In a perfect world, an honest singing cowboy would never have to choose between the stage and the steed, the honky-tonk and the ropin' pen. There'd be time enough for both, with every rodeo championship win celebrated with a triumphant return to the Grand Ole Opry stage. And all of this would be possible without ever having to leave the Lone Star State, where everyone knows that real BBQ means brisket and pork is something you only really eat around Easter time.
No, wait ... that's a Texan's perfect world. Or rather, the perfect world Trent Willmon probably fantasized about over a cold sympathy beer the day he had to sell his last horse. Not because of hard times so much as lack of enough time to ride.
"I had to sell him about three months ago, because I'd come in off the road and want to go rope, and he'd be out of shape," rues Willmon. "I figure the next one I buy, I'm going in partners with somebody who can keep the horse tuned up, so that when I want to come in and play cowboy, I can. But honestly, I haven't had any time in the last six to eight months to do any kind of riding. I miss it, but this is just what I gotta focus on right now so I can get to play later."
Given that the "this" Willmon speaks of is a burgeoning country music career that has already taken him from the dancehalls of Texas to the hallowed Opry stage and countless other venues across the country including the National Finals Rodeo chances are he's not doing too much crying in his beers these days. Deep in his heart he still dreams of the day when he can buy a good piece of the beautiful Texas hill country and ride till the proverbial (or rather, literal) cows come home, but he's having too much fun chasing his other dream in the here and now to waste time with regrets. The title of his sophomore Sony Nashville album sums up Willmon's present agenda in no uncertain terms: A Little More Livin'.
"The title comes from a line in the song 'A Night in the Ground,'" explains Willmon, "but it's also kind of my motto on life. I've learned to live life as if I didn't have tomorrow. I know that sounds kind of cheesy and mushy and all that, but it's a good way to keep things in perspective."
Not that keeping things in proper perspective has ever been much of an issue for Willmon. A Little More Livin', like Willmon's 2004 self-titled Columbia debut before it, offers further proof that it's possible for even the most diehard of Texans to make a record in Nashville that has mainstream country appeal while still staying true to their roots. Maybe it's the fact that, as on that first record, Willmon's songwriting is as prominent here as his singing (he co-wrote seven of the album's 11 songs). Maybe it's the unmistakable studio fretwork of Texas guitar hero David Grissom (of Joe Ely fame and the band leader for the Dixie Chicks' blockbuster Top of the World Tour). Or maybe it's all the Texas-style brisket Willmon cooks up in his own custom-built smoker every time he gets homesick, or his habit of sneaking off to hang with the "real" cowboys before and after every one of his band's performances on the rodeo circuit.
"The guys in my band are my friends and my family, but honestly, I'd rather hang out with cowboys than most musicians," admits Willmon. "I'd rather sit around and talk about horses than talk about gear!" To wit, Willmon's band, Four Finger Nate, is named after one of his ropin' buddies, who's name-dropped in one of the new album's two cowboy songs, a paean to the joys of "The Ropin' Pen." The other, the closing "Good Horses to Ride," is a stirring salute to all the larger-than-life old cowboys Willmon grew up around in West Texas. Even though he chose a different path in life, he still credits those cowboys and their stories as one of his primary influences - every bit as much as his mother's eclectic record collection, the radio and all the Willie Nelson and Joe Ely concerts from which he still channels inspiration in his own performances today. When Willmon admits his songwriting is at it's best when he's in storytelling mode, that's the cowboy in him.
"All the real cowboys I grew up with were just real good at telling stories," he says. "It's just part of who they are, almost like a tradition like fancy saddles and cowboy hats. Part of it comes from spending a lot of time alone on the range time to really think about things and part of it's because of the colorful life they lead. Ty Murray (seven-time World Champion "All Around Cowboy") is a friend of mine, and I overheard him flirting with this girl once. He said, 'You know why they call us cowboys, ma'am? It's because we never grow up!' And that's true. The cowboys I know can be 70 years old, but they've still got that great sense of humor ... and they've still got that boy side of them, too."
Willmon's got a great sense of humor himself, as first evidenced on the singles "Beer Man" and (deep breath!) "Dixie Rose Deluxe's Honky Tonk, Feed Store, Gun Shop, Used Car, Beer, Bait, BBQ, Barber Shop, Laundromat" from his debut and this time out on the gleeful revenge fantasy "Surprise" and irresistible shuffle, "Sometimes I Miss Ya." "That one's for anybody who has ever fallen in love with a high-maintenance woman ... which I tend to do," chuckles Willmon. "But it's a fun song, written with kind of my own West Texas perspective."
Willmon's other co-writes on A Little More Livin' include "So Am I" ("A poor boy's love song" he says), "Island" (a heartfelt love song inspired, like the first album's "Home Sweet Holiday Inn," by Willmon's 8-year-old daughter, Montana) and "Louisiana Rain," in which he showcases his bluesier instincts. "That's part of who I am," he explains. "When you play the honky-tonks in Texas, like I did starting out, you play shuffles, you play Bob Wills and you play some Stevie Ray Vaughan, too."
