Going Country Without Nashville

Three Georgia artists have decided to give Music City the boot
Levi Lowrey
Levi Lowrey playing a house show in Denver

Photograph by Ben Rasmussen

Last year, three of the top six moneymakers in country music were Georgia boys: Macon’s Jason Aldean, Leesburg’s Luke Bryan, and Dahlonega’s Zac Brown Band. Scroll farther down the country charts and the Peach State continues to represent: Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard (Monroe), Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood (both from Augusta), and Kip Moore (Tifton). Of course, Georgia has a long tradition of producing musical talent across all genres, from Otis Redding to the Indigo Girls to R.E.M. to Ludacris to India.Arie to 2 Chainz. Even the lyrics to “Moon River” were written by a Georgian. Rappers still come to Atlanta to be part of the city’s hip-hop scene. But country artists? They leave for Nashville. Or do they? Here in Georgia, a few country musicians are taking a pass on Music City, choosing not just to live here but to write, record, and perform here. The decision comes at a cost.

Levi Lowrey
Levi Lowrey on the road.

Photograph by Ben Rasmussen

In a cluttered storage room above a friend’s garage in Dacula, 31-year-old Levi Lowrey hunches over a MacBook, playing back some vocal tracks he recorded. He hides a young face behind a bushy black beard, and if you didn’t know him, you might think he was just a computer geek sitting amid dusty exercise equipment and old boxes.

Those who do know Lowrey might think something different: that this is a dismal place to be at this point in his music career. He’s released two albums with Zac Brown as a producer; has recorded with Nashville legends like Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and banjo master Darrell Scott; played Ryman Auditorium and Madison Square Garden as an opening act; and written two of Zac Brown Band’s biggest hits, including “Colder Weather,” which garnered Lowrey a Country Music Association Award nomination for song of the year.

But the songs coming out of his laptop are unlike anything you’d hear at the CMAs; they’re frenetic, bouncing among Southern rock, pop, bluegrass, alternative, and folk. There’s even a sea chantey. The lyrics are deeply personal: about his wife’s cancer and his own neglect of family in pursuit of professional success. Lowrey’s new album, “My Crazy Head,” which he recorded entirely himself in this room and his basement, is a liberation from more than five years of Nashville restraint. “The title song is my country anthem,” he says. “Now I can do whatever I want.”

Ironically, Lowrey was first brought to Nashville because he was different. He was one of the first musicians signed to Southern Ground Artists, the label Zac Brown started in 2011 as a launching pad for Georgia-based acts like Sonia Leigh and Blackberry Smoke. Lowrey had gigged with Brown for years, at Marietta’s Dixie Tavern. While so much of country music is processed and prepackaged, Lowrey was raw. In a soft tenor, he sang openly about his life in rural Georgia, which had little to do with big trucks and girls in tight jeans. He wrote throwback country melancholy about growing up without a father, singing in a Baptist church, skipping college to support his pregnant girlfriend, raising two sons, his own alcoholism, and his adultery while on the road. More Hank Williams Jr. than Conway Twitty.

Most mainstream country artists don’t write their own material, so for songwriters, the key is getting your compositions in front of the right singer. That means networking with artists and publishers, and collaborating with other established writers—few of whom live in Georgia. “You have to be in Nashville,” says Dallas Davidson, who moved there from Albany in 2004 and has written dozens of hits, including Brooks & Dunn’s “Put a Girl in It” and Trace Adkins’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” “The big-hit songwriters are here. We’re in people’s faces. Nobody’s going to come looking for you. And if I’m a publisher, do I want to sign someone who isn’t committed enough to move?” But as Atlanta writer and ZBB guitarist Clay Cook points out, that cutthroat mentality in a pool full of hungry songwriters can crowd out anything new. “In Nashville, when you see something succeed, you try to copy it if you don’t have something to say yourself,” Cook says. “That’s not really making art. That’s trying to make money.”

Levi Lowrey
Lowrey’s traveling suitcase of CDs.

Photograph by Ben Rasmussen

About five years ago, at the Atlanta house of Wyatt Durrette, a former Dixie Tavern bartender who cowrote ZBB’s first hit “Chicken Fried,” Lowrey and Durrette composed “Colder Weather,” a ballad about the loneliness of the road. Still, when you compare the original version with ZBB’s polished radio single, Nashville’s fingerprints are apparent. The single has a catchy, almost poppy bridge that builds into a grand vamp. It ends on a hopeful note: “But I know soon we’ll be together/I can’t wait till then.” When Lowrey plays the original, it’s just verse-chorus-verse, no bridge, no crescendo. And the lost verse makes for a downbeat ending: “He wonders if his calling is worth one more goodbye.”

