As he releases his first full-length country album, "Livin' Like Me," Ricky Gunn is certainly no overnight success. It was roughly two decades ago that his grandfather gave him a guitar and taught him three basic chords.
"He was like, if you can learn these three chords, you can play just about anything out there. At that point, I knew I could sing other folks' songs. It wasn't another year after that when I started writing my own songs," said Gunn, who was born at the Medical Center, raised in Columbus and graduated from Shaw High School in 1994.
What followed was time spent playing karaoke songs around Columbus, working on his voice and singing style, then eventually connecting with various bands and playing whenever and wherever they could.
Then someone suggested he try out for the "Nashville Star" country music competition that ran six seasons from 2003-2008 and spawned stars Miranda Lambert and Chris Young. Gunn, with his friends and parents beside him, headed up to Atlanta for auditions, an event that attracted several thousand musical hopefuls. He played two songs, but drove home less than optimistic because of the huge crowd competing there.
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A couple of days later, however, a phone call came, letting him know that he had cracked the audition's top 10. The young Gunn was "flabbergasted" and he was hooked on pursuing his dream career in country music.
"At that point, man, that's when I knew that maybe I should look into doing this. Maybe I should try doing it for a living," he said.
Touring steadily became the course of action, with performances locally at the summer concert series downtown, The Loft, the former Knockin' Boots country club, and at Outlaws in north Columbus. That spread to stops in Atlanta and in the Southeast, and then as far as Texas and Idaho.
It was about four years ago that Gunn's career began to pick up speed. He won back-to-back honors in 2011 and 2012 as best male country artist at the Georgia Music Awards. About 2½ years ago, his record label, New Canvas Entertainment, put him to work recording an album of original music at the esteemed Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Tenn., the production facility choice of a long, long list of music stars of every genre.
"Livin' Like Me" was co-produced by Dan Hannon and Billy Hume," with Gunn's public relations people describing his style as filled with "gritty passion, blue-collar mentality and love for the country classics."
Now, the real ride begins and Gunn, 39, knows the stakes as he hopes to take his career from its Columbus roots to a much higher level. That includes writing and recording more songs for an album in 2016, landing on a tour with a major country act and, yes, more time on the road. He hopes to eventually top 200 dates a year performing before his fans.
The Ledger-Enquirer recently spoke with Gunn as he and his band were preparing to hop in their van and head back to Nashville for a showcase event before the music industry's major decision-makers. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version available at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
This new album is a big moment for you?
It is, man. It's been a long time coming and I finally get to let everybody else hear what's been in my heart for the past couple of years.
What goes into making an album? Do you write some of your own songs?
Yeah, we wrote the whole album and also had co-writers on there as well. You know, we just sit down and I come up with melody ideas and song ideas that I want to write about. It's mostly things that I've experienced in my life that I like to write about because they're real. I want it to be about real-life events and things that I've done and come across or at least experienced through someone else.
But we start writing the songs, and we just write and write and write and write and write. And then we come to pre-production after that, in which we'll sit down and pretty much demo the songs out. We'll see if they're something that we actually would want to move forward with going into the studio and tracking all of the instruments and stuff, before we hire session guys. And if we like it after we demo it, we move forward with the song. But even at that point, even once we get them fully recorded, we still may say no, it's not something we want to put on the record.
Is it easy or difficult to write a song?
I'm a different writer than a lot of the Nashville writers. They go up there and sit down and they'll have writing sessions and just write to write. When I go into writing a song, I look at it like right off the bat: Can it be a hit song? If I don't feel like it's capable of being a hit, then I'll just trash it and move forward.
Some of these songs we write, or I write by myself, in five or 10 minutes ... But it never just pops up. It's always, I'll sit down when I'm ready to write ... And one day, I'll just feel like writing, and those songs pop out so quick.
Nashville, aka Music City, hasn't changed you at all?
Yes, that is where business is done for us. But I'm a laid back guy. I'm like a home body. I'm the kind of guy that's really mellow. People are like, you picked a hell of a career for your personality. (laughs) But when I get on stage I'm a different person. When I walk back off the stage, I'm a shy kind of guy and always have been.
