Things have come full-circle for country artist Kevin Fowler. When he was a young, long-haired shredder, he got a little taste of the big time, and its sour finish shaped his musical career. Now 17 years later, having built an audience from the ground up, he’s ready to dip his toe in major-label waters again.
His story begins in Amarillo, Texas, where the child of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams fans discovered the six-string and used it like every teen does: to piss off his parents. Weaned on metal in the ’80s, he left for California at age 20, where he spent a year at the Guitar Institute of Los Angeles.
“I went straight from Amarillo, Texas, to Hollywood,” Fowler said. “I felt like I fell right off the turnip wagon. I’d never seen a pimp, a hooker, a homeless person ever before. You fall off the wagon, and it was a great life experience.”
Feeling a bit like an alien, he moved to back to Texas, settling in Austin, and eventually joined hard rockers Dangerous Toys as a guitarist in 1992, then fresh off the album “Hellacious Acres.” Although he was essentially a hired gun, he had the fortune to witness the fall when the record label dropped the group.
“They were all of a sudden out on their own, and we all went from riding in a tour bus to working in sub shops six months later. I really learned how treacherous the industry can really be,” Fowler said.
He went on to start Southern hard-rock act Thunderfoot, and stepped out front. He’d never really wanted to be a singer, but the musician was tired of working with flaky vocalists or convincing others to record his songs. It was a great education, and set the stage for him to go it alone as a songwriter a few years later, turning to the country that fermenting inside him since his youth.
“When I started trying to build this thing, I said, ‘Let’s try to do it where it’s all about fans, not about the label,'” Fowler said. “I’m really a rock singer, singing country songs. I took a lot of hints and all the rock guys I’ve ever played with.”
From the start, he showed a flair for down-home sentiments. The title track from his self-released 2000 debut, “Beer, Bait and Ammo,” became something of a regional anthem, and he easily assumed the mantle of redneck poet. He loves a good foot-stomping paean to eternal verities, be it the twangy backwoods pride of “100% Texan,” the laconic lament “J.O.B.” or the honky-tonk mug-raiser “The Lord Loves the Drinkin’ Man.” He’s also capable of amusing bluegrass-tinged party-starters like “Tall Drink of Water.”
But the key to his success was forged on the road, where he reckons he’s played around 3,500 shows since 1998. His sophomore release, “High on the Hog,” was followed by a live album and he’s worked the circuit, falling in with the burgeoning Texas country/red-dirt crowd, which broadened his reach.
“It’s kind of melded where it’s one big scene. And it’s been awesome watching this thing grow,” Fowler said.
For 2004’s “Loose, Loud & Crazy,” he began co-writing for the first time, and did even more for his latest release, 2007’s “Bring It On.” Although he was signed to his friend Clint Black’s Equity label, Fowler said he was still doing most of the heavy lifting. When the imprint closed shop last year, he began to wonder if it might be time to hop on that major-label pony again.
“We’ve never been on a label that can do that much for us,” he said. “We’ve been out there doing it on our own pretty much. Sometimes you get it built up to a point where you just can’t go any further.”
While he wasn’t able to share any details, Fowler expects to make a formal announcement soon, and really feels like next year will be a big one. The songwriter already scored a hit this year with the tune “Long Line of Losers” for Montgomery Gentry, and has written about 40 more from which to fashion the new record, which he expects will come out sometime next year.
“We’ve already test-marketed it; we know it works,” he said of a potential wider release. “Now we just need to show it to more people.”
Kevin Fowler with Kevin Pickett and Southern Rain perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Wormy Dog Saloon, 311 E. Sheridan. “Chris Parker