Interview: The Rugged Side of Matt Stell
Much is made over Matt Stell's connection to that private school in Cambridge, Mass., but more formative is his connection to the red dirt of Texas. The "Everywhere But On" singer came to Nashville the old fashioned, way even if he had the potential to be Dr. Stell.
Stell — an Arkansas native — doesn't call himself a "Texas artist" per se, as that means something quite different for those who understand the Red Dirt country scene.
“I think what it is, is it’s proudly regional. It’s very rooted in where it’s made, and that’s great," he explains for the confused fans in the back. "I think that independent streak is what holds it together."
An independent streak drives his music, as well. While focused in Texas, he learned how to perform on a stage ("The learning curve there was pretty steep, and I put in the time," he says), and how to write songs. Charlie Robison, Stoney LaRue, the Drive-By Truckers and Hayes Carll were influences for him in the Lone Star State, and Stell spent a lot of time with Casey Donahew. He came to the conclusion that if he could do it in Texas, he could probably handle Nashville. That's worked out pretty well so far, but the big obstacle he had to get past was realizing he didn't need to sound like his influences.
“I don’t sound like Steve Earle, even though I love Steve Earle," he says during a Zoom call from his home office in Nashville. It's a sparse room behind him, with only a plaque celebrating his first No. 1 hit "Prayed for You" identifying him as a country hitmaker. Matt Stell is nothing if not humble.
"I flatter myself by saying I hope the Jason Isbell and the Eric Church influences come out on this next project, but we’ll see," the 36-year-old remarks at one point.
As is often the case for first generation artists, Stell's path wasn't direct. He had a chance to go to Harvard University to pursue a medical degree several years after he finished at Drury University on a basketball scholarship. This was about five years ago, and his music career had started to take off in tangible ways, so he went with it. The response from his inner-circle was mixed.
"My mother has been unflappably supportive, even in times I didn’t believe in myself," Stell says. "My dad was supportive in his own way, but this life and this thing never made sense to him. He built a business from scratch and … he was as self-made as you can be."
Stell could have carried on his dad's business — or businesses. Ronnie Stell was an "opportunist" who owned and operating several businesses, like Ronnie Stell Trenching, Stell Farms, Stell Motors and Canebrake Properties. Matt Stell says working on his dad's natural gas pipeline and construction businesses were the hardest jobs he's ever had, but that work shaped him.
"In the same way that I wanted to be like my heroes and I wanted to be authentic, I wanted to be like my dad in that I wanted to be independent and do my own thing," he admits.
Sadly, the singer's father died at the age of 60 on Jan. 6, 2018. He didn't get to see so many of his son's accomplishments, outside of Matt signing a publishing deal. It's a loss that hasn't quite made its way into the singer's music yet, and it may not ever. Stell says the protagonists in his songs are characters who carry parts of him, but rarely are they biographical. "Everywhere But On," for example, is about a breakup, and Stell has had one of those. It happened after the song was written, however. Credit co-writer Paul Sikes for the hook and title of Stell's newest song.
If not for the coronavirus, Stell would be on the road with Rascal Flatts this summer. Instead, he's been enjoying a creative renaissance. He's prepared enough songs for a new album, but stops short of saying when new music might be released. Bread crumbs like a new music video for "If I Was a Bar" have been keeping fans satisfied, but the gush of momentum he's enjoyed since figuring out he doesn't need to sound like Steve Earle continues to cut lines in the banks of the river that is Matt Stell's career. If there's a lesson to be learned from how he has done it thus far, it's that all that frustration is really just preparation.
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