Americana Highways had the chance to interview Colby Acuff on his new release, If I Were the Devil, produced by Kyler Daron. Acuff also discusses his roots in North Idaho, his songwriting process, influences, and what being a modern day “outlaw” means to him.
AH: I’ve read that you’re a North Idaho boy with southern roots. Tell me a little bit about your southern heritage. In what capacity were you around music growing up?
Colby: The tag, “North Idaho boy with southern roots,” was created because I think it truly describes my music and how I was raised. A large portion of my mom’s side of the family is from Atlanta, including my grandmother who was actually Miss Georgia Peach back in the day. So, while I didn’t grow up in the south, I grew up with southern hospitality. I grew up eating grits and watching Georgia football, which in Northern Idaho is fairly rare. Growing up, I was around music constantly. My dad had an old record player and I listened to a ton of vinyl at a very early age. My mom had an 8-tack tape cassette player in her car when I was a kid, and I listened to plenty of music on that as well. My dad would play Don Williams, Flatt & Scruggs, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and so on, while my mom would play John Denver, the Eagles, Bobby Bare, and Jim Croce. I was exposed to music that was very well written at an early age and, I believe, that is why I value songwriting so much.
AH: How early did you decide you wanted to express yourself through music? Was there a pivotal moment that inspired you, or was it more innate?
Colby: From an early age I was expressing myself through music. It is hard to pin down a time where I felt like it was going to be my life, but it has always been there. I will say, though, that when I wrote my first song at sixteen, everything changed. Once I wrote one song; they started flowing in. So, I would probably have to say, once I figured out that I could transform emotion into a story, then I knew that music was going to be my way to express myself.
AH: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? Is it one you still play out?
Colby: The first song that I ever wrote is called, “Dallas.” It is a love story from the perspective of a guy catching up with his high school sweetheart; years after their breakup. Little known fact, this song is released on all streaming platforms and is under the duo name of Acuff & Sherfey. We released it back in 2015, and yes, I still play it out all the time.
AH: Sometimes writers have a specific space or mindset that they have to inhabit in order to write. Is there a space like that for you, whether it be a physical space or a mental space, that you like to go to in order to write?
Colby: I write in major spurts. What I mean by that is that I try to write something every day, which could be anything. It could be writing the chord progression, a hook, a few lyrics, whatever it may be. When it comes to writing full songs, it takes a few months of writing ideas and compiling thoughts together. Then I can sit down and write a whole album in a month. However, there are exceptions. If I have something significant happen in my life, then I can turn that emotion into a song in under an hour. “If I Were the Devil” and “Life of a Rolling Stone” were written in under 20 minutes. Spaces are very important when writing for me, physical and mental. I prefer to be alone and completely immersed into my own thoughts. Mentally speaking, I can’t have a favorite song at that point in time if I’m in the writing process. I try to let go of music I like and focus on what song I want to create. I believe this helps me write songs that I really attach to and believe in. It would be comparable to saying that I’m writing myself my new favorite song. Hank Williams said it best when a reporter once asked him how he wrote such amazing songs. He responded, “I just hold the pen and God tells me what to write.” I’ve studied that theory since I heard of it and it has worked out well for me. Let your subconscious twist emotion to create stories that people can fully live through. Try to put a three-hour movie into a three-minute song.
AH: The title track off of your album Life of a Rolling Stone references pivotal artists in the lexicon of country music, including Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Who are some artists that have been influential on the music that you create?
Colby: I am a massive country music history nerd. So, I always end up struggling with this one. I can name 50 artists that have shaped my music into what it is, but the ones I usually end up giving a ton of credit to is Hank Williams, Sturgill Simpson, Jim Croce, Bobby Bare, Tyler Childers, Merle Haggard, and Ricky Skaggs. When it comes to people who have influenced my music, I really have to look at my own craft and analyze where that comes from. I am really drawn to artists that are great storytellers. Once again, though, there are so many amazing artists it is hard to say.
AH: Your latest album titled If I Were the Devil just came out. What were some pivotal differences in the creative process of creating this new album versus the first one? Were there things you went about differently or was the process all the much easier having done it before?
