"There comes a time in your life when you finally find your stride and you start making great music, and you realize that it doesn't necessarily have to always appeal to the masses," says Trent Willmon. "What I want to do is make music and look myself in the mirror every morning and say, 'I believe in everything I'm doing.' Because when you have to step up on that stage 150 nights a year and sing and give everything you've got to the people who've paid money to come and see you, you've got to believe in what you do." Well said, Trent.
"I vow to never again be content sitting on the sidelines. I vow to keep playing until the whistle blows."
Trent Willmon's 2004 eponymous debut defined the Texan as a fun lovin', beer drinkin', honky tonk livin' country music artist. His 2006 sophomore album, A Little More Livin', reflected Trent's growth as a singer/songwriter, gave listeners' a glimpse of his bluesy, Texas roots and was delivered with an optimistic, ready-for-anything look down the road ahead.
What followed in the two years between his last album and the release of his aptly named third studio album, Broken In, constituted a lot more livin'and a new focus for the man who told Country Weekly magazine this year that "I vow to never again be content sitting on the sidelines. I vow to keep playing until the whistle blows. Even if I am far behind, to keep playing like it is up to me to make the touchdown..."
His first two albums yielded four top 40 country singles, including "On Again Tonight," "Beer Man," "The Good Life" and (deep breath) "Dixie Rose Deluxe's Feed Store, Gun Shop, Used Car, Beer, Bait, BBQ, Barber Shop Laundromat." Less than four months after the release of A Little More Livin', Willmon was dropped from the roster of his major-label as part of a company-wide merger shakeup that also ousted one of his biggest supporters, (former) Sony Nashville president John Grady.
In the time it took to pick himself up and shake the dust from his hat, new opportunities began pouring in. The first as the host of a CMT (Country Music Television) pilot for "America's Top Cowboy" - a reality show competition showcasing the fearless spirit of the American Cowboy. It was a perfect match for Willmon and when the show debuted in May 2007, Trent's comfort level and ease in front of the camera prompted a phone call from a movie producer offering the singer the lead role in a family friendly Western, Palo Pinto Gold, that began filming in January 2008.
Willmon published and released his own cookbook, "The Beer Man Cookbook" - featuring over 150 recipes based on grilling and smoking - a hobby that he's long excelled at. His songwriting career also picked up with Brad Paisley ("Better Than This") and Eric Church ("Before She Does") cutting two of his songs and Montgomery Gentry locking in a single ("Back When I Knew It All") that would later become the first release from their 2008 album.
Despite the new opportunities - or maybe because of them - and with no label deal on the table, Willmon began to question his place as an artist within country music's kingdom and the lure of life on a Texas ranch as a songwriter/part-time actor began to sound more and more promising. After all, his accomplishments so far looked like "not a bad eight-second ride in the national spotlight" for a guy who grew up as far away from it as possible, in a house with no TV on a ranch in a dry county.
"I thought I had done the best I could possibly do in the music world, and had been bucked off, which I figured was just God's way of telling me I wasn't meant to be a singer," he says. But eventually he realized he was just feeling sorry for himself. "After a couple of weeks of that," he adds, "I snapped out of it."
Somewhat ironically, it was the determined work ethic of one of his most hardcore cowboy friends that inspired Willmon to rethink his early retirement from the music biz. "I know this bull rider named Justin McBride who went 8 years or so on the PBR Tour, and he kept drawing the short stick," Willmon says. "The guy just had hard, tough, bad luck. But he always bounced back, and he finally won a world championship - he won it hanging off his bull the last four seconds of his ride. He never quit. And I think just being around that guy really kept me from quitting, too."
