“Think About It”. A song title, but perhaps more a statement about life for singer/songwriter James Robert Webb.
“… my number one priority is my health and me. Because if I crumble then everything else crumbles after that. Then it has to be my family, and third is my medical practice, because I always have to have that, and I can’t abandon my patients. And after that it’s music. That sounds like a lot of things to do, but you just get up every day and you’ve got to do those things in order.” (from Nashville Music Line).
There is something about his music, his lyrics that captivated my mother’s heart. Reading more about Webb, couldn’t help but know he writes what he lives. Radiologist. Husband. Father of three. Family values.
Growing up which artists were your family’s favorite to listen to?
We listened to whatever was on the radio. My dad was usually country and my mom was usually top 40. In the car, we could always agree on the classics like Elvis, Willie, George Strait, Alabama.
How has Oklahoma influenced your music?
First off, I was lucky to grow up in Tulsa. I didn’t know it as a kid, but it’s just one of those places like Muscle Shoals or Southern California that has a distinctive, unique sound. I pretty much love it all, from Bob Wills to Charlie Wilson. So much of the 70 and 80s rock scene was tied here in that Tulsa Sound — Leon Russell, JJ Cale with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty recording his first session in the Church Studio.
There are just so many incredible and diverse artists from Oklahoma that goes back to early statehood like Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie. It’s easy to leave some out. I think the most old school artist that I love from Oklahoma is Bob Wills. I love Western Swing. But I also love that whole nineties era of country — most of the biggest country acts from the 90s were from Oklahoma: Garth, Toby, Reba, Vince, Brooks & Dunn. There is a distinctive sound in their music and in the way they took the old and the new and made something unique.
Bob Wills - Country Music Hall of Fame
James Robert Wills grew up in a musical family of fiddle players and in an area famous for African-American music that…
Producer Buddy Cannon. What was it like working with him?
It’s definitely a feeling of being on the right path. When I first came to Nashville, I dreamed of being able to work with the best. And with Buddy, I’ve got that. So on those days that I’m doubting myself, it definitely validates me as a writer and as an artist.
We had a lot of fun making this record. We had great songs and a great crew. I can’t say enough good things about Buddy and they’re true. He’s got a great ear. He’s just a regular guy and treats everyone the same, which I really respect.
If I had to pick my favorite thing about working with Buddy, it’s that he truly is a song guy. He is really tough on songs. So when you do finally write one that he likes, you know that you’ve really written something special and top notch from a songcraft perspective.
Buddy Cannon | Songwriter and Producer
As a producer of number one hits by artists like Kenny Chesney, John Michael Montgomery, Joe Nichols and Reba McEntire,…
“April May” was the #10 most played indie song of 2019 on country radio. How did that success boost the song you chose to release next “Think About It”?
Wow. Just finding that out was amazing to me. I don’t know how many shows and how many stations we hit in 2019, it was a like a tornado.
Then I get this email on January 17th and they tell me that “April May” was the #10 song on the True Indie chart for 2019. To see that — that among songs that were actually getting real radio play, that I had the tenth most played song in 2019 by a non-major label artist — that was amazing. Because in front of me were mostly big names — Tracy Lawrence, Easton Corbin, Casey Donahew, Cody Jinks. That’s great company. And then I looked down the list and saw that we also had #18 with “Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere”. I’m just so grateful to the fans and small town country radio for acutally playing these songs.
So we knew that we wanted to release another uptempo and this album is loaded with uptempo songs. Fans keep coming up to me after shows and they tell me that they love “Think About It”. Of course I love it because I wrote it, but as an artist and the label, you have to go with what the fans are going to respond to. I just thought that with everything going on in the country with politics, the fact that we’re slaves to our screens and we are losing our connection to each other and the world — that this song is kind of an antidote to all of that. Get off your phones, go play with your kids. Immerse yourself in the wonder of the actual, real, world. And keep your politics to yourself.
Which albums represent the best of Old School Country that all fans of the genre should have in their collections?
When I say old school, I don’t mean like some stodgy or hokey old album. I mean, music that actually sounds country and sounds classic — instead of flavor of the day songs that are trying to be something else. So take about any album by Alabama, Waylon or George Strait and those would qualify.
If you’re new to country, though, I would say check these four out: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs…”, Brooks & Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road”, Dixie Chicks “Home” and Garth Brook’s “Sevens”. I think those albums do an exceptional job of being country to the core but sounding new, especially at the time.
SEVENS Released November 1997 SEVENS - RIAA certified for sales of over 10 million units, Garth's seventh studio album…
“New Old School Country” How does this define your music?
Things change, but country has a distinct sound — I mean it’s right there in the name. To some that means acoustic or organic music. To others its about the story song.
For me, country music is storytelling about regular people that I can relate to. Maybe it’s because I’m an empath. To me it tips the hat to the traditions of rural life without being rigid. It’s about common ties, the basic things, life, love, death. That’s where those artists in the 90s struck gold — they went back to the roots but made things that were new, added in new sounds and elements, but it still ‘sounded’ country to the core.
