I'm not 21 years old.
I know things.
I haven't just been in love --
I've loved a lot. I've hurt a lot.
I caused a lot of my own pain,
And I know all this stuff is real because
I've been there.
My words are lived.
When I talk about making you cry --
It's an orgasm, but it's also complete, total love.
I've been to church on Sunday, been in jail.
That's pretty final."
Jeff Bates has a voice like the mud at the bottom of the Mississippi -- deep, thick and with enough grit that you know it can only come from the residue of a world completely inhabited. When he talks about knowing, he means that in the completest sense imaginable. A child of dubious origins, taken in by a Mississippi sharecropper and the Pentecostal minister's daughter who was his wife, the dark-haired darker-eyed songwriter seems like the stuff country cliches are made of. Until you talk to him about where he's been, what he's seen and where he's headed, and then you realize: this kind of honesty, passion and depth of soul only comes from a true connection to one's own heart.
"You know what ain't real?" asks the man The New York Times likened to Barry White, clearly riled up at the betrayal of his kind of music. "A happy little ditty that ain't about nothing! I wanna take my 37, 38 years of living and not sugarcoat it. Let's look at how people really live, what's important: a real live wall-shaking climax is important! Being able to make a living and support your family, make ends meet -- that's important! To raise your kids the way you want to raise them -- that's important.
"We all want the same things: to love and be loved, really loved. Deeply. Profoundly. Let's get some music and see if we all want the same things, have that recognition. Let's see if we all have the same emotions: if I've felt what you've felt. Because we all get up every day and we live it. You know what I mean?"
To hear the intensity in his spoken voice is to understand the intensity that he brings to such shudder-inducers as the half-spoken, half-sung "Long Slow Kisses" or the utterly erotic "I Wanna Make You Cry," just as he celebrates the redneck hand-to-mouth economics of his barely-making-ends-meet manifesto "Already Spent" the earnestness of the assisted redemption that is "The Wings of Mama's Prayers" or the tale of a mongrel who recognizes the commonality of all human beings that is the title track of the critically-acclaimed Rainbow Man. Jeff Bates -- who took a lifetime to arrive -- isn't messing around.
He's come a long way from a small town in Mississippi where he never quite fit in ("We kept Vitalis in business and my Mama dressed me in double knit pants when all the other kids had long hair and were wearing blue jeans."). In spite of incredible grades and reading 580 words a minute, at 14 a fight on a school bus ended Bates' higher education.
"My father told me I oughta just come work with him because he needed some help (logging)," recalls the workingman bard. "I loved learning, so I was a little sad; but mostly, I was glad to be out of it. I learned how to work, how to get along with adults and communicate with grown-ups because I was working alongside them as an equal. And along with that came a little more freedom."
Freedom is relative. To a young man whose world consisted of home, church and school -- and never spanned beyond the countyline -- it was "between Columbia and Bunker Hill." But for the quiet shy kid who'd immersed himself in creativity (Bates draws and is intrigued by all the visual arts), it was music that drew him out.
"I was playing guitar at the Pentecostal Church we went to," says Bates of his initial foray into music. "And one day, someone came up to the house to see if I wanted to learn to play banjo for the school talent show. Well... give a redneck a banjo it's like giving a killer a gun. I couldn't get the rolls between my 3rd and index fingers, but I figured out that two-finger Grandpa Jones style -- and I tore it up. So, now I had the church and bluegrass."
But it was the first time Bates, who at 17 had joined the National Guard, entered a bar room that his whole world came alive. "It was life like I'd never seen it! Evil. Bad. Scary. Fighting. Blood. Guts. Sex. Honky tonk. Hell-raising. Neon -- damn, neon... all that redneck in me just came out, because I knew there was all kinds of living going on in there, and I couldn't wait to figure it all out.
"Playing a bar with a dirt floor... the girls in overalls with arms bigger'n yours from hauling hay... You just love those people 'cause they don't know how to be anything but what they are. I'd get sucked into the carnal nature of it all: It's Friday night; let's hammer down. There's a pretty girl, I'll take it -- thank you. Could I have some more... It's an intensity of people letting go, people connecting. There's nothing like it, and in those kinds of places, it almost always starts with the band."
For Bates, though, the local musicians didn't take it as seriously. "They made it all about them, what they thought was cool, not the people who were coming to see them." He eventually trademarked his band name -- Southern Storm, put his musicians on salary and set about earning a killer regional reputation as a guy who took no prisoners onstage.
