Jason Michael Carroll doesn't look like he sounds - and that intrigue only heightens both realities of the twangy vocalist from North Carolina. After all, to hear him is to hear a straight-up, full-tilt, no-frills, big-boy country singer who works a groove like a mule team, a melody like a barrel racer going for time and a tear jerker with the dignity of Sunday grace.
But to look at the rangy 28-year-old is to see a twinkle in the eye of a kid who could be just as at home on a surf or skateboard, a bit of mischief and kicked-back cool that says suburban sprawl and good times found where they fall.
Jason Michael Carroll not only isn't afraid of the contradictions, he leans into them with a freewheeling abandon - and that will-to-romp and see how far the moment will go brands his kind of country with a no-nonsense intensity that gives country back both its fun and its kick-to-the-knee power.
"I don't think about any of it," says the father of four, "I just get out there and live. I try to write and sing songs that are where I've been and for a guy who's pretty young and pretty typical, I guess I've been a lot of places."
To listen to the thump'n'bump of "Waitin' in the Country for Me," with its great big, descending bass-line and big-flanged electric guitars, the chuggingly insistent "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," with its turbo-diesel chording and a pimping musicality, or the romping, universal whirl of "Anywhere USA," with its sawing fiddles and wailing steel guitar, is to understand this is a young man who likes to have economy-sized fun. Yet just as quickly, he can sink his teeth into the fight-for-the-one-you're-meant-to-be-with intensity of "Love Won't Let Me" or the resolved acceptance of life on its terms "Let It Rain" that speaks of a seriousness that exists below the obvious inside the emerging singer/songwriter.
Born in North Carolina to a preacher, the youngster spent years not being allowed to listen to "secular music." That meant no rock, no pop, no country and other than the occasional moment stolen in a friend's parents' car on the way somewhere, Carroll's musicality came in a rush when he began working in a motor shop.
Suddenly, it was full immersion the baptism by popular music was with fire. Though country spoke the loudest to him, the young man's break came from a pop radio station's karaoke contest, which he entered and won and in doing so, was asked to join a local country band that was losing its singer.
Carroll was, of course, hooked. Fire creates steel after all --- and with a forged resolve, the youngster started pursuing his dream with a singularity of focus that threatened his bandmates. While they were playing at playing, Carroll was spending his off-nights at the Longbranch Saloon in Raleigh, making friends and in-roads.
When an offer came to play the legendary club and his buddies had other things to do, there came a crossroads. Carroll was handed a pink sheet of paper with the news that he was being terminated. Having helped his bandmates step it up, they responded to the challenge by retreating only making the scrappy 24-year-old that much more determined.
And in his conviction, Carroll was willing to sing any time, any place, anywhere. Just let the emerging-from-his-gospel-music-cocoon self at it, and watch him open up that cavernous baritone with abandon even singing on Gimme The Mic, an American Idol-type knock-off for local FOX affiliates that culminated in a national competition in New York City.
While the likable country boy did it as much for his mama as anything "I used to make fun of the people on those shows, truth be told," he now concedes his participation proved to be fortuitous. Not only did he win the Raleigh/Durham market, earning that trip to New York, but he caught the ear of a fellow mocking-the-contestants viewer, Rusty Harmon, the man who'd managed Hootie & the Blowfish to multi-, multi-platinum success.
"Turns out Rusty knew a buddy of mine," laughs Carroll. "And I told my friend, just to keep things on the up and up, we should wait 'til the show played out. You know, we'd have time."
And so they did. Once it was over, the two set about forging a plan to turn the serious-voiced singer's pipe dreams to heavy metal. Assessing his strengths and weaknesses, what made sense, the best path to take, Harmon started working his vast Rolodex, looking to create a net of believers.
First up was producer Don Gehman, responsible for the Blowfish's breakthrough Cracked Rear View, as well as every significant John Mellencamp record and Pat Green's Grammy-nominated "Wave on Wave." If straight-up-the-middle country that swung like a pasture gate wasn't his stock in trade, songs and sonics were.
"We went to Charleston to meet with Don," Carroll remembers, "and I played for him in a hotel room. I don't know any other producers, really, so I don't know how it works but you could see he got it. He was ready, and so was I.
"He hooked us up with the people he knew, got us in the studio. We ransacked the labels in three days and it was pretty magical, really. I'd worked my butt off, and you know that karma will catch up with you. But having people like Don and Rusty believe in what you're doing gets people to pay attention, gets them to see what they might otherwise miss."
