In just a few short years in the mid-90s, Bryan Austin lived a lot of country music life.
He experienced the highs of signing with a major label, hearing himself coming over the radio airwaves, and later, being nominated for a Grammy for his contribution on an instrumental song by one of his heroes, Steve Wariner.
But with those milestones came valleys; including minor chart success, and abrupt end to his record deal, and self-doubt.
As the 90s faded away, so did Austin’s time at the front of the stage; later serving as a touring guitarist for artists like Clint Black, Josh Turner, and Trick Pony.
He would reappear in 2012 with a fan-funded EP, and most recently, a 2016 single that details a loved one’s battle with cancer.
However, long before any of those milestones, Austin was drawing influence from major musicians ranging from Steve Wariner and Vince Gill to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eddie Van Halen, as well as laying his musical foundations in a band with his uncle.
“The musical heritage of south Mississippi and the Louisiana area is based in the blues and swamp music,” says Austin. “The sax is really prominent in that style of music, so growing up, my uncle had a band and he needed a sax. I was about 11 or 12 at the time when I started playing with them. Two years into it, the guitar player didn’t show up, so I volunteered to play guitar; so I played guitar and sax from there on out. That’s where I got started.”
Though his journey into music was now in motion, Austin recalls being drawn to it and wanting to pursue a career in music at a much younger age.
“I’ve always wanted to do it, even since I was six or seven years old,” says Austin. “I saw Johnny Cash on TV, and that’s the moment where I told myself I wanted to do it.”
After playing in his uncle’s band for a few years, Austin formed his own band and began playing the local honky tonks, where he would catch the eye of an influential figure in the music industry.
“At one point, I was playing six nights a week at the same club. A lady came in one night and introduced herself as Diane Gibson,” says Austin. “She gave me her card, and said she really liked what I was doing, and said she’d like to call me the following week. At the time, I didn’t think much of it.”
It wasn’t until he got home and researched Gibson that he found that she was the mother of pop artist Debbie Gibson, who had two number one hits and six more top 25s to her credit at the time. True to her word, Diane Gibson called Austin the next week, which set into motion a series of events that would lead to Austin earning a record deal.
“Diane asked if I would come to New York and meet her and a couple others. We signed to a management deal, and two months later, she flew me back to New York to meet with the head of Capitol Records,” says Austin. “I played for him, and he loved it. He said he would send me down to Nashville and to Jimmy Bowen, who ran Liberty Records, and was starting Patriot Records. I did a showcase for him, and he loved it. He signed me the next day, and we started on the journey to making a record.”
That journey would be joined by producer Keith Stegall, who was in the midst of massive success as Alan Jackson’s producer, as well as serving as producer for artists like Randy Travis and Tracy Byrd.
“Keith was fantastic. He’s a very patient guy. It was my first record, and I was new to all of it, and he just made me feel comfortable,” says Austin. “At the time, Alan was doing really well, so I was honored to have somebody like him producing it. Keith and I actually wrote a few songs that ended up on the album as well. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Austin’s self-titled album was released by Patriot Records in July of 1994. Its lead single, “Radio Active” allowed Austin the unique experience of hearing himself coming over the airwaves for the first time.
“That was a crazy moment,” says Austin. “We were just getting started on a radio tour, and I was somewhere in Virginia . We were on our way to the station and had the radio on, and they were playing it. It was almost like something pierced me. I can’t explain it.”
“Radio Active” peaked at number 62 on Billboard’s country chart. As the album’s second single, “Is It Just Me” was being prepared to be released to radio, shakeups were taking place at the Capitol family of record labels, which soon left Austin without a record deal.
“The head of the label left, and a new label head, Scott Hendricks, came in. Scott wanted to condense things and bring it back under one label, so he pretty much did away with our whole side of the label,” says Austin. “I was out in LA for one of the award shows, and he came up to me and said that he had never heard any of my new stuff. He said it had nothing to do with my music, they just needed to make room. I totally understood, and appreciated that he did it that way.”
The loss of his record deal left Austin flooded with self-doubt about his voice and his music.
“For a period of time, I was very insecure. I started to doubt my voice. I had a hard time singing after all of that happened,” says Austin. “I actually went to some doctors, and all of them said that it was all in my mind. They said that my voice was fine and that my throat was great, and I just had to figure out how to get through it.”
Austin went back to one of his first loves, the guitar, and began writing the next chapter of his career as a touring guitarist, landing a touring spot with Trick Pony. Soon after, he got a call from one of his heroes that would eventually lead him to the 1997 Grammy Awards.
“Steve Wariner called me, Bryan White, Derek George [of Pearl River], and Jeffrey Steele, and said that he was doing an instrumental record and that he would love to have us on the album,” says Austin. “He called us ‘The Young Guns.’“
The five artists recorded “The Brickyard Boogie” for Wariner’s album No More Mr. Nice Guy, and their song was nominated for Best Country Instrumental at the 1997 Grammy Awards.
