Merle Haggard was the working man’s man in country music back in the day. Now, in 2021, the beloved genre might have found someone to fill his shoes: Larry Fleet.
The rising singer-songwriter released his brand-new album Stack of Records on Friday, Sept. 24. The 14-track collection cohesively encapsulates the heartbeat of country music. It is three chords and the truth, no doubt, but with an added layer of excellent storytelling and musicianship.
Listeners will hear some traditional country, contemporary country, bluegrass, rock and soul on Stack of Records. A masterful album of grit, real-life and honest stories, it also aptly fleshes out some of Fleet’s primary musical influences, which include Willie Nelson, Hank Jr., Ray Charles, Marshall Tucker, B.B. King, and Haggard.
The record’s lead single “Where I Find God” and the heart-rending “A Life Worth Living” meld Fleet’s honest songwriting with music’s ability to stop listeners on their tracks. “No, it ain’t hard to see / I ain’t the man I wanna be / But I try to love everyone God puts in front of me / And that’s a life worth livin’,” he ruminates on the latter’s stirring chorus.
Elsewhere on the album, Fleet doesn’t shy away from a darn good time on up-tempo honky-tonk scorcher such as “Quittin’ Ain’t Workin’” and “In Love With My Problems,” with the latter featuring some country swagger from Jon Pardi. “Never Love Another Woman” is another noteworthy track that showcases Fleet’s soulful vocals. It also serves as the White Bluff, TN native’s little hat-tip to his Charles and Otis Redding.
With the expansive record capturing the full spectrum of human emotions, Fleet says he hopes listeners will be able to find a song that speaks to them in their current state of life. “I hope that’s what they take from it: they can come to this record and pull whatever they need at that time. And that’s why I call it a Stack of Records, because it’s like you’re pulling a stack of records.”
Sounds Like Nashville spoke with Fleet for an exclusive Q&A about the remarkable new album (which might be one of the year’s best full-length releases), his musical influences, the life-changing power of “Where I Find God,” and how country superstar Jake Owen took the former concrete worker under his wing and changed his trajectory forever.
Introducing the next promising newcomer you have to “get to know”: Larry Fleet
SLN: What was life like growing up in White Bluff, Tennessee?
LF: White Bluff is about 30 minutes west outside of Nashville. You grow up with music because it is just down the road. For me, it was going to my great aunt and uncle’s house, Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue. Uncle Jim could play anything with strings on it. [For] me, growing up at an early age and watching him play dobro or guitar or whatever it was at five, six years old, it was pretty cool. That sparked my interest to want to play [music]. My cousin who was a year older than me could play the fiddle. People on that side of the family could play music and I wanted to play with them. That’s what sparked my interest and got me into music. Some kids like to play sports—and I did too—but for me, there was something cool about playing the guitar and making music out of it.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
I always tell people—I don’t think you realize who you’re influenced by [as you’re] growing up. You hear so many things and it guides you in a direction. I grew up listening to what my parents listened to, which is anything from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and my dad loved Conway Twitty so I listened to a lot of that with him. But then they would listen to Marshall Tucker and Hank Jr., and Ozzy Osborne and Pink Floyd. I was introduced to so many styles of music. You pick up on what you think is cool and what sounds good to you. As I got older, I started playing bluegrass and gospel music. The first song I learned how to play was “Wildwood Flower,” which was just an old bluegrass tune. I [also] loved listening to Ray Charles, Otis Redding and B.B. King, and learned that soulful, bluesy side from them. But I loved country lyrics. Willie Nelson to me is one of my favorite songwriters and biggest inspirations. Merle Haggard too. He was for the working man, and that’s who I am. What I’ve done for years is work on construction, so I relate to that. When I write music, I write like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. But then I take the influences of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and my old country roots too. I’ve also got bluegrass songs I’ve written. I don’t like to be pigeonholed into one thing. That’s why I have so many influences. I didn’t want it to be just one person. There were so many other people.
I know you had a pretty interesting story about initially pursuing music in Nashville, throwing in the towel, moving back, and the whole journey being reignited again. Would you talk about that?
