When the creative light bulb glows and an artist connects with their true calling, the true winners are their established audience and eager new fans. Such is the case for Rick Monroe, the seven-time Jägermeister Country Brand Ambassador who’s poised to share the expanded sonic palette found deep within the grooves of his most fully realized album to date, “Smoke Out the Window,” which cracks the lid on its release on September 21, 2018 via Thermal Entertainment.
From the raw grit of the opening track “Good as Gone” to the honky-tonk twang of “Truth in the Story” to the soulful testifying of “Rage On” to the sensitive revelations of “October,” “Smoke Out the Window” signals a powerful new direction for a man who has an unbridled passion for performing in front of audiences across the globe. In fact, in 2017, vocalist/guitarist Monroe and his ace touring band logged more than 120,000 miles and performed more than 170 shows as a result — proof they’re serious road dogs. “Honestly, everything we put into the making of this album has been gauged around what we do in our live show,” Monroe admitted. “The truth is, this record was developed because of our live show.”
At the heart of it, these 11 tracks of Smoke are the extension of Monroe’s stage presence, now unleashed in the studio environment, with the resulting music forging a category all its own. “I know we’re not up-the-gut mainstream country by any means — and I don’t even know what mainstream country even is anymore,” Monroe confessed. “I also know we’re not super-heavy rock either, so I’d like to call what we do blue-jean country rock. Fashions come and go, but blue jeans are a timeless statement that never fades — and that’s what I want my music to be.” Monroe’s ultimate goal is to be recognized as a multi-faceted performer whose name defines who he is as an artist.
It’s taken Monroe a lifetime of searching, stretching, and experimenting to make a record as solid as “Smoke,” but the results made the journey worthwhile. “Smoke Out the Window” shows a myriad of facets of an artist willing to share his innermost self with his audience. This is an album charting how Rick Monroe arrived, and how he may soon be headlining all those big arena and stadium stages across the country himself as a result. After all, where there’s Smoke, there’s fire — and for Rick Monroe the artist, the future burns bright.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Rick Monroe to get a glimpse inside his career, the challenges he has faced along the way, the making of “Smoke Out The Window” and what the future holds for him both short and long term.
How did music come into your life and begin to take hold?
I don’t remember this, but my mom has always told me that she would always break to the beat of the songs when she was pregnant with me. I think that got into me somewhere along the line! She loved the classic rock stuff like Creedence Clearwater Revival and all that stuff. So, when I was growing up, that’s what I would listen to and got into early on. I started off playing drums when I was about 9 years old but then I realized that was just way too much gear to carry! [laughs] I said, “I want to see what this singer thing is like!” Eventually, I had to pick up the guitar because I wanted to start creating my own music and everything snowballed from there. I’ve been very fortunate because I don’t have any musicians in my family but my brother and my mom are both extremely big music fans! Their tastes were very eclectic. My brother would listen to everything from AC/DC to Garth Brooks to Hank Williams Jr. to Metallica and that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, my mom was a big Jim Croce fan, so I got exposed to a really good range of music as I grew up.
I don’t need to tell you a career in music is one of the most challenging things you can take on. What inspired you to take the plunge?
Um, being stupid! [laughs] Honestly, it’s just something that has evolved over time. It’s like getting up in the morning, breathing or walking! It’s just what I do! I didn’t think much about it but when I started playing it just felt like the right thing to do and it was something that I was good at! Like I said, I never really thought about it, I just kept developing my skills and moving forward.
When you hit the stage, you make it look easy. At what point did you come into your own as a performer?
That’s something that’s still a work in progress. You’re always trying to get better and more adept at what you’re doing. There are certain stages I remember going through where I was able to calm down enough onstage to not get super tight, which allows you to sing a little better. There are definitely plateaus you hit but there is always something to work on and a new level to try to get to.
What were the biggest obstacles you faced and overcame early on in your career?
I think that there is just so much noise and other stuff out there that you have to find a way to peek out around all of that. That’s difficult because people are willing to do almost anything to be noticed. You have to find a way to stay legitimate, stay in your own lane but still become relevant. It’s difficult, especially as a songwriter and you want to promote yourself and the stuff you write, when you go into a club and the bar owner says, “We want 90% covers.” That can be difficult. I’m not knocking covers because some of the biggest cover bands in the world are Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker and the Beatles. They all covered stuff! That was always a difficult thing; keeping your ego in check and realize that you’re there to entertain people and not to just be about your own thing.
What are the keys to success in the music business?