He wanted to make a record to sell from the bandstand, but he didn't want it to be covers. He didn't know how to get songs from publishers, so he wrote his own -- with that little-album-that-could ultimately garnering some tertiary airplay and selling over 10,000 copies along the way.
But the artist recently given an "A" in Entertainment Weekly for Rainbow Man knew there was more. He moved to Nashville and finally felt "at home. It was about songs and music. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was where I needed to be..." He began making the rounds, writing with other writers, singing demos when asked and trying to figure out where a guy with a voice that sounds like the best parts of Conway Twitty possessed by the raw sexuality of Elvis fits in.
A marriage that wasn't working coupled with his wife's will to leave Music City took Bates from resident to commuter. But the life change weighed heavy on the small town boy who'd finally found the place he belonged. And even as he was finding himself as an artist and a writer -- in spite of a successful run as regional rocking country aggregation -- he was also sliding down a slippery slope of crystal methamphetamine addiction.
"I felt like I was struggling to be in the game," confesses the songwriter who comes from the humblest places. "It was very frustrating... there was the divorce from that wife, living with someone else, trying to get back to Nashville for 2 days here, 3 days there, doing drugs every day -- because when I took the drugs, I feared nothing, was the smartest guy, had it all under control. And when the doubts crept in, well, there was always more drugs."
Though the soft-spoken man was lying to himself, he was also desperately seeking his dream. A demo of a song he'd written with Burton Collins (who wrote Patty Loveless' Grammy-nominated "How Can I Help You Say Good-Bye") of "Love Is Just A Whisper Away" caught the ear of Warner Chappell publisher Rusty Gaston, who wanted to know who the singer was. "And the funny thing is... that was the one time when I sang a demo, maybe because I was a writer, they didn't ask me to take that gravel out of my voice."
Gaston made the pilgrimage to Arkansas to see the unrelenting vocalist and performer. He immediately committed -- offering Bates not just a writer's deal, but an artist development situation to try and help the deep throated Mississippian become an artist with a record contract.
At the same time, Bates met his musical soulmate in the form of one Kenny Beard, who had a #1 for every day of the week including Aaron Tippin's "Where The Stars & Stripes," Tracy Lawrence's "If The World Had A Front Porch," "As Any Fool Can See" and "Today's Lonely Fool," as well as Trace Adkins' #2 "The Rest Of Mine," George Jones "Wood and Wire," Tim McGraw's "What She Left Behind" and Brooks & Dunn's "She Was Born To Run." It was a fortuitous meeting, because even as Bates was maintaining the illusion that his life was picture perfect, it was eroding. "Maybe the dream hangs on no matter what," he admits. "But the lie escalates, and the only thing I had to keep me going was the writing. I'd addicted myself out of the touring business... so I needed the publishing money. And the closer I got to 'the dream,' the more I was afraid of being found out, of being nothing more than a bar singer."
Beard saw far more than a bar singer in the painfully shy guitarist with the voice that's all supple suede, deep as the canyon and richer than caramel pie washed back with sweet milk. "I walked into that room, and I swear -- I saw myself. He was a hit songwriter who'd come from where I was, had overcome the same... not disadvantages, but it's different when you're poor, when you're a heavy set kid. He didn't judge me."
Judge him? The two opened up about what they really liked -- the deepest kinds of sexual connection -- and the result was "I Wanna Make You Cry." From there, the pair would go on to write striding submission to what she wants "Lovin' Like The That," the struggle to keep the faith in the music when the allure of home is strong "My Mississippi," the duality of soul love "Your Lovin' Talks To Me," the hardcore pledge of musical allegiance "Country Enough" -- and the radio-breaking ballad of love's ever-more-serious realities that put Bates' in the Top 10 "The Love Song."
"Writing with Kenny was the first time I was ever completely really lost in the song. I just forgot about me, I was so lost in what we were writing, that moment -- and I learned more about writing a song that day than I did in the previous two years, and I'd learned a bunch!
"I was feeling free enough, and not too dumb or too country to just spit out lines. KB looked up at me, said, 'Damn! You're a good writer...' and everything changed. In that moment, I learned to trust my instincts, that what I have to say and how I say it, well, a lotta people talk and look at the world like I do. That if I can be true to that, I can give people back their lives."
There was of course the matter of the drug addiction, which Bates was keeping hidden from the people he valued most. But an escalating habit required more cash than the fledging songwriter had -- and he turned to stealing, ultimately ending up busted for grand theft and packed away, where rehab was part of his sentence.
