It was not an easy process, but eventually we came up with a schedule to release the material that #N/A had recorded with us. First we would release the two cd and dvd combo for the benefit concert, with the proceeds devoted to charity. That was an easy decision to make. After that we would release the proper follow up album under the title “The Centre Cannot Hold,” with its tense and anxious feeling, and finally we would release “Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes” and promote a couple of singles to country and Christian radio, allowing him the chance to expand his reach to other demographics that we didn’t really want to go after here in Portland. We also promised to coordinate a release of rarities and B-sides in order to fulfill his contractual obligations to us, as that would be enough material that we would be able to break even without any difficulty. That was the deal at least, although we didn’t know how much other material there would be of his to handle before everything was done.
I thought we made a good deal to get #N/A as a recording artist. Given that his anonymity was no longer an issue, we persuaded him that it would be good to release his material with us under his given name, as that would have a much more downhome appeal than his anonymous moniker did. It also had the added bonus of differentiating his material from his old label from his new material, which we thought was only a good thing. And immediately our deal started paying dividends, for as soon as he signed with us he got to writing and helping co-write songs for our other artists, which we saw as potential hit singles. That sort of decision, to help out others before looking to increase his own name recognition, was one that our artists appreciated right out of the gate. We couldn’t understand what had led his previous label to see his productivity as a problem. Here was someone who loved working with others, could help the bottom line with quality product immediately, and wasn’t looking for all the glory and attention. It was a great deal for us and everyone was favorably inclined to our new artist and the new direction he was taking.
People have this idea that country music is a place only for rednecks, and there are certainly some people who make a good living out of pandering to that idea, but I think Alan Jackson had it best when he sang “Gone Country” way back in the 1990’s, when he looked at wholesome songs that told a good story and that was amenable to people from the suburbs or with folk traditions. When I got to talking with him while we were writing songs, I was amazed at his own background. He was obviously one of those bookish and intelligent people who might have looked down on us, or someone who thought that he could simply pander to us by pretending, but he was pretty genuine. We talked about his upbringing and the rural and small town life he had known as a kid, and why it is that he had wanted something more out of life, and we could definitely understand where he was coming from. And while we worked on telling that story in songs that he would record with us, he would also talk with me and with some of our other artists and writers and we got to cutting some awesome demo tapes for some of the artists in our stable. Those were some good times, I have to admit.
I was pretty surprised when I got a song written by him sent to me by the label for consideration for my next album. I had known that he had some broad tastes in recording music, but I didn’t realize he could craft such heartfelt songs about caring for others. He had heard that I was a stepfather to some daughters and he wrote an amazing song about wanting to be the sort of man that those girls needed, to teach them that a real man didn’t need to be related to someone by blood in order to take care and protect them. When I recorded it in the studio, it made my eyes water, and that of the musicians that were in the studio with me. We all knew the song would make some immediate impact and it did. And making that music video with my girls was amazing too. I couldn’t believe that someone as awkward and isolated as he was had a real tender spot when it came to such things, and that song was really big for our family as well as my career as a musician. There aren’t many times you get a song and you know that it is going to change lives, but we did with that one, and I have nothing but respect for someone who can make that kind of song and realize that it would work well for someone else, even if he was trying to make a name for himself too and trying to keep from being seen as a one-hit wonder. Anyone who has that kind of generosity of spirit is someone that I am always going to respect. I just wish I could have known him better, as he could have written and sung for a long time.
I remember when we were sent the two singles from his Latin-titled album. At first we didn’t know what to do with them. I mean, the songs were great, and they were definitely country, but would our fans understand what he was trying to do with them? I wasn’t sure, so I asked if the singer would come around to our station and talk with our fans, and then see if it would improve what our listeners thought about the material. And yeah, it did. He was a really gracious person and answered the questions of our listeners and hosts, and the songs went right to the top of our request charts and then it spread to others as the video we recorded in our station went viral. I was really glad that this shy and diffident person was willing to take the time to talk about why he had made the songs the way he did, and what he was trying to accomplish and why they all had Latin titles, and instead of alienating himself from our listeners, we found it really showed who he as as a person, someone who was really smart but also someone who had a clever sense of humor.
