You live in Nashville but are originally a Maryland boy.
Yep. I grew up in Berlin and Ocean City, and then I went to Towson [University] and played football. I was a linebacker.
There’s definitely a thread of small-town life that runs through your music—not to mention country music, in general. Is that the Eastern Shore influence?
My biggest influence growing up was my father. He was big into the old country—the Willies and Waylons and Merles. So the first songs I learned, really, were the “three chords and the truth” songs. But the Eastern Shore is just such a beautiful place. There’s kind of a relaxed atmosphere. Everybody is just kind and nice and wants to fish and go out on the boat. And there are a lot of songs that you haven’t heard just yet that I’m recording now for my next album that are summertime, beach songs. It all ties in. It shaped my personality, which, in turn, shapes my music and my writing.
One of your songs, “Superman,” is the anthem for the nonprofit ZERO—The End of Prostate Cancer. How’d that happen and what has the reaction been?
We are all touched by [cancer]. But I really wanted to dive into this [cancer], specifically. So I started reading about it and this guy, Phil Shulka, he was a stage 3 cancer patient who was not given more than, I think, a five percent chance of living, and he beat it and he has been a survivor for over 11 years. So he works for Chesapeake Urology and what he does is, when somebody finds out they have cancer, he goes to their bedside and says, ‘Look, I was not supposed to make it. If you’re only a stage 2, I was a stage 3. This is what you can do. This is what you can expect. These are some of your options. This is what my experience was.’ So he can give them some hope. So I was like, ‘What an amazing thing this guy does every day. Let’s get this guy to Nashville, so we can sit down and talk to him.’ And we did, we brought him into the BMI building right on Music Row and we took him in to a writer’s room—I can’t tell you how many hit songs have been written in the same room—and myself and Goose Gossett, who is another great writer in town and lead guitarist in my band, we sat down and we just listened to him talk for 45 minutes, and we just took notes.
After he was done, we just started writing and about two-and-half hours later we came out with a hit song. And it has really just touched so many lives. We sent it back to ZERO, just as an acoustic rough and they were blown away. They were like, ‘We’ve got people in the office crying right now listening to this. How did you guys do this?’ So that turned into their anthem song and then that turned into creating a music video that I then presented to CMT and GAC and tons of other outlets and everybody picked it up, which is hard to do because they get hundreds of submissions per day. So it premiered with CMT, which was huge for the song, the message, and me as an artist to be able to have that. And then ZERO asked me to become their national spokesman because I did a lot of interviews going into the race and I really studied up and learned about the organization and spoke well and it’s a lot easier for me to get on a morning shows and things like that. It’s more fun, I guess, to talk to a country artist with the story rather than just a doctor trying to get you to come to their urology center, you know what I mean? ‘Hey, you need to come in and get your butt checked!’ You know? Last year I toured the country, and we raised over $3.5 million.
It’s fun to have summertime drinking songs, those things are great, but they’ll be forgotten. But a song like this—the amount of emails and messages I’ve received from people who are going through the battle of their lives. . . . It’s just incredible what a song can mean to them to provide hope.
You were on American Idol, season 9. Do you consider that your big break?
That was probably the most exciting moment of my life, to get a golden ticket to Hollywood on American Idol. [But] it’s not something that, at this point in my career, I necessarily hang my hat on. It’s not something I keep saying, ‘Hey, guess what? I was on American Idol!’ I didn’t win and you’re on to the next thing.
Now, this whole project [the ZERO cancer work and “Superman”] is what I’m most proud of, and I just recently had another song in the Top 40 of NSAI [Nashville Songwriters Association International]. They are the biggest songwriters association in the world and they’re based right here in Nashville. One of my songs, “Cowboy Soul,” was in their Top 40 this year, which is a huge honor. I love that song, but I was surprised it wasn’t “Superman.” Now, I’ve actually just been asked to perform at their publisher’s luncheon and meeting where they have every single publisher, big and small, which is an amazing thing to be able to do, to sing in front of every publisher in town. So that happens [this month], July 21, actually.
You’re also playing shows around the Eastern Shore this month.
It’s important for me to get back there as much as possible. And Fourth of July is a great time for me to do it. We have six shows lined up, the 6th through the 10th. Any excuse I can take to get to the beach and back home, I’m going to use it. They have lakes here in Nashville and the lakes are nice. We’ve got the redneck yacht clubs and we all tie up and get on the rafts, but lakes just ain’t the same as that ocean.
Well, it’s obvious you love it. You even wrote a song about Ocean City.
Yeah, I did. And Baltimore. And Maryland. There’s “Back to Baltimore” and “I Miss My Maryland,” too. Yeah, so I’ve got Ocean City, Baltimore, and Maryland all covered!