Sammy Kershaw feels that the tide may be starting to turn for traditional-minded artists such as him.
“It’s starting to pay off once again for a lot of us artists in the ’90s. I’ve been seeing that coming for about three artists. I worked at radio for a while in the early ’80s, and I figured out the trend. About three years, I sensed things beginning to change, and it’s starting to come true.”
The veteran performer — known for such radio staples as “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “Cadillac Style” — has just released a brand-new album, I Won’t Back Down. His first studio album since 2010’s Better Than I Used to Be, Kershaw says nobody is more excited about having new music out than him. He tells Billboard that the album just might be the most varied album of material he has released in his 25-year career, as it reflects many of his life experiences — particularly from the past few years.
“I guess I’ve gotten five years older and been through more stuff,” he related. “I’ve got a book coming out this fall, and the world will find out what’s been going on. I’m hoping some of these songs — as well as the book — help other people.”
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The first single from I Won’t Back Down is “Grillin’ and Chillin’,” a song Kershaw says has gone over well with his audience. “I think it’s perfect for summer and tailgating, and football is around the corner. It should be right about time for that song.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the disc contains a couple of sensual songs that would make Conway Twitty proud: “Lay Back Down“ and “Let’s Lay Here Forever.” Of the latter, Kershaw says he had a little bit of help from a fellow hitmaker.
“I wrote that with David Lee Murphy,” he said. “It only took us a few minutes. We were in Canada, and we had a show together. We were waiting for soundcheck, and I told him, ‘Let’s go write us one.’ So we found us an idea, but we were missing the chorus. It was time for him to soundcheck, and I wrote it while he was gone. It was a short song to write.”
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He also covers a pair of pop classics: “Take a Letter Maria” and the title cut, which is his take on Tom Petty’s 1989 hit. He said the idea to record the song was an impromptu one. “I hadn’t even discussed cutting that song. It was the day we were cutting tracks. I walked in that morning, and nobody was there but me and Lonnie Wilson. The engineer was in the next room getting everything set up. Lonnie was getting the charts set up, and I told him I didn’t know what we were going to do for the second cover. He said, ‘There’s so many good ones,’ and then ‘I Won’t Back Down’ came on the radio, and he said, ‘I’ve always liked that song.’ I said, ‘Me too. Let’s cut it today.’ That’s how it happened.”
Kershaw covering Tom Petty might seem a little far-fetched to some, but the singer pulls it off. He says that’s in part because he loves the song, but also it’s his personal mantra. “It fits me. I won’t back down. That’s why I named the album that. You’ve got to prove me wrong. I’ll leave you that door open to prove I’m wrong. If you can’t do it, I won’t back down from what I believe.”
I Won’t Back Down is the first studio album that Kershaw has produced by himself. He says he learned at the feet of the masters: Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon.
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“My wanting to produce started when I did a [yet-unreleased] blues album, which we cut a while back. That’s when it started to bite me a little bit. Buddy produced the next one we did, and I kind of went to school watching him. I thought I’d like to do a little more of this. So, I am.”