Interview: James Robert Webb

"There are so many amazing places in Nashville. But I recommend people stay off of the beaten path."

Bison Creek Records artist, James Robert Webb, just released his new single “Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere, ” that was produced by Buddy Cannon. True to his blue-collar roots, James Robert Webb walks the line between traditional and modern country music. We talked with the singer/songwriter about his first trip to Nashville and what he likes to do on a day off. Check it out!

Did you always want to be a musician or was there a specific moment that something happened that made you think “this is what I want to do with my life.” If so, what was it?
Well, I’ve always been a musician, naturally. I was always drawn to music and any instrument I could get my hands on. Some way to make organized noise. I remember picking out melodies on my mother’s Kimball piano when I was three or four. And at that time I was listening to her 8 tracks, like Fleetwood Mac Rumours on her stereo in headphones.

We weren’t a musical family in that we didn’t sing as a group or play instruments. My dad played the radio and he has a really great voice because I hear him at church—but I don’t ever remember hearing him sing as a child. He was always so focused on trying to put food on the table and provide for us that I don’t think he had any chance to rest for a moment and try to be musical. Now, my mother made sure everyone had piano lessons. I took for a couple of years, but that didn’t take because I found I could play by ear. It wasn’t that I was some kind of prodigy, it’s just that natural ability. I was in all state in band in high school and kept playing through college and beyond but I never sang until I started songwriting.

I can even remember sitting in my dorm room at Oklahoma Baptist University, playing guitar with some friends. I was probably playing Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under The Bridge” or something like that. I remember one of my friends saying that I should go to Nashville or LA. And I remember that moment. I was 18. And all I could think of was not having to go back to the place I came from. At that point, I had seen enough musicians to see that a music man’s life wasn’t very stable—of course at that point, I’m seeing guys playing in bar bands, and on the road in local start up bands. Looking back, it’s kind of a haunting, eerie moment. I still remember sitting there with my guitar, by that whitewashed wall in Brotherhood Dorm with the sun shining in. I had never even considered going to Nashville because I was an over-achiever with an inferiority complex. I had never allowed myself the luxury to think that “I” could do anything extraordinary. I came from a small town and everyone I knew worked 40 plus hours at a blue collar job. That moment was kind of a cross-roads for me. I’ve thought about it over the years, looking back subconsciously, I guess. And sometimes I wonder if maybe right at that moment, I kind of sold my soul to the devil by NOT going to Nashville, but taking the safe path and finishing school.

I know a couple of years later I felt that moment haunting me. I was in medical school and Brett James left and went to Nashville. He was a year ahead of me at the University of Oklahoma Medical School, but I didn’t know him. The rational, law-abiding, straight-A student, “pay your taxes and keep your head down” part of me thought he was crazy. But I know in my heart then and now that there was a reason that I took notice—there’s a part of me that I didn’t think about it at the time, but I was repressing it. That creative side. And then the next thing I know, “Jesus Take The Wheel” is on the radio. And now, here I am. It’s very strange in a way. Almost like the Matrix.

But as far as a single event that made me KNOW that this is what I’m supposed to do? A thousand, I guess. Every time I mastered a guitar lick as a 14 year old, I felt in my fingers that this was what I was meant to do. The feeling I got when I played Great Balls of Fire as a little kid, figured it out by ear at maybe 8 or 9 years old, just self taught—I knew it. Part of me thought I was silly or embarrassed. Or, maybe growing up the way I did, I thought it was a sin to be too proud to think that I could be some big star like Elvis or Garth Brooks. But there has always been that calling. There were times like when I made all-state, first chair, etc that I felt that call. I could have reached out and grabbed it. And sometimes I did, but a lot of times, that fear of failure, I guess, held me back. At least until the Universe finally started beating me over the head, saying “Hey, dummy!”

Now those moments are in the ‘real world’ as an adult, after that calling lay dormant and now was resurrected. Now it’s the sound of a crowd cheering, the tears I see in a lady’s eyes when I sing, the chills that run down my shoulders when I’m in a write and the right words just fall out. When I’m not the hot, sexy little 20 year old kid anymore in skinny jeans that the labels want, but you keep seeing the signs everywhere you look. That’s how you know, I guess.

Is there anyone in your family that you can credit as being instrumental in your decision to go into the music field?
My parents have always been supportive. Aside from trying to raise me and my sisters and trying to provide the best life they could for us in a terrible economy—they were there sacrificing above and beyond to pay for lessons, instruments, and all that. In fact, a couple of years ago my dad told me that he always thought I was going to be a band director. I guess I was only fooling myself.

But I think it even goes further down up the tree than that. I was blessed with the sweetest grandparents that God ever gave a kid on either side. I was always encouraged to go for it and do things. To be myself. They used to say things all the time like, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” It’s almost like words in a magic spell, especially when you come from a place where you’re constantly told that you’re “not good enough” and “you’ll never make it.” Those are lies that the world and our well meaning friends and family tell us. In the end, it’s what you choose to believe that marks your destiny. If you can’t believe in yourself, there’s no one else that’s going to. Expect your grandparents. Thank God for grandparents.