Is that your real name?
Yes, that’s my real name.
Why did you ever go by #N/A in the first place?
The whole point was to be anonymous. And I figured that I could be anonymous by making a reference to my real name that no one would get and by making a reference to the work I did where there were often not applicable results. I figured it would be a clever joke.
Is this upcoming album the same kind of clever joke?
I think so, but it’s a joke with a serious edge. Our society is deeply divided, and there is a genuine lack of trust between people who should get along, and this album is about that lack of trust and how it poisons relationships.
And we have played a couple of country songs from that album. What were you trying to accomplish with those songs and their titles?
I thought the songs were pretty straightforward relationship songs. In “Status Quo Antebellum,” the narrator is trying to get his old flame to come back to him, to forgive or forget the past and start over together again. Of course, status quo antebellum is the ending of a war where everything goes back to the way things were at the beginning of the conflict. It’s something we want to have happen but it’s not something that does happen. I figured that antebellum would also be a reference to the civil war that people would pick up as well. With “Ceteris Peribus,” wanted to portray the life of someone who was busy with work and trying to make a living, but where he would have preferred to have been with his sweetheart if he could have. He’s telling her all other things being equal, I’d rather be with you. Of course, ceteris peribus is an expression that economists like to use to compare how people would behave if all other things were equal, and everyone knows that all other things are never equal in reality. I was hoping that mysterious economic language was not so far removed from ordinary human experience. To some extent we are all influenced by economic concerns. That’s true for me as a musician, that’s true for you guys as deejays at a radio station, and that’s true of people who have to work for a living to take care of themselves and their families. So what I was trying to accomplish was taking terms that are familiar either to diplomatic history or economics and point out that they are not only elevated intellectual terms but also real and ordinary aspects of life.
Did you ever study diplomatic history?
I don’t think I ever had a class in the subject, but it is something I read on my own and as a student of military history it was a subject that came up often. War and diplomacy are like the good cop and bad cop of international relations, and many wars are ended by armistices and treaties that stop a conflict short of totally destroying any of the regimes involved. So yes, I would say I have studied diplomatic history. It wasn’t a foreign subject to me, even if it isn’t something that most people are familiar with.
Who would have thought to connect economics and diplomatic history with country music?
I did, that’s who. [Laughter.]
Do you think that people can relate to you?
I don’t know what you mean. We’re here in Tampa, and after I get done with the radio station I’m going to spend some time with my mom at her house, and after that I’m going to go to the Old Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner. I’m going to eat salad, bread, and chicken parmigiana and vanilla ice cream. I’m going to read a book or two and chat with the bartender while I drink Shirley Temples and with the people around me if they are friendly. People aren’t going to recognize me as someone famous, and they’re just going to think I’m a serious but fairly ordinary fellow. After spending the night in a hotel I’m going to fly back to Nashville to work on some business, and I’m going to take an ordinary flight and go economy class. I’m going to be surrounded by people like me, people traveling for business and/or pleasure and living pretty ordinary lives. I don’t want to be so out of touch that I lose sight of the way that people live.
Celebrities often do lose touch of how people live. Do you think that would harm your music?
Of course I do.
Can you think of any celebrities you’re trying to avoid becoming like?
I don’t want to name any names, as that wouldn’t be very kind, but yes, there are definitely some celebrities who seemed to lose touch with the people that they were originally singing about. They got wealthy and got involved only with other celebrities and left the country to go to New York City and adopted the wrong kind of worldview and really alienated their fans, the ones who had supported them and helped them to become famous.
I think we all know some people like that.
I think we do too.
You grew up not too far away from here, right?
