The Cowboy Code 

Trent Willmon’s third record aims for the ropin’ pen

His latest full-length, Broken In, finds him on an independent label, but Willmon lives by the cowboy code, which means no cursing—at least in public.
“If you can work cattle without cussing, you’re a bigger man than I am,” says country singer Trent Willmon from his Nashville home. He ought to know: Growing up on a 500-acre West Texas ranch, Willmon witnessed the joys and frustrations common to all cattlemen. But since moving to Nashville in the mid-’90s, he’s made a career as a songwriter, major-label artist and film actor. His latest full-length, Broken In, finds him on an independent label, but Willmon lives by the cowboy code, which means no cursing—at least in public.

Still, it was a dark day when Willmon parted ways with Columbia Nashville, who had released his self-titled 2004 debut and the 2006 follow-up A Little More Livin’. Let go in the wake of the 2006 RCA/Sony Nashville merger that also saw the departure of Sony head John Grady, Willmon took time to regroup.

“I was frustrated, because I had made—in my mind—an incredible record,” Willmon says of Livin’. “So there were a couple of weeks where I thought, ‘You know what? This is God’s way of telling me I wasn’t meant to do this.’ But I had gotten to know Justin McBride—he’s a professional bull rider. He put it into cowboy terms. I was just being a wuss.”

For his debut, Willmon combined Texas shuffle and Southern rock on “All Day Long,” which he wrote with Tony Martin and Mark Nesler. (Signed to a publishing deal in 1998, Willmon had begun to make his mark as a songwriter before Grady signed him to Columbia six years later.) It was an assured, good-humored record that established Willmon’s easygoing persona.

Livin’ took that persona places, with songs that suggested a cowboy at the end of his rope in the big city. The keeper was Willmon and Brandon Kinney’s “Surprise,” which found the singer’s best friend handcuffed to his bed, presumably by his wife, who also happened to be there. Meanwhile, “Sometimes I Miss Ya” cast Willmon as a hapless husband who “sold all the cows” to buy a house his wife promptly vacates.

“The second record was the best one, because we had made a great first record and had established we were gonna be around,” Willmon says. “We had a hit song.” And while the first record’s “Beer Man” had gone to No. 30 on the country charts, and A Little More’s “On Again Tonight” No. 27, but business was business. Willmon began shopping for a new home, landing last summer on Houston’s Compadre label. Willmon began shopping for a new label.

Recorded in Nashville, Broken In plays like a cowboy movie, and follows the pattern of Willmon’s Columbia collections. “You work a lot harder on pre-production, because you don’t have the time to spend in the studio,” Willmon says. “And it was tougher for me to find great songs. I didn’t get pitched a lot of outside songs from the big songwriters, because we were on an indie label.”

Broken In peaks with Rodney Clawson’s “That’s the Way I Remember It,” which stands as simultaneous critique and celebration of Willmon’s cowboy ethos. “My life slipped away like a California hillside,” he sings. A startling chord change strips away the nostalgia that permeates much of Broken In. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting.

Oklahoma native Bobby Pinson collaborates with Willmon and Jeremy Spillman on two Broken songs. “When you sit down with Bobby and have a beer or two, the guy is like Hemingway—everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like a song,” Willmon says. “We both come from the same school of thought as to what a great song is, which is the Bob McDill three-minute movie.”

“Tumbleweed Town” suggests a fusion of mainstream country and Americana. “Some of the things I write, and some of the production on the record, is a little bit Americana,” Willmon says. “I’ve been branded as too Texas for Nashville and too Nashville for Texas. I don’t know exactly what that means, but at some point you have to pledge allegiance to one or the other.”

Playing with the myth of the cowboy, Willmon makes music that can be cinematic, if sometimes slightly simplistic. He’s even portrayed that quintessential Western-movie figure—the sidekick—in the forthcoming film Palo Pinto Gold. “I’m a dumb farm kid in his ‘20s who is sidekickin’ around with this Texas Ranger,” he says.

If that seems like a stretch, the movie also features Kinky Friedman in the unlikely role of the Governor of Texas. As is usual for cowboys and urbanites alike, wishful thinking competes with harsh reality. It doesn’t matter to Willmon. As he says, “If my music doesn’t meet the expectations of my good-old-boy buddies at the ropin’ pen, I know it doesn’t matter if the people on these two streets of Nashville get it or not.”

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