It's been said countless times that the drive to play music --especially in public-- is simply in one's blood. If that's so, then you'd be hard pressed to find a more convincing example of innate talent and desire than Chuck Courtenay.
Born in the fabled, swampy, Deep South coastal community of Savannah, Georgia, Chuck witnessed firsthand the mesmerizing spell live musicians can weave on an audience, as he grew up watching his father travel the country as a keyboard-playing frontman, living the hardscrabble life of a touring entertainer. “Some of my very best memories are of the times I spent with my dad over summer vacations,” he now recalls. “I got to go to his gigs, and he'd get me up sometimes to sing Elvis Presley songs. Those were my earliest performances.”
Equally formative in young Chuck's musical education were the years spent as a child with his mother and stepfather on a cattle ranch in Central Florida. It was there that the future singer, guitarist and bandleader first became exposed to such Golden Age country and western greats as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Vern Gosdin and Conway Twitty.
These and other timeless artists would ultimately reveal themselves as Chuck's seminal musical influences. Their singles, albums and TV appearances (all of which he soaked up as a child) inform Chuck's own sense of what constitutes a good song, a great vocal and a killer arrangement. However, it was years before he even considered making a living as a musician. In fact, it was only after graduating high school that he even picked up the guitar -- yet, he took to it immediately, and quickly went from learning basic chords to entertaining friends and family to being the featured attraction at nightclubs and restaurants in the greater Savannah area.
The day Chuck won the Jimmy Dean True Value Country Showdown, he knew the die was cast: his calling was to be a professional performer.
Soon thereafter, he and his brother Jason --a gifted guitarist and singer in his own right-- formed an acoustic duo. Billing themselves as The Courtenay Brothers and boasting impressive “brother harmonies” and a setlist of well-known cover tunes ranging from classic and modern country and western to '70s soft rock and pop hits, they became an in-demand act in Southeastern Georgia, and could be found gigging several times a week at all manner of venues -- from bars and eateries to outdoor festivals and private engagements.
Almost immediately, the duo began racking up local awards. Being named Savannah's Best Country Act in a respected local newspaper poll three years in a row made a real impression on promoters, and that led to high profile opening slots for major modern day country and western stars and icons like Mark Chesnutt, Chely Wright, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols, Craig Morgan and Lee Greenwood.
But all the while, fate was slowly and methodically leading Chuck to a slightly different destination.
“Back then, I was juggling my artistic ambitions with a job selling newspaper advertising,” he reflects. “But in the last five years, I've really made a push to make a name for myself with my music. I realized I had a lot of support and that people were really behind me, digging what I was doing. Now it's full speed ahead.”
Since that change of heart, Chuck's certainly put the hammer down on his music career.
He quickly formed the popular, hard-rocking, electric group that bears his own name. Made up of veteran players with several decades of combined experience as professional musicians (touring and/or recording with several major country stars), The Chuck Courtenay Band has emerged as one of the tightest and most versatile outfits of its kind, and their lengthy, memorable shows at honky-tonks, country dance clubs, bars and festivals nationwide have cemented their position as one of the most promising acts on today's club circuit.
They now play over two dozen shows a month (mostly one-nighters or two-night stands) in an ever-widening radius and travel in their own customized tour bus – just like the big boys.
"Being on the road so much is very hard and definitely takes a toll,” Chuck admits. “But I have a very patient wife who really believes in me and what I am doing, so that makes it a little easier."
The group's high-energy setlist straddles the line between classic country and twangy, roadhouse rock and roll -- an intentional blend that's a source of great pride for Chuck himself, who's no fan of the bland, overproduced pop which is far too often marketed as “country music” these days.
"I try and stay away from trendy, lightweight songs I think are gonna be here for a short time,” he says candidly. However, holding fast to such stylistic boundaries can be a difficult task when playing for large crowds accustomed to hearing bar bands offer their own renditions of tunes from the top of that week's charts – as Chuck himself is quick to acknowledge.
“It's really hard sometimes, because in addition to my own material, we still have to play a lot of covers at some of our smaller shows. Now, if it was up to me, I'd do a whole night of Billy Jo Shaver, Waylon, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson songs. But I want to work, and in these honky-tonks you gotta play some current material. Luckily, if you pick carefully, there's still a lot of good stuff to choose from!
“For example, we do an early Rodney Crowell number called “Ain't Living Long Like This," and the crowd always loves it. Now, it's just a good ol' hard rockin' song, but we've got a steel guitar and a Telecaster, so we can come pretty darn close to Waylon Jennings' version. Stuff by Gary Allan goes over well, and just about anything from our buddy Billy Currington is always a surefire winner.”
