It’s a wedding ceremony. The groom and visibly pregnant bride are impossibly young—so young, they must still be in high school, or only recently graduated. “Do they know what they’re getting into?” you wonder.
It’s an indelible scene from “Hold On Tight,” a song from I Confess I Was A Fool, Levi Lowrey’s Southern Ground debut. It testifies not only to his skill as a songwriter, but also to his unsparing honesty. You see, he was that nervous groom, all of 19 at the time. And the expectant bride? Now his wife of seven years, and mother of his two small boys. “Hold On Tight” is her favorite song, Lowrey notes.
“I write from true experience,” he says. “And I find a lot of inspiration in sorrow, pain and stupid mistakes.”
It’s that honesty—and the skill with which it’s conveyed—that sets Lowrey apart both as a performer and songwriter. And as word of his prodigious blend of talents spreads, his live audiences keep growing. Truly, after a lifetime of playing music, then seven years of playing in a band before striking out as a singer/songwriter, this is his moment. And I Confess I Was A Fool—with its masterful, song-serving performances, pitch-perfect songcraft and unflinching confessions and observations—is his calling card.
Levi Lowrey may be a guitar-toting troubadour today, but he began as a fiddle player. No surprise, since his great-great-grandfather, the late Gid Tanner, was also a fiddle player and today stands as a towering figure in country music history. Tanner and frequent rival “Fiddlin’ John” Carson were among the first “hillbilly” musicians to take advantage of the fledgling broadcast and recording industries of the early 20th Century. As a result, Tanner—a chicken farmer by trade—became one of the first country music stars, along with his band the Skillet Lickers.
Despite such a legacy, Lowrey felt no pressure, and he took naturally to the fiddle—it’s in his blood, after all—playing in school orchestra, at bluegrass festivals, in weekly jam sessions in his hometown of Dacula, Ga. and with various relatives who have kept new incarnations of the Skillet Lickers going since the band’s 1930s heyday.
Curiously, for someone so skilled as a lyricist, the first songs Lowrey wrote were wordless. Early recordings of his were all instrumental, a mix of traditional country and bluegrass numbers and new compositions based on the traditional tunes he’d grown up with. It was only at this point that Lowrey picked up a guitar and even then, it was only to lay a musical bed for his fiddle compositions.
But the siren call of rock stardom beckoned, so as a high schooler he joined a band, and though he wasn’t the primary songwriter, he began haltingly adding lyrics to a composition here and there. Inspired by Butch Walker and his Atlanta power-pop outfit, Marvelous Three, Problem Thomas became the venue where Lowrey got comfortable onstage and grew into his role as a songwriter. He also began leading worship at his church as the band ran its course—in fact, its core now remains as Lowrey’s touring ensemble, the Community House Band.
“Then, I just came full circle and started writing stuff that was more derived from my roots and how I grew up, how I learned how to play,” he recounts. “It’s not North Georgia string band music; I wouldn’t call it bluegrass. I don’t think I’d even call it country, but it has all of those elements within it—it’s just a melting pot of my influences.”
It may be tough to label, but it’s bound to resonate with anyone who loves top-notch songwriting and keen musicianship. The songs include a memorable, story-telling nod to Charlie Daniels (“All American”), an upbeat country rocker (“The Problem With Freedom”) and plenty of more laid-back, introspective moments, redolent of Lowrey’s heroes Kris Kristofferson and Darrell Scott (“Freight Hopper” “Another Sunday Morning Hangover.”) The lyrics ride the typically southern Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy, with debauchery, foolishness, regret and confession in equal measure.
“My wife was out of town,” Lowrey recalls, about “Another Sunday Morning Hangover,” “so I was a useless human being. I woke up on my couch and I was watching TBN for some reason. I guess I came home hammered and wanted to watch the televangelists. When I woke up I found a napkin laying on the coffee table, and I couldn’t even get up—it was the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my entire life. So I just leaned over, grabbed the napkin and started writing the song down.”
Lowrey isn’t just an explorer of his own heart; he’s also equally adept at telling others’ stories—exhibit A: “Roselee And Odes.” It’s a tale of the older couple who lived next door to him and enjoyed a lifetime of love, which turned to heartbreak when Odes passed away. “I was very hesitant to play it for Roselee,” Lowrey recalls. “She’s still not over him. It took her a long time to even get to the point where she could get out of bed in the morning. But she loved the song.”
As Lowrey has matured as a songwriter, his gifts have been employed increasingly by others. He along with Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, and Zac Brown Band member Coy Bowles wrote “Colder Weather” which became Zac Brown Band’s seventh consecutive #1 single and received a CMA Award nomination in 2011 for Song of the Year.
A full telling of Lowrey’s story would be incomplete without mentioning Brown, as well as fellow singer/songwriter and Southern Ground labelmate Sonia Leigh. Just a few years ago, they were all compadres on the Atlanta singer/songwriter scene, playing dive bars, acoustic-music showplace Eddie’s Attic and anywhere else that would have them.
After his band broke up, Lowrey ended up in Leigh’s band as her full-time fiddle player while continuing to write and perform the occasional solo gig. Meanwhile, both of them could tell big things were ahead for Brown, who’d already paid lots of dues on the local scene.
“The first time I ever saw Zac, I just knew,” Lowrey recalls. “I can’t even explain. It’s like, the same way that you feel about him when you see him in an arena today, and how incredible the show is—imagine that feel, that vibe and that energy packed into [300 capacity] Dixie Tavern.”
So when the Zac Brown Band broke through on the charts and established itself as a concert draw, Brown was true to his promise to come back for his friends. After he established his own record label, Leigh and Lowrey were among his first signings along with Nic Cowan, and they have already played sizable venues—arenas and amphitheaters—as opening acts.