Willie Lock is an up-and-coming New York-based singer/songwriter, with an extraordinary breadth of musical background: he’s studied opera, worked in musical theatre, toured and recorded with his own acapella group, and has a successful career in a covers band playing music from the ‘60s to the present day. But country music is his first love and very much the focus of his own music now.
Willie first came to the attention of some UK fans through Zoom sessions in the depths of lockdown, when he was about to release his second single. Now, two years on, his 9th single When We Were 17 is about to launch, with a debut album close to completion. Paul Lewis, who was on those early Zoom sessions, talked to Willie for Six Shooter Country.
PL: When We Were 17 seems particularly appropriate to this time of year?
WL: When I wrote the song, I had this time of year in mind, with the changing of the seasons and the (American) football season underway. My dad is the announcer for the high school football team back home in West Virginia, and I’ll listen to him call the games on the radio. I’m always trying to give him advice, and he’s like “why don’t you just try and write a theme song instead”, so this was sort of my crack at that. Although I don’t think he could play it on the radio, as I talk about underage drinking! The vibe of the song is nostalgic, throwing back to hanging out with friends, doing stuff you’re not supposed to do and just living life.
PL: Is it based on personal experience, from when you when you were 17?
WL: Yeah, it’s a true story. I grew up in in the Washington DC area, and we would often find a park or parking lot to go to after football. Someone would figure out a way to get a case of beer and we’d just sit around and drink. Then someone would catch us at a certain point, and we would all scatter!
A couple of the names in the song are the real people I played football with, and one of my co-writers on the song, Greg Magee, is one of my best friends from high school. Not only did Greg and I play football together, but we were also the leads in musicals together. Fast forward years, and he’s a firefighter now, but he’s trying to get back into songwriting.
We reconnected and started to send each other voice notes with ideas for songs. I had just gone to see Morgan Wallen and Hardy, and something about that show got me thinking about my younger years. I had these chords, and I wrote the first verse, I sent it to Greg, and he immediately shot back a second verse – so that’s how the song came about.
PL: Had you and Greg written together much before?
WL: Greg and I had never written a song together, but our connection is very strong through performing together in musical theatre as well as playing football. If you’re in a cast with somebody, from rehearsals through being on stage, it automatically strengthens your bond with them.
And I met Dan Emino, my other co-writer on this song, working at a restaurant/bar together, which is another thing that will really strengthen your friendship, especially as two performing artists in New York City trying to find their way.
We met working there, just clicked and started writing songs. We’ve written a lot together now; he co-wrote Bad Things (a recent single which is likely to be part of the album when it arrives) and now this one as well. Dan has a great way of crafting a story around the song. I’ll come up with ideas and lines, while Dan has very specific ideas for lyrics, and stories, sort of making each verse a story in and of itself. I’ll send him random ideas or lyric ideas, and he’ll hone it all and make it a cohesive story.
PL: Although you’re based in New York, and recorded When We Were 17 there, I understand there’s a significant Nashville element, including Grady Saxman on drums, who’s worked with Luke Combs and Dustin Lynch? How did that come together?
WL: Yeah, I haven’t actually met Grady in person, or my amazing mix engineer, Jonathan Roach. It was all done remotely. There’s a duo I really love in Nashville, called Lakeview. They have a great sound and Jonathan produces a lot of their songs. During the pandemic, I connected with him on Instagram, and he helped produce Bad Things. That came out really well, so we’ve continued to work together, and he then introduced me to Grady. I’m very thankful to have those guys on board. They’re a very critical part of my creative process now, across all the songs we’ve worked on for the album. It’s so crazy how I’ll send them a song, and when they send it back, they’ve really made the magic happen. Something in the Nashville water.
PL: Can you ever see yourself moving to Nashville?
WL: I’ve been thinking more and more about it recently. But ideally, I would just go and spend months at a time there, because I have a very busy show schedule in New York. I really appreciate all the connections, friends and supporters I have here, and I definitely don’t want to lose that aspect of my career. But in Nashville, you have a lot of people like Grady and Jonathan, and super-talented writers. I just got accepted to this writer’s intensive there in December, with Liz Rose (multi-million selling songwriter with Taylor Swift, Little Big Town and many others) through the Nashville Songwriters Association, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be able to do something like that.
PL: Can I take you back to how you got into country music?
WL: I think my first foray into country music was Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus, I had that VHS line dance, and I would watch it all day long. I didn’t really know what genres of music were at the time, but I knew I loved Achy Breaky Heart. Also, my cousin back in West Virginia was a country singer who opened for a bunch of established country artists, like Rascal Flatts and Kathy Mattea, and I really loved her stuff.
