If you consider Jon Bon Jovi to be an uncle, you fell asleep every night to the sounds of live music being played in your living room or performed onstage with a parent when you were barely out of training pants, you may have all the makings of a second-generation star.
For a growing handful of young country music hopefuls, these were the experiences that shaped their childhoods. Among the next-gen acts currently working in the Nashville music scene are Thomas Rhett (son of Rhett Akins), Krystal Keith (daughter of Toby Keith), Randy Montana (son of Billy Montana) and Rose Falcon (daughter of Billy Falcon). Also making her recent debut is Heidi Feek (daughter of Rory Feek of duo Joey + Rory), although it doesn’t appear as though her newly released album, The Only, will be worked to country radio.
They join a more established group of second-gen acts that already included Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott (Linda Davis), Shooter Jennings (Waylon Jennings), Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, and two subsequent generations of the Hank Williams family. The new crop of hopefuls is the most promising group of offspring performers since Rosanne Cash, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis were churning out hits in the ’80s and ’90s.
The young singers say their upbringing provided an inside look at both the perks and the perils of the music business. Some watched parents land, then lose, record deals. All endured long absences while their celebrity parent was touring. And Rhett saw the specific toll the industry took on his parents’ marriage when they divorced before he was out of grade school.
At the same time, they say, having a musician parent prepared them well for their current careers by making them comfortable in studios and on stages, and teaching them by example how to express themselves in song. When both Montana and Rhett dropped out of college to pursue music, their parents were forgiving, even if Rhett says it broke his mother’s heart.
So far, Rhett has had the most success of the bunch. In addition to his own singles, he’s had numerous cuts by other artists. Jason Aldean has cut two of his songs, including the single “1994.” Rhett has also toured with Aldean, as well as Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert. His current single, “It Goes Like This,” is at No. 4 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart this week, and his debut album of the same name hits stores Oct. 29.
Rhett was four years old when his father landed a deal with Decca Records, and traveled on the road with him often as a child, He has vivid memories of riding the tour bus, singing with his father on stage and playing drums during his dad’s encores.
“Growing up like that was good,” says Rhett. “I got to experience a whole lot of stuff, and I got to learn quicker, too. I watched my dad be gone a lot. I watched my parents get divorced when I was nine. I learned a lot about the road, and a lot about the business side of it, and a lot about how it can affect your personal life. But my upbringing was fantastic, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Randy Montana moved to Nashville with his family as a toddler when his dad landed his first record label deal on Warner Bros. Billy charted six songs between 1987 and 1995, three as a member of the Warned-signed band Billy Montana and The Long Shots, and three as a solo artist on Magnatone Records. Like Rhett Akins, however, he later found much more success as a songwriter, penning such country hits as Jo Dee Messina’s Grammy-nominated “Bring On the Rain,” Garth Brooks’ “More Than A Memory,” Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket” and Lee Brice’s “Hard To Love.”
Randy is currently recording his second album for Universal Music Group Nashville and toured last fall with Staind frontman-turned-country-singer Aaron Lewis. Randy’s self-titled first album, released in 2011, spawned two mid-charting singles. A new song written by father and son, “What If I Was Willing,” debuted on the Oct. 9 episode of ABC’s “Nashville.”
As a performer, Billy Falcon is better known in pop and rock music circles, where he had his biggest hit with 1991’s “Power Windows.” He’s written many songs for Bon Jovi, and had cuts by Meat Loaf, Stevie Nicks and Cher. Daughter Rose also started as a pop performer, signing a deal with Columbia at age 14, and releasing her first album at 18. Both, however, gravitated toward country music, having moved to Nashville while Rose was still a child. Billy’s country cuts include one by Trace Adkins. Rose is signed to Nashville-based Show-Dog Universal Music, which has released two EPs of her songs so far. Together, they wrote the song “Give In To Me,” sung by Faith Hill in the film “Country Strong,” and Rose also had a cut (“Friday Night”) on Lady Antebellum’s Own The Night album.
Rose describes her upbringing in one succinct sentence: “I’m with the band.” As a child, she says, “Trying to sleep at night, I got really used to constantly hearing drums or a guitar.” Now, she says, “I crave it. It’s comforting to hear the strum of a guitar in another room.”
After she and her father moved to Nashville, Jon Bon Jovi would stay at their home whenever he came to town to write. And having known him since she was small, Rose considers him an uncle.
“The first time I ever sang in the studio was on one of my dad’s records,” she recalls. “He thought it’d be cute. I was five or six years old. I just kept doing take after take, and then Jon walked in and I could see him through the glass in the studio, and all of a sudden dad said I started singing a whole lot better. Maybe it shows that I always craved [an] audience.”
