Rising country star Austin Merrill has a pretty fascinating backstory, setting him apart from the typical newcomer who comes down the pike. First of all, he doesn’t hail from Texas or one of the Southern states but rather from the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon, not usually considered a hotbed of country music (though such stars as Todd Snider and Joni Harms were born there). Merrill also served in the National Guard while pursuing his musical career. That’s not a story you hear every day. Merrill sat down with S&E Nashville during the recent Country Radio Seminar to talk about his music, his Guard service and what he has coming up.
The first thing Merrill wants you to know about him is his passion for traditional country. “I love the whole era of the 90s,” he says with enthusiasm. “My favorite is Alan Jackson. I always loved the way he conveyed his messages in his songs. As far as my other favorites, it’s hard to pick one or two. Everybody around that time had hits. It was a great time to grow up.”
You can hear the tradition in his voice as well as his music. Many reviewers have compared him favorably with such classic vocalists as Mark Wills and Tracy Lawrence. Merrill prefers songs that have a little romance in them and perhaps have a message to impart. In keeping with that, Merrill has the appropriate fortune to be produced by Music Row legend Mark Bright, who’s helmed projects for Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, BlackHawk and Sara Evans. Bright’s influence gives Merrill’s music a contemporary flair while allowing him to retain his traditional outlook. “I’m not a huge fan of writing the ‘Hey, baby, won’t you come home with me’ type of song,” he says. “With most of my songs, I’m trying to tell a story. I try to keep true to my roots and not slick it up too much.”
Merrill first came to Nashville as a multi-talented musician, proficient on guitar, bass and saxophone. He attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville and began concentrating more on guitar and vocals. During his freshman year, Merrill started writing songs and found what he feels was his true calling. But after graduation from Vanderbilt, he took a different path. Instead of immediately trying to land a record deal and playing the clubs around town, Merrill joined the Tennessee Army National Guard.
“It was hard,” he recalls, “but once I got used to what was going on, it was fine.” Merrill notes that his service gave him a new perspective on his music and his life. Soon, though, that part of his life will be in the rear view mirror. “I am almost done with my service,” says Merrill, who achieved the rank of Lieutenant. “It was a great experience but I am ready to move on.”
This past year, Merrill came out with his debut EP, Whiskey & Water. Last fall, he released a video for one of the tracks, “You’ll Come Knocking,” which was filmed near Nashville. “We went about an hour south of Nashville, near Columbia,” he fondly remembers. “It’s a real pretty video. We filmed out in a field and in this little store. That was fun and I think it turned out great.” Merrill also released the title track from the EP as a single.
He’s definitely looking forward his upcoming tour, where he’ll be opening for Shenandoah, one of his musical heroes. That will give fans an up-close look at his mix of traditional and modern styles, and help them get more of an idea of who he is an an artist. “I do write everything I record,” Merrill notes. “So when you hear me sing, you’re hearing what Austin Merrill was really feeling at the time. That is the crux of what I do and I hope it will relate to people.”
For more on Austin Merrill, please visit his website and follow him on social media.
(Interview conducted by Jessi Maness)