On the eve of the biggest professional leap of faith Wade Bowen has ever taken, the man behind the music is at ease. The history of music in general, and country music in particular, is paved with many stories of dues paid and survived struggles in the process of “making it.” Wade Bowen is certainly no different. Bowen’s long climb to the top is the key ingredient that jointly infuriates and inspires him. While Bowen has been able to earn a substantial following among fervent fans in the Texas market, it is his yearning to take his music to borders beyond the Red River that continually drives him.
A series of shake-ups behind the scenes have left Bowen with new band members, new management guidance, and new booking assistance. From the very first glimmer of deciding to do music as a career, Bowen has been guided and surrounded by a tight inner-circle of trusted friends and confidants. Frustrated but not deterred by the commercial results of his most recent album, Lost Hotel, Bowen decided to shake up his business model. While Lost Hotel had garnered the best reviews and buzz of Bowen’s career, it did not catch on like he thought it should have, and many thought it would. Remembering the time period vividly, Bowen recalls the anxiety he felt about the entire project. “It was definitely out of my control, as so much stuff is in this business. I had such high hopes for Lost Hotel even before I released it. I shopped it around to some different labels and had interest from even RCA,” he continues, “I dealt with them for around six months talking back and forth until they finally passed on me. I then went ahead and released it through Sustain Records down here in Texas because I felt there was an opportunity there to try something different and hopefully have some success.”
While the album has continually gained traction and momentum, the immediate success envisioned by Bowen and his inner circle was not easily attained. Yet, deep down Bowen knew that Lost Hotel was probably going to be a slow burn due to its dark nature. He realized that the stark, personal nature of many of the tunes did not lend themselves to the good-timing and hell-raising that draws so many fans to the sounds of the Texas scene. It was a songwriter’s record, and one he was proud to share. “You have to understand that at that time, I was struggling to keep my career alive. I really wasn’t pulling any huge crowds, it had been three years since my last record, and that one was a live album.” He goes on to say, “I told myself to be patient with ‘Lost Hotel.’ I knew that it would not hit immediately. I knew that I was going to have to work my ass off to get the point of that album across to people and I convinced myself and my boys that they will get it eventually. I would say prayers that someone was listening somewhere. And, eventually it turned out they were. The beauty of this scene came through for me. One person heard it, they passed it to their buddy who passed it on etcetera…and word of mouth made my career happen.”
A fan of music from his earliest memories, Bowen spent the bulk of his youth on the football and baseball fields of Waco, enjoying the country music of George Strait, George Jones and others while listening to it with his dad as they drove around town. Additionally, like so many others growing up with older siblings, Bowen was heavily influenced by the sounds his older sisters deemed cool. With music as a career or even as a hobby still just a distant thought, he subconsciously filed away all of these influences in the back of his head. “I just feel really comfortable with rock sounds and going back to the sounds my sisters had playing back when I was a kid. Now, if we slip in some rock stuff, I watch the crowds react to it and it pumps us up onstage so much,”Bowen explains, “It develops and builds into this energy that you can’t find in just simple, straightforward country music. But, having said that, my roots are imbedded in country music, and they always will be. Songwriting is my passion and my voice will never be anything but country. I just think being exposed to all the different sounds as a kid shaped the kind of artist I became.” That passionate music fan is still at home in every facet of Bowen’s career. Whether it is deciding on a t-shirt design, routing a tour date or writing out a set-list, Bowen keeps the fan in mind at all times. “It’s cliché, but I’m still just a fan myself…and constantly find myself amazed that I’m sharing a stage with someone like a Ray Wylie Hubbard or hearing my songs on the radio from time to time,” Bowen explains.
From the very inception of his career, Bowen has endured comparisons and footsteps that haunt and guide him, while at times fostering naysayers. Growing up in a prominent Waco family, then heading out to Texas Tech for college and starting a band had already been done, people said. And, it didn’t help that it had been done by one of the biggest acts to ever come out of Texas, Pat Green. Or that Green had blazed the exact same trail from Waco to Lubbock to music. Bowen recalls “I made my decisions based on what I thought was best for me at that time and it just so happened to follow what Pat had done. People talk, and it has all worked out in the end for both of us…plus, I got a song out of it (‘God Bless This Town’).”
