The rain picks up as Colt Ford's publicist leads the way to the gleaming tour coach parked outside a Nashville rehearsal studio. We find Ford reclining at the table in the bus' front lounge, and he extends a hearty welcome, explaining that he too had escaped the elements earlier in order to save his costly cowboy hat from certain ruin. (He never steps onstage or shoots photos without it, but its momentary removal has revealed a head framed in unruly curls.) This is quite the cushy scenario compared with some he's faced on tour. He once pulled up to a mud bog in South Carolina only to discover that the organizers had elevated the stage by strapping it into the trees.
"And I don't mean four feet in the trees," Ford recounts. "I mean 15 feet up in these trees."
Touring has taken the 43-year-old country rapper and several other acts on his independent Average Joes label much further from the interstate and deeper into the backwoods than your typical country artist would go. But Ford's not about to complain to his booking agent about the inconvenience: "Backyards, off-road parks, I'll go wherever the people are."
He's minutes away from hosting a release party for his fifth studio album, Thanks for Listening, and while this particular shindig is for industry types, the new album is clearly aimed at his fans: working-class people who respond to the grittiness of rap along with the groundedness of country. Rolling Stone Country talked to Ford about connecting the dots between muscular country-rock attack and hip-hop beats.
Most of the musicians bringing country into conversation with hip-hop — including you and your producer/Average Joes co-founder Shannon Houchins, Luke Bryan, Bubba Sparxxx, Jason Aldean, Dallas Davidson — are from Georgia. Do you think close proximity to Atlanta's hip-hop scene has something to do with it?
Atlanta was something foreign to me where I grew up. I grew up at the beginning of hip-hop, with Run DMC and Sugarhill Gang and all that stuff. And I liked Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, because that's what my dad [liked]. It's been Georgia just the last four or five years that has had an incredible run of a lot of different talent doing a lot of different things.
But you and Shannon both worked with Jermaine Dupri at the hip-hop/R&B label So So Def.
Yeah. That's how we met. I drove him to the studio for us to record the Kriss Kross record. But it wasn't really me. I spent a lot of time in the music business trying to be something that I wasn't.
Which was what?
The white rapper guy, trying to do what I thought was cool, or what I thought people wanted. When I finally came back to where I am now, that's when it worked for me. All of a sudden it all made sense: "Why don't you talk about what you know about, the way you were raised?" And that's when [my debut album] Ride Through the Country came about.
So there was nothing rural about the songs you were writing back in the day?
No. It was very much like, I assume, the guy that wrote Terminator and the guy that wrote the movie with the blue people.
Yeah. I'm assuming they've never seen anything like that [in real life], but they were able to write it. I'm assuming you didn't go to that planet, and you met blue people and you wrote the movie. It was something that was made-up. So I spent a lot of time in music trying to be something that I really wasn't, and it'd never worked.
You've said that you started zeroing in on Colt Ford the persona around 2006. How'd you flesh that out?
It started when I went into the studio and wrote this song for the PBR (Professional Bull Riders), and it just turned out in the direction that Colt Ford headed. It was very country.
Shannon didn't even know what I was doing. When I got done, he was like, "Well that's… different." Both of us, oddly enough, grew up rural country, and ended up doing a lot of [other things]. I mean, Shannon sold 40 million records as a producer for Usher and Bubba Sparxxx and TLC. He's done all kinds of stuff like that, but he grew up on a dirt road. We loved country music, because that's really, at heart, who we were.
How much time passed between those early attempts to try to do something together and starting Average Joes?
Years and years. [Shannon] was always doing stuff with music, and I was always fooling with it, but I did lots of other things. I had to feed a family and pay bills. I just decided to try one more time, and when I tried this last time, I was like I'm gonna be just me. And that's when Ride Through the Country was born.
"Dirt Road Anthem," from Ride Through the Country, turned out to be a pivotal song.
When Brantley [Gilbert] and I wrote that, we didn't have any idea that we would write a song that would be that monumentally big — the numbers say one of the Top 5 biggest songs in the last five years in country music. We were just writing about what we liked, just some country redneck stuff. We didn't know anybody would care about it.
What doors did you knock on in Nashville before you decided you were going to have to start your own label?
Well, we had always intended to start our own, but we knock on every door. And there was tons of, "Man, I love what you do. I just have no idea what to do with it."
It was funny, because Shannon had ran other labels, big labels. But Nashville has always been its own little thing. We went to L.A. and we were at Warner Bros., and Shannon knows everybody there. We were walking through the hip-hop office, rock office, pop office. "Where's the country office?" "Oh, they're in Nashville." "Who runs that?" "We don't know. We've never seen them." It was something foreign to them.
When we came here in 2007, we didn't know anybody. We just started networking, which is what I love to do. I love meeting people.
You've got Keith Urban, Jerrod Nieman, Justin Moore and Lee Brice guesting on the new album, and they're not the first big-name guest artists you've had. You've done your share of guest appearances, too. Has that felt like a sort of embrace from the mainstream?