I was living in DC, listening to a bit of hip hop, singing in choir, doing musical theatre, but country music always piqued my interest. Then I went to college in Indiana, to study opera, and I was also singing acapella there – but I was living in this small college town surrounded by cornfields, and my freshman year roommate played country music all the time. So that’s really when I was starting to listen to Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. I wasn’t listening to current country at the time, I was sort of keeping it classic.
PL: I believe Jake Owen played a key role for you too?
WL: After finishing college, I started my own acapella group, and we ended up going on tour and recording an album. One of the songs we were listening to that summer was Barefoot Blue Jean Night by Jake Owen. I had the idea of recording an acapella version, and we put it on the album.
We were on tour, in St. Louis on a day off, and Jake was coincidentally performing there that night. I woke up that morning and thought Jake Owen is here right now, there has to be a way I can at least get him to hear our version. Then I’m walking down the street to meet the rest of my group at a bar, and I see Jake walking right towards me.
I’m thinking “Willie, this is your opportunity, you have to say something”. I’m feeling awkward, so I pretend to be on my phone, he walks by me and I’m like “Hey, man, are you Jake Owen? I’m Willie. I have this tour bus right here. I’m on tour with my acapella group. We have a version of Barefoot Blue Jean Night. Can I just give you a CD?”
Straight away, he says “You guys do Barefoot Blue Jean Night? You’re gonna sing it on stage with me at the show tonight!” So he takes my details and I go and tell the guys in my group, who are all like “no dude, it’s not gonna happen. He’s not gonna call you. He is super famous right now. It’s a number one song.” But an hour later, his manager calls me and says OK, Jake’s ready for you. We go to his bus, sing the song for him and he’s like, alright, backstage passes. Come on back, drink all the beer you want to, and I’ll bring you on. So Florida Georgia Line open the show, followed by Love and Theft, and then Jake, who brought us on for the song.
PL: That must have been an astonishing moment. I guess if you hadn’t stopped him in the street, you may have taken a different path?
WL: I caught the country music bug even more after that, I felt had to make this kind of music. I could see the reaction of the crowd. We had some great crowds on our first acapella tour, but they paled in comparison to the country music crowd… Not to mention, girls actually paid attention to us after we were on stage with Jake!
PL: How soon did that lead you into writing and recording your own country music?
WL: After that, I started writing a lot of country songs, but I didn’t really record any of them or even think about making country music seriously. We had a great run with the acapella group, played over 45 states across the U.S and went overseas, but then we sort of went our separate ways. I moved to New York and started making my own music. I fooled around trying to make some pop songs, and I still have some pop influence in my music, but the country just stuck, and everyone kept telling me I sound good singing country music. So here I am now and we’re fully in it.
I really have to give props to Dave Ricco, my producer, who helped me find my sound, crafting the arrangement and production of my songs. It wasn’t until I met and started working with him that I truly felt I was creating my best work and had an identifiable sound. Now, thanks to him and to Jonathan, who does a great job mixing, I finally feel very comfortable in my sound. and I’m ready to keep cranking out songs.
PL: How close are you to finishing an album?
WL: I’ve released four songs, Bad Things, My Brother, College Town and now When We Were 17 that are going to find their way onto a larger project. And I’ve just had some sessions recently, to wrap up a few more. So I’m probably a couple of songs away.
PL: When you have the album done, hopefully maybe you’ll get over to the UK to play.
WL: Absolutely. I’ve been focused on making country music, but I’ve been listening to a lot of British music lately too. I like Sam Fender, and Marcus Mumford’s new album. I was also just listening to a bit of country hip-hop, artists like Breland, who are really pushing the envelope. And then you have artists like Zach Bryan, and Warren Zeiders, who are more on the rock and roll side. I like how country music gives you that opportunity, to add a little bit more of a rock influence or a hip-hop influence. Some of my newer songs have a little bit more rock and roll influence, while still while still staying true to the imagery and metaphors that make country music so great. I think the community and the fan base is, for the most part, supportive of that. And walking around London when I was over there, I could see it’s the same… I was hearing street musicians and hop-hop coming out of stores, that I had never heard before. I’m really looking forward to coming back to London and hopefully gigging there.
When We Were 17 is released on all the usual streaming services on October 14th, and can be pre-saved now at: https://willielock.lnk.to/whenwewere17
Willie’s previous singles, including Bad Things, My Brother and College Town are available now.