True confession: I hadn’t heard of Ricky Young until I received an email from his publicist asking if I’d be interested in interviewing this rising Nashville-based star. In my defence, I mainly focus on Australian country music because that’s what I’m interested in supporting. But having talked to Ricky – who patiently let me call him almost an hour late after I mucked up the time zones and chatted while he was walking his dog – I’m glad to know about him, and believe that star will continue to rise. As you’ll see in this interview, he’s committed to his music, clear eyed about what it takes to make it and willing to work hard. It was my great pleasure to make his acquaintance.
If you don’t mind talking now, I’d love to talk to you now for a few minutes, if that’s okay?
Sure, I’m here right now.
Okay. So you said you’ve got a train near you. Does that mean you live by a train line?
Yeah. I’m in downtown Nashville – I’m out walking my dog right now and there’s a train that’s going by. But, I mean, they don’t usually blow their horns at us. It’s just pretty loud.
It sounds like you’re from the South originally anyway. Are you a Tennessee boy or are you from elsewhere?
I’m a South Carolina boy not born but raised pretty much my whole life. And I’ve bounced around the south-eastern part of the United States. I was in Atlanta for a while, Raleigh, North Carolina and now Nashville. So I’ve kind of bunkered around the south-east.
And so how do you find Nashville life? I guess it’s Mecca when you’re a country music performer.
Well, for sure. The cool part about Nashville is a – it’s kind of two-part: it’s a big small town, so you see a lot of the same faces all over town and so it has the small-town feel with a big-city vibe to it also. But it’s a very friendly town and it’s funny because it’s not because it’s southern. I just don’t think anyone’s from here. I’ve only lived here six months and have yet to meet a person that actually is from Nashville. So I think it’s just known to be a friendly place. People come because it’s a cool place to live and obviously with the whole country music thing and just the music thing in general. There’s so many different genres of music here.
I don’t actually know if you song-write much as well as perform.
Yeah, I definitely do. I’ve probably written over 1000 songs in my lifetime, probably 900 or more of them have been by myself. I’ve always been a solo songwriter until I moved to Nashville. And it’s a big part of really growing as an artist and as a singer-songwriter is to branch out and write with other people – like, today, I wrote with one of these guys in Derek Rutter’s band. I’ve written with two guys, one of the guys from the Zac Brown Band – and so I’ve written with several number one songwriters, which is really cool, and like I said what happened here so quickly, and moving to Nashville.
It seems that Nashville is partly a songwriting factory, in that obviously people go there to perform and to get noticed as performers, but it does seem to be this part of the industry there that is really just churning out songs, whether it’s people writing them for themselves or writing them for other people. And it sounds like that’s what you’ve hooked into already.
That’s exactly right. You know, it’s tough these days to get a publishing deal, which is when they pay you annually a salary to write for them. But the easiest way to do it these days is to be an artist-songwriter; the reason being is because most guys who are putting out records now are putting most of the songs that they’ve written on it. And so just being a songwriter without having the artist side of it is a lot more competitive than it’s ever been because you have songwriter-artists who are doing, you know, a big part of their job, if that makes sense.
It does. And so given that you can do both and there are a lot of musicians who are just performers, who don’t write, do you prefer writing to performing or are they both great for you?
That’s a good question. The easy answer is I love being an artist-performer. I think any artist you talk to would say the best part of what we do is performing in front of other people and reaching out to someone who really likes and believes what you’re doing, you know? And that, to me, is the top of the heap as far as what you can get out of what you’re doing. Songwriting is really cool because it is truly an artform. And so is performing but, that being said, it’s a whole ’nother ball game, really, is what it comes downs to.
Well, yeah, it is. And it takes a certain personality type to really enjoy performing, I think. You’ve really got to like that exchange with the audience. You have to, I guess, open yourself up to that. But I would think that, at times, that’s at odds with what makes a good songwriter, because a lot of songwriters would be quite insular in that they’re trying to not get influences from outside, if that makes sense.