I think you kind of hit it. I did throw in the towel. There are no two ways around that. Starting out at a very young age playing music, you realize you could make money doing it. Well, I didn’t realize it, I thought people did it for fun. I grew up playing this music and when I got old enough, I thought, “Hey, I could make some money doing this. This is cool,” because that was a time I needed to make some money. And then I thought, “Man, this is the dream job! You get to play music and make money!” I really focused hard on that and I wanted to be the best songwriter and the best singer. If I was going for it, I wanted to be the best that I could be at it. But for years and years, I never got to the next level. I thought, “OK, I’m done, I’m out of here.” I went back to work for probably six to seven years. I didn’t quit playing music, I went back to playing music because I loved it.
That was when your paths crossed with Jake Owen, who changed the trajectory of your career, right? How did all of that happen?
Me and my couple of buddies fired up a local band over here in Chattanooga and played some music for fun. That’s when it started working for me because I was just having fun. Then one night, I go out to play a private wedding party and Jake Owen just happens to show up. It was just me playing my guitar, singing songs that I wrote and singing Merle Haggard songs. Jake Owen walks in and just watches me play for probably an hour, and then my time was done, I was rolling up my cables and he came over and started talking to me. I think he asked me, “So, who are you with?” He thought I had a record deal or publishing deal. He thought I was in the business. But I was like, “Man, I’m working in concrete right now. This is something I do for fun to make a little extra money.” Long story short, he said, “You need to quit your job and really go after this thing.” I told him, “I tried for many years and now I’m married and I’ve got responsibilities. I can’t just quit my job, go over [to Nashville] and play on Lower Broadway at Tootsie’s. I played Tootsie’s before and loved it, but I can’t do that now. I’ve got to make money to provide.” He said, “I get it, but I think you ought to quit.” And I said, “Well, I tell you what, Jake. Take me on the road with you and we’ll see what happens.”
So, what exactly happened?
A week or two later, he took me on the road with him and it was awesome. He’d bring me out every night with him and I’d play songs for Jake. Just me and my guitar. The next week, he brought me out again and finally said, “You going to quit that job?” After a long discussion with my wife, she told me to go for it. She still works and is working a great job. She kept the lights on for this whole year or two years to really try to get [my career] going and chase that dream again. I still talk to Jake on a weekly basis. We’re still great friends. He still helps me out. He really kick-started my career and got it going. He brought me out of retirement, as I’d like to say! [laughs] Every week we’re doing something. We hang out, we talk, and he asks me how things are going especially with being on the radio. He’s been a mentor from day one and a great friend.
Did Jake help you clinch your record deal with Big Loud?
Well, sort of, in a way. I quit my job, and Jake helped me out and got me back into the scene. I had been out for a few years and didn’t know the songwriters and who was doing what. He said, “I got some good friends that are good songwriters and I want to get you with them.” He started helping me set up [songwriting sessions]. I’d show up, we’d write, and I started getting back into the writing scene. Honestly, all I wanted to do was to write songs. I didn’t necessarily care about being on stage as the star. I just wanted to write songs. But then I started singing demos for people. They would pay me some money and I would come to sing their songs in hopes that they would get some big artist to record them. So, I’m doing this and a guy called me up and said he needed me to sing a demo for him. I did it, made my money doing it, and didn’t think anything about it. Well, a week or two later, the song starts getting tossed around Nashville and everybody’s like, “Who’s singing this demo?” They thought it was one of the songwriters. Nobody could figure out who was singing it. Well, Jake happens to go to Big Loud, his record label, and they asked him if he had heard this song and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s my buddy Larry.” They said, “Do you think you could get him in for a meeting?” And he said yes. He called me up and told me they wanted to meet with me. I went in and there was a record deal [being offered]. […] Jake really had his hand in it and has been helping me out. The stars aligned, and that’s the way it was supposed to be, I think.
I know you’ve probably heard many amazing stories—or testimonies as you like to call them—from fans about “Where I Find God.” But is there one that really hit you?