There's nobody on these records that I am not friends with, that I don't have their number I can pick up and call and say, "Hey man, I need this from ya." These are all buddies of mine. I didn't want it to be my manager calling their manager…. I always wanted it to be like, "If the song felt right and you dug it, then let's do it."
You framed the new album as an expression of gratitude to your fans. When I ask other artists about what helped build their fan bases, they'll point to hit singles. But it's been a different deal with you.
It was just an old-school, rock & roll way for me, which has been go out, play hundreds of shows a year and kick ass on stage. After the show, stay around and talk to every single person who wants to say hello to you, take pictures, sign autographs. And if 200 people are there the first time, hopefully they all bring a friend and there's 500 next time, and next time there's a thousand. That's how I did it.
So with Thanks for Listening, I wanted to say it. It's one of those things where you feel like you should've said something to somebody while they were alive. Most artists thank their fans when they get up and win an award and they've got the big singles and everything. I may never win an award. Probably won't, which is fine with me. I don't make music to win trophies.
Country artists have long played sporting events, from rodeos to NASCAR. At what point did you start playing mud bogs?
There's a whole life out there that people, I don't think were aware of. I remember one of the first places in South Carolina [where] the stage was literally ratchet-strapped up between trees. There's a bunch of artists in this town that would go, "No way in hell I'm playing this show." I didn't know any different.
You hadn't toured very extensively before.
No. I just knew that all of a sudden there was five thousand people here, and state troopers had to be called in, because it was a one-way street and traffic was blocked for miles. All these people were here to see me, and they knew the words to a record that'd never been on a radio station before. It was unreal that I could play 12 songs off a record and they knew every single word.
I would think you'd have to go further off the beaten path than the typical touring artist to get to some of those off-road parks.
There's a bunch of artists that just wouldn't play these places. I've played places in a city, and there's a thousand people there. If you put me 30 miles outside of that town in a field, there's ten thousand people there, and it's the damnedest thing you've ever seen.
Would you say you've gotten to play for fans who wouldn't come see you at a typical venue, an arena or club?
Absolutely. I'm talking about some really country fans. There's some places that I've told my booking agent, "Look, don't put me there, because a lot of my fans won't come there." But you say, "Hey we're playin' at Old Man Smith's farm out there," they'll go, "Shit, we're going there. Let's get the cooler, the tent, the kids, four wheelers — let's go." And there's 15,000 people. Even the venue's going, "We didn't expect this many people."
That many people who know you from your albums and your shows, and not from country radio… though you have had some luck with Sirius/XM satellite radio.
There have been a lot of places that have played me. But the numbers look like a guy that's had two, three Number One hit songs. I'm over a million downloads on Declaration of Independence, and I've never had a song on the chart off the record. I've got a song that just went gold, "Driving Around Song," that [only] went to 58 on the chart.
I've said this from the beginning: I want to be on the radio. I feel like I've earned the chance to be a part of it. I've given you songs that were good enough to be played. Most artists and labels would never say, "Man give us a Number 22." If I had a 22, I'd have a big-ass party.
Is "Workin' On" the next single?
I think so. That's one of my favorite things that I've ever recorded. And it's cool that it's completely me, so I'm doing the verses and the chorus. Lyrically, that is a strong song.
Most of the country rap songs that have gotten airplay are party songs. What kind of impact were you hoping it would have to put this song about wanting to be a better man alongside songs about cutting loose?
This kind of flies in the face of what's out there right now, and certainly, songs that have worked with what I do have been mostly party, fun songs. It's hard as a songwriter to combine hope and pain in the same song. Obviously I'm talking about it from a guy's perspective. But I think everybody can relate to the person that you have to deal with no matter what, every day: the person in the mirror. And we're constantly trying to make ourselves better. Nobody can control that but you, and that's what that song is: "Look it's tough, and I make mistakes, but I'm laughing at myself. I'm admitting when I'm wrong."
Early on you had debates over whether or not what you were doing was country, and you'd point to the lifestyle you portray in your songwriting, and the amount of steel guitar and fiddles on your tracks. Do you still have to have those conversations?
I do, oddly enough. Sometimes I'm like, "So you think that's country, and you think that I'm not? You're kidding me, right?" But the fans say what it is.
And your fans are the down-to-earth, working-class.
That is the core audience. Sometimes we've gotten caught up with glitz and glamour and forgot about those people out there. Those people like music too. Those people work for a living. They've got money, and they'll spend it. But they want to be appreciated, too. I make sure that I get out there and talk to them and go where they go.
I've turned down a couple of offers to play certain places where I've gone, "Man, this ticket price is silly." A family with three kids, they can't pay 60 dollars a ticket to come and see this. It's not right. And I'm damn good live… but it's not fair. I want them to be able to come to the show and enjoy it as a family, not for them to have to make a decision whether they can pay their bills or come to a show.