Phoenix, Arizona native Austin Burke has been steadily building out his career and with success on streaming playlists and now, with an interesting artist partnership as the first country artist signed to Kobalt’s AWAL, things are looking up as he simultaneously works “Whole Lot In Love” to radio while issuing new single “Slower” to streaming services. Below, is the first half of a conversation where you get to know Austin Burke.
Roughstock: What was it about country music appealed to you?
Austin Burke: I fell in love with 90s country at an early age. Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, those kinds of guys. I was drawn to the lyrics. The way you could listen to the song and you’re there. You can listen to “Folsom Prison” and you’re there. The thing about county music is that no matter what direction the music has gone, the lyrics stay strong, for the most part. I don’t know any other genre where the songwriter is so important and loved in a town than Nashville. The songwriting and the songs.
RS: So you worked as a server and didn’t tell people what you did?
Austin: One of the first weeks I moved here I saw a couple people who did tell some key guys in Nashville that they were musicians and it instantly turned them off. And I decided that I wouldn’t do that. I would be a fly on the wall. And I soaked up everything and learned everything that I could. I probably heard things I shouldn’t have heard and that’s what so cool about that whole thing. I wanted to get out of there and spent four years there but in order to be able to get out of there I didn’t want to tell anybody.
RS: Makes a lot of sense, Julie Roberts didn’t tell her boss and she was an assistant to the head of the label she eventually signed with and Faith Hill did something similar…
Austin: She was an assistant or something, wasn’t she?
RS: Yeah, all those crazy things and some point they find out. and that restaurant (The Palm In Nashville) always has a lot of power lunches and more.
Austin: For sure.
RS: Right around the release of your first single, “Sleeping’ Around,” you started working with WME. How did that come about?
Austin: It was a cool thing how that happened. I was dead set of signing with CAA and they didn’t show up (at my showcase) and William Morris brought a ton of people. They’ve been huge. It’s been a family. I have my agent, my guy but you can go to anyone in that office and they’ll help them out. And That’s how I’ve wanted my whole team to be. Whether it’s management, agent, business management; I want a team around them so that if they don’t know the answer, they can get it because of the team around them. It’s important. They’ve put me out on the road with Cole Swindell and Dylan Scott and at a lot of awesome festivals, like Watershed. That’s all through them. As my career grows bigger the shows get better and it’s cool to me that they’ve been there since, literally, day one.
RS: Watershed’s at the Gorge [in George Washington] right?
Austin: Yes, it is…
RS: That place is amazing.
Austin: I bet you’ve been there many times…
RS: One time I saw a show there that was a festival thing like Watershed put on by one of the country stations there. Vince Gill was the headliner then and had two drummers…
RS: That was at his touring peak, in 1996 or so, and that was the first time I saw Keith Urban, who played early on in the show with his band the Ranch. Vince Gill played an hour plus long encore. He was like “I don’t have to work tomorrow” and just kept going…
Austin: Vince is the man. I have a cool story about him.
RS: Awesome, I love a good Vince Gill story…
Austin: Vince is somebody I met through friends at The Palm. He invited me out to his golf tournament and he said he wanted me to sing at it. There were people like Jake Owen and Randy Houser and other big names and songwriters and he wanted me to sing. He’s going through the list and they get on stage and sing and fireworks were going off and he didn’t call my name and I started feeling sorry for myself. As I’m driving home, which was about 45 minutes and Vince called me on the phone. I didn’t even know he had my number, and he says “hey man, so sorry I skipped your name, I didn’t mean to. Would you be able to play with me tomorrow at the Ryman?” It was the Stanley Cup the next day and I called my boss and said, “I’m sorry, fire me, whatever you have to do but I cannot come in tomorrow. I’m playing with Vince Gill at the Ryman.” I showed up at the Ryman and Vince is playing “Sleeping Around With Me” on the Ryman, Reba shows up, comes in and sings and takes off. It was a surreal night. It was a perfect night you cannot script.
RS: Well you’ve gotten to do something most people haven’t, especially newer artists. Even if it’s just for a song, you’ve gotten to sing at the Ryman.
Austin: It was special and very special. Vince is the Man.
RS: Sometimes you gotta wonder if Vince thought about it and decided to make the offer for you to do that at the Ryman instead, knowing it would be a cooler moment…
Austin: Yeah, he’s such a sweet guy. And like you said, an hour and half encore like that? Who does that.
RS: Well, he was the headliner for that show and didn’t have any shows the next day so he wanted to play a long time. There were many at the show but The Ranch and Vince are who I remember. Collin Raye was likely one. Maybe even the Dixie Chicks. They weren’t lawn chairs either (laughs).
Austin: Yeah you don’t wanna be in the Lawn for that show….
RS: It makes me think there’s a book out there about what a cool guy Vince Gill is. Those are the best kinds of stories to hear..
Austin: Seriously. That guy, he sings on tracks for free, plays on things for free does stuff for others and doesn’t want credit. The selflessness he has for other people. It’s on a different level.
RS: It’s funny, because half of the time he’s featured on something, you know he didn’t want any credit but the record labels say he’s featured or that he’s a duet partner, even if he’s really not one.
RS: How important is it to have the right team around you as you grow your career?
Austin: Yeah, I didn’t really even know it. But since I most of my life I played baseball, I kind of equate it to that. That’s how I set up the team. Everybody has their role. We all have one end goal to win. Everyone has a job but is playing for a same team. Luckily, baseball helped me to have structure to rely on people to help me go where we want to go.
RS: It’s very important. And people always ask me through email about how they can “make it” or start off in the town. I simply say that you need a manager and a booking agent, really. And you’re a great example of that and how it works these days. I mean, back in the 90s, maybe you wouldn’t have needed those folks but these days…
Austin: Absolutely. It’s been cool too because luckily with the success with the past couple of songs, WME was there right away but I’ve been able to pick the rest of the team because of signing with them. I can have the manager I want, not just a buddy I’ve known for years…
RS: A buddy should be the tour manager or assistant tour manager for a newer artist. (both laugh).
Austin: Even my band is a key piece to the whole conversation. They’ve been there since day one and some still go to Belmont. They’re young and hungry and they’ve become my best friends and we only play for maybe an hour or two a day and the rest of the time we’re in a van driving around.
RS: As far as your singles you’ve released, your “Whole Lot In Love” single has more streams than some of the biggest radio hits in the country. How do you wrap your head around that one?
Austin: It’s weird. Very weird. I think it’s one of those things where it’s a whole new age and era. The people have the power now. It’s not just one person with the power with the control to decide what we listen to, like robots. If you go to my playlists it’s all over the place. It’s not genre based but mood based.
RS: Yeah, the first playlist I made when I started creating Apple Music playlists was called Gravel Roads and it was something like that.
Austin: Yeah, exactly. That’s what these playlists are. It’s cool if you wanna go out and party, go out with friends. Relax or even go to bed. There’s a lot of hope for artists. I don’t have a rich dad or mom who can feed my career. I came here with $650 in my pocket. You don’t have to come here with a lot to get going…
And that’s the end of Part One of our conversation, tomorrow we’ll have the rest of the conversation.