“Steve called us and said that we were up for a Grammy for that song. We were really surprised,” says Austin. “Chet Atkins was in the same category, and he was Steve’s hero. Chet won the Grammy, but just to be in the same category as Chet Atkins was incredible.”
Soon after returning to Nashville, Atkins invited Wariner to his show, who in turn, invited ‘The Young Guns,’ which would lead to a unique experience between all of them.
“During the show, Chet said that he had won the Grammy a couple weeks ago, but he wanted to present it to Steve and the rest of us. He said he felt like we deserved it more than he did, and he gave the Grammy to Steve. That was my five seconds of Grammy fame,” Austin says with a laugh.
Two years later, Austin was back in the recording studio, this time, with a trio named Phoenix, which also featured Noah Gordon [another former Patriot Records artist] and Darin Anthony. The band developed their sound, and began to draw interest from record labels.
“Warner Brothers got really interested. They offered us a deal, but we didn’t take it,” says Austin. “We were basically Rascal Flatts before there was a Rascal Flatts. Eventually they came out and had their sound. It was just all about timing.”
Though his time with Phoenix was over, Austin’s connection with Wariner would soon lead to Austin touring with one of the members of country music’s “Class of 1989.”
“I had done a couple shows with Steve, and he called me and asked if I would be interested in playing guitar and singing background vocals for Clint Black,” says Austin. “I asked what time the audition was, and he said there was no audition; I just had to show up and I was hired.”
Austin showed up, and spent the next several years playing guitar with Black. During those years, Black’s end of show routine gave Austin the opportunity to overcome the self-doubt he felt about his voice.
“At the end of the night, Clint would feature me and I would do a song out front, and he’d go behind the drums. We did a Steely Dan song, and that’s how we ended the shows at the end of the night,” says Austin. “That’s what I needed; it was all a matter of somebody putting their trust in me and telling me that I was good enough to be on stage with them and good enough to be singing with them. Coming from somebody like Clint Black, that just sealed the deal for me. I got my confidence back.”
With his re-found confidence, Austin launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new EP titled Drunk on Love. The EP was fully-funded by his fans, which took even Austin by surprise.
“I didn’t think anybody would donate a dollar,” Austin says with a laugh. “It kind of snowballed. It was pretty amazing.”
18 years after the release of his self-titled album on Patriot Records, the Drunk on Love EP consisted of seven original songs, and served as both catharsis for Austin with releasing new music after almost two decades, but also showed him that in the current musical landscape, a major label deal isn’t a necessity for success.
“It’s crazy with the way everything works now. Back in the day, you had to have a ton of money to promote a record. Now with social media and iTunes and all of that, a lot of independent artists can do very well on their own without a label,” says Austin. “That was an experiment for me. I wanted to see how well I could do with that EP. I didn’t want to be a huge star, I just wanted to put music out for the people wanting to hear it. I was surprised at how easily it could be done these days.”
Austin followed Drunk on Love with the single “So Brave” in 2016, a song that came from a battle he was watching a loved one fight.
“My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, and it was just one of those situations where she went head-on into it saying she was going to beat it,” says Austin. “She was my little sister; I had never looked at her that way. I never saw her as a war hero. It blew me away. That song was so easy to write. I don’t think I’ll ever write anything that good again.”
Though the song was important for Austin and his family, he was soon hearing about the way it was touching others who had gone through similar battles.
“I’ve had a lot of people who’ve heard the song that have through breast cancer tell me how much it meant to them and how meaningful and encouraging it was,” says Austin. ”To me, that’s what music’s all about. These days, it’s become a competition where everybody’s competing to be the next big thing. That’s all good and fine, but when you boil it down, music isn’t that. Music is about touching somebody’s life with something you created. If you touch three people or three million people, it’s all the same. For me, that’s what keeps me moving forward with music. It’s about reaching somebody and it changing their life or making them happy for a day. That’s what it’s all about.”
Looking back, Austin feels a personal growth since his days on Patriot Records, which he tributes to his faith becoming prominent in his life.
“I used to be really selfish. I’ll easily admit that. I was a very selfish person back in the day trying to be a star. It was all about me,” says Austin. “Through the process and everything that happened, my faith became prominent in my life, and I began to understand that you’re not defined by that stuff. You’re defined by your character and the way you treat other people. It’s been a big change.”
And though he doesn’t know where the next chapter of his music career will take him, Austin plans to continue to play live from time to time, spend time with his grandchildren, and seeing where the road leads, while looking back on his 25 year career with no regrets.
“I’m thankful for the way everything happened,” says Austin. “People tell me that they’re sorry that things happened the way they did, and I tell them I’m happy that things happened the way they did, because I’m the man I am now because of that. I wouldn’t go back and change anything.”
*Writer’s note: I can’t possibly publish this story without including this song somewhere in it:*
*Images courtesy of Bryan Austin Facebook page and scans of Bryan Austin’s self-titled album booklet*