John Corbett asks one favor: Listen to the music first.
An esteemed actor known for his naturalness in off-beat roles, Corbett accepts that his first album will be met with excitement by some, skepticism by others. He wants both camps to put aside preconceptions—and put on the music.
As an actor, Corbett’s always brought an easy grace to his roles, whether it’s in the acclaimed TV series Sex and the City and Northern Exposure or in the hit films My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Raising Helen. His music carries the same natural, down-to-earth spirit—only this is not role-playing.
“Music has always been central to my life, much more so than acting,” he says. “Acting is how I make my living. Music has always been a passion—it’s something I love, something I can’t live without.”
How serious is he about being a musician? “When I was on the set of my last movie, the whole time I was there, all I wanted to do was get back to making music. I wanted to be working up a new song with my band. I wanted to be in the studio laying down tracks. I wanted to be with my guys on stage, rocking the house.”
Recorded in Nashville, Corbett’s self-titled debut blends concise, straightforward Nashville song craft with tight, combustive Southern rock arrangements that allow his fiery band to stretch out. His material—written by top songwriters like Hal Ketchum, Jon Randall, Darrell Scott, Tim Nicoles, Rivers Rutheford, Bernie Taupin and Mark Selby—takes country music’s earthy emotionalism and gives it a rowdy, rocking kick.
The album was recorded in Nashville with producer D. Scott Miller and Corbett’s longtime musical partner, Tara Novick. “The beautiful thing is that it was just me and a real basic band playing it live in the studio,” he says. “We wanted it to sound in the moment and not too polished or fussed over. We wanted that raw emotion you get the first time you play a song you love.”
The musicians come from a mix of country and rock backgrounds, with Black Crowes’ drummer Steve Gorman and Music City bassist Mike Brignardello laying down a steel-belted rhythm behind guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Pat Buchanan, keyboardist Mike Rojas and steel guitarist Mike Johnson. Harmony vocalists include Sara Buxton and veteran soul-shouter Jimmy Hall, former lead singer of Southern rock ‘n’ soul greats Wet Willie.
“We didn’t do any stunt casting,” Corbett notes. “Someone suggested I should do a duet with someone famous, but for my first record, I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, the album focuses on John’s voice, a surprisingly flexible instrument capable of tender intimacy or growling ferocity. “I wanted to sing like I talk, to make it as natural as possible,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything real showy or grandstanding.”
As far back as he can remember, music has been part of his life. He grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, a blue-collar mining and steel mill town on the Ohio River that’s famous as a music center. John and his mother lived in an apartment five blocks from The Capitol Music Hall, home to the Wheeling Jamboree—now known as Jamboree USA. The live Saturday country music show is the second longest continuing running live radio broadcast, after Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
As a kid, Corbett hung out at his Uncle Phil’s music joint, Club Madrid. His mother was a waitress, her boyfriend worked the door, and his grandmother made sauerkraut and hot dogs for everyone. Country and rock musicians who played at the Capitol Music Hall would stop by after shows, so John got to see performers like Buck Owens get on stage at the 150-seat club and jam with the house band.
“On Sunday, when the club was closed, I’d help clean up, and I’d always end up on stage in front of the microphone, faking like I had a guitar and singing a song under my breath so no one could hear,” he says.
He played bass in a high school band that performed at house parties and school functions, taking the lead vocal on songs like Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” By the time he moved to California in 1986, he brought along the guitar he’d started playing. Soon after arriving, a friend introduced him to a 15-year-old hotshot named Tara Novick, a rockabilly guitarist who later formed a well-regarded L.A. band, The Voodoo Boys.
“He was a young guy, but he was living in his shack by himself, and he was real together,” Corbett recalls. “He was the same guy he is now—only he’s older and has a mustache. I make him wear the same motorcycle jacket on stage that he had on when I met him.”
Corbett and Novick continued to play music together for fun after the actor scored his first big role as philosophical deejay Chris Stevens in the acclaimed TV show Northern Exposure. The first time Corbett appeared on The Tonight Show, he called ahead to ask if he could bring his band and perform a song. The talent director hesitated, asking for a tape. Corbett explained he didn’t have anything recorded, but he pressed the issue, and the talent director suggested he show up two hours earlier than usual to audition. He got the nod and was allowed to appear—a rare case of a musician getting a coveted performance on the late-night talk show without a record deal, or even a record at all.
