greenhouse or whatever. I went outside and answered the phone, and I'm talking to this cat, and she come out there whooping and hollering, saying, "Give me that phone, boy!" [Laughs.] And I'm like, "You don't even know who this is! I'm on the phone with Justin Moore's producer!" And she's like, "I don't care if it's Jesus himself! Give me that phone, boy!"
So I got my phone taken away, and I had to explain to my mom why it got taken away -- because I was talking to some big-time country music producer. Which is pretty far-fetched to her, you know? [Laughs.]
How did that turn into you working together?
I ended up talking to my parents, and he comes down to Virginia and hangs out with me for a weekend. He rode shotgun in my truck, just ran around and seen what I did. And the last day he was in town, I put some music together in my barn, and he told my parents, "I want to have him come to Nashville and meet some people."
So I had just turned 16, and I started coming down there and meeting people, making impressions, building relationships. And three-and-a-half, almost four years later, I've got a record deal, a publishing deal, and I've got my first record coming out.
That's got to be pretty mind-blowing for you. Prior to that, did you ever think of having a professional career in music?
When I was growing up, I used to have these dreams about it. It was always what I was passionate about it, but growing up where I did, in the middle of nowhere, nobody ever really makes it out of my town. They kind of end up doing what their mama and their daddy does. Nobody makes it out.
I remember telling like five people that dude was coming out; we were hanging out, and I said, "You're not gonna believe what happened." And I tell these cats Justin Moore's producer is coming from Nashville to hang out with me for the weekend, and they're all dying, rolling on the floor laughing. And I'm just like, 'Man, you know what, frickin' screw these guys. One of these days . . .'
I didn't even need to say nothin' else. I decided, 'I ain't gonna tell nobody, I ain't gonna let anybody around here know, I'm just gonna do my thing, go out and chase my dreams.' And I never let what anyone said have a say in what I was gonna do.
It is pretty crazy how the whole thing has gone down, and I believe, personally, that it's a God thing, man. God definitely had his hand in it, 'cause that sh-- just don't happen to people where I'm from.
Have you been doing some touring in advance of the album?
Oh yeah, last week we did some shows in Georgia . . . we've been runnin' around all over the place, just trying to gather up some hardcore country music fans.
I assume you didn't have a lot of stage experience before coming to Nashville. How do you get used to that at such a young age?
I've actually been getting up on stages and stuff like that since I was a kid. When I was in school I did talents shows, all of that stuff. My mom used to always say I didn't have a bashful bone in my body. [Laughs.] So I've been getting up there and doing stuff that a lot of people can't do, as far as, a lot of people can't handle speaking in front of large crowds and all that stuff. But I never really got nervous in front of other people.
I always kinda had the confidence, but it took a while for me to find my mojo for the stage, just as far as, it just takes time to figure out the whole choreography of it all. We're in the business of trying to entertain people, but at the same time, I don't go out on the stage and just dance around like a fool just trying to show off. I let the music kinda dictate what I do.
What about the business side of the music business? Coming from a small town background and at such a young age, did you find it intimidating to come to Nashville and meet all these suits, and learn how the business works? It's a complicated business.
I was fortunate to have two individuals that were very business-minded in my life. My producer was definitely a huge part in helping me figure out how it all works, how it all fits together. If you're not doing one small part of it right, the rest of it will all kind of fall over like dominoes. It takes a while to figure out how it all fits together, which part fits which role. I've got four different businesses; I do the touring thing, I'm an artist, I'm a professional songwriter, as well as my own personal representative for my brand, my movement.
I had my producer, who's a genius, and that really helped me. My dad, as well; he's a businessman, and he knows the basic principles of business, how they apply, just the whole organization of everything. And just being on top of your game. So I had two different kinds of perspectives.
Prior to recording this album, had you ever worked in a professional recording studio?
No, I hadn't, man, and it was definitely a ridiculous experience. I went in for the first time, and I met these guys who were gonna track my record. It was a super-nice studio, and I was 16 years old. And my producer said, "All you've got to do is play these guys a song, go in the studio and sing it."
So I played them this song, and this old boy starts charting the song out and whatnot, and he says, "Oh, go back over this one time, sing this again." And then he says, "All right, cool. Go in the booth and sing along." So I walk up in there, and I didn't know what to expect.
And I'll be damned, dude, if I didn't step up in that booth, and they just struck it up, and it was like everything I'd ever pictured in my head that the music should sound like. It was just like, bam! Spontaneous. There it is, just laid out. Frickin' incredible. I'm just in the studio, singing along to my song that I just taught these dudes, it took about five minutes for these cats to learn [laughs], and I'm just dumbfounded.
It was an incredible experience to see how professionals do it. Super time-oriented; they don't mess around at all, they just get straight to the point.
You've got 'Stomping Grounds' out as a single. What are going to be some of the other focus tracks?
The reason I feel really proud of this record is, I either wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the record, and these aren't songs, to me -- you put the CD in your truck, and you don't have to skip through five songs to get to the one you want to listen to. I feel like all of the songs, they might not all be radio hits, but they're all great songs. There's something on there for everyone. I just told them, "Release whatever you want." [Laughs.]
You're with Average Joes. What made that the right label choice for you?
I had a meeting with basically every record label in town, and Average Joes was the last one I had a meeting with. And when I walked into the office, I see all these dogs running around the office. It's like a back yard or something. That right there was just like, 'Man, that's some down-home sh--.' It was just really cool. That was the first thing I noticed.
I went in there and had a meeting, played some music for them, talked to them, and they were just like, "Look, man, we like what you're doing, we love what you've got going on. We don't want to change, you, we want to keep you who you are -- raw, uncut stuff, we love that. We don't want to tell you to paint some jeans on, we don't want to tell you to cut your hair and wear a cowboy hat and sing some song you didn't write. We just want to help you get to where you want to go."
They do things a little differently. It's not all based around radio play. It's more of a grassroots, word-of-mouth deal, building it fan by fan. Just really going out there and touring, and being in the thick of it, and building a die-hard fan base that's gonna go out and buy your record, whether radio chooses to play your song or not.
That's why Colt [Ford] has had so much success, 'cause regardless of whether radio will spin him or not, he'll go out there and sign a stack of autographs an inch-and-a-half thick, and he'll sit there and talk to you until the very last person is gone. It's that humble approach to, "Hey, ya'll are the ones who make this happen. I'm gonna keep it real and just show you that I'm down to earth, and I'm just like ya'll, and I appreciate you."
Something about that really makes people want to buy the t-shirt, pre-order the album and the package. Even if it's just five minutes that they can spend, there's something about not having to pay $500 for a meet and greet to shake somebody's hand that they appreciate.
When I talk to people at shows, I tell them, "You know what, whether you want a t-shirt or whatever, just come back here and shake my hand. I'll be more than happy to meet you and to talk to you." And when people buy my t-shirts and stuff like that, I shake their hand, I look them in the eye and I say, "Thank you for feeding me."
The people that buy your music, the people that support your music -- you ain't nothin' without them. And as soon as you forget that, I believe you should have lost the right to do what you do.