While McBride's example spurred Willmon to "cowboy up," a timely call from Brad Turcotte, president of Houston's Compadre Records, provided him with the means to get back in the saddle. Turcotte was looking to add a Nashville-based mainstream country artist to his roster of primarily Texas singer-songwriters (including outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver), and Willmon - an authentic Texas songwriter himself - was the perfect candidate. In return, Willmon was offered the artistic freedom to record exactly the kind of album he wanted to make, co-writing more than half the songs, hand-picking the rest (including several he'd wanted to record on his first two albums), and even sharing in the production duties for the first time, along with co-producers Rodney Clawson and Dan Frizell. The end result, aptly titled Broken In, is the kind of bold artistic statement one makes when there's nothing left to lose and everything to gain by trusting instinct and experience over fashion and self-doubt. As Willmon sings on the opening title track, "I ain't broke/I'm just broken in" - a line that fits him so good, it's hard to believe it's from one of the few songs on the album he didn't have a hand in writing.
"I found out from one of the writers, Ben Hayslip, that they actually did write that one with me in mind, which was cool," Willmon says. "But I didn't realize that at the time I cut it - I just heard the song and knew it was me." He explains that in addition to feeling a little bit older and a little bit wiser, not to mention like a better singer, songwriter and musician, he now looks back on "the tough spots and trials" he went through over the last couple of years with the realization that it all helped make him a better - and ultimately more confident - person.
Willmon remains justifiably proud of his first two albums, which showcased his unique ability to balance mainstream appeal with a traditional country sound without polishing away the roadhouse edge of his live shows (a hybrid sound derived as much from the influence of Lone Star rabble-rouser Joe Ely as superstar Strait). But Broken In, though still loaded with eligible radio singles (from the opening title track to the closing "There Is a God"), is his rawest (in the best sense of the word) sounding record yet, as evidenced by the bluesy stomp of "Cold Beer & a Fishing Pole," the devilish fun of "Little Set of Horns" and the Wild Turkey haze of "Good Old Days are Gone" (a honky-tonk free-for-all featuring guest turns by Texas music mavericks Kevin Fowler and Roger Creager). There's true grit in the quieter moments, too, though, reflecting Willmon's chief goal to fashion an album of "songwriter songs" - the kind that would hold up just as well in a solo unplugged setting as they would when delivered by a rocking honky-tonk band. He readily points to "That's the Way I Remember It," penned by his co-producer Clawson, as one of his favorites on the album.
"I heard that song years ago and wanted to cut it on my second album," he says. "That song is the reason I met and came to work with Rodney in the first place; I heard it and thought, 'I gotta find this guy.' Because that is hands down one of the best-written songs I've ever heard. It hit me like a Guy Clark lyric."
Willmon himself hits that same esteemable mark as a songwriter on standout tracks like "Tumbleweed Town" - a loving but unflinching snapshot of his hometown that captures the austere beauty of the West Texas landscape as vividly as the rugged perseverance of its people. It's the kind of song you really have to have lived in order to write and sing it with conviction, as is "How a Cowboy Lives" - another Willmon original (cowritten with Bobby Pinson and Jeremy Spillman) that in theme, execution and emotional punch is arguably the highlight of the whole album.
"That's the background I come from," Willmon says of the cowboy way of life. "My heroes have always been cowboys, and my friends are cowboys, so there's a certain amount of accountability that every song that I sing has with those people. Because long before I would ever try to please Nashville or L.A. or New York City, I play everything for my cowboy buddies and say, 'Hey, try this on for size.' That's just who I am, and as far as I'm concerned, nothing else matters."
Stubborn as that might sound on paper, there's no hint of arrogance or attitude for attitude's sake when Willmon says this. He is, as Compadre's Turcotte attests, a man whose character is every bit as authentic as his music. That's how this singing cowboy lives, and with his sense of purpose born again and stronger than ever, Willmon won't likely entertain thoughts of riding away again no matter what the future holds.
"Right now, I think I'm on the path to being the best that I've ever been," he says. "I don't know what that means or what God's got planned for me, but I know for sure now that he definitely meant for me to play and write music."
With all that livin' and learning under his belt, it's no surprise that Willmon opted to name his third album Broken In. Nor is it surprising that it is, from start to finish, far and away his best work to date.