Mixing together Tennessee twang, southern storytelling, and a big, booming baritone, James Carothers makes throwback country music for modern times.
It's an old-school sound that ignores the trends of contemporary radio. You won't find any bro-country songs here. No Auto Tuned vocals, either. Instead, Carothers dishes up a reminder of country music's golden years — a time filled with fiddle solos, analog production, and slyly simple songs about heartaches and hangovers. His first full-length album, Relapse, available May 5th, 2017, offers plenty of all three.
If Relapse bears similarities to classic releases by George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, it's because Carothers wrote most of the songs between daily gigs at The George Jones in Nashville. Since its opening in 2015, he's performed hundreds of shows at the venue, playing acoustic duo sets throughout the week with loyal sideman Jerry Lee Combs on bass and a weekly Saturday night band show on The George Jones Rooftop. George Jones' own widow, Nancy, personally hired Carothers for the gig, giving him the opportunity to do something he’s thankful for and that so many aspiring artists moving to Nashville only dream of doing – make a living playing music.
In addition to supporting his young family, performing daily at The George Jones has helped Carothers build a large fan base of fiercely supportive followers — fans who are drawn through the venue’s doors by the booming voice echoing down 2nd Avenue and his spot-on impressions of several of country music’s greatest icons. The gig has also allowed him to sharpen his stage show — not to mention his rare ability to entertain and interact with fans in a way that leaves most people feeling like they’ve made a new friend.
"My whole life, I've always loved those legendary artists,” he says, "I've really learned how to sound like them, too. My Willie Nelson sounds like Willie Nelson. My Johnny Cash sounds like Johnny Cash. When I do the Highwaymen, it sounds like all of them. People really do want to hear all these old classic songs and I guess singing them is kind of what has made things happen for me here in Nashville. I see a lot of folks doing double takes when they first walk by – the impressions definitely get their attention. Then they stop and hang out with us for a show or two, buy a CD, and a lot of them keep coming back. It may sound cliché, but Jerry Lee and I really have made a bunch of lifelong friends just "sittin’ on a bar stool actin’ like a darn fool."
Raised in rural Tennessee, Carothers grew up leading acapella singing every Sunday in the Church of Christ. His father was a hobby songwriter who landed a song on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded a couple of studio albums in Nashville before moving the family out west for work while his son was still in grade school. Inspired by his dad, Carothers always toyed with songwriting and began playing his own shows in local honky tonks around New Mexico during his teenage years. Meanwhile, he got married, started a family, and paid the bills as a technician at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working in the same place the atomic bomb was created.
Carothers visited Nashville in 2014 and recorded Honky Tonk Land (an EP released the same year) at Beaird Music Group. The EP garnered a little attention from traditional country music fans and was even featured by MusicRow magazine’s Robert K. Oermann as a DISCovery Award Winner. But the music gig remained a side project until 2015, when he — encouraged by his wife — left the lab for good and returned to Tennessee, this time settling in the country music capital of Nashville. The opening lines of his new project’s title track “Relapse,” although seemingly penned through a relationship lens, may also elude to the stone-cold country crooner’s true feelings about returning to the south.
Feels so good to be back home again
Runnin’ my old beat path
Don’t care if it’s the wrong track
Second chances blowin’ in the wind
Joined by Combs and other all-stars like guitarist Phil Valdez, fiddle player Ross Holms, steel player Spencer Cullum Jr, mixer Andija Tokic, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Estes (who pulls triple duty as Relapse's producer and engineer, too), Carothers recorded his newest album over seven days. The goal was to keep things from sounding too polished. The band captured 12 songs during a handful of live takes at Nashville's Bomb Shelter Studio, bringing the music — fueled with lyrics that veered from booze to breakups, in classic country style — to life. Although steeped in the swagger of country music's greatest stars, most of the album was written by Carothers, from the topical "Can't You Feel That Spirit ("a song that tells a redneck's viewpoint on all the social divide in the country right now," he explains) to the Celtic-influenced, fiddle-driven "Frost." His father, James Carothers II, Jerry Lee Combs, Gerald Gallant, and J.R. Banks also have cuts and co-writes on the project.
A couple of well-chosen covers were tossed into the mix, too. There's a revised, fiddle-fueled version of George Jones' "Choices," a song Carothers once performed alongside its original writer, Billy Yates, while Nancy Jones sat in the front row. There's also an updated take on Waylon Jennings' "I've Always Been Crazy," which showcases Phil Valdez as one of Nashville's unsung guitar heroes.
On an album filled with the ghosts of country music's late legends and the sounds of Nashville's A-list players, though, it's James Carothers — singer, songwriter, and storyteller — who shines the brightest. He's a fresh cut from an old cloth. An old soul in a new world. A native Southerner with a wider perspective on the world. And when a Relapse sounds this appetizing, who would ever want to get back on the wagon again?
Written by Andrew Leahey