Unlike many contemporary performers who grew up balancing performing with singing in church, Jason Michael Carroll didn’t spend his early years carefully studying the styles and techniques of his favorite country singers.
In fact Carroll grew up in a Youngsville, N.C., home whereto any kind of secular music was strictly forbidden and that ban enforced if he were ever caught violating it.
“My father thought all non-Christian music was sinful and he didn’t make any,” Carroll said. “He caught me one time listening to (Billy Ray Cyrus’s) “Achy Breaky Heart” in the bedroom and he let me know in a physical manner that he didn’t want that kind of music in his home.
"But he couldn’t stop me from listening to it when I would visit my friends and my mother would secretly encourage me because she knew what I really wanted to do.”
It was through the perseverance and the faith of his mother that Carroll entered a local singing competition in 2004. Indeed, a promotion titled “Gimme The Mic” led to his eventual discovery by onetime Hootie & The Blowfish manager Rusty Harmon. His subsequent signing by Arista Nashville two years later followed a lengthy period of seasoning that included many long nights performing in Music Row clubs and honing his vocal skills.
But now Carroll, who appears Thursday night at the Exit/In along with Zane Williams, is now a recognized country star.
His debut release Waitin’ in the Country debuted in the top spot on the Billboard country charts in 2007, and also yielded three hit singles, including a stirring version of “Alyssa Lies,” a tune that Carroll had spent more than a year and a half writing and one that nicely illuminated his prowess with storytelling as well as his range and charisma as a vocalist. It eventually reached the number five spot on the country singles chart, and was followed by “Livin’ Our Love Song” (number six) and “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead” (number 21).
Yet the great start he enjoyed has only made Carroll hungrier and anxious to show that the first release wasn’t merely a fluke.
“In many respects I’m just getting started in terms of the business,” Carroll said. “When we were putting together the songs for the second album (producer) Don (Gehman) didn’t say a whole lot during the takes, but we were constantly talking about making sure that we don’t try to coast off the early songs, and that we keep everything fresh and honest.”
If there’s any one quality that is readily identifiable in Carroll’s singing it is the immediacy in both lyrics and presentation. His fourth single “Where I’m From,” the first from CD number two Growing Up is Getting Old, has a simmering intensity and a steadfast message about identity, roots and philosophy that’s so direct and simply stated that it doesn’t sound self-righteous or phony. Though the song just missed the Top 10 (peaking at #11), it continued his run of successful chart singles, and the fifth release (second off the CD) “Hurry Home” also made it to the number 20 position.
In addition “Living Our Love Song” subsequently earned gold status from the Record Industry Association of America (over 500,000 units sold), his first tune to earn that recognition.
While happy about now moving up the ranks to the point he can be a headliner, Carroll also credits many months on the road when he was working as an opening act for such performers as Brooks & Dunn and Carrie Underwood as the equivalent of graduate level courses in country music education.
“One thing I did when I was on the road was take time to carefully check out and study the live shows of all the people that I was opening for,” Carroll said. “I’d see how they paced their sets, what songs seemed to work and which ones didn’t, how they interacted with the audience, everything. People like Brooks and Dunn were so supportive. They were absolutely thrilled to see my show do well and they told me that the country music business really is like a brotherhood and sisterhood, and when one of us does well, it helps everyone else.
"You don’t really know until you get out on the road with people how they really feel about what you do, and all these people who’ve already established themselves have been nothing but supportive.”
Though not sure how many songs deep he’ll go into Growing Up Is Getting Old (we’ll let the business people handle that one, Carroll says) he’s definitely looking ahead to 2010 and anxious to keep things rolling.
“One thing you learn quickly is never take anything for granted,” he said. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a lot of success early, but you still have to keep producing and keep making music that people want to hear. That’s the challenge and that’s the thing that keeps me going, trying to write and make good songs.”
Country singer/songwriter Jason Michael Carroll along with Zane Williams
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Exit/In, 2208 Elliston Place