Billy Craig - Prizing Energy in His Music


Detroit, MI -- (SBWIRE) -- 07/09/2013 -- Ed: You have a multifaceted career encompassing country music, an elementary school program and rock and roll. What do they have in common?

Billy: It’s all expression and live performance. I carry the same attitude into each project with the same energy. They say if you love your job you don’t have to work a day in your life, and luckily, I’m there. Nothing is easy, there’s always a battle, but I’m involved with projects that I really, really like. It’s the same for all of us, I have to stay focused, do my best work and keep that reaching and creative mentality going.

My country career allows me to create my own music and there is nothing better than getting on stage and crankin’ out a set of your own original music.

The “I Love this School Tour" has always felt like a pay it forward kind of thing, but at the same time, maybe making up for the past and giving back to communities. I just have a tremendous appreciation for what our schools do with kids on a daily basis. I feel like it's my job to connect with the elementary students and help them understand, recognize and take advantage of the resource that school really is, because it's all about their future, put the work in now, do great things and have a great life.

Brownsville Station is really a labor of love. I do have pretty heavy rock roots having performed in so many clubs and so many shows. It really allows me to be that rock and roll lead guitarist that I am. It's a lot of fun being up on stage rocking out with these guys! They've done it all; been on the charts, major tours, albums, etc.

Ed: What kind of musical background did you have to interest you in these types of music?

Billy: Growing up in a small town there was a varied music scene. We had a hot little town for music. Middle school band, high school band, bands of all sorts. If you wanted to work you had to play everything, country, rock, polka... now that would light up the room when playing at a wedding. We'd make up country songs and polkas by playing the chords and the beat, a lot of parties and high school dances. The first two songs that I learned were “Takin’ Care of Business” by BTO and “Tush” by ZZ Top.

Ed: What first interested you in country music?

Billy: Although, like Conway Twitty, I have roots in rock and roll, country was never far away. As a kid I was glued to Hee Haw, a great show, watching Buck Owens but my favorite part of the show was when Roy Clark busted into one of his guitar numbers, slow or fast, Roy was one heck of a player.

Ed: What do you enjoy about being a country artist?

Billy: My favorite part really is writing and creating the songs in the studio. There’s nothing like the sound of a sweet acoustic. It’s so inspiring that a couple chords in, and a song starts to formulate. Country fans have such a deep love and appreciation of music, so live performances can be very exciting and fun whatever the emotion is that you're putting out there. People get it; it's the words. There really isn't a better form to tell the American story or humanity because it touches everything.

Ed: What is the “I Love This School Tour”?

Billy: The I Love This School Tour is an assembly program I started for elementary schools. It actually started with the song itself, “I Love This School” and my need to get out and perform. It’s like a musical concert promoting positive behavior, anti-bullying, reading, respect, etc., and about getting kids excited about school! It’s pretty special. I want kids to know that they are in charge of their own destiny and it starts with them, right now, in school. We're going on our sixth school year and its growing legs. We started in the Midwest and are now getting interest all over the country. Just added a new market, New York, and we perform in elementary schools all over the Midwest; Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. I bring quite the production with me, a great sound system, backdrops, banners, signs, guitars and I do three character changes within the show. Kids are loving it and loving the music. It covers a few different genres of music including, country, rock and rap. It’s a lot of fun!

Ed: What are some of the memorable experiences you have had performing the “I Love this School Tour”?

Billy: There are so many but really, it’s when you know you are getting through to the kids. I'm batting a pretty good average, knock on wood. This is one of those shows that you have to give it 100% every time because the goal is to connect and earn the right to say the things that the kids can understand and carry with them.

I've been in front of almost every demographic, economically depressed, all ethnic areas and I've found that kids are kids. It's turned into a mission for me because I really do care that these kids put the right foot forward. You just don't know what and where a kid makes that leap forward in their thinking, that sense of purpose and pride that gets them excited about themselves and what they are doing at school. Every show is different and these kids come from great and also not so stellar backgrounds. You just don't know their story, their support system if any so it's really about positive energy moving forward. Kids + School = Great Things. One of my favorite sayings is ''When the student is ready the teacher will appear''. I'm hoping that I can help them be ready now, and make great changes and reach for great things. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it's where you are going that is so important and you have to have the tools. That come from the parents but a big part of it is school, that's where they develop and make those strides.

