When it came time for Wade Bowen to write his latest album, he found himself at a crossroads. About to turn 40, with the sting still fresh from his major label dreams having evaporated, Bowen was facing down middle age and the prospect of a long, slow slide into his twilight years. So he turned to an old friend, producer Keith Gattis, for help.
"I said, 'I want you to really push me as a songwriter, more than I've ever been pushed.' I could easily just make a record, have a collection of songs I like, and find someone to go make it sound good," Bowen says over breakfast one morning on the west side of Austin, not far from his home in New Braunfels, Texas. "But I chose not to do that. I said, 'Let's see what I still got left in there, what I haven't done before. Let's push the envelope a little bit, push out of my comfort zone and see what happens.'"
What Bowen yielded from those sessions with Gattis was Solid Ground, his seventh studio LP and first of all-new material in nearly four years. Featuring guest appearances by Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and John Randall, it's a love letter to his home state of Texas and his most musically ambitious set of songs in a career that stretches back two decades.
Bowen had stayed plenty busy in the time since he released Wade Bowen, his first album after leaving Sony Nashville, in 2014. He'd released Then Sings My Soul: Songs for My Mother, a collection of traditional gospel songs, and two records with Randy Rogers under the auspices of their Hold My Beer and Watch This Tour. But he still hadn't recovered from the shock of returning to independent life after only one album on the majors, 2012's The Given, released under the Sony umbrella.
"I'd just gone through so much. I had pretty much everything you could have, I had the world by the tail," Bowen says wistfully. "You spent the majority of your career seeing how big you can get. Suddenly you get the world handed to you with a major label deal and all that stuff. It's like man, this is badass, this is all my drams come true. And then you realize, 'Oh shit, maybe that's not what I wanted.' It was a big letdown coming out of all that."
Wade Bowen – the title was a nod to Bowen trying to reassert himself – included songs that he'd written while he was still signed to Sony, and he admits he was preoccupied with the fallout when he recorded it. "The self-titled record was a little bit of me getting it out of my system, where I said, 'I can do this, life's good.' But I don't think I had it out of my system completely," Bowen says. With Solid Ground, it was time to finally get a fresh start.
Gattis, like Bowen, a native of Texas even though he's now based out of Nashville, was just the man to make that happen. "He saw that I was lost. I was really searching for answers, searching for some direction. I knew he was going to be a good producer, I just didn't know he was going to be that good," Bowen says. "He saw things in there that I hadn't seen yet, made me dive into topics that I'd reminisce about but hadn't ever talked about in my career."
Having already spent a year writing material for what would become Solid Ground, Bowen joined Gattis at his East Nashville studio, which still had its creature comforts, reminding Bowen of the feel of a Lone Star State ranch. The work itself, however, was intense. "I'd never done this before, but he had me show up two to three hours before the band got there every day. We'd write that morning and either finished a song or started a brand new one, then cut the new song the same afternoon or evening," Bowen says. "It really gives you a chance to write, to be inside the album."
The idea of paying tribute to Texas was Gattis' idea, as well. "He said, 'I don't think you've ever made that Texas album that all artists from Texas tend to make,'" Bowen recalls. The suggestion brought a flood of memories, with perhaps none more indicative than those on "Acuña." A tribute to a small Mexican border town where Bowen used to party in the summers, it doubles as a requiem for the fading dancehall culture in his home state. "I remember being in 6th, 7th grade and begging my parents to take me dancing so that I could ask the ladies to dance," he says. "That's how you learned chivalry and manners growing up. It was a big deal for us, but it's just kind of gone now. My kids don't know anything about it."
Even more relevant to Bowen's present-day situation is "So Long 6th Street," named for the major bar and venue hub in downtown Austin. "The biggest struggle of my entire career was the two years I lived in Austin," he says. He'd moved there after getting his start playing shows while he attended Texas Tech in Lubbock. "I found very quickly that everything you do in west Texas nobody else in the world hears about. So I started all over. I paid for my apartment, but I was here maybe four or five nights a month, just begging for any chance I could to get on stage."
"So Long 6th Street" resonated with more than just Bowen; both Lambert and Ingram liked the song so much that they wanted to sing on it — in Ingram's case, in a spur-of-the-moment fashion. "I was sick, I went back to my place and went to bed because I was losing my voice. I woke up the next morning and there's a picture of Jack Ingram in the vocal booth, right where I was singing the night before. [Ingram and Gattis] just got drunk and had fun and all of a sudden he ends up on the track," Bowen says with a laugh.
That freewheeling spirit took over much of the record, as Bowen made a point of including his friends in the process. Randall appears on "Death, Dyin' and Deviled Eggs," a song he cowrote with Bowen, while Lucie Silvas appears on three songs. Charlie Worsham, Angaleena Presley and Waylon Payne all make songwriting appearances as well. With Bowen already ramping up his touring schedule — he started his 2018 itinerary on December 31st of last year — and making plans to celebrate his 20th anniversary as a musician in October, that collaborative spirit is likely to continue.
"I remember Jack telling me years ago, he was really adamant on it, that everything in this career is going to make you want to quit, it's going to push you to the edge and over," Bowen says. "But we're the ones that aren't going to quit. We'll never quit, they'll never get rid of us. And that's what makes us win in the end."