Yeah, there’s been a few, but I can give you [one] that really stood out. [This] guy was in jail and pretty much had been down the wrong path for a while. From what I understood, he was in jail and they were playing music through the radio or something. He had been dealing with addiction and different kinds of problems that led him to jail. So, he’s in jail, hears “Where I Find God” and it made him think, “What am I doing?” When he went out, he contacted me and said, “This song really helped turn me around.” I talked to him and we shared stories back and forth. I tried to help him out and guide him in a direction that he didn’t have [anyone to guide him in]. The song got his attention and turned his life around. It wasn’t long after he had got out of jail that he really dove in to do the right thing, got a bible, and ended up getting baptized. It really was just one-eighty. From jail to getting baptized in the river. It was a really big deal. […] I always tell people, that’s why you write songs, and that’s why you should write songs. That was a big one. “Where I Find God” has got such a cool story. It’s a powerful song. People have used it for weddings, which is awesome. But it’s become a funeral song, too, that gives hope and inspiration in a hard time.
It’s like these stories and testimonies from people almost supersede any commercial or chart success the song could have, in a way?
Yeah! I had dinner with radio people the other night and I told them, “My goal for this song is just to get it heard.” Most of the listeners out there don’t know if a song is a No. 1 hit and they don’t care. They just know if they like the song. I said, “All I want you to do is to play the song. You ain’t got to put it on power rotation, it doesn’t have to be a No. 1. I just want it to get heard because when it gets heard, it’s doing its job. The song is bigger than me or the radio. It just needs to be heard, and that’s all I ask for.” It didn’t get played or added everywhere, it’s not going to be a No. 1 hit. But I don’t care. As long as it’s changing people’s lives, that’s the biggest compliment you can get. And as a songwriter, that should be your biggest job every time you sit down— to write something worth listening to. Not every song is going to be a “Where I Find God.” Some of them are fun and put you in a good mood, but you got to have some [hopeful] and inspirational songs too. My goal was not to win Song of the Year or get a No. 1 hit or make a bunch of money off it. Once it came out and I saw it doing what it’s doing, I just wanted people to hear it. Just as many people to hear it if they need to hear it— that was the goal for.
Let’s talk about your brand new album, Stack of Records. You co-wrote every single track on this album. How did you know which songs to include in this record? Because I’m sure you had a “stack of records” to choose from? [laughs]
That’s the hardest part for me because I write a lot of songs. We had to whittle down to 14 songs to put on the record. I wanted to put out 50. I want every song I write to be heard, that’s why I write them. When we got to our meetings about what we’re going to record, everybody [had] their opinion, but I will say that the record label’s opinion and my opinion were pretty close. These 14 songs were strong. There were 10 of them on there where I was like, “Man, this has got to be on there!” There’s a few, like “Quittin’ Ain’t Workin’,” it’s just kind of fun. “Highway Feet” with Jamey Johnson, that’s a fun song about getting back on the road. They’re not life-changing, they’re fun. You got to have those, and I love them. They sound country and that’s what I want. We whittled it down to 14 songs, with one of them being “Where I Find God.” It was hard, but I think the best songs won for what it was. What made it harder was that while I was recording, I was still writing. I had three or four more songs I wanted to put on there that I couldn’t because we were already done. That’s good, because I got more material to put out. But I’m super proud of these 14 songs and I think they’re strong, and hopefully, everyone thinks the same. There’s a song there for everybody, and everybody can have their own favorite song. I’m just glad to be able to put out a big body of work like that.
“A Life Worth Living” is one you co-wrote with two prolific songwriters, Brett James and Will Bundy. It might be my favorite song off the record. Would you talk about writing that?
That one is probably one of my top three favorites songs on the record too, just because of the substance of it. I’m a big title guy and [come into writing sessions with titles]. Me and Will Bundy, we write a lot of songs together. And Brett James, I’ve written quite a few with him. Both great writers. I got the idea from a buddy of mine, his name is Cowboy Cerrone and he’s a UFC fighter. He’s a UFC guy, and had a YouTube series with a sign in the background that said, “Work a job worth working, and live a life worth living.” I was like, “Whoa, a life worth living,” so I wrote that down. I walked in and we tried to write that song. We were trying to make it rocking and fun but I said, “Man, ‘a life worth living,’ we need to have some meat on the bones.” We [ended up] completely changing the song from a barn burner to what it is now. I think that should be our goal. We get one life, we get a very short time to live it. You don’t know when your last day is, so make the most of the one life you get. That’s the song. It’s taken on more meaning even since I wrote it. My granny died a month ago and at the funeral, her preacher said, “She had a life worth living, she lived a life worth living.” I bet he said that ten times. It took on a new meaning for me, even then. I think this song’s going to be like another “Where I Find God.” It’s going to keep growing. I love that song.