Yeah. Everybody has different influences from life in general, I guess. Songwriters who don’t perform I think can pull from a different area maybe than songwriters who do perform. And everybody’s life is so different and they’re all from the different areas and all different stories and, heck, half of the time you end up writing nothing about your life at all, which is even more fun to bounce out.
Well, country music is a storytelling genre, so I guess that’s one of the great things about it – the songwriters and performers can end up telling so many different stories, not just their own. Do you see yourself in that tradition, that storytelling tradition?
I have songs like that. I don’t think that’s my personal writing style. The songs that I’ve written that have been like a storytelling are usually the slower, more ballad, the ones that hit to the core when you hear them immediately, lyrically. I would think I was leaning more towards writing songs that have really good hooks so when you hear them, you almost want to nod your head and sing along to it. But it is a melody thing, it’s about the melody. When you hear a song you’re, like, this song sounds good. I try to write songs like that, not necessarily that have deep, deep, deep root meanings. But then I think everybody has a little piece of all of those, really, when it comes down to it. I don’t think everybody has just one spot that they, you know, attack.
I agree with you. I’m a melody person. What attracts me to a song is whether I really like the sound of it. So I would wholeheartedly endorse your path there. When someone’s performing, when people respond to songs, what they’re responding to is, on some maybe even subconscious level, not so much the melody as the voice that’s singing it.
Well, for sure. And, you know, I’m the type of guy that 95% of what I’m playing live are fun, upbeat songs. Unless you’re doing the singer-songwriter type [of show] – you know, not really performing but when you’re just getting up to play – that is usually the time when I’ll play the more lyrical, maybe a little less melodical songs that really say a little bit more but probably aren’t as fun to watch live. I’m a high-energy performing type of artist. It’d be kind of weird for me to pull out some really deep song, you know, that had great lyrics in the middle of a set.
You said you’re a high-energy performer and you’re going to need a lot of energy soon because I understand you’re off touring colleges in the US. Is that true?
Yes. I’m really excited about it – the Honky Tonkin’ University Tour. It’s 36 cities and three months, all college towns. I’m with another artist on the bill and then we have other regional performers that’ll be opening the show for us. So, yeah, we’re gearing up towards that. That starts, I think, in February and it’ll be my first solid legitimate tour on the bus, doing the radio thing and really trying to promote it really, really hard. So I’m really excited about that.
It seems like you’d to have to train for that, because I’d imagine you use a lot of energy on a show. Do have you got some kind of regime that you go in thinking, okay, I’m going to have to lift weights for a week? Apparently Mick Jagger does that before a Rolling Stones tour, he trains like a marathon runner.
Well, it’s funny, I’ve been an athlete my whole life and the older I get, the less athletic I’ve got but I’ve never stopped working out. I’ve worked out since I was at about 18. I never stopped. So that’s just a daily part of my regimen. I think that helps. I’m tired after a show but it’s more because I just gave everything I had and then I wake up and then I’m ready to do it again, you know what I mean?
Well, that’s good if you’ve got three months of touring.
Yeah, I’m going to need that, that’s for sure.
You picked up the guitar at 17, which sounds almost quite late to fall in love with guitar and with music. Was there something earlier in your life that you loved about music and performing, earlier than 17?
Yes, definitely. It was just music in general. I guess everybody has an attraction to music because music – you know, no matter what the song is, there are songs that affect you throughout your whole life. So years ago, that was a big part of my life before I ever played guitar and when I picked it up, I picked it up later than most people. I played a little bit in church and I had a career in the minor leagues – in minor league baseball for five years – and I wrote a lot better but still was not really performing yet. I didn’t perform until about six years ago. And six years ago, I started it doing more and more and more and started getting better feedback and more feedback and [people saying] this is really good, like, you’re going to get to Nashville. So that’s a very short version of it, at least.
