From a purely personal point of view, the way Rockie Lynne sees it, life doesn't necessarily begin at birth. "When I was in the 7th grade I mowed lawns and saved my money until I had enough to go to JC Penney and buy a guitar. That was the beginning of my life."
Technically, Life Before Music-LBM---began for this singer/songwriter in Statesville, North Carolina, in the Piedmont region of the state where Interstates 40 and 77 meet. It was a small town where many of the residents make a living in one of the furniture factories and live their lives according to the strict tenets of the Southern Baptist Church.
"Growing up in my family it was church, church, church," Rockie recalls. "Several times a week, sometimes twice in one day. And according to Southern Baptists, everything is a sin." Certainly, the notion of a boy, still too young to read a hymnal, who believed that his own words he was singing in his head were better than those he was hearing sung around him by members of the congregation, would have been regarded as near blasphemy, so he kept his words and his thoughts to himself.
And luckily for him, a Kodak moment that caught a 4-year-old Rockie holding his uncle's guitar did not also reveal the passion in his young heart for music, inexplicable given the fact that there was none in his own home. At least not until he bought the guitar and shortly afterwards a record player from an unlikely source. "The First Baptist Church was having a yard sale and there was a cheap little record player with two albums for 75 cents. We were totally poor, so every cent mattered. But since the money was going to the church, my mother guessed it was okay."
Had she been familiar with the artists whose records were part of the package---KISS and Jimi Hendrix---she no doubt would have considered it far from okay, a fact Rockie was well aware of. "I knew I would get into big trouble if my parents ever actually heard the records, so I sat in my closet late at night listening to them really low and trying to figure the songs out on my guitar."
He joined his high school jazz ensemble, then began playing in bands. "We had a million different names, we were always getting fired. They wanted us to play cover songs, but we played my songs. We would get fired and a few weeks later, I would book us at the same place under a different name and some other band's photo." He met the members of a much older band at an industrial building where they all practiced, though musicianship frequently was compromised by their habits of hard drinking and fighting. One night, their guitar player quit and Rockie volunteered to take his place.
"I have always gravitated to music. I don't remember ever not feeling that way. I believed in my heart that I had something to say, songs to sing that were worth sharing, that people would want to hear. It wasn't as if I had the goal of a record deal--that was hardly conceivable. I just wanted to write songs and make music. I felt that I was a success just because I managed to earn a living doing it."
Throughout his life, Rockie was also blessed with moments and people of nearly divine intervention. When he was a teen, an inspiring role model was provided by neighbor Johnny Harrell, who was stationed at nearby Ft. Bragg in the Army's Special Forces. "When he came home to visit, his presence, how he carried himself, made a big impression on me. In my house, as soon as you graduated from high school, you were gone. Joining the Army made sense to me. It seemed like a good place to start, leaving home behind. The military turned out to be the most shaping experience of my life, on so many levels. I learned perseverance, self-discipline and respect, for self and others. My drill sergeant was a huge guy and I was a skinny kid, it was really tough, but I looked up to him and it was good for me. When I graduated from Basic Training, he told me that if I could finish that, I could do anything. I believed him."
While he was stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC, another mentor emerged from within that company. Jimmy Herring, a recent graduate of G.I.T. (Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles) who worked in a nearby music store, not only shared what he had learned with Rockie, but made an indelible impression on his eager student. "Musically, he was very soft-spoken but he practiced all the time. He was totally focused and dedicated. That was a great example for me, since there was a lot of down time at night on the base. Even now, if I don't practice at least two hours a day every day I feel like I'm cheating myself."
When his three years of active duty were up, Rockie moved on to the next stage of the life he was creating for himself; he loaded up his 1984 Toyota pick-up truck and pointed it west, to Hollywood, enrolling at G.I.T. on the G.I. Bill and renting a small apartment right around the corner. "Man, talk about a fish out of water!" he says with a laugh. "Between my upbringing and the Army, I had no social experience at all. I was so shy and unsure of myself in that environment that I had to buy a pair of sunglasses just to walk down the street. But the school is where I found my place, I didn't do anything except go to school and hang out with the buddies I made there. We all played at different places, so music was pretty much my life by then. Most of them were either into jazz or hard rock, but I had always gravitated to country music. People figured I was authentic because I grew up on a dirt road."
After G.I.T., he participated in some of the cattle calls for musicians regularly held in Los Angeles. In one of those, he was among the last two standing for a slot in a band with a record deal. When he didn't make it, he packed up the truck again and drove east until the road ended at the ocean, this time in Myrtle Beach, where he put it in park while he figured out the next step.
A popular local entertainer, Mike Shane, showed him the way. "After I saw him perform the first time, I introduced myself and told him I wanted to play for him. He hired me and I toured with him for two years as his guitar player and band leader. I watched everything he did. Mike Shane moved me vocally like no one else. Up until then, I had never thought of myself as a singer, but he asked me to do the harmony part on "Set 'Em Up, Joe," an old Vern Gosdin song. I did it, and afterwards, he gave me a copy of Chiseled In Stone and told me that if I listened to that album, I would be able to play country music. So, I listened over and over and learned all those songs. That was great advice."
When Shane went to Nashville in the early '90s to do some recording, Rockie came along and ended up staying a couple of years when he scored some side jobs playing guitar for some country acts (Noel Haggard, B.B. Watson, The McCarter Sisters). But, by the mid '90s, Rockie grew frustrated by the lack of personal expression that type of gig demanded, got back in his truck and hit the road, this time playing solo gigs in "bottom tier clubs" and selling CDs he had recorded himself: for the first time, leaving his career as a guitar player for hire and taking on the role of the front man.