After finding lead guitarist Matt Miller at a backyard party while back in Waco his first summer home from college, Bowen headed back to Lubbock convinced that he could chase the music dream that had been dancing around in his subconscious since his youth. He quickly rushed to fill out the rest of the band and started booking gigs. On the way to the first one, they still didn’t have a name and someone quickly suggested they name themselves after the road they were traveling down, West 84. “Our first gig was in 1998 at the Lubbock Stubb’s BBQ. We had like three-hundred people there and thought we were rock stars,” laughingly remembers Bowen.
Several months of gigging and practicing had Bowen convinced it was time to make a record. With Bowen’s eternal optimism guiding the way, West 84 headed into the studio to record Just for Fun. “It was a group of young guys that knew nothing about recording or making a record. I’m surprised we even got a record at all…but we did,” Bowen laughs. He goes on to add, “The record title says it all, I was living a dream…making my very own album. Looking back, I’m happy with that record for what it is.” Chad Kudelka, Bowen’s best friend since childhood and longtime music business partner also remembers that as a fun time, “It was such a cool time, fun to be out at shows, playing for people, traveling to new towns we’d never even heard of before…it was back in the day when it wasn’t work, and we didn’t look at it that way. It really was all just for fun.”
Hitting the highways of the burgeoning Texas circuit fostered a deep-seeded desire in Bowen to grow artistically with his music. While happy with chugging through the barroom standards of the day, Bowen knew his voice and band were capable of much more. As he found himself in an increasingly crowded scene of sub-par musicians and songwriters, Bowen knew he had something to offer that the others did not. He started finding his own voice both vocally and with his songwriting. The miles and hours were starting to transform him and his band from a group of green kids just having fun into serious musicians. This transformation convinced Bowen he was going to make the crowds come to him and they would listen to every note. “We were hitting all these towns and clubs, and seeing all these bands that sounded and looked the same. I knew we had to go to a higher level,” Bowen relates.
With this new determination and direction, soon it was time to make another album. This time around in the studio, emboldened by his growing confidence and abilities, Bowen experimented with new sounds and production techniques. He had more money, time and expertise to make an album he was truly proud of. The band headed to Nashville to record Try Not to Listen. Bowen wrote the title track to explain his mood at the time, its triumphant chorus seemed to encapsulate the vibe and time in Bowen’s life. The strong work ethic and determination he’d learned playing sports in his youth and hanging around the electricians that worked with his father was seeping into the young musician’s chosen vocation. “It was around the time of ‘Try Not to Listen’ that I realized this was going to be a career. It was no longer just a fun hobby. I was determined to work my tail off and get to the next level,” Bowen recalls. Kudelka adds, “I think when ‘Try Not To Listen’ came out, personally both Wade and I were tired…a little frustrated and questioning what our future would be. We didn’t know what graduation would bring or how much longer we could keep this project and band on the road at the pace we were at. We were three years in, and we knew it was make it or break it time.” The stronger production of this new record was coupled with the band adding Wade Bowen to the front of their West 84 moniker and continuing to sharpen their sound and hone their career. Bowen recalls the decisions around that time. “When I graduated and moved to Austin, I had to start over completely because Lubbock is so far away from everywhere. So, I did and that’s where the West 84 became extinct. I knew that I was serious and I questioned that about the rest of the band as a group. So I took matters into my own hands and started playing acoustic shows wherever they would let me. Eventually, people came to know Wade Bowen instead of West 84.”
Soon after Try Not to Listen hit the streets, it became apparent that the gamble of daring the crowd not to listen would gain him the biggest notice of his young career. Crowds were growing following the release of the album, and buzz was starting to spread about Bowen’s live show: a rollicking honky-tonk tour-de-force that featured Bowen’s soulful country vocals layered over double lead guitar blues licks, bumping bass lines and popping snare drums. Mixing covers and the growing familiarity of Bowen’s originals, the band set out to capture their live show on an album, Live at the Blue Light. “That record definitely started to spread the word about us. I remember being amazed at how many we were selling week after week. Actually, I’m still amazed at how many still sell. The Blue Light threw that idea at me, and I just ran with it. I decided to just record one night instead of a couple of nights. I felt that would make it more real and honest and I think that’s what people like about it so much,” says Bowen.
Touring on the live record for nearly three years led to some burnout. Original members of West 84 began to pursue other projects or drop out of the music business altogether. Several years of dues paid and hard work had enabled Wade Bowen’s name to become synonymous with the latest crop of Texas insurgents that had come in the wake of Pat Green and Cory Morrow. Yet, despite the relative success, Bowen again realized that he still had more to give. He knew his creative peak had not yet been reached and set out to write songs that modeled what he heard in his head for his next record, Lost Hotel.