There’s nothing in your bio that says you’re a minor league baseball player, so that’s news to me. I can’t think of any other country music performer who’s had a professional sporting career, so that’s a quite a shift.
That’s where all my focus was in the younger part of my life, too. I played at college, at the University of South Carolina, spent five years in the minor leagues, and then I took a real job right after that in sales and I was really just doing that. I was kind of pretty much doing that all along, waiting for this music thing to take off. And, finally, just, you’re just taking off.
It seems to me that the discipline you’d need to be a professional athlete would stand you in really good stead. The discipline and the patience that I imagine you have building a sporting career would stand you in really good stead for what you’re doing now, in that you have to put in the work and you have to wait your time for things to build. Do you think that that’s true to say?
For sure. I think two things have helped me out. One is the competitive side, meaning I want to be as good – I need to be as good as I can be, because the best are going to be better than me, you know what I mean. Not that I want to be better than somebody else. It’s an inward competition. I want to be as good as I can possibly be so that certainly helps with the drive and the motivation for my athletic background. And then the sales thing has helped out because I was very successful. I had a very successful sales job and that’s helped me understand all the business side of music. So both of those things really put me in a position to where I’m able to be in Nashville and do things that I’ve been wanting to do my whole life.
You sound quite relaxed almost and not relaxed as in, ‘Well, you know, I just know I’m going to make it’, but relaxed as in all the pieces are in place, you know you’ve done the preparation and now you’re just enjoying what you’re doing.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, there’s still so much more to be done. I think I’ve laid a decent foundation considering I didn’t come from a music background. I didn’t have anyone telling me this is how you do it – there is not one way to do it, by the way. I think you almost have to think a little more creatively and a little more outside of the box to really speed up the process of making the Nashville thing happen on a bigger scale, if you know what I mean. So the foundation is laid and we’ll just keep building on that and the goal now is really just to grow the fan base as big as I can grow it and you can only do that by touring.
And it’s a big country. That’s the thing with the US – Australia is geographically large but we don’t have that many cities. So for country music performers here, it’s little towns that they go to, but you’ve got a lot of ground to cover and a lot of cities to play and so I would think you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you this year.
It’s almost overwhelming when you think about it, but you can only look at it as about a couple of weeks at a time because when you’re looking at it from the big grand scheme of things, you’re like, wow. It’s like climbing Mt Everest and you don’t even have tennis shoes yet, you know? [Laughs] Not tennis shoes, but climbing shoes.
Do you tour with a band?
So how do you go about choosing your band members? Is it people you already know or do you actually sort of cobble together different members based on what you need?
It’s really the networking part of being in Nashville, you meet a lot of people, you meet a lot of guys and then it’s taken me awhile to find them. It took me five months to find guys that I was comfortable with and believed in what I was doing, that wanted to be a part of it and get on the road and not make any money. So it was really a part of the networking thing, you know, getting out and about and meeting folks is what allowed that to happen. I didn’t move to Nashville with a band.
Do you like – is it the camaraderie of the band, does that happen? Do you enjoy it with the band?
Yeah, for sure. They’re good guys, I think, which is the most important part. I don’t care how good of a player they are but if I don’t like them, I probably wouldn’t have fun with them on the road. So we’ve got good, talented guys that are all just good guys in general. And they’re fun, easy to get along with, not dramatic. These are all good things that you need in a band.
I think in the US, you do a lot of touring by bus, so I’d imagine you’re all on the bus together as well?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of times you’re sleeping on that bus.
And I would imagine that one of the movies you’re watching on the bus is The Nutty Professor, because I read that that’s your favourite movie.
Yes, this is true. You know, it’s always weird to say that but I think there’s just the two sit-down parts of when the family’s at the dinner table where, I don’t care how many times I watch it, I can’t stop laughing, I’ll cry laughing every time. And I think it’s because I know that Eddie Murphy played like, you know, 9 of the 11 characters so it’s funny to think of how awkward that must have been when he’s the only one at the table doing it [laughs].