Ed: How did you become a member of Brownsville Station?

Billy: Brownsville Station originated in Ann Arbor, near Detroit, and is probably best known for their two mid-seventies hits “Smokin’ In The Boys Room” and “Kings Of the Party.” A friend invited me to do a day of recording at Sun Studio in Memphis, which ended up being the start of my first solo record This Side Of Somewhere. While there we met Henry Weck, the drummer of Brownsville Station, who lives in Memphis. He was a great guy. We exchanged phone numbers and emails and we became fast friends and eventually very good friends. That was back in around 2006 and Brownsville was never really a thought in his mind other than the great history of it. Well, it happens that Henry is an unsung hero being a successful record producer, so we had long talks about songs. Henry and Michael Lutz started to get together to look over more than 500 hours of unreleased material. Henry had this idea for a new song, as he often does, and as they say and as often happens, they started writing and it just started pouring out.

Henry had called periodically and I knew they were getting together and where it was leading, I really was so proud and happy for the both of them. Then Henry calls a year later and says, ''Billy, I want to send you the finished album to listen to and get your opinion on the recording and all'' Well, in great anticipation, it came and I listened and man it was Brownsville Station 2012! You could just feel the energy and I couldn’t help myself and, after I told him some thoughts on the songs and recording, I just said, “Henry, if you need a smokin’ hot freaky cool guitar player, I know of!” That's how life is, you have to learn to recognize opportunities, which I've had with Bob Seger and Kid Rock, but not followed up. I wasn't going to let this one pass by. To crank out loud rock with a monster on the drums and legendary rocker Michael Lutz, I was very hot on the idea. Well, they invited me out to the studio to do some backing vocals and little bit of guitar work, kind of a meet and greet. Let's just say we became rock and roll brothers and here we are.

Ed: What is the experience like playing those classic Brownsville Station hits on stage?

Billy: Brownsville Station is all about live and energy, so it really opens up that part of me. There's no doubt about it, it's fun with a capitol F. I had to buy a new concert rig and we got guitars just for the shows. We did a hand full of shows last summer just to kick the tires and see how this new rock and roll machine rides and we had a blast. I can now especially recall a show in West Virginia, and I didn't really think about it until you asked. “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” is so widely known all over the world and we were viewing some video after the show and I was really taken with the response of the crowd. When we started the song and the roar was so nice as was the reaction at the end. When you’re on stage you're thinking about a lot of things, amps, sounds, jumping up and down, moving and you get caught up in the show so it was awesome to see and hear that on video. And summer 2013 is starting to come together.

Ed: How did you begin writing your own songs?

Billy: I've always written songs even from a young age, it's kind of my therapy, but to answer your question, it all started back for me when I bought this really sweet acoustic guitar. It wasn't long before I had the urge to get into the studio and see what I can do. To me, you can't regulate what comes out from a creative standpoint so you just let it flow. I had started another project writing country songs that eventually ended up on WYCD here in Detroit and just as it often goes right when it started getting hot, we went our separate ways. However, I wasn't finished and decided to strike out on my own, I had a ton of material. The first record, This Side of Somewhere, was an emotional outpour for me but it did include “Flip Flops” that I'm still getting BMI checks for. Couldn't tell you what stations are playing it but it was played all over the USA and overseas and continues to do so. The cd includes the songs “Millionaire” and “Jake Terry,” which is a song about a dog Johnny Cash had as a boy, which was featured on WSM in Nashville. Both of those were started at Sun Studio.

Then came the current Billy Craig country project, Next Exit Paradise, that I think continued the rocky, beachy, country feel that I like. I haven't gotten the radio support that I thought I would even though I thought it was a much better record, better songs and production and performance. I really wanted to grow and show that growth as an artist. I do want to mention that both records were mixed and produced by myself as well. We released “Party on the Equator” to radio last summer and I'm still trying to decide what song to release as a single now or whether I should just start a new record.

Ed: You have received a lot of attention for the song parodies that you have written and produced. How did that start?

Billy: Well, that all started with Dr. Don Carpenter at WYCD here in Detroit, who I should say is also in the Country Radio Hall of Fame. We did do a string of songs and still do here and there but the biggest one that was played all over the country was “Pretty Good at Huntin’ Deer.” Don and I worked hard to distribute it all over the USA. It was a parody of “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer” by Billy Currington. Don is just an incredible creative and funny guy, talented individual and fun to work with, so it was a pleasure.