The independence and drive that has marked Bowen’s career from the moment he met Matt Miller in that backyard was never more evident than when he made the decisions that would form the Lost Hotel project. “We had made a name for ourselves as this rocking band and doing Audioslave breakdowns mixed with Waylon. And, I knew that as cool as that was and is, I wanted to also be known as a serious songwriter. So, I set out to prove to people that I was a serious songwriter, and Lost Hotel was the product of that,” Bowen explains. The aforementioned slow build of the album at some points helped Bowen to feel that maybe he’d made a mistake by making such a personal record and not sticking to the upbeat nature of the Live at the Blue Light project that led to the discovery of his music for many fans. “I got frustrated many nights. I would wander back to the van and head back to the room as soon as I could so that I could just go to sleep and go to another town.” Yet, out of that frustration grew appreciation. As crowds slowly started to grow and good review after good review trickled in, Bowen realized that he had made the right decision. “People started to get it and who I was one by one. And in the end, that’s what matters to me. With all the cheesy stuff out there, Lost Hotel stands out because it’s the furthest thing from it. Anyone who listens to that album knows, or at least has a glimpse into what I went through to make it and write it…and that’s what is so special about it to me…and as excited as I am about this new album, I still don’t think ‘Lost Hotel’ is done.”
One can’t help but be in a better mood after spending some time with Bowen; his constant optimism and general good nature have come in handy as a struggling musician over the past decade. To a person, everyone involved in Texas Music continually mentions Wade Bowen as the nicest guy they encounter in their dealings. “There are a lot of shady folks in the music business, and very few are as genuine as Wade Bowen…and everyone I know in the Texas scene would echo that sentiment,” says Josh Grider, whose music career also sprang from Waco. While frequent songwriting partner Brandon Rhyder adds, “Wade Bowen is a classy genuine soul, and a dear friend, whom I’ve enjoyed watching as his star continues to grow.”
Out of the abyss that became Lost Hotel both commercially and as a general vibe, Bowen decided he should incorporate some of his lifelong optimism, mix in a solid shot of his intensity, and infuse an overall vibe that explains who he is as an artist and person into his new project, If We Ever Make It Home. An apt title considering that Bowen has survived a decade in the business of music, specifically, the Texas version of it, unscathed. He hasn’t been labeled a sell-out by ignorant fans, he’s gotten to tour with big names like Lee Ann Womack and Dierks Bentley, and he has continually grown his career through hard work and great songs one night at a time. Now, with a renewed passion, band and team around him, including the Rogue Management Agency out of Nashville (home to Bowen’s good friend Bentley), it looks like Bowen is finally checking out of the Lost Hotel and heading home.
Work on the new If We Ever Make It Home album has been an enjoyable process for Bowen. “When I first went in to make this album, I told my producer and the band that I wanted to keep things as upbeat as possible. We tried but it was really crazy how everyone just felt it go right back into that Lost Hotel vein. We laughed about it a little actually because I guess it’s just me,” explains Bowen. Past producer J.R. Rodriguez took the reins of the control board again, and Bowen headed into the studio with a strong collection of songs. “This record is full of great songwriting. It really builds on where we’ve been the past couple years. I wrote two with Randy Rogers, and I also got to write with Radney Foster, Stephony Smith, Clint Ingersoll, Jedd Hughes and some other really cool writers,”says Bowen. He goes on to add, “We also ended up cutting some outside tunes, and I think when people hear them, they’ll realize why I had to include them. I ended up setting aside some of my favorite songs that I’d written to make sure the record was perfect for me as an artist. And, I couldn’t be happier with the results.”
Expectations for If We Ever Make It Home are huge and that’s the way Bowen likes it. It speaks to his personality traits of good humor, intensity and determination. His career has been a steady trip up the mountain, and now that he’s just about conquered one peak, just as he has throughout his career, he’s ready to move on to the next, larger one. “I really feel like this album is going to put me over the hump as an all-around artist. Everything we’ve done has built to this point. I hope radio will get behind us on this project. And, I want everything for this record to explode like I think it will so I can implement some really cool ideas I’ve been sitting on,” Bowen excitedly explains.
It has been a long journey from Waco to Lubbock and beyond for Wade Bowen to find his way home, but he’s not yet finished. “I don’t have the biggest crowds. I don’t make the most money and I don’t get played on the radio very much. But, for some reason, people throw me up there as one of the big dogs in the Texas scene, and I believe it’s because I did it my way…the way I wanted.”