The following year, Lowrey cowrote lyrics for another ZBB single, “The Wind,” which peaked at 11 on the charts. Lowrey says that Nashville radio execs had initially rejected the song, another poem about distant love, altogether. “They told us it was too country for country radio,” he says.

Meanwhile, shielded creatively by Brown at Southern Ground Artists, Lowrey’s own records weren’t making a dent. His second album, “Levi Lowrey,” was just starting to chart in the Americana ranks when Southern Ground dropped its artists, including Lowrey. Suddenly unemployed, Lowrey worked construction by day and wrote “My Crazy Head” on the side. He plans to distribute the album via LOUD, an Atlanta-based crowdfunding website where fans who contribute more than $99 will receive a portion of the profits. “I’m making a record deal with my fans,” says Lowrey. “No longer can anyone tell my fans when and how they can get my music.”

The challenge of a grassroots Internet marketing campaign would seem daunting in any genre, but especially so in country, where almost 70 percent of albums are still purchased from a store. “Country is about 10 years behind other genres,” says Robert K. Oermann, a country music journalist who has worked in Nashville for more than three decades. Sure, you can write and record anywhere—Atlanta has several world-class studios—but the labels and publishing companies are in Nashville.

Lowrey insists he’s content playing his music to whomever wants to hear it. But he’s also hedged his bet by signing a publishing deal to write songs for Brown. And as Lowrey has proven, his brutally honest approach can coexist with the Nashville machine. “I don’t have the cuts others have,” he says. “But I’ll move you. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Mac Powell
Mac Powell in his Kennesaw recording studio.

Photograph by Ben Rasmussen

By even the most ambitious of measures, Mac Powell has “made it.” His Christian rock band, Third Day, has sold more than 8 million albums and won four Grammys. The green room wall at the Quarry, the band’s posh Kennesaw recording studio, is tiled with platinum records.

Yet after 23 years, 12 albums, and 30 number one hits on the Christian charts, something was missing. Powell grew up in Alabama and then in Marietta, listening almost exclusively to Southern rock and country, particularly the so-called Class of ’89 that included Garth Brooks and fellow Georgians Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt. Their influence would seep into Third Day, the band he started after high school with a friend who shared his deep Christian beliefs. Once, the band was told by an executive that it was skewing a little too country. And lyrically there was always an expectation to stick to scripture. But Powell couldn’t ignore the music of his youth. “That’s what I was feeling musically, lyrically, and personally,” says Powell. “I thought, ‘Why am I fighting who I am?’”

In 2012, while the band was between recording and touring, Mac stole some time at the Quarry and his producer’s studio in Griffin to lay down his eponymous debut country album. The result was a call back to the tender ballads and boot-scootin’ dance hall country of the late 1980s and early 1990s, right down to a nasal growl that evoked Tritt. Powell was proud of the record and wanted it to be heard. He had a head start on most beginning acts: He was subsidized by a successful day job in music; he had industry connections in Nashville, where Third Day’s Provident Label Group was based (along with a host of other Christian record companies); and a built-in fanbase, to the extent he could entice them to cross over. But even those advantages were no guarantors of success on the charts. In order to get his music to the masses, he needed to pass through the gates of country radio.

Seventy-five percent of Americans discover new music on terrestrial radio, and that includes Christian rock and country. But it’s easier to break into Christian rock radio, which is more akin to local NPR affiliates in that the stations are small, running on local economics and fundraisers. Country radio, by contrast, is the third-top-billing music format in the U.S. and the most listened to overall among millennials and Gen Xers, according to Nielsen. And while country radio stations are theoretically local, a majority are owned by conglomerates like CBS Radio and iHeartMedia, which have ties to the major labels in Nashville. “It used to be a local DJ or program director choosing the music,” says Atlanta publicist Mark Pucci, who has been in the music business for 40 years. “Now decisions are made on a national level. You hear the same music in every market.”

“Terrestrial radio is still the delivery system for country music,” says Oermann. “And radio is wallpaper—it’s about not changing the channel. They want the next record to sound pretty much like the last one.” And the records they were queuing up didn’t sound anything like ‘Mac Powell.’ “I’m not going to win in Bro Country,” says Powell. “Not that I don’t like it, but it’s not me.”

