February 5, 2010
Goode's Armadillo Palace is proud to welcome Jon Wolfe!
The best introduction to Jon Wolfe is the basic yet not so simple fact that he’s a country singer and songwriter. Country music, as it was, is and always should be, with boots firmly standing on the bedrock of tradition and an eye focused on taking it into the future. And that, as any fan of true country knows, is no simple proposition.
At heart, it’s all about being a great singer and storyteller. Hence the other best introduction to Jon Wolfe is to hear him sing and share the stories in the songs he performs and writes. And to learn his life story — from small town Oklahoma to the bustling big city commodities trading floor to the dancehalls and honky-tonks of Texas and Oklahoma to a Music Row record deal, to give the highlights — and witness his faith in the power of music and determination to touch the hearts of others with something that means so much to him.
All that and more is etched into the music on Wolfe’s self-titled debut album for Midas Records, produced by Keith Follese and Brad Allen, and its first single, “She Won’t Be Lonely Long.” It’s world class country music from the American heartland, informed by the great singers that inspired Wolfe — like George Strait, Garth Brooks (a fellow Okie), Clint Black, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam, to name a few — yet fired by his own contemporary energy and vision.
It takes a unique conviction to give up a lucrative career as an oil commodities trader for British Petroleum, as Wolfe did, to pursue the dream of becoming a country singer. But music has been a vital force in Wolfe’s life from early on, and it’s already made him a rising star in the dancehalls and honky-tonks of Texas and Oklahoma, earning him nominations for Best Country Act in both Houston and Tulsa, and the opportunity to open shows for acts like Haggard, Yoakam and Asleep at the Wheel and even play for one of his heroes, George Strait.
Wolfe was born in Tulsa and grew up in Miami, Oklahoma, and came to know the tragedy that is part and parcel of country music’s thematic tradition at the age of six years old when his father died. He was raised in a Pentecostal Church household that “was a real good, traditional home,” as he recalls, and got his first exposure to music in church and at home from the records of such master singers as Frank Sinatra and Harry Connick, Jr. “I just fell in love with that stuff.”
By the time Wolfe reached his teens, his stepfather was playing bass in the house band at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake Opry, and country music hit Jon in a way that spoke to his soul. “What took hold with me was the lyrical thing and the vocal thing,” he says. “Because of my life experiences up to that point and since then, I found an emotional connection with country.
Singing country quickly became Wolfe’s goal in life. “It was the only thing I wanted to do, and I had absolutely no idea how to do it,” he explains. “As a kid growing up in a small Oklahoma town, country music is probably one of the only things that you think you might be able to do.” The rise of fellow Oklahoman Garth Brooks made it seem possible. And over the succeeding years Wolfe watched his friend and contemporary Joe Don Rooney, who played guitar with his stepfather at the Grand Lake Opry, also rise to the top of the country charts as a member of Rascal Flatts. “I began to think: maybe this is humanly possible.”
But first Wolfe took a stab at attending Bible college with the goal of becoming a youth pastor, and then worked as a counselor at a Christian summer camp in Texas, picking up the guitar and taking lessons from teacher John Defore. A move to Fort Collins, Colorado steeped him in country’s Western traditions and gave Wolfe an opportunity to pursue such outdoor passions as rock climbing, snowboarding and fly-fishing. He also started performing at a dude ranch in Loveland where he worked as a ranch hand.
Wolfe returned to college at Colorado State University and earned a finance degree, which landed him a job in Chicago as a hedge trader for British Petroleum. After his fast-paced days at the commodities exchange, Wolfe spent his evenings playing guitar, singing and learning and writing songs at home or out at the open mike nights at local clubs. “I was the only guy on the trading floor in cowboy boots,” he recalls. “I loved the excitement and the risk it involved.”
Wolfe transferred to a job with BP in Houston, knowing it was an ideal place to get serious about his dream of singing and playing country music. Not long after arriving there, he befriended a woman who worked for the city’s top concert promoter, and tagged along with her one night to a show by Alabama, where he ended up on a tour bus trading songs with Teddy Gentry and John Rich of Big & Rich. "I was just some random guy drinking beer on the bus. But I walked off that bus thinking, I can do this, no doubt. I have to do this,” Wolfe recalls. “Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and get after it, and put it all on the line.”
Within six months he left his job and was gigging in area nightclubs. After he met popular Houston singer-songwriter John Evans at a club one night, Evans offered to produce an album for him. The resulting CD, Almost Gone, made a splash on the Texas music scene and expanded Wolfe’s circuit across the Lone Star State and into Oklahoma. He also developed a support system of like-minded musical souls like top songwriter Kevin Brandt (who wrote the 1 song “Love of a Woman” for Travis Tritt), Nashville session player, songwriter and producer Bobby Terry, and Wolfe’s roommate for a couple of years, acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll (recently signed to Lost Highway Records), all of whom helped Wolfe hone his talents and encouraged him to pursue his dream.
Wolfe also found a manager when a waitress he asked out on a date decided to instead introduce the aspiring country singer to her boyfriend at the time, Trey Strait. After working in the Nashville music industry, Strait was back in Texas and looking for an artist to manage. And that led to playing George Strait’s 2005 New Year’s party as a last minute booking after the band that was supposed to play canceled. “Trey called and said that the band backed out. First thing I said was, ‘Who the hell would cancel on George Strait?’” Wolfe recalls.
“One of the cool things that night is that I asked George if he’d sing ‘Unwound’ with me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Jon, I quit working New Year’s a long time ago.’ I said, man, I hope you don’t find it strange, but I am going to sing ‘Unwound.’ He said, ‘Jon, you can sing anything you want to sing.’ It was amazing to meet someone I’ve looked up to for so long and get to play for him,” says Wolfe. “And it was also a reassuring experience that told me I was on the right path.”
That was confirmed when Wolfe played a Nashville showcase in May of 2006 for a packed house of Music City record executives and tastemakers. The showcase resulted in a deal with the new Nashville independent label Midas Records, and an album that will no doubt delight the countless fans of real country music. “We’ve really started zeroing in on my own recipe,” Wolfe says. “I’ve got little hints of my heroes, but this album is me. It definitely feels refreshed and updated, but it’s country, and that’s the deal.
“For years I prayed to be in country music, but I didn’t know how,” Wolfe recalls. Now that he’s done so, he intends to remain true to all that country music means to him. “I like songs that deal with core emotions. I like people to listen to my music and be able to relate it to what they’ve experienced in their lives.
“I feel connected with the tradition,” Wolfe concludes. “There’s something a little bigger than just my dreams going on in country music. That’s why I feel so strongly about doing what I do.” And to make it all even sweeter, “I’m doing what I love.”
--- Written by Rob Patterson
Photo by Jason Sales.