Indeed, in a matter of days, there was a deal on the table with Arista Nashville, the SONY BMG home of Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley and a green light to begin the creative process with a new fervor. Writing with many of Nashville's best writers, Carroll, never one afraid to dream big, sought out pop songmaster Rob Thomas, who wanted to write, but whose schedule was too clogged to fit in the appointment in a timely manner.
Recognizing the innate depth in Carroll's deep-valley baritone, Thomas' publisher suggested earth diva/writer Jewel as someone he might find a fertile writing compatriot in. Having been a huge fan of Jewel's multi-platinum Pieces of You "I'd bought three copies, I kept wearing them out," he admits with a laugh. "I just couldn't get enough of her voice or her writing, the way the songs were put together" Carroll jumped at the chance and found himself on a plane to rodeo star Ty Murray's ranch, where Jewel lives with her longtime beau.
"Sitting around a campfire in front of a bunkhouse on Ty Murray's 2000-acre ranch Jewel and I playing acoustic guitars and songs for each other, Ty telling stories about the rodeo between songs it doesn't get more magical than that," the North Carolinian explains. "And the thing of it is, she'd already had a session booked with Shaye Smith ['One Boy, One Girl'] and they let me in on that time.
"Of course, what happens to me every time I go to write with someone, no matter what we get, I come away with 30 more ideas. Having just been with all these Nashville writers, everything I was throwing out was about drinking and honky-tonking, hell-raising 'cause it's where I was and something I thought they'd have a different take on. Turns out Shaye doesn't write those kind of songs at all. It was a complete, flat bust.
"I went home to the hotel, started writing guitar progressions 'cause that was not going to happen again! Anyway, I came up on one that was kind of folkie like her first album had been. When we were throwing out ideas the next day, I pitched that in and they responded immediately. Jewel had the title ['No Good in Goodbye'], and we figured out that all of us had been in the 'left' end of that conversation before and that the first verse should be in his voice, the second in hers and the third verse, they come together."
The swelling balladry of "No Good in Goodbye" perfectly matches both the power and thwarted desire in each singer's reality. So powerful a song, the Grammy-winning songstress even called her label to make sure she would be free to record it with the newcomer on his debut.
And it's that willingness to go deep that gives Carroll so much of his impact. Though he humbly offers, "You can't sell a song to people if you don't really believe it," he also seeks the intensity of real life that so many miss in the hustle of getting by.
Case in point is the jaw-dropping "Alyssa Lies," a song about child abuse told from the perspective of a classmate that has an impossibly sobering end. Though not the feel-good "rocking country" that Carroll a devotee of Steve Wariner, Randy Travis, Radney Foster and especially Garth Brooks naturally is drawn to, it was a realization that the dedicated father of four couldn't sidestep.
"I started that song when I lived in Texas four years ago," begins the young man with the permanent smile on his face with a deep earnestness. "You get thinking about how deep it is, how people don't want to hear something like that, but then you keep hearing stories on the news you look at your children and realize how fragile those young lives are...
"So that song just kept coming back to me. At night when I couldn't sleep when I'd read a paper all these stories of children being abused by their parents, and it occurred to me how it must seem to a little girl not quite understanding, but knowing the way children do. So I dug in and I wrote it, really worked on it for a long time because of how important what it's saying is and in the end, it's a song I wrote all by myself.
"That may be the song I'm the proudest of on this record. Not because I wrote it or sang it, but because I really mean it and believe it may get people to talk about the unspeakable, to maybe not wait until it's too late somewhere else. If a song I touched could do that, well, then..."
It is a lot for a debut album, for certain. But for Jason Michael Carroll, a North Carolinian who's not afraid to dream jumbo dreams, it's just scratching the surface. Whether it's the blow-up-the-weekend "Honky Tonk Friends" revelry or the sweeping desire of "Lookin' at You," the chicken-picking iconography of "Sad Old Country Song" or the smolder of want in "Love Won't Let Me," Carroll is home in any kind of song just so long as it's country.
And at a time when the genre's at a crossroads, it's good to know there's a new voice on the rise that's comfortable wherever the music leads. For Jason Michael Carroll, though, it's not a matter of comfort, it's a matter of who he is at the very center of his being. One listen, and you'll know.