Country Radio Superstar Bobby Bones Talks 'Crazy' Audience Growth, Hit Comedy Career and Helping to Break Chris Stapleton

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Bobby Bones poses for a portrait in the 2016 CMT Music Awards portrait studio at Bridgestone Arena on June 8, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

As a 17-year-old rookie DJ in his native Arkansas, Bobby Bones remembers being terrified when he landed his first big interview with a musical hero, Darius Rucker — so terrified, in fact, that Rucker took the microphone from his trembling hands, led him through the interview questions, then hugged him for encouragement when it was all over. Fast-forward 19 years, and Bones no longer has any trouble interviewing stars. In fact, he makes a living at it as host of the nationally syndicated The Bobby Bones Show.

Between the weekday morning show and his weekly countdown, Country Top 30, Bones reaches nearly 5 million weekly listeners, according to syndicator iHeartMedia. The morning show claims nearly 100 affiliates. The weekend show is heard on 160 stations. But Bones’ morning show wasn’t an instant hit when it launched in 2013.

“For the first year-and-a-half it was not good,” he admits. “Everybody hated me … so it was not a pleasant experience. Now you’re starting to see [other radio] shows around the country being built like mine.”

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His memoir, Bare Bones: I’m Not Lonely If You’re Reading This Book, spent two weeks as a the New York Times best-seller, debuting at No. 1 on the nonfiction list in May. He expresses surprise at its success, considering he hasn’t “won the presidency or a gold medal or even married a Kardashian.”

Earlier this year, his guest-star-packed second album on Black River Entertainment, The Critics Give It 5 Stars, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Comedy Albums Chart and went top five on Top Country Albums. He’s also a popular touring act both as part of his band, The Raging Idiots, and as a stand-up comic.

The busy Bones — who says, "I don’t have a real life, I just work all the time" -- reveals that among his new projects in the works are a comedy special and a children’s book, Big Head Bobby, featuring a character based on his own childhood insecurity about the size of his noggin.

What would you say your biggest accomplishment has been in the last year? 

The main thing is always the radio show for me. So the fact that we continue to expand and we’re [at nearly] 5 million listeners a week to me is crazy. I don’t think really anyone, myself included, expected us to grow this quickly. So that’s the main focus of my life. It’s what I try to be the best at.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the Nashville music community right now? 

What I’ve tried to fight the most is trying to get more of a female influence on the radio. For the past three years I’ve taken a week of the year and focused on females. I’ve broken females [on the radio], everyone from Kelsea Ballerini to Cam. That’s been such a priority because I was raised by all women. When I came [into country] three-and-a-half years ago it was nothing but dudes on the radio.

What are some of the other artists, male or female, that you have had a big hand in breaking during the last couple of years? 

Chris Janson emailed me “Buy Me A Boat” and I put it on the air. It wasn’t even mastered. Obviously, it went to No. 1. It was crazy.

I’ll give you the best story. There was a guy I kept inviting up to the show because I’d heard him on YouTube [and] I had heard some of his other stuff when he was in a band. I was like ‘You have to come play our show.’ This is two-and-a-half years ago. He came in and played, and everybody was blown away at how good he was. About the fourth time I had him on I started to get messages from [affiliate] program directors going, ‘Why do you have this guy on the air so much? Nobody knows who he is.’ I was like, ‘He’s so good you just have to trust me on this.’ About two weeks later he did the CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake: It was Chris Stapleton. 

Are you finding that program directors are trusting you more as you build this track record of successes with the artists you champion? 

I find they don’t question me as much. I don’t get emails going ‘You’re an idiot’ … If somebody gets enough base hits in a row you’re going to say. ‘I should put them in the lineup.’ I have a pretty good record. I hope they trust me, but for me it’s really important to be an advocate of artists and not care if they have a record deal or not.

You wrote in your book about when you first came to town and people really didn’t get you. In what ways do you feel like you’re still either misunderstood or underestimated in Nashville? 

I don’t do things socially inside the industry, for a couple of reasons. [First, they are] usually after 6 p.m. and I go to bed at 8. That’s tough for me. Two, I feel like if I get too into the record world, then I start to feel like I have to be part of the record community. I have friends that are reps and run labels, but I don’t like to get into that world. I just like to pick what I like with my ears and play it for no other reason, not because of the label or the rep. So far I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that. I think not jumping in and going, ‘Hey, everyone, here I am. I want to be friends with everybody,’ made it look like I’m not a nice dude. That’s hurt me a bit.

Were you surprised at how well your album did?

It’s weird to be the lead singer of a band and not be a good singer. Having a No. 1 was crazy … Stand-up comedy is what I do. That’s where I’m strongest. I’m funny with a guitar, and I can sing just well enough to be funny.

Speaking of stand-up comedy, in addition to doing all the Raging Idiots tour dates in 2016, you also embarked on the Funny and Alone Tour. How is that going?

I’ve been doing stand-up since I was 19. There have been times I’ve had to step away because of my schedule, but now I’m able to go out and do theaters and not smoky little bars. It’s such an awesome environment for me to go and meet listeners … I’m kind of getting back into the groove and getting better again. We hope to shoot a comedy special in 2017.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.