I think it comes down to doing this because you love to do it. Play music because you love to play music, if nothing else. If you’re in it for that reason, then you will always be successful. Careers go up and down. You’re going to encounter both good things and bad things along the way. It’s a long, winding, wavy road. As long as you’re doing it because you love it, I think you’re going to be successful in that sense. What is success? To me, success is the fact that I pay my mortgage playing music, so in my mind, I’m successful. Let me tell you about one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Someone asked me, “Do you want to be famous or do you want to be successful?” He said, “I’ll work with you based on your answer?” I said, “Well, I want to be successful.” He said, “That’s the right answer because fame is fleeting but success is a consistent career that actually generates income and keeps you doing what you love to do.” That is something that has always stuck with me.
You are driven when it comes to your career and body of work. What fuels your creative fire?
It’s really just having the ability to try and create something that’s going to connect with people. There’s nothing better than sitting around my coffee table writing down ideas, meeting with the guys and showing it to them. The next thing you know we’re cutting it and actually listening to it! To get to see that happen is amazing! Then to have someone you’ve never met from the opposite side of the world say, “Man, I really love this song for this reason … .” That’s one of the coolest things in the world! There are also those moments when you’re on stage singing it and even if the audience doesn’t know the first chorus by the time the second chorus comes around you find everyone is singing along with you. That means you’ve connected with them. That’s another thing that really drives you!
What goes into the daily grind of keeping your career moving forward?
It always varies. One of the blessings and curses is that there is no formula. If there was a formula, then everyone would adhere to that formula and be very successful. Literally every day it’s something new. Every day you have to create the next step. If you’re a doctor, you go to school and get your degree before you can say, “I’m a doctor.” As a musician, every day you find yourself saying, “I’m a musician but we need to find the way to promote this. We need to find a way to promote that.” You find yourself constantly changing hats, reinventing your situation and trying to find new avenues. It definitely keeps you on your toes.
Your new album “Smoke Out the Window” is to be released September 21 via Thermal Entertainment. Tell us about your creative headspace going into the process.
The funny this is that we had just finished an EP called “Gypsy Soul.” We put out a single and it was doing fairly well in the secondary market. As we started touring on that, the song “Gypsy Soul” really started to resonate. As we kept playing that and playing that, we started to realize that was the core to our sound as a band. At that point, we started looking at the rest of the stuff we’d done and said, “I think we’ve missed the mark up until now. I think we found what we’ve been looking for!” I went to my buddy, who had also cut a song called “Rage On,” and said, “Hey, between these two songs, I want to do an entire project within those parameters.” He said, “Let’s go cut some stuff!” His name is JD Shuff and he has a studio. This guy is a phenomenal drummer and everything else. He’s a total musician genius! We just started working out some ideas and trying different things. I used my touring guys, which is different because a lot of times in Nashville you use your studio guys. I use the guys who toured with me because they knew the material. We started picking songs that we were playing live, but we had never recorded. That’s where we started really drilling in on that idea and sound. Everything really started to come together! We only intended to do an EP but, as we were recording, we found ourselves saying, “This sounds really good! Let’s keep going!” We ended up with an 11-song LP, which I’m really excited about. It’s the first time I’ve done that in years!
Tell us about your songwriting process. How has it changed through the years and how does it relate to this album?
Before I moved to Nashville I used to write by myself a lot. I wrote almost exclusively by myself, aside from one or two songs with other people. When I came to Nashville, I got very much involved in the co-write. I’ve had about 10 or 12 songs cut by artists. Nothing of notoriety yet but they keep cutting, which is awesome! On this record, I started to go backward in terms of writing by myself. I wanted to be really particular about who I wrote with because I wanted a certain feel. I wrote a couple of songs by myself, a couple with JD and one with JD and my bass player. Ya know, it’s always different. Sometimes I will sit down, and I can’t pick up a guitar without getting a melody idea. I always have a stream of melody ideas and I will record them, so if I have a writing meeting I can pop them out and say, “Check this out!” Anyway I might work by hearing a phase. For example, the song “Great Minds Drink Alike” was on one of the last records. That’s a phrase that just needs to be a song! I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a song already, so we wrote it! [laughs] I might hear a phrase on TV, hear somebody say something or get a melody in my head. There are times when I’m in the writing room and I can’t think of something and someone else comes up with a unique idea that I can grow off of and help something come out of that. It’s always different!
What did producer JD Shuff and the players on the project bring out in you creatively?
Oh, man! They brought a lot to the table. Their parts played a huge role in developing the sounds. The guitar player came up with some riffs that we would’ve never come up with. I don’t even think a session player would have come up with them. We had the opportunity to sit, think and relax while going through the process. It wasn’t like we were on the clock at a studio where you are constantly in a hurry. It was almost like that record Sheryl Crow did when she started getting together with her friends every Tuesday night. That was kind of what this record was like. I would say, “Hey, I’m available Wednesday. Let’s go in and see what we’ve got!” We’d go in, all in one room, and cut a couple of ideas. We’d say, “Oh that sounds cool” and then slowly build on that. We did that throughout the course of the process.
