On a sun-splashed Friday afternoon in downtown Nashville, a quick stop for a beer at The Stage materialized into a marathon sit down inside the dark bar. So why would winter-weary Chicagoans eschew the sunshine on a postcard-perfect day to catch a few country and western sets? Two words: Clay Underwood.
Just who is Clay Underwood? As witnessed at The Stage, he’s a charismatic country singer who does a mean Johnny Cash. And like the Man in Black, Underwood can also lay claim to “being everywhere” as he has hit more than 23 states in his tireless effort to get his music played on radio stations across the country.
Underwood says he’s been as far north as Detroit and as far south as Fort Lauderdale. He even received a souvenir of his Chicago radio tour in the form of a $90 I-Pass violation after running into some trouble figuring out the toll booth system.
But his days of crossing the country in a “used Monte Carlo and living on Mountain Dew and Slim Jims” have paid some dividends. Underwood’s cut a couple CDs and had his songs receive radio airplay in 42 states. He also is recognized as the only independent unsigned artist in years to have a song crack the top 40 and hold a spot on the Nashville Music Row Charts for 4 weeks.
That would be Underwood’s first single “Behind these Walls” which he co-wrote with Dierks Bentley, Mel Tillis Junior and Tammy Rogers. The song debuted at an unimpressive 222 before making its mark on the C & W charts. 2 more singles followed and soon Underwood found himself as the only unsigned artist to have 3 consecutive singles on Music Row’s Top 75 charts.
But like most everyone else in Nashville, Underwood wants more. He’s not content to rest on his laurels, either. He gets up early, collects business cards, contacts radio stations and plays clubs until closing time. He said, “The internet is a huge tool and an unlimited phone plan goes a long way!” Underwood added that, “You’ll keep the lights on if you stay busy.”
Although Underwood is constantly “chasing the dream,” he does not look at his chosen profession as work. He noted that, “I am blessed to do what I do” and loves “meeting folks all along the way.”
Underwood’s gregarious nature is in his DNA. Raised in Hart County Kentucky, he was the son of a preacher and an Avon lady. He grew up seeing his father shake hands after church and his mom smile as she went from door to door. He noted that, “it was the culture I was raised in.”
As Underwood hawked his CDs between sets at The Stage, you could see his folks raised him right. Unfailingly polite, he chatted with customers and solicited song requests. He said that selling CDs is a good way to make extra cash as “you don’t make a lot of money in Nashville because every stage is full and there is so much competition.”
No stranger to competition, Underwood started out singing in Kentucky Jamborees, which he described as “small town opry houses.” At first, he just performed on weekends as a way to augment his factory worker income but soon the “scratch and itch” was too powerful to resist. He decided to pursue a full-time musical career.
Blessed with a voice that’s as smooth as honey whiskey, Underwood was wise to protect his bread and butter early in his career. He said that during his first year in Nashville, he met someone whose wife was a vocal coach. Although Underwood couldn’t afford lessons, he got a few valuable tips “to keep me from losing my chops.” He learned to stretch his vocal chords making catcalls and steer clear of everything from citrus to fish oil.
On other fronts, Underwood is quick to admit that he did things backwards. He said, “if anyone plans on doing this, do it young…especially before you have a wife and kids.” It was a life lesson learned as Underwood noted that he will be staying close to home for a while as he and his wife Stephanie await the birth of their new daughter.
As Underwood hunkers down around home, he said that living in Nashville and playing at Tootsie’s outpost in Florida has helped him expand his fan base as “everyone goes to Nashville or the Panhandle eventually.” He’s extremely heartened to get requests for his songs like “Behind these Walls.” And when he hears someone tell him that “God’s Up to Something,” helped turn around their life around then he knows that “that’s why I do what I do.”
Underwood obviously takes pride in doing what he does. He served as sole producer on “Behind these Walls” and added some words to “make it mine.” He also insists on having full control over his music. He said, “At the end of the day, I have to look in the mirror and live with myself.” And while Underwood is still making a living as an independent singer, he’s had some nibbles from major labels like Universal.
But YOU don’t have to wait until Underwood gets his big break because his music is readily available on I-Tunes, Amazon and CD Baby. Catch details of upcoming performances and other news of note on his Facebook fan page or on the website listed below.