Colby: The first album was hard because there was a huge learning curve on how to not waste your time in the studio. Plus, I didn’t know anything about a recording studio or how it was going to work. I’m very thankful for Kyler Daron with Den Studios out of Boise, Idaho, though – because he made the learning curve fun and not stressful. This made it so much easier the second time around because I had some idea on what to expect and I knew what I wanted to get out of it. To me, the biggest difference between the first album and second album was my own expectations. The first album had little to none because I had little to no fan base. That album with no expectations ended up getting big enough to where we could do another project and chase the dream. So, with this album I knew we had to raise the bar. I went out and bought a mandolin to learn how to play and started to get back into playing drums. All the songs, but one, were written specifically for this album in time between our first album dropping and us recorded our second album. The thing that sets these albums apart from each other is maturity. The first album is very raw and naïve, while the second is patient and mature.
AH: Who were some of the key players in the making of the record? Such as those that recorded it and the musicians that played on it.
Colby: There were a total of four musicians on the album. Kyler Daron, the producer and owner of Den Studios, Brian Zabriskie (bass player), Jake Albers, and myself. Kyler played lead guitar, piano, organ, and some drums on the album. Brian played his signature blue standup bass. Jake played drums on the song “Two to Tango,” and I played guitar, mandolin, sang lead, and played drums on the album. I do have a full five-piece band that I travel with, but at that point in time we hadn’t started playing.
AH: There’s an interesting song on the record called “Dear Country Music.” The song acts as a letter to the genre, itself, and calls into question the concepts of authenticity, conformity, and censorship. Talk a little bit about the inspiration of writing that song. Do you believe that they genre has lost its authenticity? Are there artists that you can pinpoint making country music today that you admire for their authenticity in the music?
Colby: “Dear Country Music” isn’t so much pointing out the flaws in the artist as it is pointing out the flaws that I see within the industry. The industry has been so institutionalized that songs are written with zeros and ones. I listen to all ages of country from the Carters to Eric Church, but that being said, the people in modern day country music that I admire are the ones that still run their business the way they want to. I will never judge someone on how they made it into the spotlight, but once you have the big stage that is where the dream begins and I’ll be damned if I had worked that hard to give it up before I got started. I also am very aware that music is a business, and a big one at that, but just like the song says, “I think it’s time we all step back and listen to the songs our heroes wrote.” At the end of the day, the song is not to create controversy or cause drama, but it is there to draw attention to a problem that has been going on since Waylon asked if Hank had one it that way. Artists that I believe are the most authentic and have inspired me in my journey in today’s market would be Sturgill Simpson, Evan Felker, Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, but there are so many more than that. Like I said before, this song in no way is supposed to jab at any artist.
AH: I see that you are a self-proclaimed “outlaw” country musician. What does being an outlaw mean to you?
Colby: Outlaw music was created on the backs of the artists that didn’t fit the mold. They were casted out and then outlaw was created. Sometimes, I feel as though I don’t fit the mold either, so outlaw is where I’m trying to hang my hat. I think I fit in that space because I don’t have a mold made for my genre. I like to call my style mountain country music because it truly has its own sound. There are a ton of great artists out of Idaho and they have to try and put their songs into a genre, but they are truly playing mountain country – the sound of the Rockies. It has bluegrass roots, folk lyrics, and country melodies. Outlaw music, to me, is brutally honest, loyal, and true. I would also argue that country music should have the same definition, but due to institutionalization of the industry, we have to subgenre out artists that are willing to go a little against the grain. Personally, I like to write the truth. That might be a little controversial to some, but, hey, if that makes me an outlaw then that’s fine with me.
AH: How have you been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as a musician? Has the current climate inspired you to create more? What is next for you?
Colby: We had the cancel 95 shows and a tour because of COVID-19 and I really took it hard. I was 23 years old booking the tours, buying the merch, hiring the band, and running the business and all of a sudden, I had lost everything. It gave me a lot of perspective, and it gave me time to write all the songs for If I Were the Devil. We have been able to play quite a bit now and are getting out there more and more. My next plan is to get out on the road and start meeting fans from all over the country. For any fans that are reading this, please reach out to me in any way you can and let me know where you’d like to see me play. As soon as I am able to, I will be coming to a city near you.