If I owe my decision to my artist career to anyone, it’s Dewayne Boyd. He’s a guy from the church I came up in that was tuning my piano and heard my first demos. He heard something special—the potential—that I couldn’t hear. He was the one that really encouraged me to pursue music and I’ve never regretted that. Because really, it’s brought me back around to where I’m supposed to be.

Who have been some of your biggest musical influences growing up and do the same artists currently continue to influence you now?
There’s a term in medicine where there’s so many thing—it’s called TNTC—“too numerous to count.” I really can’t even give a short list because I listen to everything. I’ve always been open to new ideas. I think music is bigger than a genre or what humans label it as. It has a power greater than all of us. But then again, TNTC also implies a little laziness, so…I was coming of age musically when the 90’s country and alternative rock stuff was big. So Garth Brooks and Nirvana. Nine Inch Nails and Alan Jackson. Reba and Red Hot Chili Peppers if you will. Classic rock, the Eagles, AC/DC. Old stuff—Bob Wills, Marty Robbins, Roger Miller, George Jones, Patsy, Willie that my grandparents hooked me on. All that true “Outlaw” music Willie and Waylon and Merle especially—that’s what I consider red dirt, but really it’s pop country. I’ve always been fascinated with singers that sing about the dark side of life. The bad things, without glorifying it, but just being real and—I guess the people I respect, like Merle Haggard or Miranda Lambert, just don’t pretend like it doesn’t exist. Polite society ignores it and pretends it’s not real. True songwriters don’t. They get to the core of real life. That’s the three chords and the truth to me.

Aside from singing do you play any instruments?
Yeah, about everything, but that can be a jack-of-all-trades kind of thing. I wouldn’t consider myself a great studio-level player like all these Nashville cats. They’re amazing and I don’t know very many artists that can truly hang with a Joel Spivey or Aubrey Haney.

I still consider piano my primary instrument and guitar is a close second. I’m a drummer and play bass, but I’ve been too busy singing. I was starting to play fiddle and mandolin when I started writing, so that’s fallen by the wayside, but it’s so hard to find a fiddler in Tulsa, that I’ve been wood-shedding a lot lately. The hardest instrument for me is my voice. I’ve only been singing for 5-6 years, so I am only just now coming into my ‘voice’ or ‘finding my voice’ as they say. That happened about halfway through recording Honky Tonk Revival. That made it so easy to step into the studio with Buddy and be able to hang at that level at this point.

Since every song has a story, what’s the story behind your new single “Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere?”
To me, this song speaks to everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or you’re 60. Everyone is looking for love, for romance. And everyone has been on this date. You know—you ask a girl out and they say yes. But you pick her up and it’s all awkward and you’ve been driving “around for hours”and “been through town about a dozen times.” I’ve been on a dozen of those dates. Every time, as the guy, I’m thinking “I thought she said yes when I asked her out.” But then the girl is like “Why did he ask me out?” It’s that awkward first date jitters where you’re both so uncomfortable. And before you know it, you get up the courage, you flash a little smile and maybe she smiles back a nervous little smile. And you take a chance—you slide that hand over and you can feel the tension, the electricity. Because at first, you’re keeping a way to bail out at the last minute so you don’t look like a fool. But then, you touch fingers and then there is a moment. Right then, the magic happens and—BAM! Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere! This song just captures that mystery of life and romance so perfectly.

Can fans expect an album or new EP soon?
I’m kind of an album guy. I know everyone just releases singles and EP’s now. I understand why, but I want to to give fans a full picture of where I am an artist. So, yes, maybe not soon, but we’re working on my next album. Hopefully it will be out next spring. I’m working with a new producer, Buddy Cannon who’s produced Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, Alison Krauss. I never thought I’d have a chance to work with someone of his caliber, so this album is a quantum leap forward in production, song quality and I’m coming into my artist voice and I feel like I’m hitting my stride.

What excites you most about the Nashville music scene right now?
On one side, it’s really cool because the genre is so open. My influences run so deep that I’m not anti-hip hop or anti-pop, but I think ‘country’ music should have at least something that sounds country. Right now, it’s becoming country again. A lot of fans are fed up. It’s like enough is enough. It’s boring. I’m tired of hearing the same track over and over and I know my fans are. So yeah, to hear quality pop country like Maren Morris—really great songs like “I Could Use A Love Song.” Like Devin Dawson, “Drunk Me.” And to hear new stuff that to the ear ‘sounds’ country—like Luke Combs and Ashley McBryde—on the radio—plus Garth is coming back. It’s getting there, the pendulum is swinging back and NO amount of major label money can stop it. They are already getting with the program—Cody Johnson is coming. Hey, I’m not knocking pop country at all. In my opinion, the best country songs have always been pop. “Forever and Ever Amen” and “All My Exes Live In Texas” are pop. Hank Williams Sr’s songs are pretty much straight pop blues songs, but he had a steel and had a big ol’ hat. There’s a lot of great stuff out there now that is pop. But I want to hear news sounds, something organic. Like what Dave Cobb is producing, Buddy Cannon. Country is going back to that and you can’t stop it because once people hear it, they have to have it.