Do you spend much time in Nashville?
We have been lately. It's picking up a lot. We've been writing new songs. We're even in pre-production for a new album for next year and getting songs together from writers who are out there right now. It's really cool.
There's a band out there right now called Old Dominion, and the leader singer is Matt Ramsey and I've been pitched two of his songs that I'm really, really big on, and excited about. We're going to be recording those next month up in Nashville.
That means you get a lot of songs pitched your way by writers?
We do, man. Here lately, especially. We've got a lot of stuff from tons of different writers. From what everybody says in Nashville, it's because we're starting to get momentum building up. Your name is flowing around Nashville now, you know. It's being tossed around a lot.
And that's going to happen. People see that you're going to have an album out and that's what writers want. They want their stuff on somebody's record that's going to be marketed. They want somebody's record that's going to be on the radio and be heard.
I read where you're drawn naturally to classic country as a fan, Willie and Waylon, Conway Twitty and Hank Williams?
That's what I love. That's my roots. That's what my grandpa used to listen to. He's the one that turned me on to that. My parents used to listen to everything, including rock and pop. I grew up on Lionel Richie. My parents got me a walkman and I used to sit in the back seat with my headphones on and I would sing both sides of that tape, front and back.
But I love all kinds of music. And there is something for everybody on this record. My roots are in traditional country, but to me, good music is having fun. That's what we did when we went into this. We said we want to make sure we're having a great time when we go into the studio. If we're having fun, then (the record is) going to come out being what we want.
You mentioned something for everyone? Florida Georgia Line has had success and, of course, Luke Bryan has done well with the country, pop, rock, hip hop party sound. Is some of that on this album?
There's no "bro-country," or what everybody considers that to be, that pop bubblegum country. There's none of that. Going into this, I made it very clear that I don't want the Luke Bryan sound or the Florida Georgia Line sound. I don't want that Chase Rice sound. To me, there's so much other good music and talent out there.
Even with our live shows, I stay away from that. I'm a huge Eric Church fan, a huge Miranda Lambert fan. The reason why, I think, is because when they came out, they stayed true to who they were. They didn't let Nashville change them. And I've learned throughout the last couple of years, too, that we're not going to please everybody.
I've always told all of my band mates and my label, I don't care to be a superstar. I just want to be able to support my family and be blessed and fortunate to do what I love to do, and call this a job.
Describe the life you experience. Are you on the road a lot?
By the end of this year, we'll be at about 120 or 130 dates, which is insane for a new artist. But next year, we'll be ramping up. We want to do close to 160, 170 or 180 dates. I want to top 200, and we may actually do that.
It's crazy right now. For me being the simple person that I am, it's coming back to people saying, man, you picked a hell of a career. But it's really cool. It keeps me grounded and keeps me humble to have people walk up and they're like: Are you Ricky Gunn? (laughs) I'm like, where did this come from? It's crazy, and it's starting to happen a lot more. It is very surreal.
Is it a grind on the road and how do you keep it from being like that, when you go from one town to another?
I think it's because I really love what I do. This last run was to Texas and that was 18 hours total, I think, and we were all piled up in an 18-passenger van and toting our tour trailer around. It is a grind. Some of these runs are really long, and it's testing on you physically. By the time you get done and get back, you're worn out, and then you've got to turn right back around and go again.
But at the end of the day, I'm just thankful and blessed to be able to do this. There's a lot of folks out there looking for blue-collar work, just something for a job, period. So I don't complain at all. I really don't.
Did you ever consider doing anything else? Getting a job at TSYS or Aflac in Columbus or something like that?
Yeah, I actually put in an application at Aflac years ago. But the day I got that call from "Nashville Star," I actually thought it was Aflac calling. My mom answered the phone and gave a thumbs-up and I was like, great, that's Aflac calling to give me a job. (laughs) She was like, no, that's "Nashville Star" calling.
That was a close call. Any other moments?
