by Rick Moore
The Country music field is filled with a lot of talent these days, but very few artists can begin to claim to be as original and genuine as Jake Clayton. Clayton is a singer who gives his audiences a show unlike anything they’ve seen, not just because of his awesome vocal abilities, quality material and showmanship, but because he plays over 20 instruments on a professional level, usually playing six or seven of them during his stage show.
Clayton started playing the fiddle in his native Missouri when he was barely into his teens, and his knack for music was immediately obvious. Within a few years he was singing and playing several instruments in a stage show in his own theatre. He moved to Nashville, where he became an in-demand background singer and multi-instrumentalist for many major Country recording stars, eventually deciding that a career as an artist was the only thing that would make his music dream really come true. The affable and gregarious Clayton is currently on the road in support of his latest single, “What Not to Do,” from his latest album, By the Light of the Moon. Music journalist Rick Moore caught up with the busy country-star-in-the-making in between songwriting sessions, rehearsals and road trips.
You’re making quite a name for yourself as an artist these days, singing your own original material with your own band. In addition to being an accomplished musician, you’ve also done a lot of work as a vocalist for other people on your way to getting your own thing together, correct?
Yes. Background vocals has been one of the reasons I get hired on top of the instruments I play, because I have a high range that is good for harmonies. Not a lot of guys can do what I do. Guys in the Eagles, for instance – Henley, Frey, Randy Meisner, who could hit all those high notes – those guys are a good example of what I can do. And the list of people I’ve sung and played for over the years is enormous. So now I’m doing it for myself.
You’re from Missouri, where you started performing as a teenager in your own theatre, ala the Opry or Branson. What actually made you take up music in the first place?
My parents were singers in the ‘80s, they worked the Holiday Inn circuit. And the fiddle I’ve been playing ever since I started had actually belonged to my grandpa. Maybe my biggest influence came from old VHS tapes of concerts my parents had, things like Garth Brooks playing live at Central Park. The Dixie Chicks came on the scene around the time I really got started, and they were a big influence, too, since they sang so great, played great and wrote great songs. Those people really inspired me to take it as far as I could.
When I was 19 I got called to go on the road to play for The Oak Ridge Boys when their fiddle player was hurt in an accident. I played fiddle, played some steel guitar for them. They called me in Missouri to do it. I came to Nashville for that job because this was where they were, and I never left. I knew this was where I needed to be.
Today you’re very well respected as an artist and a musician in Nashville. Nick Autry is the manager at Black River Sound Stage, the major studio where he’s brought you in to play various instruments on recording sessions, like the session for Thompson Square’s number one single [“If I Didn’t Have You”]. Autry calls you a “badass.” In a good way, of course.
(Laughs) Well, Nick’s a good friend and I appreciate the compliment. I actually played lap steel for Nick when he performed as an artist at a couple live shows. With the Thompson Square session, Nick called me and said they were in the studio, and they needed a string section for this new song ASAP. So I threw my fiddle and cello in the car and ran right down there. We got it done pretty quick, and it was a real honor to play on what became a number one record.
As a solo act you’ve opened for Charlie Daniels, Jon Pardi, and Jerrod Niemann, and working for other artists you’ve helped open shows for major stars like Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert. As someone who’s sung and played a lot in other artists’ touring bands, did you feel any apprehension about launching your own career as a solo act?
Not at all. I’ve been playing close to 50 shows a year on my own for the past three years besides my other work, so I don’t get the least bit nervous. I’ve been playing everywhere with my own band from here to the Pacific Ocean – festivals, bars, clubs – so I’ve had a lot of opportunity to get out there and play my own stuff. I don’t have any trouble fronting a show, and the other work I’ve done as a backup singer has kept my voice in shape and my lungs strong.
I’ve never had an issue with stepping out front. That’s from being a fiddle player I guess – when you play fiddle for other people they don’t want you to stand in the back, they want you right out front with them. I’ve also had to do things like choreography when I played for Tanya Tucker – you have to get right out there. There’s never been any apprehension at all.
What’s your ultimate goal? So many artists are after what used to be the brass ring, a record deal on a major label, but things have changed a little in the digital age. Is that what you’re after, or are you happy to have an indie deal as long as it pays the bills and keeps you in the touring mode?
I love the indie deal that I have right now. The people I’m working with are fantastic. If a major deal did happen to come to me I would be willing to discuss it. But I really have one goal, and that’s to keep releasing my own music and entertaining people, and that’s what I’m doing right now. Whatever else happens will just be a huge bonus, because I’m already having the time of my life.
I’m out there to entertain people, not to make them mad and send them home (laughs). I’m all about the music, and getting it to the fans and playing for them. I love what I’m doing. And I love Nashville to pieces, but if I’m so successful with my own music that I’m out on the road and can’t come back to Nashville to work for anyone else, well, mission accomplished.
For more, visit www.jakeclayton.com
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