For an artist who stepped away from music for more than two decades, when John Schneider decided to return to recording, he certainly made up for lost time. Not only has the actor/singer/songwriter and Dancing With the Stars contestant released a new song every week in 2018, he’s ending the year with a bang by self-releasing two new albums Friday (Dec. 14): Merry Christmas Baby and an acoustic collection, John Schneider’s Greatest Hits: Still.
“We brought [engineer] Bob Bullock out of retirement and he’s now done 72 songs with us this year,” Schneider tells Billboard, sitting in his Music Row condo.
So just what prompted this burst of musical creativity? “I didn’t fall out of love [with music], but I didn’t know anybody cared, honestly,” Schneider admits. Nashville drummer Paul Leim encouraged his return. “When we reconnected with Paul, he said, ‘Music misses you,’ and that meant a lot to me. I knew there was a hole in me where music used to be. I didn’t realize there a hole in music where I used to be.”
Schneider first rocketed to fame as Bo Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard, which aired from 1979 to 1985. In the early ‘80s, he embarked on a country music career. When his first single was released on the Scotti Brothers label, they didn’t put his name on it because they were concerned radio programmers would be biased against the actor. That cover of Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” climbed into the top 10 on the then-titled Billboard Country Singles chart, and he followed with the No. 1 hits “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know,” “Country Girls,” “What’s a Memory Like You (Doing In a Love Like This)” and “You’re the Last Thing I Needed Tonight.”
Though he had a successful run on MCA Nashville, Schneider grew disillusioned with the industry. “I was done [with the music business] because I had a bad taste in my mouth, very bitter. Alicia talked me into coming back.”
Alicia Allain is Schneider’s girlfriend and manager. They live and work in the Louisiana town of Holden, where John Schneider Studios develops and shoots films and doubles as an Airbnb. “We’ve jumped in with the music and the movies, and the Airbnb helps keep the lights on in the studio,” says Schneider.
Over the years, the New York-born entertainer has continued to act, with prominent roles in the TV series Smallville and currently in Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots. He returned to making country music with 2017’s Ruffled Skirts. The title references the crumpled metal skirting beneath trailers caused by flood damage. The album was recorded in the wake of the devastating Louisiana floods that severely damaged Schneider’s historic home twice in six months.
Earlier in 2018, Schneider issued The Odyssey, and in addition to the songs on the new album, released a song a week and has filmed 22 videos. When he accepted a spot on Dancing With the Stars, he saw it as an opportunity to promote his new music. At 58, he was the eldest participant, but made it to week seven of the competition before being eliminated.
“I wanted to do it so when people thought of me, they’d think about music,” Schneider says, “because they asked before and my first thought was, ‘No,’ but Alicia said, ‘We just did 52 songs. We have music out. We’re putting out a song every week. It would be in our best interest for people to start thinking about you musically.’”
Allain says the exposure was priceless. “It put John in front of millions of people again,” she notes. “As an indie artist, we can’t buy that.”
Though he was asked to do the Dancing With the Stars tour, he opted to continue making music.
After performing on the Nov. 21 finale of Dancing With the Stars, he took a redeye back to Nashville and went into the studio the next morning after a few hours’ sleep and finished the Christmas album. “We did 10 songs in five hours,” he says of recording his vocals for the finished tracks. “It’s really uniquely, delightfully old-school.”
Schneider recorded a new version of “Katey’s Christmas Card,” previously on his 1991 White Christmas album (he and his fellow Dukes of Hazzard co-star Tom Wopat released a Christmas duets album in 2014). He also serves up the tongue-in-cheek number “Who Da’ Baby Daddy?” that questions Jesus’ paternity, but ends by pointing to the scriptural answer. The album also includes such classics as “Holly Jolly Christmas” and the New Orleans standard “Is Zat You Santa Claus?” Schneider is eying a physical release next year following this year’s digital release.
Schneider and Allain produced both the Christmas collection and acoustic hits package with Bullock and Larry Hall. “There’s something to be said for the fact that we didn’t have enough time to really think about it,” he says of rushing to get the albums out this year. “If you had to feed 500 people right now, you just make a great stew. I think we made a great Christmas stew and a great unplugged greatest-hits stew.”
In addition to writing and recording in 2019, Schneider plans to tour. Among those dates will be performances at prisons. The irony is not lost on Schneider, who spent five hours in the LA County jail last June due to an alimony battle with his ex-wife. (The court skirmish has yet to be settled.)
Schneider sees his new efforts as continuing the legacy of his good friend Johnny Cash, whose photo hangs on the wall above Schneider’s shoulders as he speaks. On Dec. 3, “We played Angola State Penitentiary,” he says of the Louisiana penal institution. “We’re doing a prison in Chattanooga on the 20th. … There’s an element of ‘What would Johnny Cash do?’ We went up and just entertained. All the prisoners were asking why we were doing this, and we told them that we valued them and it was cool. We’re planning to do more.”