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jmcarroll
Jason Michael Carroll

 

Jason Michael Carroll doesn’t look like he sounds – and that intrigue only heightens both realities of the tangy vocalist from North Carolina. After all, to hear him is to hear a straight-up, full-tilt, no-frills 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.

Carroll not only isn’t afraid of the contradictions, he leans into them with a freewheeling abandon. To listen to the thump’n’bump of “Waitin’ in the Country,” with its great big, descending bass-line and big-flanged electric guitars; the chuggingly insistent “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead,” with its turbo-diesel chording; 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,” the celebration of life and enduring love in “Livin’ Our Love Song,” or the resolved acceptance of life on its terms with “Let It Rain,” which speaks to a seriousness that exists below the obvious inside the emerging singer/songwriter.

Nowhere is that seriousness more powerfully reflected than in Carroll’s debut single, “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,” he recalls. A poem written by a friend, as well as news Carroll had been seeing at the time, became the catalysts. “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.

“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.”

The power of the lyric, and Carroll’s performance, touched a nerve with listeners across the country. Already a Top 10 country airplay single weeks before his album’s February 6, 2007 release, “Alyssa Lies” became the fastest-rising debut single by a male country artist in 2006. The song also set a record in its first week of availability, earning the highest country new artist debut in the history of SoundScan’s Digital Songs chart. And while that all sounds rather commercial in light of the subject matter, it’s a reflection of the impact and resonance of a genuinely heartfelt song. As Carroll has visited radio and made appearances in city after city, people have shared their real-life stories and their thanks for the voice he gave them and others, even to the point of approaching him to say, “I’m not an Alyssa, but,” or perhaps more poignantly, “I was an Alyssa.”

“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 …”

And it’s his willingness to go deep that gives Carroll so much of his impact.

Born in North Carolina to a preacher, the youngster spent years not being allowed to listen to “secular music.” 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 – 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. But 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 – making the scrappy 24-year-old that much more determined.

And in his conviction, Carroll was willing to sing any time, any place, anywhere. And he opened up that cavernous baritone with abandon – even singing on an American Idol-type knock-off for local FOX affiliates.

While the likable country boy did it as much for his mama as anything, his participation proved fortuitous. Not only did he win the Raleigh/Durham market, but the visibility began to open doors leading to producer Don Gehman. Having helmed the mega-Platinum Cracked Rear View for Hootie & the Blowfish, Pat Green’s Grammy-nominated “Wave on Wave,” and every significant John Mellencamp record, it was clear that if straight-up-the-middle country wasn’t his stock in trade, songs and sonics were.

“I 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 believe in what you’re doing gets people to pay attention, 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 Nashville 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, 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 in whom he might find a fertile writing compatriot. Having been a huge fan of Jewel’s multi-Platinum Pieces of You, 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.”

That first, get-acquainted writing session motivated Carroll to take a fresh approach on what he and Shaye and Jewel could craft together.

“I went home to the hotel, started writing guitar progressions … 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 Grammy-winning songstress even called her label to make sure she would be free to record it with Carroll.

It is a lot for a debut album, for certain. But for Jason Michael Carroll, it’s just scratching the surface. Whether it’s the poignancy of “Alyssa Lies,” the blow-up-the-weekend revelry of “Honky Tonk Friends,” or the sweeping desire of “Lookin’ at You,” Carroll finds his voice in any kind of song – just so long as it’s country.