Rockie Lynne

Perseverance pays off for veteran singer/songwriter who finally found an 'in.'

At age 40, Rockie Lynne's career is just getting started.

That's how it appears on the surface, but in fact the country singer has spent years preparing for the release of his self-titled debut on Universal South.

Last week, his album entered Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart at No. 4 and the Hot Country Albums chart at No. 29. The set's sophomore single, "Do We Still," is No. 60 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

But Lynne's story really began nearly 20 years ago, when, after a brief stint in the army, the North Carolina native started performing in Los Angeles. He eventually landed in Nashville, where he often played guitar for more established country artists.

"Other than the three years I spent in the army, every piece of food I've eaten, every article of clothing, every place I've lived, every gallon of gas, every diaper for my daughters, I bought everything with music," Lynne tells Billboard.com. "You know how they say feast or famine? I never saw either one. It was never really great, but I never thought, 'Oh we're not gonna eat.'"

Forging a path as a musician for hire is nothing to scoff at, but Lynne grew restless with the fact that he wasn't playing his own tunes and decided he needed a new plan of attack.

"For the last 12 years, it's been nothin' but [performing] my songs. No cover songs, just mine," he says.

Since making that decision, Lynne has crisscrossed the country playing hundreds of gigs each year. "One year I played 342 shows," he notes.

Eventually, though, he realized that if he was ever going to build a fan base he would have to settle down. He thought Coon Rapids, Minn., near Minneapolis, was as good a place as any.

"Everybody thought it was the stupidest thing a human being could do," he says. "But they were all trying to make it in the music business, and I was just trying to make a living. In Nashville, I could throw a rock out the window and hit 500 other people who play guitar and sing, and they're all good. Minnesota was a place where I could stand out a bit, so it was perfect."

He says local fans "wrapped their arms around me and started coming to every show," but he still found himself on the outskirts of success.

"I used to think you had to know somebody to get into the music business, and now that I have a record deal and I've seen it work from the inside, I know you gotta know somebody," he laughs. "That's why it took so long for me, because I didn't know anybody that knew anybody that kinda knew somebody.

"I almost had this childlike view that if you went out there and made enough noise and had enough of a followin' that someone [from a label] would come," he continues. "And I guess essentially that's what happened. I finally met someone who knew someone. What surprised me, though, was how quick everything happened when I actually got through the door."

Signing with Universal South couldn't have come at a better time for Lynne, who believes his life experience gives him an advantage over many of the other new country artists trying to make a name for themselves.

"I spent a long, long time trying to entertain people who didn't necessarily want to be entertained -- like playing a lot of bars and casinos and places like that where people weren't necessarily coming to hear music," he says. "Over the years my songs got better because I found what gets people's attention. The more brutally honest I was with my songs and where they came from, the better they worked.

"That's really the surprising part of the whole thing," he adds, "because the reason I left Nashville was I thought my songs were way too personal. Like on 'Do We Still,' which is about my divorce. I thought nobody's gonna get this, but I wrote it to heal myself. But every time I would [perform] that, someone would inevitably come up to me and say, 'That's my life too.'"

Through the years, though, there was one other thing that really kept him going and helped him get where he is today.

"In my guitar case," he says, "there's a little piece of paper that's been in there for 15 years. It says, 'Play every gig like it's Carnegie Hall, and one day it will be.' Every single night, I give it everything I got."