Times have changed since Jeff Bates performed on a tree stump in his Mississippi back yard
These days, country singers are more likely to come from the burbs than the backwoods. Jeff Bates is a throwback to the old days, and his heartfelt stories ring true. Could he be the 'real thang'? Is he fixin' to save mainstream country from bad hair and Clear Channel soullessness?
He's got the right credentials: Bates' mother, an Apache, put him up for adoption at 3 months. His adopted father was a Mississippi sharecropper, his adoptive mama the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. After adopting him, his parents had eight kids of their own and took in a few cousins.
Love, loss and tribulation Ñ these are what the 39-year-old Bates knows and what he sings about. Still, alternative country this ain't. In the song 'Country Enough,' he takes playful jabs at 'foreign automobiles' and hip-hop.
Bates has played small nightclubs since he was 17, so naturally he's dazzled by the spectacle of the Brooks & Dunn 'Neon Circus' tour, with its convoys of buses, rodeo clowns and fireworks: the Shania Twainness of it all.
'I've never seen anything like it, ma'am,' he says in a slow, Mississippi drawl. 'If it was all green, you'd think the Army had just pulled up to invade the town.'
But he sure ain't complaining.
Bates visited Portland a few months ago for a radio tour hosted by country station KUPL (98.7 FM). Cary Rolfe, director of station programming, remembers that Bates was thrilled with his hotel room, calling one of his producers, Kenny Beard, to tell him that it had a couch and a desk.
Bates' bass voice and vocal phrasing might remind country fans of another Mississippi artist, the singer Conway Twitty. His debut album, 'Rainbow Man,' has just gone on sale, and his single 'The Love Song' (a tear-jerker about Mama, baseball and falling in love) is No. 16 on Billboard's country hit list.
Bates is modest, though, about the Twitty comparisons. 'There ain't no way I'd try to step in Conway's shoes,' he says. 'He's the man.'
A welder by trade, Bates is still rubbing his eyes at his reversal of fortune:
'I came offstage last night in Cleveland, Ohio, and one of the guys said, 'Man, have you been reading your reviews?' And I said, 'No, I can't pay attention to those,' and he said, 'You'd better.' '
Bates chalks his success up to the Lord. 'It's a God thing,' he says. 'All of it comes from him. It ain't me.' Bates turned his life over to God while serving a prison sentence for drugs and theft in Tennessee. 'I just didn't want to be that guy anymore,' he says.
Before going to jail, he pawned an acoustic guitar, which was given to him by producer Beard, to buy drugs. Beard bought it back from the shop and returned the guitar Ñ and the pawn ticket Ñ to Bates when he got out of jail. Now he uses a Fender Telecaster onstage.
Growing up in Mississippi was like living with the Beverly Hillbillies, Bates says. 'It was like the Clampetts on Valium. My in-laws, though, they're like the Clampetts on rocket fuel.'
His family lived so far in the backwoods, they could barely pick up radio transmissions. But he listened to his mother's Grand Ole Opry boxed record sets, which came by mail, and practiced belting out Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells songs from atop a stump in the back yard.
'I sang to my make-believe audience sometimes, and I just sang my heart out,' Bates says.
His voice got its deep rumble from hollering at cows, drinking a lot of Crown Royal whiskey in his 20s and smoking tons of Marlboro Lights. 'I just got that torn-up sound,' he says with a low laugh.
In early March, Bates got to play the Grand Ole Opry for real.
'After I sang my first song, I looked down, and I was standing in that circle where Hank (Williams) stood, and I got all verklempt standing there, and I was tearing up,' he recalls. 'It was about all I could do to keep my composure and sing the second song. That was a lifelong dream that came along.'
The autobiographical songs on the album are his best: 'My Mississippi,' 'Rainbow Man' and 'The Wings of Mama's Prayers.' The song 'Long, Slow Kisses' is pure Barry White make-out music, complete with heartfelt voice-over:
'Darlin,' ' he says in a rich baritone, 'I'm so sorry/I guess I've just been spending too much on makin' a living/and way too little on makin' lu-u-v.' Obviously, Nashville is aiming straight for the hearts of female listeners, and Bates is the stud to do the job.
Bates has been clean for two years and four months now and has no desire to go back. 'Why should I?' he asks. 'I am being beat over the head with blessings.'
For now, Bates is just happy to be playing guitar and singing about what he knows. And he aims to steer clear of politics. In reference to the recent Dixie Chicks controversy, he says:
'I will always stand up for what I believe in. Here's the cool thing about our country,' Bates says. 'All those people fighting there are the sons and daughters of freedom fighters, and they've all fought for these freedoms. Those girls are free to say whatever they want to. There's always consequences, of course.
'For me, I'm an entertainer, and I'm not a politician. It's my job to make folks feel what I feel when I'm singing a song. If I have something strong I want to say to George Bush, I'll write him a letter.'