While the abundance and quality of his own songs on the record put Willmon in that all-too-rare class of mainstream country artists who can write as well as they sing, he brings the same level of passion and commitment to the handful of songs by outside writers, including the aforementioned "A Night in the Ground" and the first single, "On Again Tonight." And with its references to Shiner Bock beer and Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Good One Comin' On" sounds like a song Willmon surely would have gotten around to writing had David Lee Murphy, Lee Roy Parnell and Gary Nicholson not written it first.
"I still love the first record, but I think this one is maybe even tighter because we took the time to dig down and find some of those outside songs," says Willmon. "I think it's a mistake sometimes for a songwriter to think they have to write every song on their own album. I think I'm a good songwriter, but I'm better at the story songs than some of those wonderful, positive up-tempo radio songs. Now a lot of times I'll hear stuff like that and the rebellious, musician side of me just can't get around the commercial part of it, but sometimes you hear a song and it's an undeniable hit, and you just know that you can make it your own. Being a songwriter will always be a real important part of who I am, but if someone else's song fits me and I believe in it, I don't feel like I'm being any less me by doing those, too."
But it's not just the songs whatever the source that make A Little More Livin' such a pronounced improvement on his immensely promising debut. It's the performances. Produced, like it's predecessor, by Frank Rogers - who signed Willmon to the publishing company he co-owns with Brad Paisley and Chris Dubois seven years ago A Little More Livin' swaggers with the kind of assured confidence that, true to it's title, can only come from experience.
"I think my voice has gotten a lot stronger from being out on the road and singing as much as I did last year," says Willmon. "That just comes from wet saddle blankets, you know? We also had a great opportunity that a lot of guys don't get, in that we got to road test a lot of these songs and see how people reacted to them. I also really think this record shows more of what we do sonically at our live show, when we've got the fiddle and the electric guitar turned up loud, right up front and in your face. Thanks to having guys like David Grissom and (Grammy-winning fiddler/Asleep at the Wheel vet) Larry Franklin in the studio this time, I think we captured more of that vibe."
The end result is a record that will probably keep Willmon far too busy on the touring circuit to return to the ropin' pen anytime soon. But that's OK. Fifteen years ago, when the play-in-a-band-for-class-credit curriculum at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, seduced him away from his agriculture science studies, Willmon fully committed himself to a life of music. It's a commitment that's weathered the misgivings of his conservative rancher father ("Even today, he still doesn't really understand that it's a real job," chuckles Willmon), a few rough years on the Texas dancehall scene ("I moved to Nashville just before the Texas music resurgence kind of exploded"), a few even rougher years trying to adjust to the rules of Music Row and Tennessee style BBQ ("I still haven't - that's why I started my own catering business on the side!") and, as Willmon candidly admits, a debut album that didn't quite make him an overnight country music sensation.
"In all honesty, because we didn't have a big hit off that first record, there was no reason why I should have gotten to make a second one," he says. "John is a guy who's just all about the music, and he believes in me. That's why I signed with Sony even though we got offers at that showcase from three different labels."
Or, as Grady himself puts it: "(Trent) is not just a country singer - he is a poet, an artisan, and, quite simply, the most interesting man I have met in my stay in Nashville. I challenged Trent and Frank Rogers to explore and grow on this next record, and they have done both, with enormous success."
Best of all, Willmon a Texan through and through did it his way.
"One of the mistakes that I did early on when I first moved to town was trying to fit into the Nashville mold," he says. "Actually, that wasn't really a mistake, because it taught me to be a more poignant songwriter: I learned that I couldn't just write things that appealed to me. And then when I got my band back together and started playing the honky-tonks again, I found a happy medium and my own little niche where people would come see us and relate to what we were doing, but I could still be me. That's why, at the end of the day, even if this record flops or doesn't do anything, I'm still extremely proud of it."
And in an admittedly less than perfect world, what more could an honest singing-cowboy ask for?
Determination, grit, and a hell of a lot of talent landed Trent Willmon a record contract with Sony Music Nashville. The Amarillo native spent his first years of high school studying agriculture and taking home state-wide awards in 4H and FFA. His focus started to change when his mother bought him his first guitar at age 16. He soaked up the West Texas music scene and began sitting in with local favorites like the Maines Brothers Band and Jody Nix, among others.
After college, he quickly learned to play the upright bass and began touring the South with a bluegrass band. From there he moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career. Willmon was the first writer signed to the staff of Sea Gayle Music, an EMI co-publishing company started by Chris Dubois, Frank Rogers and Brad Paisley.
"Beer Man" written by Trent and Casey Beathard
Attended South Plains College
(studied Agriculture and Animal Science)
Barbecuing, Roping, Fishing, Drinking Beer
First Vehicle Owned:
1976 Ford Pickup
One I don't have to work on
Desert Island Albums:
Pancho & Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
Songs You Know By Heart by Jimmy Buffett
Strait Out of the Box - George Strait's greatest hits collection
Don Williams, John Mellencamp, George Strait, Chris LeDoux, my parents
Trent built his own guitar and built a smoker with one of his best friends, Brandon Kinney; he's also a leather worker and trains horses. Philosophy of Success: Work your ass off doing something you love. If you can make a living, that's more success than most will ever have. No one owes you anything. Trust in God, work hard, and live - it beats the alternative.