Matt Stillwell's move to Nashville was the ultimate eye-opener.
"I watched friends do showcases and hope someone would show up," he says. "I watched them being promised record or publishing deals that might or might not happen. So I made the decision that what I needed to do was to eliminate the nos, and the way to do that was to go build a following."
A man with a work ethic as big as his talent, Matt did just that, and in this age of American Idol and viral videos, he has built his following the old-fashioned way--one city, one club, one crowd at a time. Now, with the release of his new CD, Shine, fans nationwide can experience the magic that Matt brings to bear every time he steps in front of a microphone.
Shine showcases the qualities that have brought him to the threshold of national attention--the songwriter's knack for finding the truth in any situation, the vocal chops to do justice to the joy and passion in each song, and the ability to take an audience on a roller-coaster of emotion and leave them better for the ride.
Matt is best known as a performer with a rowdy sense of fun, and that side of him is in full flower on the new CD. It opens with "Shine," an anthem to the joys of the Mason jar and the moonShine produced in places like Matt's beloved western North Carolina. It's a song in a league with some of modern country's best sing-along anthems, and it is the perfect starting point. There is also "Whiskey Well," about the process of turning heartache into a party, and "Dirt Road Dancing," celebrating the outlook that says the music should be loud, the drinks cold and the men and women single and rowdy.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find Matt's keen eye for the nuances of love and loss, and the twists and turns of a good story. There is "Somewhere Between Me And You," with its unblinking look at a relationship gone wrong, "Go Away," dealing with the aftermath of lost love, and "Moment Of Weakness," a harrowing look at temptation and the decisions that change everything. Matt, who wrote five of the albums ten cuts, also demonstrates his ability to make a song his own, as he captures all the longing in Ryan Adams' "Oh My Sweet Carolina."
Shine showcases a performer who can be rowdy and side-splittingly funny as well as passionately engaging, who can get an audience laughing, crying and singing along, and for whom music is simply an extension of his personality.
"I love real music," he says, "something I can believe in and relate to."
He can comfortably take that reality in either direction.
"My shows are pretty big parties," he says, flashing his trademark grin, "but I have a lot of serious songs and a lot of storytelling I do."
For Matt, the process of bringing hard work and self-expression to bear on life began early on. It was coupled, then as now, with a sense of adventure and of drawing outside the lines. One of his first memories involves digging with his toy backhoe under the blacktopped hillside drive that crossed his backyard to a neighbor's house.
"They had to repave it," he says with a laugh. Fortunately, his dad was in construction, as are his identical twin brothers. His mother keeps the books for his brothers' company.
"Ever since I can remember," he says, "my dad was up at 4:00 in the morning to start his work day. During their senior year in high school, my brothers would go to school half a day and then go and work at their construction business. My mom was a schoolteacher then and she ran the household and got everybody out the door to school and to practice. I don't have to look anywhere for inspiration or for reasons to get out of bed and work my ass off. What I do is easy compared to what my family has always done."
He grew up in Sylva, North Carolina, an outdoors paradise that is home to some of the best bluegrass, country and Southern gospel music anywhere. He sang in church and recalls being enthralled by Lee Greenwood at Magic Waters, a theme park in nearby Cherokee. He was also fond of trying to imitate the distinctive voice of Inspirations tenor Archie Watkins. As he grew up, his list of influences grew to include Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Bowman and Ben Harper.
For much of high school, athletics was a higher priority than music. Matt was in chorus and in school productions until his senior year, when he left them behind to take part in football, basketball, track, and, most passionately, baseball, heading for a batting cage after practice for other sports. In college, and was part of the Southern Conference-winning Western Carolina University baseball team, playing both infield and outfield. That, ironically enough, led him back into music.
"We would go parties and I would sing, which impressed the girls--and that got my attention," he says. "That's how it really got started for me."
By his junior year, he was being touted as a probable major league draft choice, but when that didn't happen he had to look at his priorities.