I think you can hear that today in artists I like the most — -Brothers Osborne, Miranda Lambert, Jon Pardi and Luke Combs. That’s what I strive for musically — it doesn’t sound like it was produced by Chet Atkins in 1960, it sounds new and modern, but it still sounds ‘country’ and not like disco.
How did you find your songwriting influences?
Two word answer: read labels.
First by looking at my favorite artists and songs. I grew up listening to bands like The Police and Soundgarden and Led Zeppelin and they all wrote their own songs. I think the first time I realized there were actual songwriters was on Jimmy Buffet’s album “Trip Around The Sun.” He covered a song by Leon Russell called “Back to the Islands.” I loved Leon Russell growing up in Tulsa, but I didn’t realize he was a huge writer for other people.
Then I noticed a lot of my favorite artists did write their own songs — like Willie Nelson and Toby Keith. And then there were artists that were great writers who were also song guys who searched for great songs by others to record themselves — Garth Brooks would be front of the line there.
So I looked at what kinds of songs I liked and the writers that wrote them. I studied them. From modern writers like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Gorley back to Jim Croce and Jackson Browne, the Beatles — even back to American songbook people like Cole Porter and Gershwin. What was it about weird songs that I liked — and I mean weird like unconventional or different than other songs in a good way. I’ve always been a deep track listener, but then I started looking at the music from a song construction viewpoint.
When you start writing there’s a tendency to sound like your influences. One of my friends, Randy Barber, suggested that I look at the people that influenced your influences — I call them grandparent influences. So let’s say you love Merle Haggard — who as far as I’m concerned is a freaking poet laureate and Bob Dylan’s equal — look at his influences like a. You love Garth — look at his influences: Merle, James Taylor, Queen. Then go look at how they put songs together.
Premiering new songs live on television. How do you prepare for the performances?
You just have to have the songs down with you, with the band. For me, as long as I’m confident on that, I’m happy. I don’t get stage fright, but I do get stage “overthinking” sometimes and that can limit your emotional connection with the audience. I’ve learned to just stay in the moment and focus on having a great time, just like any other show. I mean, you’re on live TV — if you can’t enjoy that, you’re missin’ the boat.
How do media visits impact an artist’s career?
I think the jury is out on that to some extent. If you’re doing them right, you’re learning more about yourself, your music and the media out there and always improving. You want to be a fun interview. I’ve had the best luck when media visits are combined with a show — then people can come see you, you make new fans because you can bring them into the world of your live show.
I’m grateful for every media interview I’ve ever done — newpaper, magazine, blog, podcast, radio, TV — you name it. On the other side, though, it seems that unless you have millions of major label dollars behind you, it’s hard to gain a lot of a lot of traction at a national level. The big radio stations, it’s 100% payola in 2020. That’s supposed to be illegal, but it is so real. There are a bunch of stations on the smaller charts that will never play an indie no matter how high they get on the chart. I’d love for them to prove me wrong — and that’s what makes having a top 10 on the True Indie chart so great. It’s also why you have to strive to grow your live audience following.
Filming music videos. How do you capture the live atmosphere on film?
That’s probably the hardest thing, I think. It’s because you film multiple takes and without an actual audience there to feed off of the energy, it’s difficult. I just have to keep coming back to that feeling you have at a live show, thinking how much fun everyone’s having, how great you’re feeling and give that to the camera.
Self titled new album. For new fans, how does it showcase you as an artist?
This is kind of a coming-out album. It’s the first album where I’ve found my voice from top to bottom. I know I’ll keep improving, but it’s the best writing, the best songs so far. And it’s yet another step out of the shadows of my influences and into the light of my unique sound and style.
I love the lyrical variety on this album. Lyrically I’m dealing with subjects that are both timeless and modern. So at one end you have songs like “Now We’re Getting’ Somewhere” which puts you in the truck on a nervous first date. Then you have “Stealin’ Home” a brilliant, Bertrand Russell type song that curses father time for stealing your childhood home. A song like “Think About It” really tackles the modern existential problems of a world of screen time and social media — not something you’d typically expect from a country artist. Then there’s just straight up story songs like “Somethin’ Out Of Nothin” and “Okfuskee Whiskey.”
Sonically, I love the way this album showcases my musical range as an artist. We go from modern country rock with “April May” to traditional Garth/Strait ballads like “I Love You + Me” and “Undertow.” There’s straight up Outlaw country like “Okfuskee Whiskey” and the Western Swing throwback cover of “Tulsa Time.” There’s even a little funk and grunge influences in there.
What can fans expect when they join The Official JRW Fan Club and become ‘Webbers’?
My undying gratitude. I really love my fans and I’m so excited that so many of them are there at every show and commenting on every post.
It’s challenging with the instant-gratification of social media, but we do find ways to make it special. So I’ll give sneak peeks and early access to music to my Webbers. They get first picks on merch and offers before we go public with them. We’ve got a contest coming up for a trip to CMA Fest — there’s just really all kinds of things going on, so go join. We’ve made it super easy — you can just text the word ‘Webbers” to 66866. Boom!
Hearing “Tulsa Time” on Willie’s Roadhouse, being played by the Mayor of Music Row for the first time. Can you describe what it felt like listening?
