Whether you choose to use the word as a noun or a verb, Justin McBride is best described as a quintessential American cowboy. In fact, the 30 year old is a fifth generation cowboy who represents the iconic imagery both personally and professionally.
In the traditional sense, just like his dad and grandpa, as well as another two generations of McBride’s before them, he lives on a working ranch in southwest Oklahoma with his wife and two children. Professionally speaking, McBride is a modern-day hero having won two World Championships as one of the most recognizable bull riders, and when he retired from the PBR after 11 years, he had laid claim to nearly every record in the organization’s history.
Of late, McBride has chronicled the only way of life he’s ever known as a singer, songwriter of tried-and-true cowboy music. Long before he climbed on the back of a bull he grew up in Nebraska listening to Hank Sr., and before he was even a teenager he discovered the music of Chris LeDoux. Just as he once followed the lead of heroes like Jim Sharp and Clint Branger, he’s now following in the footsteps of his earliest musical influences.
“I think what I really like about it was a lot of that stuff I grew up listening to you could see yourself in that predicament,” McBride said. “It was really simple, direct, straightforward music and I still love that kind of stuff.”
Growing up being a cowboy wasn’t always fashionable and likewise McBride’s choice of music was never dictated by what was at the top of the charts.
“A lot of the places I lived you didn’t listen to the radio, ever, because you didn’t get it,” he explained. “You listened to whatever cassette tapes your parents had laying around or whatever anybody gave you.”
Truth be told, his introduction to music were the country western cassette tapes his dad played while the McBride’s drove from one youth rodeo to another in an old family pickup truck, but it was a mix tape given to him by an old horse trader that, all these years later, would shape the foundation of his own storytelling.
“Those were songs that you’ll never ever hear again,” recalled McBride, of the tape he’s long since lost, “so when I started learning how to play it was really that type of music that I started trying to play.”
To know those songs – Bluebell Bull and Permanent Address among them – is to have heard the style of material that is featured on McBride’s live album, which follows up his debut release Don’t Let Go. McBride joins a list of heralded crooners from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to Deryl Dodd and Jason Boland in recording a live honky tonk album at Billy Bob’s in Forth Worth, Texas.
McBride recorded the album July 2 with songsmith Clint Ingersoll (LeDoux) producing in conjunction with Bob Wright. The album and its accompanying DVD feature Don’t Let Go and Beer Drinkin’ Songs from his first album as well as A Cowboy on the Radio and a cover of the LeDoux classic Cadillac Cowboy.
“I had some of his tapes when I was pretty small and a lot of them weren’t the most trendy kind of country music,” said McBride, “but if you were a kid wanting to be a cowboy, bull rider or a rodeo star one day, boy, they were right down your alley.”
While music played an important part in McBride’s life it wasn’t until his rookie year in the PBR that he first picked up an acoustic guitar. At the time he had no aspirations to perform live, but eventually he was sitting around with fellow bull riders, the likes of which included Ty Murray, J.W. Hart and Ross Coleman, picking tunes and drinking beer as a means of distancing himself from the intensity of his first chosen profession.
“I just felt like hanging out with your buddies every cowboy ought to be able to sit around a campfire and at least halfway beat through something,” McBride said. “It was fun then because they weren’t real picky. They just wanted a reason to be able to sing along.”
By the time McBride met Tracy Byrd (Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo), he had won his first world title and the country singer invited him to sit in and jam with him one evening, which led to his meeting songwriter Wynn Varble (Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley). The two became fast-friends and just as quickly began writing together. After some resistance, he was eventually coaxed into cutting a couple tracks, which turned into an album’s worth of material and in the year preceding his second world title he released Don’t Let Go.
After winning his second gold in November of 2007 he contemplated retirement, but in need of surgery he decided to wait until sitting out eight months before making any decisions. During that time, he put together a band and took to the road playing for crowds that had already cheered the cowboy on for more than a decade.
“Then I came back and, hell, I hadn’t missed it any,” said McBride, of his return to bull riding which was closely followed by the announcement that he would retire at the end of the 2008 season. Coincidentally, it was then that he began focusing on a career in music. “I would have rather been going to play a show than going to a bull riding.
“I was fortunate enough to have a career riding bulls. That’s a lot of your same audience and so I could go out and book places that other people might not be able to yet.”
Upon his retirement, McBride focused his attention on music the same as he once had on bull riding by going out and “getting after it.” Whether it was a honky tonk filled with the odor of stale beer and day old cigarettes or in conjunction with the lifelong familiarity of a PBR event, McBride went out and played one show after another. Within a year of focusing solely on his music career, he sang a pair of songs on the stage of the famed Grand Ole Opry, and six months later he performed in front of more than 46,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium during the intermission of the Iron Cowboy Invitational.
It was there that Billy Minick, owner of Billy Bob’s Texas, first saw him perform. Within two months of that show McBride had come to an agreement with Minick and Randy Smith (Smith Music Group) for the recording of Justin McBride Live at Billy Bob’s Texas—a live recording of true-to-life cowboy songs, by a real cowboy on a stage made famous by cowboys.
“It’s a tough transition because people know you as one thing and that’s what they want to see you do,” he surmised, “but I’m lucky enough that being a cowboy who rode bulls that I don’t have to change any of that. I get to stay the exact same as when I was riding and get to sing about that kind of a lifestyle.”