Ed: You’ve performed in some of the biggest venues in the Detroit area, the DTE Energy Music Theater and the Downtown Hoedown in Hart Plaza. What is the experience like performing in front of tens of thousands?

Billy: It's the best, nothing like it, I'll be on the Main Stage at the Downtown Hoedown 2013 in June and looking forward to not just Brownsville shows but I have a pretty hot Billy Craig show that I'm hoping to get out to the venues this summer. If you roll all the holidays and birthdays and happy moments in life, strap a guitar on and pack it into an hour, it comes close to the adrenalin. Although I love the writing and recording, live is where I live, I believe it's my best moment. I take the Bruce Springsteen approach of just letting it all out and work hard. The people deserve it but as a performer, you deserve to look back on a show knowing that you gave it your all.

Ed: What memorable moments have you had working on shows over the years?

Billy: It's really the reward for all the work, preparation, just everything you do that leads up to that moment, and with a lot of luck, you get to get on a great stage and celebrate what you do and what you're about. Living in the moment, there's been many moments but when someone walks up to you at a meet and greet and thanks you for what you do or they say that you helped them through a tough spot in their life, that's the payoff, that's when you know you connected and that brings me to the whole original concept. That’s why I like to do my own songs because trust me, it's a challenge to connect with a crowd with your own material especially when they've never heard it before so you have to reach deep and put out that love and energy kind of thing, and they get it, it's really an awesome feeling and what I strive for.

Ed: Any other memorable performance stories?

Billy: Well one time I went to the front of the stage to sing a ballad with my pants unzipped. I ran to the bathroom during a performance at an inopportune time and didn't know it until people were pointing at me. I was saying to myself ''Please God no, anything but that'' but it was funny. I've also wiped out and ruined a few cool guitars. I've performed overseas, all over the states and now a lot of elementary schools and I still feel like I'm reaching and striving for those moments, but that being said, when you have a couple first grade boys run up to you and say, ''dude you rock'' I'll take that.

Ed: You’ve had considerable experience in the recording studio. What do you like about that process?

Billy: The creative process is really a wonderful thing, but once you have the songs developed to the point of going into the studio, that's where greatness happens for any artist. When you’re there it's kind of like a chronic shopper having a condo attached to the mall. Musicians want the same thing. You get in there and you just say, this is where I want to live, add kitchen and rooms to sleep and I'll never leave. The funny thing is there are facilities just like that, but to get back to it, there’s just something about it. The whole process from coming up with a killer drum sound, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, harmonies when you've mixed a song and are sitting back listening, it's a special moment. Lots of time and effort invested and you're hopeful of what the songs can do for you.

Ed: Your first full length album was “This Side of Somewhere.”

Billy: We did some of the recording at Sun Studios where Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded. You could feel the spirits, you could feel the history, I love that place. Of course I stood on the x that marks the spot where Elvis himself stood to sing. U2 recorded one of their albums there and one of the great stories was a limo pulled up during our session and Bob Dylan came in, knelt down and kissed the very spot Elvis sang turned around and left without saying a word. It was cool to say the least. This Side of Somewhere was my therapy and emotional outlet and I had some great moments on there. I couldn't help but think of the irony of recording the song “Jake Terry” at Sun Studio then having the song played on WSM. It was like walking in the footsteps of Johnny Cash. However, the interesting thing was the song “Flip Flops,” from that album, aired on NBC’s Today show for a segment on that famous footwear. That's an interesting feeling when you're watching a national show and they are playing one of your songs. I remember thinking millions are hearing it right now wow!!!!!

Ed: Your next album was “Next Exit Paradise.”

Billy: My current country album, Next Exit Paradise has gotten a lot of attention. Nothing charting but it's doing ok on iTunes, internet Radio, i Heart Radio and Spotify. “Party on the Equator,” a beachy song, and “Hometown USA” are the tunes that we've released as singles. Another song that I haven't released, but is receiving a ton of airplay in the UK, is “Margarita Way.” I've always loved the beachy country feel so this record has that all the way through but this one definitely hits the spot. Most of my live show, if not all of it, comes from Next Exit Paradise, except for Flip Flops. I can't miss a chance to bring the audience to Margaritaville!