“Never Wanna Meet Another Woman” reminds me of one of Drake White’s hits, “Makin’ Me Look Good Again.” It’s got that undeniable country-soul vibe which, really, all your songs have. Would you talk about what inspired this one?
Well, yeah! That’s what a lot of people dub me as. They’re like, “What are you?” And I’ll say, “I think it’s country soul.” This is all the soul influences that I got, which is all the Otis Redding and Ray Charles. It sounded like an old Etta James [track], too. I cannot tell you how many songs I’ve written that have that same type of vibe, but you can only do them so often [before] it gets a little muddied up. I wrote that song a few years ago, and I’m glad we got to put it on this record. It’s such a cool song. I think it’s going to be a wedding kind of song.
You also collaborated with Jon Pardi on the rocking, fun song, “In Love With My Problems.” How did this come about?
I wrote that with Jake Mitchell and Josh Thompson. We were all sitting around, trying to figure out what we’re going to write about. Jake said, “Man, if I could just fall in love with my problems, maybe they’ll leave me too.” We just went with it based on him messing up. He was just drinking too much and doing things to the obsessiveness, and he was like, “OK, I messed this up. But if I could just fall in love with all the things that are getting me into trouble, they’d leave me. Every time I fall in love with a girl, she leaves me.” That’s where the idea came from. I thought it was genius. We wrote it pretty quick and when we cut the little demo and got it bad, I loved it. I sent it to Jon Pardi and he loved it. So, Joey [Moi] and I went in to record the song and I sent the finished track to Jon Pardi. After we were done, I sent the finished track to Jon Pardi and he said, “This thing is awesome. It’s rocking!” I asked, “Do you want to be on it?” and he said yes. […] I’m glad it worked out. I love the song. It’s a great one to play live.
I know you were recently featured on an episode of “Jesus Calling.” So I wanted to ask, for those going through a rough patch in their faith or life, what is one advice you’d offer them?
That “Jesus Calling” podcast was a really cool thing to do. I didn’t know they even knew who I was. I’ve seen Matthew McConaughey and other big names on there and I thought, “You want me to be on there? OK!” Well, it’s kind of like a “Where I Find God.”. The biggest hope for is that [as Christians, we] believe that Jesus came down here, lived a sin-free life for 30-something years and died on the cross for our sins. All you got to do is pretty simple. You come and put your faith in Jesus and you’re good to go. That’s about as much hope you can possibly get. That’s pretty much the gospel. Jesus came and led a sin-free life, went to the cross, died, was raised and resurrected in three 3 days. Nobody can do that. No man can do that. That’s where I’m at. Not everybody thinks like that, but that’s as much hope as you can get, because you ain’t gettin’ out of here alive. The one way you can is to put your faith in Jesus.
Lastly, what do you hope people take away from listening to your new album, Stack of Records?
I think there’s a song for everybody, I think there’s multiple songs for whatever you’re going through in your life. For me, I wrote these songs because I was going through that in my life. I hope that whatever they’re going through at that time, they’re able to find a song that helps them out. Or, if they need a feel-good song, here’s one for you. I hope that’s what they take from it: they can come to this record and pull whatever they need at that time. That’s why I call it a Stack of Records, because it’s like you’re pulling a stack of records. Every song is its own record. What do you need in your life right now? Is it a happy, fun little break-up song which is “In Love With My Problems.” Is it that? Or is it “A Life Worth Living” or “Where I Find God”? What do you need right now? You can come and pull that from the record shelf, and you got it. I hope that’s what it is. I hope that whatever you need, you can find it right here in this pretty little package of 14 songs.
Stack of Records is out now. Stream it below or buy a physical CD, including signed copies, here.