February 27, 2007 Jason Michael Carroll may be a new artist, but already his life reads like a classic country song. The singer of the hit song "Alyssa Lies" launched his career by singing karaoke on a radio station. He was inspired to keep going by a surprise call from Garth Brooks. And at age 28, he's lived a lot of life, including the threat of a shotgun wedding, marriage and children, divorce, and finally, reuniting with his high school sweetheart. We caught up with Jason Michael recently and got the details of his fast-climbing debut single, his new album and a whole lot more in this exclusive chat.
Jason Michael's recording career began pretty much by the book after being signed to Arista Nashville. He recorded an uptempo, hot country kicker that country radio usually loves to hear from a debut artist. He was put on a bus and spent the next several weeks touring radio stations, asking if they'd play his single and if he could play a song or two live off his upcoming album. But it was playing one of those album cuts that changed everything.
"We had started with another song as the first single," says Jason Michael. "Then the label called and said, 'When you play "Alyssa Lies," their phone banks are lighting up. So we're switching gears and "Alyssa Lies" is our new single.'
The heartbreaking tale of an abused girl that did not survive her abuse had done the near-impossible grab enough hearts to take an unknown singer up the charts. It completely validated Jason Michael's struggle to make it in the music business on his own terms, and do it with an original song one he ultimately had to fight for.
"A friend of mine had written a poem about child abuse," recalls Jason Michael. "I thought to myself, 'Man if I could write something like that, that would be a very strong song.' I almost talked myself out of doing it. I'm a "dark" writer, but I wasn't sure that's where I wanted to go."
Then he got another sign that maybe he should go there. "Two days later I saw a story on the news about the same thing and I thought, 'Two times in two days I'm supposed to write this.'"
But writing "Alyssa Lies" and keeping his record company from changing the song turned out to be a surprising struggle. "It took me a week and a half to write the first verse and the chorus," he relates. "I struggled to the point of migraines. Then I put down the song to try to clear my head of everything. It took me a year and a half to finish it."
Because the song was so dark something record companies tend to avoid, even with their superstar acts there was pressure to rewrite a happier ending. Jason Michael finally agreed to meet with a songwriter he respected.
"I remember going into that session about five minutes before we sat down to write and I said, 'Man, I can't do this, the song is too important to me. It's where it is for a reason. I can't explain why but don't think we need to touch it.'"
Jason Michael's co-writer agreed, his record company relented and now, of course, they're glad they did. In the process, he created a song that has changed lives.
"About six months after we finished it, we went on tour with Robert Earl Keen. One night in Augusta, Georgia, this lady came up to me and said, 'I'm an elementary school teacher and I would love to take your song "Alyssa Lies" and play it for the class and ask them to make a report on what this song means to them.'
"Two months later I got a phone call from the same teacher. She said, 'I played it for my class and seven children came forward and said they were in abusive situations at home. And out of the seven, they all got counseling at home and received help. Two of them were actually removed from their situations.' So the response has been overwhelming from stories like that to people telling me their own story where they were abused as children."
Jason Michael Carroll was born June 13, 1978 and lived in Houston, Texas until he was five years old. He grew up in Youngsville, North Carolina, outside of Raleigh. "Alyssa Lies" was written with such understanding was his childhood anything like the song?
"My dad was a very strict fundamentalist Baptist preacher," says Jason Michael. "My granddaddy said it best when he said, 'Every time your daddy would come and witness to me, he'd thump the bible so hard the pecans would fall off the tree.'"
That meant that his dad didn't spare the rod. Jason Michael didn't like that, but doesn't regret it totally, either. "I still don't think I had anywhere near the experience that the people out there are telling me," he says, "but I think that kind of upbringing helped me connect and draw from the spot I needed to [for "Alyssa Lies"]."
Jason Michael says his father also helped him discover music in two ways first as an amateur singer and guitar player, and later as an audiophile.
"My dad had a book on how to play George Strait songs," says Jason Michael. "He had an Ibanez guitar, and my cowboy boots were actually my dad's boots. They came up past my knees when I was a kid. When I first got my country band, my dad gave them to me."
"Then, he'd gone to the rent-to-own place and got a new stereo system with the tower speakers," continues Jason Michael. "He bought the tape of Genesis with the song "Momma" on it. I remember my dad made us sit in the living room of our trailer and you know how wide a trailer is, so we were literally sitting right in front of the speaker system. He put in the tape of Genesis and made us listen to sides A and B so we could hear how great the stereo system was. That was a very important moment to see how cool music was."