"Everywhere I played, starting from the beginning, I did original material. I love the feeling of going to the next place and playing songs people have never heard. It's a little scary because you don't know, but you have to have faith. That's when my songwriting developed sort of a pop-country hook. If there's a bar full of people who want to hear "Sweet Home Alabama" and you're playing one of your own songs instead, you'd better hook them right away. We traveled the whole country, so we'd only get to a place twice a year. The first couple of times, people would write Lynyrd Skynryd songs on a napkin, but by the third time in, they'd be asking for my songs. That was an incredible feeling."
The whole country is a pretty big place, so eventually Rockie decided that if he was going to build a loyal regional fan base, he needed to pick a region. The Midwest was appealing on several levels and Minnesota as good a place as any. "I had been on the road so long, I didn't have any roots. To say I moved there would be an overstatement. I stopped there four years ago." There was Coon Rapids, a short drive northeast of Minneapolis and northwest of St. Paul, on the Mississippi River.
Over time, logging 200-300 dates a year, he accomplished his goal of building a solid regional base of fans, while selling over 40,000 copies of his CD. "Though I never did this with the purpose of getting a major label record deal, I knew I had gone as far as I could go without one. It is a blessing to do what you love. I've always been happy, but I'm not satisfied. I would like to sing my songs for as many people as I can. There are 280 million people in the United States. I just need one million of them."
Or just one, if that one happens to be the powerful head of the largest music company in the world. The path to Universal Music Group Worldwide CEO Doug Morris's Manhattan office began in a Tavern in Prior Lake, Minnesota, just south of the Twin Cities. Bruce Larson, who worked in sales & marketing for Warner Bros., was having dinner at St. Patrick's Tavern. On his way to the restroom, he poked his head in the lounge and was immediately struck by Rockie's performance "He was playing in front of about 75 people that night, but with all the music and energy that was pouring out of him and his guitar it could have been a coliseum of 75,000," Larson commented. Having spent his last twenty dollars on a round of drinks, Larson asked the woman who was selling Rockie's CDs that night for a complementary copy; she refused, not believing he was for real. She did, however, take his e-mail address and passed it along to Rockie. "I sent Bruce a CD but I didn't think much about it. I was pretty disillusioned with the business side of Nashville, I had been down there a few times and didn't have any luck with it."
Rockie's luck was about to change dramatically. Larson got the CD and invited Rockie to his house to play more of his songs. Larson sensed something bigger than the distribution deal he originally envisioned and through a colleague, was able to get a copy into the hands of Kevin Law, the Executive Vice President of Universal Records. "Kevin was the first A&R guy who heard my music and got it."
Not only did Law get it, he wanted it. So much that he flew Rockie and Larson to New York immediately. The following day, Rockie spent hours in Law's office, playing him some of the 120+ songs that he had written.
"At the end of the day he asked me if I could stay another day because he wanted me to play for Doug Morris. It was all feeling a little bit surreal at that point."
For one of the smallest audiences but most important shows of his life, Rockie played three songs.
Following the command performance, Morris and Law talked things over while Rockie and Larson went out to lunch. They barely took a bite of their food when Larson got a call on his cell, asking them to return to Morris's office right away, where they remained until the deal was signed. The newest member of the Universal family was moved to the Plaza Hotel for the remainder of his stay in New York.
"Though I had been making music almost my whole life, all of this happened so fast. I felt like Alice in Wonderland falling through the rabbit hole. I went out on the balcony of my room, it was the most beautiful September night in New York City. It overlooked Central Park. Can you imagine the feeling? I could not believe what was happening. It was unbelievable."
Although Rockie was signed in New York, it was a foregone conclusion that what was needed was a push out of Nashville. Lucky for him, Universal had a joint venture with some of country music's biggest hitters, former MCA Records president (musician and producer), Tony Brown, and former president of Arista Records (and songwriter), Tim DuBois, at a label called Universal South. On Brown and DuBois' next trip to New York, they went in to see Morris. "We went up there to play Doug some of the new music we were working on. He politely listened, waiting for us to be finished so that he could play us Rockie," laughs Brown. "We were immediately interested."
The accelerated pace continued for Rockie, taking things to Nashville, where in quick order, he met the Universal South staff, and was teamed with producers Blake Chancey and Tony Brown. With Kevin Law in New York, they began going through songs Rockie had in his catalogue, while at the same time, he developed a few select relationships with cowriters that resulted in some new songs. "We picked 40 songs that we thought were the strongest. Then, as a group, we narrowed that to 16 and started cutting three at a time."
This editing process led to what would become Rockie's major label debut, due in stores March, 2006. The songs on the record reflect a lifetime of rising above adversity, challenge and doubt; of playing every region of this vast country, from coast to coast, and all points in between. A generous soul traveling alone, silently counting his blessings as he takes a leap of faith on the tiny stage of a roadhouse filled with skeptical strangers, or an audience of one CEO in the posh suite of a Manhattan high-rise office building, believing in his heart that his words can reach out, bridge the divide and tug a common thread of human experience. He succeeds because above all else, Rockie Lynne mines our kindred sprit simply by sharing his truth in song.
"I think that as a whole, this record is a snapshot that captures who I am and where I've been to get to where I am now. I have always written very autobiographically. Almost always my songs are musical expressions of some part of my life. There's a piece of my own truth somewhere in everything I write. I don't know how to do it any other way."
--- from the official Rockie Lynne website