I’ve had the privilege of hearing my music on the radio, but when I heard it on Willie’s Roadhouse, that was next level. Mind blown. The first time I heard it, Dallas Wayne played it and Dallas said some real nice things. I teared up there like it was a Disney movie.
Neil deGrasse Tyson. What got you interested in science? How have you incorporated it in your music?
Sweet! You did your research. I think I’ve always been interested in science because I’ve always had a curiosity about how things in the world work. In college my academic focus was really on molecular and cellular biology. Actually, I don’t blow my own horn on this much, because I don’t want to nerd-out and embarrass my kids, but I am a scientist. I’ve had studies published in major journals.
I do have a kind of embarrassing Sheldon Cooper type of moment I remember from elementary school. I had just read a magazine article about goosebumps and how scientists had discovered that there were actually were tiny muscles (called arrector pili) attached to each of your hairs on your arm. There’s a bunch of reflexes and other stuff involved, but in the end, it’s these tiny little muscles that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
So we were in Mrs. Kruse’s science class reading in the textbook and the book had outdated information — like that blood vessels were contracting and making bumps like a rosary or something. I said that’s not right and she said it was. That was one of those times when as a child, you knew you were right, but the adults didn’t care.
Well — I’ll never forget this — but a couple of days later, Mrs. Kruse had took the time to read more about it and then she actually apologized to me in front of the class. She made a big deal about it in a good way, teaching by example. It’s hard for us to admit when we’re wrong, even about trivial stuff. I’m still so impressed that she did that. That’s character.
That’s why I hate this whole ‘cancel culture’ thing and how today that everyone on social media is so cocksure of their opinions and it’s all herd mentality. In my experience, intelligent people rarely speak in absolutes — that’s for Sith and Twitter mobs. As a doctor, I’ve often looked at how we do things, and the flaws in the process, trying to improve them. There are so many areas where we have only started to see how little we know.
So that questioning and wonder is still in my daily life and in my writing. One of the major themes in my writing is our relationship to the natural world, how we live in it in changing times — where we find meaning, the mystical stuff. That comes out a lot in songs like “Falling Star” or “Think About It.” There’s a line I love in that song “we’re surrounded by beautiful things that we don’t even understand.” In the end so much of science is just models that we agree upon but we don’t understand it on many levels. Like chemistry and matter in general — we have models that work for us, but when it comes down to the metaphysics, metal and air are made up of the same fundamental particles.
How do fans inspire your musical aspirations? Saw your post about Spotify followers and how important each one is to you.
Look, with technology, there’s never been a lower barrier to entry in music — or a higher standard for success. There are thousands of new music releases every day. So to think that people actually follow me as an artist on Apple Music or Spotify or Amazon — or that they’re actually listening to a James Robert Webb station on Pandora at work — it blows my mind. I’m so grateful for them. I love when they reach out to me and tell me what song they like — or don’t, lol.
Fans reaffirm you. They validate your art. You write a song, you record it and put it out into the world. And when they respond, there’s a connection — they love it because they get it, they get me. They get me, in turn I think, because I get them. That makes me want to be more of a voice for a generation of people that are like me — to get our message out there. Yes, I am inspired by fans all the time because to me, the best art comes from real life.
Using your music to help others. Saw you were part of a Make-A-Wish radiothon last fall. What other charities are close to your heart?
I love helping with charities and fundraisers. Both of my daughters have Long QT Syndrome which is a rare genetic heart condition, so we are affected by that.
I went to a small country school in Oklahoma. We were lucky to have a great band program and a great director. That was key to my foundation for musical success. Without that, my music career would have been way different. I started MusicCan as a way to give back to rural music education because those programs are so at-risk. The arts are continually under funding attacks but there’s really no one out there advocating for music education in rural schools. I don’t believe a kid should be punished just because they live in a small town.
Saw your post about you and your youngest’s insect and arachnid collection. What else have you collected with your kids?
We’ve collected leaves. I really like that my kids school actually has a program they call nature studies. They learn about birds, all kinds of things.
I think my favorite collections are what I call my treasure boxes. Now, don’t go planning a heist at my house — it’s really just artwork and little things that my kids have made for me from a young age. Like crayon pictures, crafts for Fathers Day and hand-made Valentine’s cards. I keep those put up and go through them every once in a while. I remember my grandfather kept the candles off of my first birthday cake and a few other things in his chest of drawers. I never knew that until after he died. I think that’s one of the sweetest things ever.
If you were to describe your career by ‘time’ quotes which would represent your music debut?
Time’s a wasting.
I’m 6'6" and wear a size 9 hat, so any that are wide enough to fit me. Most of the time I’m getting $10 shades from a convenience store on the road. If I keep a nice pair, they’re usually Ray Bans.
What’s ahead in 2020?
I have an amazing album, and now I want to go get it in front of as many fans as I can — so bigger shows, writing bigger songs and just taking time to keep that balance between work and my personal life. We are getting ready to get back in the studio later in the year as well.
James Robert Webb
James Robert Webb, new traditionalist country artist and songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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