Can you remember your first trip to Nashville?
Are you kidding me? Yes. I flew in to do some demos with Razzy Bailey producing me. My friend, Dewayne, used to be Razzy’s band leader in the 80’s. I stayed at the Motel 6 in Goodlettsville because the hardcore part of me wanted to keep that “Man In Black” spirit of poverty and struggle that I came up in. I remember there were roaches in the room that night. The sheets were clean and white. The whole room hand a yellowed, amber glow in the incandescent lights. I could hear every car drive by that night and see the headlights across the wall that night. I walked in my black boots down to Razzy’s Hit House and cut some demos with some amazing freaking musicians. Gary Primm, I think on Piano. I had an acoustic piano brought in because I wanted to stay as true to my sound as I could. I was really channeling Leon Russell back then, being from Tulsa. Razzy did what he could, but I was so green, I didn’t want to let people “change me” as they say. Luckily, I got hooked up with Banner Music shortly after that. I really found my Tribe there—that’s with a capital “T.” They cared, they helped me develop. They invested their essence, their energy, their very lived they sacrificed to help me. I would trust them with my lives. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Banner and that’s a great place to be.

What do you do on a day off in Nashville, no work allowed?
I don’t let myself do that. I’m always trying to write, lol. When you’re trying to be the best you can be, you don’t get a day off. They say the best never rest, but seriously. I’m not joking. If my family is with me, I’ll do all the touristy stuff, because what else would they want to do? We would got to the CMOF, the Hermitage, the Pantheon. That’s one place I haven’t taken them, but I need to. Education and culture are very high priorities for our kids. That’s always been important to my wife and myself. I might take them to hole in the wall places I go when I’m working, like Brown’s or Demos’ or Hattie B’s. But in the end we’d probably just do what we usually do on the Row and go to Chuys because that’s where we go in Tulsa. But in the end, it’s hard to get a day in Nashville with just the family and not be pulled into a writing session or an interview or the studio. That’s just the nature of the beast because I’ve stayed true to living in Oklahoma to this point. I really have to try hard, even at my level, to stay focused and be present in the moment. Just be me. Be dad. Take those little moments. So, I just let the family decide and go along like every other family father`.

What are some places you recommend for out-of-towners?
Wow, there are so many amazing places in Nashville. But I recommend people stay off of the beaten path. You’ll see amazing freaking singers and bands on Broadway, but if you really want to see the future of country music, go to non-touristy writers rounds. Like, go to the Commodore Grille near Vanderbilt, Douglas Corner or Belcourt Taps. Maybe 3rd & Lindsley or the Listening Room. That’s where you’ll hear a lot of true up and coming writers. The Blue Bar just closed down and I think that was the place to me that was like the last old school place to find up and comers.

Any last words for our readers?
Stay true to yourself. Stripping away everything else—who we ‘think’ we’re supposed to be, what society says we should or shouldn’t be. Those external messages aren’t who we really are. Where ever you are in life, that’s where you’re meant to be right now. Yes, there’s a reason. But it doesn’t mean that that is where you’re going to stay. Listen to your heart and follow those callings. Some people go through life and never get a calling. If you get it, you have to follow it. It’s a blessing. That may mean you’re going to college to be a teacher. That may mean that you’re going to be the very last family farmer in Oklahoma. Whatever it is, just save yourself the trouble and follow your heart. It’s easier to go willingly.

Website: https://www.jamesrobertwebb.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JamesRobertWebb

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jamesrobertwebb/

Twitter: /twitter.com/JamesRobertWebb

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC43NBQ8v4RYdhm8VvdXl73g

ABOUT JAMES ROBERT WEBB:

True to his blue-collar roots, James Robert Webb walks the line between traditional and modern country music. Raised on a small farm outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he grew undeniably country roots while being influenced by Tulsa sound artists as diverse as Bob Wills, Leon Russell and Ryan Tedder. His sound is driven by his unique, indefinable voice and organic, neo-traditionalist style fused with modern production techniques. James’ 2016 debut, Pictures, yielded two top 40 singles on the Music Row Country Breakout Chart – “Makin’ Love Tonight” and “How That Feels.” Both singles also broke the top 60 at Billboard indicator while the later gave James his first top 40 as a songwriter.  

Despite his early success as an independent artist, one thing most fans don’t know is that Webb remains a practicing physician in Tulsa. His practice specializes in bone health and helping patients that spinal surgery can’t fix. That may seem an unlikely day job for a Billboard country artist and CMA member, but it’s a natural fit for Webb. “It’s my small-town roots that keep me grounded. My first paying job was as a stock hand.” Webb is a hometown hero who never left those blue-collar roots behind. And like many Oklahoma country stars before him, that down to earth appeal is what engages fans during his live shows.

 

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Mary Ann Kaylor Griffiths

Reach me at publicity@kaylorgirls.com

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