The very last song we wrote, “Truth In The Story,” we actually wrote in the studio. A lot of these songs I had already written and brought to them. With this song, I had two choices. I had a song that I wrote with Royal Bliss called “Life’s a One Way Road.” They cut it and sent me the stems. I just said, “I’m just gonna go ahead and put my vocal on it and will put that as the 11th track.” The producer said, “Ya know, it’s a great song and it’s really cool but could we try something else? Let’s try something.” So, we sat there, and he started with this drum groove. I said, “Woah, man! That’s weird! I have this riff that I wrote this morning that goes with it.” I started humming it to him and he was like, “That’s it!” We wrote it, cut it and it was done in one day! If I could just go and spend a couple of months in a studio with that same group of guys — it would be the best thing in the world! I can’t imagine what we’d come up with!
You hear artists talk about songs coming easy and others being harder to nail down. Was that the case with these songs?
Yeah, that’s always the case! “Cocaine Cold and Whiskey Shakes” was a pretty easy song. I try to get a bunch of different people to write it with me. I kept saying, “I’ve got a great title! It’s really cool and it’s going to be a nice edgy thing.” Everyone was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I want to deal with that subject matter.” I was like, “It’s not glorifying it. It’s about a guy who’s at his wits end.” One day, I just said screw it and sat down and wrote it! I felt bad because my nephew was doing his homework while I was writing it! [laughs] He was like, “Mom! Rick’s writing a song about cocaine!” [laughs] I also wrote the song, “October.” It’s funny because it’s both one of the easiest and hardest songs I’ve written. Not to get overly heavy on the situation but my brother had been diagnosed with throat cancer and he had told me that within six months he would be gone because of their diagnosis. That would have been October. I sat down and wrote the entire song right away. It just poured out of me. My brother is still alive, thank God, and fighting! That song kind of looms over me and it’s very personal. This record has a lot more personal stuff since we picked the material, as opposed to having a producer coming in and picking songs. We all did it as a group and I think it ended up being more personal that way.
In terms of life post-release of “Smoke Out The Window,” what are you looking at both short and long term?
Short term, we’re hoping to break through all of the noise and have people actually hear the record. I believe in my heart that if people hear the record, they will hear the heart and soul we put into it. That’s the one thing I know for a fact — everybody that played on this record poured everything they had into this record. Even the hired guns! For example, we had Lee Turner come in and play keys. He plays with Darius Rucker and is a high-profile player. He was writing me and going, “Dude, I love this song. It’s some of the best stuff that I’ve worked on. “Truth In The Story” gave me a workout!” [laughs] I think that everyone genuinely put their heart and soul into this. I hope that beyond the business crap and everything else that we can get it to the people and have them make the decision on it. That’s the hardest thing about this industry. You might have direct marketing and a direct connection with people, but it is still hard for them to actually take the time and listen. Once they listen, you got them! So, the short-term plan is to get it out there and get them to listen. Hopefully, by doing that, the long term will come more into focus. The long term is getting out there, touring on it, growing our fanbase and creating more music in the same vein as what we’re doing. It took me a really long time as an artist to find our sound. I honestly think that this is the closest I’ve ever been to being on top of it.
Obviously, we focused on the new album today. Is there anything from your recent past that fans should dig into as well?
Like I said, “Gypsy Soul” is the other record that’s out there. We did some great stuff on that one like “It’s A Love Thing.” We also have a song called “Just The Same,” which is a ballad. The sad thing is that this is one of those “Music Industry 101” things. We got it done, shot an amazing video and just as we were about to launch it to radio, the record label went belly up. I think it is one of the nicest looking videos I’ve ever done that has a great storyline to go along with the song. I think this song was really strong and it got nominated for a bunch of Grammys. It made it to the first or second round. It was a great song and I was really excited about it, but it just wasn’t meant to be. It was like, “Wah wahhh wahhh!” [laughs] It’s funny, in the song “Truth In The Story,” at the end of the song the whole thing is “The only thing I know how to do is this. It is what it is.” Honestly, that has to become your mantra in this business! There’s another good one in “Smoke Out The Window.” It says, “What don’t kill you is going to leave a mark and your skin gets thicker with every scar.” You’ve just gotta let it roll like smoke out the window and keep going!
Looking back on your career, how have you most evolved?
Growth is inevitable! Hopefully, you are going to grow every day and every experience you have has an impact on you. My friend summed it up in the best way, “Life experiences are like upgrades. You really can’t see them but they’re there.” By that I mean, when you upgrade something on your computer, you keep upgrading and things get a little bit different. The sound gets turned down a bit, life gets a little more defocused and all these things. It’s a subtle process that happens over time. I’m hoping that’s been happening with me with the amount of touring we have been doing and the focus that we are putting into this work.