If Powell was going to get heard, he was going to have to do it on stage. But in Atlanta, at least, the live country music scene isn’t as deep and broad as it was years ago, though there are still major venues like Wild Bill’s in Duluth or Dixie Tavern and 120 Tavern & Music Hall, both in Marietta. “A lot of country clubs and bars have fallen by the wayside,” says Travis Tritt, who came up through venues like Mama’s Country Showcase in Griffin and the now-defunct Buckboard Country Music Showcase in Smyrna, where major acts like Alabama cut their teeth in the 1970s. “We could have a solid schedule for weeks, even months, and never leave metro Atlanta. In the 1980s, we could’ve stayed and made a living. It’s [essential] nowadays to tour outside of Atlanta.”

Last fall Powell released his second solo album, “Southpaw,” a twangier, more raucous effort that features songs co-written with Tritt, Darius Rucker, and fellow Atlantan Kristian Bush of Sugarland. After Third Day comes off of its American tour this summer, Powell will jump from the fancy tour bus into a cargo van that’ll haul his country band and a trailer of instruments across the U.S. in support of “Southpaw.” “There’s a new excitement,” says Powell. “I’m a brand-new artist again.”

Abby Owens
Abby Owens before a show on Jekyll Island

Photograph byJoshua Drake

Abby Owens has had her share of day jobs. Bartending. Construction. Landscaping. Anything that could help make ends meet and provide health insurance while allowing her the flexibility to tour the country with her guitar.

Of course, she had hoped that by now, at 29, music would be her sole means of making a living. She’s come close, performing private showcases in New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver for various record execs. TV talent show “The Voice” flew her out for a special audition, separate from the cattle call. They all returned a more or less tactful version of the same cruel verdict, she says: “Your voice is angelic. Your face is beautiful. But they don’t match your body. Call us when you’ve dropped 40 pounds.”

In Nashville, as in L.A. or New York, the emphasis on an artist’s look is often as great as the pressure to compromise one’s art. It’s all about image. And not just for women. Lowrey says that though Zac Brown and Southern Ground Artists never raised issue with his appearance, other forces strongly implied that he would have to change in order to be successful. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are labels out there that would never sign me due to my weight,” says Lowrey.

As a teenager in Waycross, home of Gram Parsons, Owens bought a pawnshop guitar. She eventually moved to Macon, where she tended bar at the Hummingbird and jammed after hours with Jason Isbell. She recorded her first album, 2010’s “’Fore the Light Comes,” in Athens with producer David Barbe, who had worked with R.E.M. and the alt-country stalwarts Drive-By Truckers. And she performed in Decatur alongside Dave Franklin in the midst of the singer-songwriter community that was welling up around Eddie’s Attic in the 2000s.

The result is music that is sincere and melodic, storytelling that is straightforward and almost gothic. Are the songs and the woman singing them a fit for country radio? Owens says she couldn’t care less—to her, the music and image of Nashville today is pop, plain and simple. It has nothing to do with country.

Owens’s second album, 2010’s “Indiantown, was produced by Isbell and recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like her first, it didn’t chart. But it did make Owens one of the top five new artists added to Americana radio stations. Lowrey, who has also seen some commercial success in Americana, says the genre “has become where homeless country artists go because they’re not being listened to anymore.” Owens says that Americana today is what would have been considered country 20 years ago, and it’s more welcoming to artists like her, more open to different sounds and looks. And she sees an emerging Americana scene all across Georgia: from the annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival in Waycross, to Patterson Hood and the Truckers in Athens, to the songwriting community that followed Eddie Owen to the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth. “There’s a demand for this music here,” says Owens. “People are tired of plastic, and they’re trying to grab onto something that means something to them.”

Still, years of getting told to hit the treadmill took their toll on Owens. “It wasn’t that my art was bad,” she says. “That, at least, would’ve been understandable.” Two years ago, she quit playing out, barely even touched her guitar, and started nursing school. Now, at the cusp of 30, Owens is back to take one last stab at music as a profession. She says she’s lost “maybe half of the weight,” and her voice is as strong as ever. But obstacles remain. “Booking agents say no because I don’t have a label; there’s no buzz,” she says. “Go to the label, and they say I have no booking agent, no investors. I’m just trying to get someone to jump first.”

Kristian Bush, whose band Sugarland first signed with Mercury Nashville Records in 2004, says that cycle is the new norm in country music. Ten years ago, he says, artists would get a record deal based on potential, and the label would bring them up and groom them through the system.“Today, even major labels have less money to spend per album,” he says. “It’s up to the artists to develop themselves.” Tritt says the way to do that is to get your music in front of as many people as possible by playing shows and self-releasing tracks, gradually building a following, honing a sound—or writing a hit that Nashville can’t ignore, like Zac Brown did. “There’s still a listening audience that determines what hits,” says Tritt. “Fans don’t care if it’s being produced in Nashville.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue under the headline “Giving Nashville the Boot.”