That night, Corbett brought along Novick and ace L.A. musician James Intveld. Being Christmas Eve, the trio performed an Elvis Presley Christmas song, “Santa Is Back in Town.” “The song started out a cappella, then we rocked it Stevie Ray Vaughan style,” Corbett says with a laugh. “AT the end, we bowed together, Beatles-style. The whole thing was a blast and went over really well.”
For a decade, Corbett owned a large music club in Seattle called The Phoenix, where he hung out and supported touring and local acts. He’d occasionally get up and sing “Johnny B.Goode” on stage, but rarely. Through it all, he stayed in touch with Novick. When Corbett moved back to L.A. in 2000, the two immediately hooked back up and started jamming again.
In 2004, Corbett accepted an invitation to present an award at the CMT Flameworthy Awards in Nashville. The actor had considered himself a country music fan since seeing Dwight Yoakam perform in Hollywood in 1986, and he’d always had fond memories of the country musicians who performed at his uncle’s club in Wheeling. But this was his first trip to Nashville.
“It was a really warm, inviting environment,” Corbett says. “I’d invited Tara to come with me. He knew some songwriters in town like Odie Blackmon (who’s written hits for Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Womack and others), and everyone was real generous with their time, very outgoing and polite. You don’t see a lot of that in Hollywood.”
The two hung out and partied and played music with other songwriters and musicians. Corbett tagged along with Novick when he went to meet with music publishers, and in one office they ended up trading songs with hit writer Jameson Clark. By the end of the day, they were in a studio with Clark, recording their own songs.
Clark liked what he heard and suggested the three of them make an album. Corbett agreed, but plans fell apart during scheduling. “But I had the bug by then,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make a record.”
Using his own money, Corbett and Novick went through whirlwind meetings with music publishers, gathering more than a dozen songs that excited them. They learned the tunes in a rush, sitting in a car in a hotel parking lot because that was the only CD player they had. “We’d listen to the song, write down the lyrics and then run inside and get the chords on the guitar,” Corbett says with a laugh. “Then we’d go out and listen to the song again. That’s how we learned everything on the album.”
The next day, they began work with the band they’d hired. They recorded the dozen songs in a furious weekend recording session. “I knew before I went in that I had to have the songs down cold,” Corbett explains. “I knew these guys already thought I was a joke, so I had to convince them that this was real. I couldn’t screw up—these are the best musicians in Nashville. But I sang them the songs, and they couldn’t tell we just learned them the night before sitting in a car. And that’s how we started the record. It was wild.”
Looking back, Corbett believes the intensity and spontaneity of the sessions resulted in a record with its heart on its sleeve. “The beautiful thing is that it caught us all in a real creative, focused moment,” he says. “It was real exciting for me to be in that room with those guys singing those songs. I think that comes across on the record.”
Once the recordings started making the rounds, Corbett soon began getting concert tour offers. The variety of artists he’s opened for reflects the range of his own songs: He’s warmed up crowds for ZZ Top, Lisa Marie Presley, Buck Owens, Charlie Daniels, Josh Turner and Asleep at the Wheel, among others. In November, he’ll headline a series of Las Vegas shows with his band.
He’s had serious interest from major labels, including one that offered him his own imprint. But after meeting with nearly every label in Nashville, Corbett has decided to put the record out on his own independent label, Fun Bone Records.
“In every case, it was going to take a year or two to get the record out,” Corbett says. “Major labels take their time, they’ve got a lot of artists and records to deal with. I didn’t want to wait that long. I wanted this record out as soon as I could. Now we want to play these songs for as many people as we can.”
Besides, he already has a fan base because of his acting work. He figures he can begin by tapping into those who will be excited to hear he’s made a record, and then convince others by performing for them or letting them hear his recordings.
“I think if I can put this record in the hands of my fans, they’re going to like it,” he says. “A lot of my fans are women, but when they’re husbands and boyfriends hear the album or see us live, they’re going to like it, too. When we play, the guys come up and say, ‘Dude, I didn’t know you were going to rock like that.’”
For now, he’s ready to take his music to the people and play as often as he can. “I’m completely devoted to this,” he says. “I can’t tell you how excited I am. This is what I want to do. This is what I should be doing. I know that now.”