I was blown away by the amount of touring you do. You logged a tremendous number of miles and shows under your belt. I imagine you learn a lot from those experiences as well.
Completely! I’m the guy who befriends every crew person, finds out what they do, watch them and hang out with them. I will also sit in the production room and listen. The good thing is that I could probably run a full-blown tour at this point at almost any level because of the knowledge I’ve been able to pick up on the way. I’ve also learned a lot from working guys like Eric Church, Lee Brice and Dierks Bentley. Those guys bring it every night no matter what! Even if the crowd might not have been what they thought; good, bad or indifferent, it never mattered. They always brought the best show that they can. That’s something I really respected and something I learned from them. I learned that you need to find your niche, do your thing and give it your all! Those guys do that!
You have to be excited to be able to get out there and perform this new album for the fans.
Yeah, I really am. The one good thing is that we’ve really had the opportunity for the last year-and-a-half to play a lot of the songs for people. These songs have already had a good opportunity to be out there and start getting into people’s heads. A lot of times I found myself thinking, “Is that on our record?” Now, I’m like, “It will be!” So, it will be good to see people get it and then hopefully it will spur its own growth. We just joined forces with Thermal Entertainment, which is a new thing for us. Right now, with us adjusting agents, the future is pretty wide open, and we don’t have a ton of plans. We are picking up as many shows as we can along the way and trying to get a game plan for where it goes. Again, hopefully we get some inertia out of the record itself which will start pushing us toward some other things!
Did you find the material evolving in the live setting?
Oh, they always evolve, and the will probably continue to evolve somewhat. If you come see us play “Gypsy Soul,” it’s a completely different song than what is on the record because we ended up adding solos and a bunch of stuff. We’ve learned how to work into these songs and get more of the feel and life of the song, so that definitely starts to change up the basic makeup of the song. The heart and soul is still there but you definitely start to change things a little bit here and there. Plus, it depends on what musicians we have when we are out. Sometimes, we just travel as me on guitar, guitar player, bass player and drummer. So, we have to make up for missing tones because we don’t have the keys. We don’t sample. At this point we don’t do any kind of tracking, so it’s probably more raw sounding off the record.
I can tell you are an artist who is constantly looking to the future. Where are you in regards to new music?
I’m always writing! Actually, I’ve already started getting the troops together to go back in and do some more recording. I think we’re onto something and once we’re on to something, I don’t ever want to let it go. I’ve already got a couple of songs that I’ve been playing with everybody that they’re all really excited about, so we’re going to get back in and keep cutting! That’s the thing about nowadays, content … I hate to call it that, but people want content. If you can keep producing music that people are enjoying you can keep putting it out there. Obviously, we’re doing things a little bit more traditionally but there are so many different avenues these days to do things in a nontraditional way as well. We will see how all that works!
What’s the best way for fans of your music to help support you at this stage in your career?
They can go to any of the big music outlets to get the album. Thermal Entertainment has it for sale as well. If you go to www.rickmonroe.com, there is splash page with all of my stuff. It also has links to all my social media as well. I wrote all my social media and I don’t have anyone else who does it, so if you get in touch with me, you get in touch with me! I’m the one who’s putting up all the stupid videos and everything that we do! That’s me! [laughs] We try to keep it entertaining, especially on Instagram and stuff. I can’t stress enough how important it is — if you really love a band, you really need to get out there and promote that band. It’s more important now than ever. Radio is a dodgy thing, as are the video channels. Nothing is like it used to be. Without fans, friends and family really going out and spreading the word it’s very hard to get the word out. No matter how much things change you can’t get past the fact that word-of-mouth is the most valuable thing in the world. It’s one of the best feelings in the world knowing that people are out there spreading the word for word of mouth because that’s when people truly get interested. So, if you support or love a band, get out there and be a warrior for them! If you want them to keep making music that’s the one thing you can do as a fan or a friend that will make their journey continue on for years to come.
I don’t know how often you get told but you’re doing some amazing work and it’s really inspiring to see! Kudos to you!
Well, thank you very much! Not often enough! [laughs]
I had a feeling that might be the case! [laughs]
It’s much appreciated! Like I said, I think I do it for all the right reasons. I try to keep my head down and keep moving forward. I know what the reality of life is — we don’t cure cancer and we don’t save lives. We just play music and try to make the world a better place! As long as I can stay in that lane and keep my head about me, I think I’ll be fine!
I can’t wait to see where this journey takes you, Rick! Thanks again for your time today. I look forward to spreading the word on everything you have going on!
Thanks, Jason! I really appreciate it!
For the latest news and dates for Rick Monroe, visit his official website at www.rickmonroe.com. Connect with him on social media via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. “Smoke Out The Window” hits all music retails on September 21, 2018 via Thermal Entertainment.