Krystal Keith, who grew up and still lives in Oklahoma, got her first national television exposure as a teenager when she performed “Mockingbird” with her father on a major awards show. Dad Toby insisted she finish college before pursuing a music career, but she spent time in Nashville learning about the business as a summer intern at Show Dog-Universal Music, a label partly owned by her father. Like Falcon, she is now signed to that label, which released her self-titled debut EP in April. Her first full-length, Whiskey & Lace, drops Dec. 10. After releasing a music video for the song “Daddy Dance With Me,” which generated more than 1.3 million views, Keith’s first official single, “Get Your Redneck On,” is being worked to country radio now.
For all of the young artists, their lives changed when their musician parent became successful. But for the Falcons, “Power Windows” changed their whole world. “We lived in Long Island with my grandparents” Rose recalls. “I slept in the hallway. My dad didn’t have a car. He would take me to school on his bicycle.” But when the song became a hit, she says, “I rode to school in a limousine. It was so crazy.” Then soon moved to Nashville, into a house with a swimming pool.
And while she says there “were still ups and downs” after that, Rose says that kind of experience “makes you believe you can do anything when you see the power of music, like how one song can change somebody’s whole life . . . That makes it easier to keep going as a struggling musician or to follow my dream, because I saw him do it faithfully.”
Before his father began having success in music, Randy Montana recalls, “We had a late ’70s Monte Carlo that you could see the road through in three out of the four spots on the floorboard. We just laid particleboard over top of it so none of us would fall through. I remember riding around in that for a while [while] my dad was writing songs during the day and delivering pizzas at night to make some extra cash. That was up until I was nine or 10 years old. Then he had his first hit with ‘Bring On The Rain,’ and he bought a new pickup, paid the house off and we were on our way, moving on up.”
Unlike Falcon and Montana, Rhett doesn’t have any rags to riches stories because, he says, “My dad has always been the most frugal human being. It’s kind of ridiculous. Dad’s written probably nine No. 1 songs in the past three years, so obviously he has some money, and he doesn’t buy anything, ever. I think he’s scared to spend money because he wonders if he’s ever going to write another hit again, while he has, like, four songs on the chart at the same time,” he says with a laugh.
As a singer, Rhett Akins had just two big hits, “That Ain’t My Truck” and the No. 1 “Don’t Get Me Started” in the mid-’90s. He later re-emerged in his current role as one of Nashville top songwriters and one-third of the hit songwriting trio the Peach Pickers. His recent hits include Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee,” “All About Tonight” and “Boys ’Round Here,” Justin Moore’s “Point At You,” Brice’s “Parking Lot Party,” and this week’s No. 1, Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl.”
For Rhett and Montana, seeing their fathers temporarily hit fallow periods in their careers gave the sons a bit of hesitation about getting into the business themselves, but they eventually overcome those feelings through their overwhelming passion for music.
“I got to see everything,” Rhett says. “I got to see the success, the sales, and the ‘what the crap am I going to do with the rest of my life’ part of the music business—then turning failure back into success and staying on top. I’ve seen how bad it can get and how awesome it can be. Being a songwriter and an artist, it’s high risk, high reward.
“Watching Dad go through that made me want to go to college and get a degree and do something not in music to have something more stable,” Rhett continues. “But at the end of the day, I couldn’t do anything else. I love music too much to not do it all the time.” Rhett signed a publishing deal when he was just a sophomore in college and, later, his recording deal with Big Machine imprint Valory Music.
The singers have all received sound advice from their dads that they’ve applied to their own careers. Montana says of dad Billy, “He always told me ‘Just do your best at whatever you do.’ I’m thankful for that. Now, getting into the songwriting thing, we can write together and . . . I know that he’s not looking over my shoulder judging me. That’s a really nice feeling.”
Rhett says, “It kind of bummed me out for a little bit going back and forth from big shows [as an opening act] to little shows [on my own]. But dad has always told me ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re playing for one person or a million people, you always need to make it better than the last show you played. The people that are there paid for that ticket, and they deserve for you to entertain them.’ I’ve really taken that to heart. Every night when I walk out on stage, I’m always thinking about how I can make tonight better than I’ve ever played.”
Rose Falcon says second-generation acts sometimes get accused of having advantages because of their family connections, but she disputes that notion. “The truth of it is, your parent can open a door for you, but once they do you have to stand in that room and show everybody who you are,” she says. “Some of the most famous people that have ever lived have children that have tried to make it in music and it still didn’t work.”