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Ash Bowers was 8 when he saw his future. The crystal ball was the family television set, and the vision came in the form of a movie his mother had rentedâ€"Great Balls of Fire, the film biography of Jerry Lee Lewis.
"I was mesmerized," he says, still shaking his head at the memory. "I could feel that energy and I knew at that moment I wanted to play music."
He was growing up in a working-class family in Jackson, Tennessee, and he would need a lot more than dreams to make it to the country music capital 130 miles east on I-40. Determination came with his sometimes-tough upbringing. He practiced all he could on an old keyboard he had, until his mother bought him a used, out-of-tune piano their church was replacing. As for talent and charisma, it was evident he had plenty of both from the moment he began stepping on local stages. His goal was to impress other people the way Jerry Lee had impressed him, and the crowds he played for at fairs and talent contests told him he was onto something.
His musical education began while singing at church. Studying country performers on television led him to re-think his choice of instrument--switching from piano to guitar. He played open mic nights until, at 20, he put together his first band. Just a year later, he was offered a Pacific tour through Armed Forces Entertainment that had listened to a three-song demo he and his band had cut in Jackson.
"They told us, 'If you can be ready to leave in three weeks, you can go,'" he says. "We all had good jobs and we were playing bar gigs, but I knew I was going with or without them. They all said, 'Yeah' and we went."
They played military bases in Japan, Korea, Guam and the Marshall Islands for 42 days, and when they returned they were a tight performing unit.
"It was probably the best learning experience we could have had as a band," he says. "We learned what it was like being on the road, playing four or five nights a week. At that point, it was either go back and get another day job or book some gigs, and we weren't about to go get jobs."
They began with shows throughout western Tennessee, and as word spread they were able to work steadily from Alabama to California.
"In 2004 we played about 180 dates," he says. "In 2005 we played 200 plus." A Nashville publisher saw the band on one of those dates and approached Ash afterward. When he learned Ash aspired to a record deal, he encouraged him to come to Nashville. Soon Ash was restricting his playing to weekends and spending his weeks commuting daily to Nashville. The kind of commitment it took to drive 260 miles a day, five days a week--it quickly paid off.
"I was getting a lot more accomplished in Nashville than I was trying to build a grassroots career on the road," he says. Just a year and a half after he began commuting to Nashville, a CD of his material reached Broken Bow/Stoney Creek Records president Benny Brown, who invited him to play at a corporate Christmas party in California.
"The party was on a Saturday," he says. "That next Monday we had a deal in progress." Signed both as an artist and as a songwriter, he was soon working with some of Music City's top writers. When it came time to pick a producer, he had at the top of his wish list Buddy Cannon, known for his work with Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire, George Jones and Willie Nelson, among many others.
"I met with him first and played him some songs," says Ash. "We got to talking about his farm in Lexington, Tennessee, probably 20 miles from my driveway. It's where he grew up so we have a lot in common. I spent an hour with him and he said, 'I'm in if you're in.' I said, 'I'm in' and I called Benny and said, 'There's no sense in looking any further. I've found the guy.' I feel like I'm very fortunate to have worked with him."
The resulting album, his first release on Stoney Creek Records, captures all the excitement and talent Ash brings to the stage, documenting the emergence of a world-class singer and songwriterâ€"he wrote 7 of the CD's 12 tracks. The CD displays his uncanny knack for turning working-class dreams and realities into stirring and highly relatable music. Overall, the project provides a window into what makes Ash tick both as a musician and as a person.
"Anybody listening to this record will get a good idea who Ash Bowers is and who I've been up to this point," he says, "and that's something I really wanted to do with this album. It's a real record."
"Stuck," the album's first single, is both highly relatable and tellingly autobiographical. A tale comparative to his own life experience as a John Deere diesel mechanic aching to live out his musical dreams, Ash strikes a chord with millions of Americans who dream beyond their current jobs. It's as timely as the evening news and as universal as the human spirit. Ash's youthful spirit makes the song's video, shot in part on a helipad atop a 28-story building in downtown L.A., a shout-out to blue-collar dreamers everywhere.
Nowhere is the CD more personal than in two songs dealing with strained father-son relations. Both written by Ash, they speak volumes about responsibility, loss and forgiveness in settings wrought from the stuff of real life.
"Everyone's Forgiven You But You" deals powerfully with a dying father's guilt over his treatment of his estranged family. "Better Man Than You" is a son's chance to talk to the father who had long ago abandoned the family and to acknowledge the strength his mother had always shown. It is, Ash says, his favorite song on the record and the one that has always had the biggest effect live.
"Usually," he says, "it's single mothers or people telling me about the dad who wasn't around. But once I was playing an acoustic gig in a bar in Jackson and a guy who'd been sitting at the bar, drinking and watching me, came up after I played it. I could see he was about to cry. He said, 'You got me thinking about my own stuff, the things I need to be taking care of.' He was the dad who wasn't doing right by his family. If that one person changed the way he does things with his kids because of hearing this song, it's all worth it."
The rest of the album's tunes range from "Stones in the Road" and "Best I Can," two pieces of practical philosophy concerning the mixed bag that is life, to love songs whose real emotion and everyday situations resonate deeply with the average man and woman. They include "1994" and "Somebody's Mama," rear-view looks at early love and loss, to "You Just Being You" and "That's What I'm Talking About," which celebrate love in all its glory.
Ash's ability to affect audiences grows directly out of his love for what he does. "I'm as passionate about country music as anybody's ever been," he says, and each new crowd quickly learns the truth of that statement. Now, with national audiences being introduced to his music, Ash is ready to take that next big step forward.
"I've had people ask, 'Did you ever think you'd get to this point?' I say, 'Absolutely!' I never once doubted myself or my determination. I knew eventually there'd be an opportunity for me to get out of the jobs I was working and run with it, and that's exactly what I did. Every day I get up and try to figure out another song to write or another gig to go play."
He stops and smiles, taking in the magnitude of the threshold he's standing on. "I'm very thankful," he says. "As my first single is being released, I can't imagine it getting any better than this, and I've got a feeling it's going to."