Just don't expect Chuck to give up his principles or change his sound too much for the sake of fame.
“People keep trying to get me to change my sound to be more mainstream, but moving too far in that pop-country direction just doesn't fit me,” he explains with a smile. “Listen, I enjoy a great pop song as much as the next guy. But, at the end of the day, I play and sing country music, you know what I mean?”
One thing about modern, radio-friendly country he is comfortable with is the top-notch recording quality found on today's major label albums – and that's something he's finally achieved on his own.
Chuck's first CD release was expertly co-produced by his longtime pedal steel man Tommy Butler and tracked in Nashville with some of Music City's finer players. It was an impressive debut all around, and was released to positive reviews on a small, independent, Nashville label. Yet, as strong as that disc was, the difference between that record and GOOD SIDE OF THIS BAR (his brand-new four-song EP) is evident from the first note.
Credit that “million dollar shine” to Dave McAfee, who for the past 13 years has played drums both on records and stages around the world for Toby Keith, and who co-produced and drummed on Jamey Johnson's massive hit album THAT LONESOME SONG (which was nominated for three Grammys and five American Country Music Awards, and which also contained the Song of The Year “In Color”).
McAfee was introduced to Chuck by established Nashville songwriter Rick Tiger (whose tunes have been recorded by everyone from Del McCoury and Montgomery Gentry to Gene Watson and Joe Nichols). Rick caught Chuck's solo show, felt he'd stumbled upon a major undiscovered talent and alerted McAfee. Dave liked what he saw in Chuck and took him under his wing, both producing and playing drums on GOOD SIDE OF THIS BAR, as well as bringing in a handful of his A-List Nashville musician buddies to help round out the studio band for these sessions.
The result is a stunningly well-crafted collection of potential singles that easily rivals most anything you'll hear on Top 40 country radio today.
Filled with instantly catchy tunes boasting instantly hummable melodies (such as a delightfully tongue-in-cheek ode to country music legend --and legendary ladies' man-- Conway Twitty, as well as the jangly, danceable love song “Falling”), world-class musical performances and the kind of polished, nuanced production flourishes only found on big-name albums by established stars, the fact that GOOD SIDE OF THIS BAR was made completely independently is somewhat astonishing.
Yet it's not altogether surprising.
Chuck's vocal prowess and dedication to the old-school values that made country music great the first time around have caught the attention of some of Nashville's best and brightest. The fact that he's come this far without the backing of a large record company --or even a manager-- speaks volumes for the loyal support he earns from his devoted fans.
In this day and age, that connection to one's audience counts as much if not more than glitz and glamor -- which is why Music City heavyweights like Dave McAfee are now part of Chuck Courtenay's team.
They see in him a sense of respect and reverence for the traditions of country music, and the talent and drive to bring those values of sincerity and substance back to the forefront. Those who have heard Chuck's new material are thrilled with its promise, and all involved hope these first four tracks will generate enough interest to allow the same team to head back in the studio and cut enough additional songs to fill an entire album.
In the meantime, Chuck Courtenay will continue to do what he does best – play live shows whenever and wherever he can, either with his full electric band, or in a solo acoustic setting.
“As of now it works out really well doing both types of gigs,” he says. “When I'm performing solo it's totally different from my band shows. I can try out new material and play my favorite songs -- many of which I don't do with the band.”
He's also focusing increasingly on becoming a better songwriter himself.
“I'm writing more and more and want my next album to feature a lot of my own material. Life experiences make the most believable type of songs because they're all yours and they're based in truth! As a rule, I always try to pick and sing songs I know I can deliver sincerely."
Chuck says the fact that he hails from a very unique and recognizable Southern city has only helped his career, and he's always proud to let folks know he's from Savannah, Georgia.
"Aw, man, they love that I'm from Savannah!” he offers. “This is a very special town and people really like the charm associated with it. Of course they all ask if I know Paula Deen. (laughs) Which of course I do! I gave her my last CD and hopefully I may be able to write something for her show in the new year."
And, despite the music business' longstanding infatuation with youth, Chuck refuses to view the fact that he's getting a slightly later start on his career than most aspiring artists as any sort of a hindrance.
“I know I have some ground to make up because, well, I'm not 24 anymore,” he reflects with a grin. “But then again, country music fans are really loyal and will stand by an artist they like."