The singer ended up joining his first band after singing karaoke on a radio station. "This local pop station in Raleigh was doing a karaoke contest on the radio," says Jason Michael. "I had to audition over the phone line. I sang David Kersh's song, "Another You," that was written by Brad Paisley. I won first place and this band in Durham [North Carolina] called and said, 'Hey, our lead singer just moved to Virginia, are you interested?' So that was my very first gig, all by chance. This was 10 years ago. I've been singing ever since, trying to maintain a full-time job, full-time family and a full-time career."
MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, DIVORCED, & IN LOVE AGAIN
Though he's only 28, Jason Michael's personal life has enough ups and downs to provide him with enough songs for a lifetime. He's the father of four young children between 15 months and six years old three with his former wife and one with his current girlfriend.
"I got married very young," says Jason Michael. "Gavin Michael is 6, in the first grade, Savana Nicole is 5, Story Paige is 3, and then J.W. is 15 months. He's a little mess."
His reunion with Wendy Phillips, his high school sweetheart, inspired a song on his album titled, "Livin' Our Love Song." "I was 18 and she was 15, and at the time, our age difference made a big difference. We dated for two and a half years kinda under the radar. When her mom and dad found out about it, they gave me three options that every 20 year-old wants to hear: 'Marry her, quit seeing her, or go to jail!' And I left. I never really tried to contact Wendy, but I'd always ask my sister Jamie, 'How's Wendy doing?'
"After probably my eighth separation from my ex-wife, we decided that was the final one," he continues. "We were playing in Greensboro, N.C. one night and my sister called and said, 'I'm coming to your show and I'm bringing Wendy.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God! What am I going to do?'"
What he did was start seeing Wendy again. "I found out she'd been separated for two months and we started talking," he says. "That was almost three years ago. So, that's where "Livin' Our Love Song" came from." Jason Michael says his wedding to Wendy is not set yet, but will come soon after his recording career is completely launched.
SOME GUY NAMED GARTH IS ON THE PHONE
One thing that helped Jason Michael keep on trying to make it was an out-of-the-blue phone call from country music's biggest selling star ever, Garth Brooks. Jason's fan club president had known Garth for years.
"I got the call at my grandmother's funeral, Jason Michael explains. "The morning of my grandma's viewing, my fan club president's name came up on my cell phone screen. I answered it, thinking she's calling to offer condolences because she knows what's happened. But it was a guy.
"He said, 'Is this Jason Carroll?'
"And I said, 'Yes, sir.'
"He said, 'This is Garth Brooks.' I'm thinking, 'Yeah right,' but I was too zoned out to focus on what was really going on. He said, 'I understand you just lost your grandma and you're going through a lot of things right now. Can you do me a favor? Can you tell your family that my condolences, thoughts and prayers go with them?'
"Then he said, 'I also understand that you're moving to Texas and having a hard time putting the band together.'
"I said, 'Yes, sir.' I had been singing for six years at this point.
"And he said, 'Jason, let me tell you something, the road you're on is a long road and it's a hard road, but if you make it, when you make it, it's the sweetest road you'll ever know, so don't give up.'
"When I went through my divorce, when my bands would break up, when I had to move back to North Carolina, that conversation [with Garth] really kept me going. I haven't had a chance to thank him in person yet but that's my goal."
With his recent success, it may not be long before Jason Michael reaches that goal. "Alyssa Lies" is a Top 10 hit and still climbing the charts, and it's the first single from his 11-song debut CD, Waitin' In the Country. Jason Michael had a hand in writing five of the tracks, including a duet he wrote and sings with pop star Jewel, "No Good in Goodbye."
Jason says his manager arranged the writing appointment with Jewel and hit Nashville songwriter Shaye Smith. "They are both so successful," says Jason Michael. "That they would bring a 'nobody' in on their writing session was really cool to me.
The country newcomer says the most surreal moment of the two-day writing retreat was the last night he spent at the ranch Jewel shares with her boyfriend, rodeo champion Ty Murray. "There we were, sitting around a campfire playing guitars and me and Jewel are singing songs, Ty was telling stories about the rodeo and we're drinking some Keystone Lights around the fire. I'll never forget that night as long as I live," he smiles.
An emotionally-impacting debut single, a phone call from Garth Brooks and a duet with Jewel Jason Michael Carroll's off to a pretty good start.