"I don't know what was worse: the shame or the relief. The judge actually said it seemed more like a cry for help, because 'for someone who didn't want to get caught, you sure made a lot of dumb mistakes.' And I did."
Among them pawning Beard's beloved guitar Old Magic, the channel of many of his biggest hits and best loved songs. Calling the people he'd wronged from jail, Bates let folks know where to find the things he'd hocked -- "and calling Kenny Beard was the worst, because I didn't want to disappoint him. But I knew his claim ticket was coming up, and I didn't want him to lose that guitar."
In the process of getting clean -- 7 days of mostly sleep from the crash, then a month of trying to rebuild his nutrients -- and getting right with people, Jeff Bates had a realization. Praying only works if you ask God what He wants. "I'd always prayed selfishly before, for what I wanted... considering where I was, that hadn't worked. So I told God, just tell me what you want me to do. If you want me to move back to Mississippi and be a welder, so be it."
The next day, Bates learned that Gene Watson had cut two of his songs -- "Would It Be Cheating (If I Still Love The Girl You Used To Be)" and "The Man and Me and You" -- and Tracy Lawrence had also cut "What A Memory," which became a single. Shortly thereafter Montgomery Gentry weighed in with his "Break My Heart Again" that opened with the portentous line: "How many Mrs. Rights have I handled wrong..."
Kenny Beard told the man struggling to put the pieces of his life back together to come see him when he got out. When he did, Beard apologized for not realizing what kind of trouble his friend was in, and gave him Old Magic with the pawn ticket in the case "just in case you ever wanna do drugs again."
And so the quest -- for the knee-buckling vocalist who'd lost a Mercury record contract and his Warner Chappell writing deal after his bust -- began again. But this time, the dream wasn't daunting, it was destiny. Singing before the critical RCA A&R and executive team of Reneee Bell and RLG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante -- people who know and make stars as a way of life -- the man who once had to buy a gram of meth to get through a showcase did the only thing he knew to do: stand tall and sing.
"People ask me how I got a record deal... and I tell'em 'I just didn't want it anymore.' I remember telling myself -- and I knew who those people were -- 'I'm gonna sing my songs, tell the truth and screw'em if they don't like it.' And you know what? Joe Galante liked it fine."
He more than liked it. Twenty minutes after the meeting, certain that it just was one more dog'n'pony show for practice, the phone rang. Jeff Bates had an offer from RCA Records. They respected who he was, how he'd lived, what he'd seen, his perspective on the realities and emotions of people leading unexamined lives so fraught with getting by his songs might be the only chance they got to understand themselves. And there was that voice.
"I guess you could say I'm a pionner, but more in terms of rediscovering what everybody else has forgotten," says the man with the voice that echoes Conway, suggests Vern Gosdin, offers hints of the great Elvis Presley "I don't know how it got left behind, but there's a lot of good music in this format that nobody seems to remember, so I'm picking up little pieces of that, parts of this, putting it together in a way that speaks to my soul because I love country music, real hardcore country.
"I wanna mix all that with my soul, breath it out, put my heart around it until it's what my music is. Different; unique yet familiar. I'm a melting pot of those who came before me -- a mirror of the past, a window to the future of what this can be, including the truth -- something somewhere along the way we stopped singing about. I'm unashamed of my truth, what I've done wrong -- in fact, I'm strong and determined from my experience, passionate about this music, about life and love and God and compassionate to those who are blind and tired, hungry, lonely, alone because I've been there. I know.
"I don't care about singing for teenagers. They haven't lived yet; haven't had their heart broken so bad they can't breath. They don't know yet that life is full of imperfections and it's how you get through them that matters. In some ways, it's come down to a look and a sound more than honesty -- and that's okay for some. But not for me. I've worked til I can't hardly move. I gave up on the dream and had it come back to me... profoundly touched by how long it had taken, all the sacrifices, the selling of my soul and regaining of my soul, and what I learned.
"We all do that to different levels as we seek what we think we want. That's what I want my music to be -- because that's what people's lives are. If this sounds like bullsh--, well that's okay; but it's my truth and how I feel -- and I know I know what country music is, was and will be. It's the best I've got, and I believe in it."
Sometimes, as the man says, you gotta believe. For Jeff Bates, it's not even a question, it's a matter of course. Like breathing or sleeping or eating, he believes in the power of country music to connect -- and his will to be the wire that carries the current. Plug in and feel the electricity.
--- from the official Jeff Bates website