That’s very true. So you obviously like a comedy more than a drama?
Well, yes – yes and no. You know, that’s not a serious movie so it’s what I call my favourite. It’s the most fun to watch, I guess. But I like any drama, action, suspenseful-type movies in general. Those would be my favourite type of movies.
And it always interests me with professional musicians, in terms of you watching movies and having time to do it, is each day for you quite different? Like, you get up in the morning and you might be rehearsing or you might be writing or you might be meeting people? It’s not really like you’re doing the same thing every day.
Yeah. And I’ve been put in a position to where I run my own sales business via my phone and email. So I still do what I’ve done for the last six years, although I put myself in a position [that] now it doesn’t take much time. So I get up at 6 a.m. and try to hammer out as much work as I can. All my friends call me the fastest rising person – you know, meaning getting up in the morning and then you’re rising – person in Nashville.
But, I mean, really, I have to do that because until music really is – when you get to the point where you’re selling enough records to where it can support your living habits – everybody’s done something, whether it’s marketing or waiting tables, until you get to that elite status of where you, literally, don’t have to. So I’m an early riser. I get up and it’s one thing that I’ve probably got that I’ll always do. I’ll always be a hard worker. I think hard work ultimately pays off. Well, I know that because it’s paid off in several different avenues of my life and, you know, I don’t like sitting on the couch, I don’t like getting bored. So I’d rather have something to do, whether it be sales, play guitar, rehearse, hang out with friends, whatever the case is. I don’t like to sit.
So you’ll be running your business while you’re on the road then, touring these colleges?
For sure. I do it all day every day. But it’s not a very huge time-consuming part of my life. It’s only because I work hard to now just be able to maintain it the way that I do.
Just listening to you talking thinking, you seem to be able to focus on one thing and work at it hard and then succeed at it, and then you’ve got those skills and you can keep them there and keep going and then move on to other things. You were a major league baseball player, now you’ve got a business, now you’re a musician, but it all fits.
Well – yeah, it certainly does. You know, you don’t realise that if you look back 10 years that what you will have done, 10 years later – and the business that I got into, if you had have told me that 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you, that I’d have been doing recycled paper sales, you know? But that was an opportunity I had that I thought I could do well with and, you know, you work hard to do it and you look back and you’re like, “That’s very funny”, you know? I went from being in professional baseball to selling recycled paper and to playing music on stage in front of people, you know? It’s just a random mix of opportunities that have been created by just who I am.
Yeah. But I guess it’s also I think there’s a real talent in taking opportunities as they come up. A lot of people will see opportunities and not do anything with them. It’s quite something to actually identify the opportunity and then do something with it. And, again, I think that it sounds very much that’s what you’re doing. You can see something and you’re working at it and you work towards it and then it happens and so it doesn’t surprise me that – I was looking at your Facebook page and there’s over 20,000 likes. And I thought, well, for someone whose career’s just starting, that’s amazing.
I’ve been fortunate to do well in work life, I’ve been able to budget, to be able to advertise and do some things that maybe the starving artist hasn’t been able to do. And I had that video, you know? I put my first video out for my CD and it’s got over 400 000 views already and that was only six weeks ago [at the time of interview]. So it blew up and everybody’s cared and they did a good job of the video, but we did it on a very tight budget. And that part has been able to help me out, because if you have a little bit of money that you can advertise and promote yourself, more people are going to know who you are. It’s as simple as that, you know what I mean? So that’s been fun, man. It’s helped me take a couple of steps faster than if I were to just have moved here and was waiting tables that I wouldn’t be able to do. Does that make sense?
Yes. I think it also helps you move faster than if you move there and actually expected things to come to you rather than doing them yourself or making things happen yourself. I think a lot of people actually – particularly in creative work, they think, well, all I need to do is show up and I’m talented enough and things will just happen to me. And then they get very disillusioned and often stop what they’re doing and their talent’s then lost to everyone. But you’re applying yourself and that’s just the combination.
