In his heart of hearts, Randy Woody hopes Nashville has reached a tipping point.
Certain things, many of which go on behind closed industry doors that he’s happened to be privy to in recent weeks, seem to indicate it, and with any luck, the “bro-country” fad — the sort of music made by fraternity boys who squeal if they get dirt on their $500 designer jeans and spend more on hair products than most authentic country boys do on their trucks — may soon give way to a renaissance of the real deal. If that happens, Woody and his bandmates in Southbound are working to make sure that their long-running Madisonville-based outfit is there to take advantage.
There’s still a lot of work to do, and it’s often said that the wheels in Nashville turn slowly. But since the beginning of the year, it’s been moving a lot faster for Southbound than it has in the decade prior, Woody told The Daily Times this week.
“Some things go really fast, and some things really drag along, but the most important thing is taking time to make sure everything’s right,” Woody said. “Things are changing, and I’m glad Southbound is right in the damn middle of it. We just want everybody to know that we’re not going to go to Nashville and sell out by any means. We can come back to East Tennessee and have just as much fun and be just as comfortable, so we’re determined to do our songs the way we’ve always done them, and the fans are brought up a lot over in Nashville.
“We factor them in so much over there, and we base what we do off of that, because we’ve had so much success in East Tennessee over the years. The way we see it, a lot of the rest of the country is just like East Tennessee, so if they love it as much as our people do, our music is going to go like wildfire.”
Few bands have engendered the fierce loyalty among fans that Southbound has. From the beginning, the group has cultivated lovers of traditional country who come out to every show and stay until the end, raising sweaty beer bottles and singing along to every song, original and cover. Nashville got a taste earlier this year when the group traveled to Music City to perform: almost 100 rowdy fans from East Tennessee followed them, crowding into a Middle Tennessee club and making the boys feel like they’d brought an invading army to town.
“I told them that’s the way it’s gonna be for us,” Woody said. “We’re not that far from Nashville, and we can bring our crowd as well as draw a crowd. Our manager — Bryan Wayne Perry, who’s been after us for about 10 years now and was persistent — he came to Nashville for that show, and after it was over and we were back at the hotel, he said, ‘Randy, this is the band. This is the band you’ve been needing. It’s time to get off your ass and start doing something.’”
Not that Woody has been sitting on his laurels. He started the band picking around bonfires and parties with friends; his mother soon introduced him to Jonathan Cook, Southbound’s rhythm guitarist, and the guys slowly built up a local following in Sweetwater and Vonore, gradually making inroads into Blount County as well. The lineup has fluctuated over the years, but almost from the outset, Cook and Woody found Jason Harris, who threw in with the guys and shared their enthusiasm for traditional country music. It would have been all too easy, the members of Southbound say, for the group to jump on the mainstream country bandwagon and start churning out carbon copies of whatever song was most popular on WIVK-FM, but that wouldn’t have been genuine. The music would have suffered, and the fans might have stuck around for a few shows, but in the end they, too, would have abandoned ship.
The guys refused to compromise, however, and the admiration fans had for that tenacity has only grown. That respect is what’s been first and foremost on Woody’s mind since going to his first meeting with Nashville industry executives the week after that successful Nashville show. He declines to talk about who, exactly, was sitting on the other side of the table because it didn’t work out, but the fact that they wanted to talk at all was a validation of everything he and his bandmates had done up to that point, he said.
“It felt like an accomplishment, especially coming from those guys who have been in the business for a long time,” Woody said. “We were all excited, and there was some celebrating, but one thing we’ve learned is not ot put the cart before the horse. We wanted to make sure it was right.”
It wasn’t, but there are no hard feelings, Woody said; the vision those first executives had for his band wasn’t the same one he and his bandmates had, and in the end he chose to walk away from the deal rather than compromise.
“It’s always about the fans,” he said. “We knew if we went over there and changed our music that our fans wouldn’t buy it. They’d say, ‘Southbound sold out,’ and we’re not going to do that.”
Coming out of those meetings, however, gave him some things to think about. For one, after much deliberation and consideration, the boys have decided to rebrand the project: Randy Woody and Southbound is the official name now, but the band’s namesake certainly had misgivings about any perceived hubris that comes with it.
“We were all against it, and I was the first one to say no, because we’ve been Southbound for 10 years,” Woody said. “But we sat down, and our manager point out that there are thousands of Southbound bands on the Internet. There’s going to be Southbounds everywhere we go, and he said, ‘If you keep the name of the band, we’re not going to be able to market you, because people are going to think it’s one of these other Southbound bands … and what if that band isn’t as good as you? People will think it’s the wrong Southbound band.
“I called all my guys, and nobody understood that at first. But we started doing our research and looking around on a nationwide level, and we started to realize that something had to be done. It’s not the first time somebody’s told us that; back in 2010 or 2011, we did a show with the Jackson Taylor Band. They’re a really big act out west, and me and him got to talking, and he told me then, ‘I’d change that if I were you, because I know a Southbound band back home, and they’re not worth listening to!’”
Big things are in store for Randy Woody and Southbound this year. The biggest news is that the group will perform at this year’s CMA Music Festival — on June 11 at BB King’s Blues Club — but first, the guys will headline this year’s “Boogie on the River,” which takes place Friday and Saturday at the Leroy Huff farm on Wildwood Road in rural Blount County. Woody, in particular, has a fondness for the event; he was asked to play the very first year, and upon hearing that Johnathen “Johno” Clayton — the younger brother of the inaugural festival’s beneficiary, Brently Mancini — was a fan of Southbound, he invited the kid on stage to play with him.
“Everything that this event is about is what we’re about — getting together and helping,” Woody said. “I really enjoy that family, and I’ve come to know everybody that’s put a hand in working this the last five years, and to see all of these other local bands come out and take their time to play it says a lot about local music in East Tennessee.”
Representing this area — the values of its people, the heritage of its music, the lifestyles of its working men and women — has been something Woody and his Southbound bandmates have prided themselves on from the very beginning. It’s one reason he’s always declined to try out for reality show competitions like “The Voice,” he said — Merle and Waylon and Cash didn’t make it in Nashville through such means, and he doesn’t want to, either. Maybe that makes him stubborn, he said, but he prefers to consider himself steadfast — loyal, even: to tradition, to his comrades on stage, to the fans and to his home.
“I want to make it the old way, the way it’s supposed to be done,” he said. “That way if we do make it, we know what we’re doing is right. We’re meeting with a new group of people, and the guy we’re about to be working with has been called the Jesus Christ of producers in Nashville. These guys are going to let us play the way we play, and we’re going into the studio within the next two months, and the Southbound CD will be done. We’re shooting for mid-summer, because a lot of the songs on it are summertime songs, and one of them, ‘Back There Again,’ is already making some impact over there. And that’s one I started writing down on Tellico Lake while I was crappie fishing with my uncle.
“Things have changed pretty drastically, that’s for sure. My life is pretty much hotel rooms and bar rooms and studio time, and when I get home, I get to see my family and do a lot of fishing, but when I’m over there, it’s time to get down to business. Everybody over there we meet, they hear us and say, ‘That’s what Nashville needs.’ That’s what’s astonishing to me. We’ve been chasing this dream for so long, and now to come into Nashville and hear people say, ‘You guys can turn this around,’ in my wildest dreams I never thought that 10 years later we’d be doing what we do and then getting over there and hearing those words.”
MARK A. LARGE | THE DAILY TIMES