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No one has to tell John Corbett that Hollywood stars moonlighting as musicians don't always get taken seriously. He's already faced crowds full of skeptics wearing expectant looks that silently challenge, "All right, actor boy, show us what you've got."
But Corbett's never had a problem doing just that, onstage with his band or on radio airwaves. His self-titled debut album, released in 2006, climbed to No. 42 on Billboard's Country Albums chart, surprising even the guy who rose to fame as Cicely, Alaska's resident radio deejay on the "Northern Exposure" TV series (and made women swoon in "Sex and the City" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").
With his new album, Leaving Nothin' Behind, on his own Funbone Records label, Corbett confirms what fans of John Corbett quickly recognized: He was never just moonlighting in the first place. Growing up in the shadow of Wheeling, W.Va.'s famed Capitol Music Hall, just a few miles from where Brad Paisley was raised, music was always Corbett's first love. He's been playing since he can remember.
"I never for a second dreamed that I could make a living making music, except probably when I was a freshman in high school and would daydream about what it would be like to be in Kiss or Styx or something," he admits, laughing. "But I always had a guitar with me."
His mom bought him his first one when he was 7 or 8—right about when she ignited his enduring passion for Elvis. He's such a huge fan, he owns the king's birth record—handwritten by the doctor who delivered him in Tupelo, Miss. Corbett also swears allegiance to the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Aerosmith, plus Garth Brooks (a fellow Kiss fan), Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens (who gave Corbett with the last guitar the Bakersfield legend ever bestowed, two weeks before he died).
But it's Corbett's passion for a somewhat lesser known talent—Dallas-born musician, songwriter and producer Jon Randall Stewart—that drives Leaving Nothin' Behind. Longtime Guy Clark collaborator Stewart wrote or co-wrote seven of the album's 10 songs, and co-produced with Gary Paczosa. Stewart also contributes guitars and harmonies, alongside talents including his wife, Jessi Alexander, John Cowan, Brian Sutton, Dan Dugmore, Michael Rhodes, Steve Gorman, Audley Freed and other respected Nashville names.
Corbett says Leaving Nothin' Behind's birth was almost as much of a fluke as his first effort—the result of a suggestion by country singer Joe Nichols, who heard Corbett's pleasing tenor during a late-night pickin' session after they'd presented a CMT Flameworthy Award to Shania Twain.
This time, he got a call from a publisher who works with Stewart, saying she heard Corbett was hitting Music City to cut another album. It wasn't true, but he responded, "If I ever did, my dream would be to sing Jon's songs and have Jon produce my record."
The next day, Corbett got a call from Stewart.
"He said, 'Let's do it, man. I have just one little hitch—my wife is going to be giving birth to twins the same time we want to make this record.' It was the only window he had. So we jumped on it."
The result is an album that could easily hold its own among those from top Americana artists in Nashville, Austin or even Los Angeles, where Corbett headed after high school when his father offered to help him land a better steel mill job than he could get in West Virginia. He arrived with a suitcase, a guitar and a basketball (perhaps it's not evident on TV, but Corbett is 6-foot-5).
Several years later, an injury sent him from the mill to the books; he discovered acting at a community college. (He also does voice-over work, notably for Walgreen's).
Corbett's passion for Texas music grew as well; the new disc also has a cut by Dallas-raised songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey, called "Satin Sheets." Only two tracks are from non-Texans—"Rainy Windy Sunshine," by Howard Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers, and "Tennessee Will," by Pat McLaughlin (the World Famous Headliners) and Adam Hood (Leon Russell).
Corbett does a masterful job of owning each song—even "El Paso," one of those classic murder ballads that Joe Ely or Robert Earl Keen might deliver. Over Spanish and baritone guitars, Corbett even evokes the taste of dry desert dust as the protagonist prepares to hang for the death of a cowboy he didn't kill. Maybe Corbett relates to that one because he lives on a Santa Barbara ranch. But he confesses another Stewart song really felt personal—and makes Corbett misty-eyed when he performs it. Called "Name on the Stone," it reminds him of losing his father, who died in 2011, a year after suffering a stroke.
"There wasn't anybody there but me. All his friends had been gone; he had really no family left," Corbett reflects quietly. "I'm the only kid. I didn't even put an obituary in the paper. I got him cremated and that was it. There wasn't anybody to let know that he was gone. And when I sing a song like 'Name on the Stone' … it means a lot more to me than singing 'Mustang Sally.'
The ability to inhabit someone else's songs and make them your own is what separates wannabes from the real deal—which, come to think of it, is the same trait actors need. It's all about interpretation, for which Corbett's fans and friends give him high marks.
An affable, fun-loving guy, Corbett has built friendships with many musicians, including Texas legend Dale Watson and the late Rusty Weir. Honky-tonker Watson, once a member of the house band at L.A.'s old Palomino Club, says he didn't even know Corbett played music when they met there years ago.
"Then one day I see him singing with my best friend, James Intveld, on 'The Tonight Show,'" Watson recalls. That was before his first album came out. After it did, Corbett and Watson performed together at Austin's famed Continental Club. "He opened for me, which is ridiculous, because the place was crawlin' with women," Watson says with a chuckle. "But he's really good. He holds his own. Absolutely. I was impressed the first time I got to hear John do a set."
Ask Corbett what he does to dispel preconceived actor-dabbling-in-music notions, and he answers, "I don't do anything. I play the show. I already win the battle when I come out onstage, if they haven't seen us before, because they have such low expectations." Laughing, he adds, "We're pretty good; we put on a pretty good live show."
After co-owning a large Seattle club, Fenix Underground, for 10 years, Corbett knows what makes a good live show—even though he'd never sung in public at all ("The Tonight Show" studio notwithstanding) until releasing his debut disc. But he and band mates Tara Novick (guitar), David "the Hawk" Lopez (drums) and Louie Vincent Ruiz (bass) now play near-Springsteen-length sets, without a break. Then they haul gear and sell merch; Corbett even does the driving. It's a down-to-earth operation, like the guy who runs it. And no, it doesn't bother him if people show up because they're fans of his acting.
"I want them to put on the marquee, 'From 'Sex and the City' and 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' I want as many people in those shows as I can get. I don't care how they get in there," he says, laughing again.
When they hear Leaving Nothin' Behind, it won't be a hard sell.