You have to if you want to be successful.
[Laughs] Yes, good – yeah. I think you’re right.
I’ll tell you the inside story on this tour. This tour is set up and has been bankrolled by two of my friends who are investors, who are basically young millionaires who want to be a part of the music business. And I told them – I explained to them my situation and what I need to do by being on the road. So they’re fronting all the money for tour support, the bus, representation, all of that and I’m an official owner in the company that will run the Honky Tonkin’ University Tour. It’s a biannual tour. This is the very first leg of it. So we’re doing all the work and then we’re branding that tour and it will be around. So this is just another little thing where I saw an opportunity and had some guys who had been fortunate to do well in life as well, and you team up with those guys and, you know. But we’ve pitched this tour to several kind of bigwigs in Nashville and they’re, like, what an amazing idea. No one has done that yet. It needs to be done and it will be very successful. So to get feedback from guys like that is really, really cool, especially when you’re brand new to town.
So when you say this sort of tour hasn’t been done before, you mean like taking a country music tour through colleges?
Well, no. There’s not been a tour for up-and-coming artists. The tours are always for someone who’s already established. So we’ve gone out and gotten sponsors, obviously got the venues on board, transportation; we’ve done all the leg work that you can do for the tour for ourselves; no one else is doing it. But you have to have a little bit of money to do that. You can’t just do it from your living room, you know what I mean? You’ve got to have some financial backing. So the two guys, the two investors, saw the opportunity, loved the idea of it and were – this is going to be a small scale right now but I’m looking out two or three years from now and the tour will be a full-time job for several people. It’ll be a small version of, like, the Country Throwdown Tour or all those bigger tours that have been around for a long time.
It’s a great idea. You go – you take up and coming artists to up-and-coming people because college students are young, they’re often more open-minded about music that they’re listening to.
And the artists are most likely quite young as well, so it’s a really good match. So I think, yes, you’re on to a winner.
Well, thank you. I think we think we are [laughs].
[Laughs] I don’t have a physical copy of your album so I haven’t been able to look at the credits or anything, so I was wondering: did you independently release it?
Yes, everything was independently funded, the video was independently funded. I don’t owe anybody anything, which is nice – again, that all comes from really working hard and other avenues and setting money aside and really having a CD done right. Like my CD is – whether you like the songs or like me, the quality is as good as any major label artist that is already in town, just based off of the players that played on it. My buddies that played on my album are the same guys that play on Trace Adkins, Toby Keith and as far back to even Lynyrd Skynyrd – it’s crazy, the guys that played on it. But it was because of the producer that gave me that opportunity is how that lined up.
So you had someone who played with Lynyrd Skynyrd? [Laughs] That’s great.
Well, he played with Lynyrd Skynyrd, I mean, and God knows, I could tell you all day. His bio list – what do you call it, his credits – are like 18 pages long. I mean, he’s played with everybody. And he was, like, excited to be playing with me, which is so humbling. It was awesome.
Have you liked doing this yourself? Do you like being able to control the process this way and would you continue to do it?
Well, yeah, ultimately, you’ve got to let the reins go because that’s the only way you can take that next step. But it’s been fun being able to be in control because I’ve learned so much along the way. If you just dish it off and let someone else do it, I don’t think I would have learned what I’ve learned so far. And from that standpoint, it’s right – I think it really helped me, you know, learn a different side of business that I never knew before.
Yeah. Well, Ricky, I’m going to let you go because I’ve had you talking for almost half an hour and your dog is probably sick of walking.
Yeah, well, I’m sitting outside. He’s looking at me like, “What’s up, Ricky? Come on.”
I’ll let you take him in the house. It’s been so interesting talking to you and I have every confidence that this tour will do really well and that you will be a very successful artist and hopefully I’ll be talking to you in a year’s time when you are the King of Nashville.
I love the sound of that. Thank you so much for your time as well.