Ed: How did you come to record your “I Love this School” cd?

Billy: A few years ago, my son Zachy came home from second grade and said, "Daddy, school's boring.” I had been thinking of different ideas for a show for elementary kids but this was the spark. After I wrote “I Love This School,” the songs just kept coming and that's when I knew I had the material and concept for not just the show but an entire cd for kids. It really was about what messages that I wanted to get out to the kids; “Cool In School,” “Respect,” “Keep Your Hands To Yourself,” “Bully’s Ain’t Cool.” I wanted them to be simple and easy to understand and so far, they love it. I released that cd almost the same time as Next Exit Paradise and decided to put “Hometown USA” on both cd’s just to tie them together. That song is the opener to the school show. It kind of puts me in my comfort zone and it's a great show song. We sell the cd at the shows and I can tell you it's outsold my country cd both at the live shows and on itunes. I do see writing and producing two more I Love This School cd’s in the future. It's in my head; onward and upward!

Ed: Your latest project “Billy Craig An Epic Tale” is very different from anything else you have recorded.

Billy: Sometimes I think of the full breadth or depth of an artist and how it can mean so many things in so many ways. I also think about how much I really just love the whole idea of creativity. The thought process itself is just something that I strive for. I woke up one night with this music in my head. Well, it was instrumental music that I had created many years ago that I kind of had forgotten about. I actually had found tape, yes analog, that I had digitized for safe keeping so I knew I had it. The fun part was that at the time, I was playing a lot of piano so it was perfect to pull out the music that I like the most and do something that I always intended to do, add guitars. So I had a lot of fun with no intention of releasing it but after I finished it out, I really liked it. I decided I was going to do something that no one else had done, at least I didn’t think so, and release twenty eight minutes of music as a single. It's kind of my Dark Side of the Moon, and actually, I think I'm going to do this again. It's has that trilogy feel so we'll see. It really allowed me to open up on the guitar and just let the fingers fly where they may. It really is a great listen, especially with headphones because I did some things in the stereo spectrum.

Ed: Last year you recorded with Brownsville Station on their album “Still Smokin.” What was that experience like?

Billy: If you can imagine cranking a guitar lead with two legendary rock and roll guys at this huge mixing console absorbing every note that you are playing, it was a little nerve racking. Many players will tell you the toughest moments as a player is when the red light goes on so you have to just keep from over thinking it and just let it flow. But, these guys are more than pro’s, they're incredible songwriters and producers in their own right. Henry has gold albums from producing Blackfoot, Michael co-wrote “Smokin in the Boys Room” and has produced and toured with Ted Nugent. So, every time I'm with these guys it's like a lesson in production, songwriting, sound and everything rock and roll, and the stories are classic. They really do own a piece of rock and roll history and I have so much respect for them. This business is not easy, for every person that carves out a career, there are thousands that just couldn't get to the promise land. Brownsville Station toured non-stop back in the day and supported artists that are virtually a who's who of rock and roll. I think they played 324 dates one year and recorded an album on top of that, so I love hanging with them.

As the story goes, Michael and Henry were taking care of business with the attorney and out came the question, ''Why don't you have” Smokin in the Boys Room” on your new cd?'' They looked at each other scratched their heads and next thing you know, these musical wizards are in the studio working on “Smokin’ in The Boys Room 2012.” It's been well accepted, as well as the album Still Smokin. I can't tell you how much fun this song is to do live.

Ed: What’s next for Billy Craig?

Billy: To start the tour with Brownville Station this summer and I am also working on some dates for Billy Craig and The Psychedelic Rodeo, as I am now calling my country tour. I am sitting on close to fifty songs that I'm chipping away on for the next Billy Craig album, probably a 2014 release. I'm really excited about the material and I have many more tools to really bring it to another level; the songs, the production and the performance. I'd really like to find a way with a label or not, to chart something. My exposure in the states is growing so times are exciting for me.

All Things Media/ Billy Craig Music/ I LOVE THIS SCHOOL TOUR

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About Ed Salamon
Ed Salamon, a 2006 inductee into the Country Radio Hall of Fame, is the author of many album and cd booklet notes as well as two books, "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio" Arcadia Publishing (2010) and "WHN: When New York City Went Country" Archer Books (2013).