Moving with my family up to Newnan about 10 years ago, I thought about giving it all up. I had always wanted to be a firefighter. So I went and applied in Fayetteville and actually got the job. I went back the next day to start training and doing all of the stuff to start, and I walked in and told Capt. Rick was his name: You know what, I appreciate your time. I appreciate what you're doing for me. But something is telling me to come in here and shake your hand and thank you for your time and offering me the job, but I can't do it. I can't take it. I would be wondering for the rest of my life, what if ... what if I don't pursue this music. And it's been one of the best decisions that I've made in my life.
Do you consider this a job? Is it a job to you?
It's not. I'm blessed and fortunate to be able to call it my job, but it doesn't feel like one. It's a dream that I'm living. And to me I just want to be able to support my family and I'm able to do that right now. I'm doing it full time. Everybody's saying we better get ready because we're about to have the ride of our life. If that happens, then so be it. But if it doesn't, I know I've already experienced things that a lot of people just dream about.
The key now is to have the album spark a breakout hit?
Yeah. The album's being released and the single is fixing to hit radio. Some of the songs are being pitched to satellite radio as well, and everybody knows that John Marks, (Sirius XM's senior director of country programming) over at The Highway on satellite, is known to make superstars from nobodies. Just by playing a song on The Highway, he's creating so many opportunities for so many artists and has changed so many artists' lives.
What's a song or two you are high on with this album? Is "King of This Town" one?
Yes. That was the first single that went out. And there's the new single, "Livin' Like Me," which was actually the first song that I wrote for this album. It's kind of my baby. I keep that song close to my heart. It's (about) what I do. It's what it's like living on the road, going from honky tonk to honky tonk, and just playing music and living my dream.
The "King of This Town" video was filmed at the Harris County High School stadium?
It sure was. I went to Shaw, and graduated in 1994, but I had a lot of friends up in Harris County. We tried to get Kinnett (stadium in Columbus), but they wanted a lot of permits pulled that we couldn't get in time. So Harris County volunteered to do it. They said, shoot yeah, come on. So we did it.
What's the most rewarding part of your job or craft?
I think to be able to do this and live my dream and support my family, and to just be able to write a song and play it for other people. It lets me share my life story with everybody. For me, talking about things is hard. But me sitting down and writing it on paper and turning it into a song, that's what it's all about.
And the feedback from your fans?
What's even cooler now when we play now is actually having the fans sing the songs back. That gives me chills, even talking about it. It reminds me that I made the right decision to do this. This is what I'm supposed to be doing, and I'm going to keep on busting butt and doing it.
Who would you like to join on a tour as an opener in the future? You mentioned Eric Church earlier.
The thing is, Dwight Yoakam is one of my all-time favorite artists, and he's on tour with Church. That sounds like the perfect lineup. I would love to be the little guy at the bottom opening (laughs), you know what I mean.
Are you mentally and physically prepared for this moment and all it encompasses?
We are, man. We're excited. We're ready to get on the road. We've been offered several big tour shots, but I'm taking that slowly. Just for an instance, one is Toby Keith, with him and Chris Janson. We've got a couple of offers, and that's one of them. For me, I'm like, let's do it, let's do it. But we're being advised, well, to slow down. There's going to be more offers. Let's see what comes in and take our time. So I guess that's what we're going to do.
And, hopefully, there will be a CMA or ACM best new artist award down the road?
We hope so, brother. We hope so. We'd like to at least get a breakthrough nomination next year. We're going to bust butt and hope that happens. If it don't, we'll keep on going. But we're looking forward to everything.
Name: Ricky Gunn
Current residence: Newnan, Ga.
Education: 1994 graduate of Shaw High School
Previous jobs: Other than a few side jobs, including a Snyder's-Lance route with his father, performing has been his life
Family: Single with two children -- daughter Kaleigh, 16, and son Kyler, 14; parents are Rick and Cheryl Gunn of Columbus
Leisure time: When not on the road and touring, he simply enjoys "doing nothing," which means relaxing and hanging out with his kids