That’s right. From the age of three to fourteen I lived just outside of Plant City. For the first five years or so I lived with my grandparents after that for the next five and a half years my mom and younger brother and I lived in a single-wide trailer just off of Sam Allen Road. During high school I lived in East Tampa just off of 50th and MLK, so it’s not as if this area is unfamiliar to me. You might consider me a local boy made good, if you wanted.
Do you have any stories about your youth that you plan on singing about? Would any of them make good country songs?
Yeah, I can think of some stories that would make great country songs. When I was a kid, one of my teachers invited my brother and I to come out to his place one Sunday afternoon, and he wanted to show his gun collection to us. I was pretty excited by that, and my brother and I shot targets with his rifles and pistols, and we even got to use his tuber relocator.
Well, it’s a bazooka made of pvc pipe and you use potatoes as ammunition. Technically, in many areas they are illegal, so our teacher happened to call it by another name.
That’s pretty funny. So a public school teacher of yours invited you to see his arsenal and try out shooing his weapons?
Yeah, what’s more country than that?
Were you always as nerdy as you are now?
Yeah, I have always been this way. When I was growing up as a kid people called me Dictionary boy because I would read reference materials for fun. I think it was pretty much destined for me that I would be the sort of person I am. I have always loved to play sports, but I’ve always spent a lot of time reading and writing and thinking, and that will always mark someone as an odd bird growing up where I did.
You must have been bullied a lot as a kid, right?
Oh yes, very much so.
Have any of those who bullied you apologized for it? Did they ever say, oh no, he’s famous, he might write a song about it?
I don’t think anyone has apologized to me, yet, because I’m famous, but when I was in graduate school, one of the people I grew up apologized to me for having been mean to me in elementary school, and she wasn’t even one of the worse bullies. I let her know she was forgiven and we laughed it off. There’s no point in holding a grudge about that kind of thing. The way I was treated as a kid definitely shaped who I am as an adult, but at the same time there is a lot of stuff that one simply has to forgive and let go as best as one is able. You can’t hold the rest of the world responsible for the way you were treated as a kid. You just have to use your experiences as fuels for success and becoming a better person than others have been to you.
So you don’t hold a grudge against us?
Why would I? I don’t happen to know you yet.
Did you ever keep in touch with how things were going in Plant City after you left?
Yeah, I visited there from time to time when I have lived in the area, and I still have family that lives nearby, so yes, I keep in touch with my folks there. I’m also part of a Facebook group called “I Growed Up In Plant City” where we talk about the way things used to be when we were kids there, even though I moved far away.
Do you ever think of moving back here?
Yeah, I’m actually working on building a castle of my own and a studio in the area, so I should be around a lot more often in the future, even if I have to divide my time with other areas. I’d definitely like to stay here most of the winters, at least.
How many homes do you have?
Well, I own a place outside of Portland and I’m building one here near Fort Lonesome, and I rent a place in Nashville as well, though I might end up building myself some kind of cabin in the country to live in when I go up there so I can stay rustic to help my writing.
Let me break in. You said you were building a castle?
Yes, that’s right.
Like, an actual castle?
Yes, I was thinking about having alligators in the moat, but that might be a bit too redneck. When I say I am building a castle, I mean exactly that.
I imagine the photographers will have a field day with that.
I imagine they will too, until I repulse them from my battlements with a tuber relocator.
I’m sure that would be entertaining to watch on TMZ.
I’d stream that until it went viral. And then I might write a song about it.
I would listen to that song.
I’m glad you would.
Do you think you’ll come by here often?
Absolutely. I’m sure I can drop in whenever there is a single I’m trying to promote or for awards show coverage, and perhaps when my place gets done here I can come on here often and just have ordinary conversations with you, if you and your listeners would like that.
I think we would like that a lot. You sound like a pretty entertaining person.
I’d like to think so.
Thanks for visiting us.
Thanks for having me.