That Troy Olsen's songs invoke images of deserts, tumbleweeds and small towns is not by chance. Growing up in rural Arizona, Troy has lived the life of the American cowboy. The work ethic ingrained in him as a child, along with the influence of his musical idols—Dwight Yoakam, Glen Campbell, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen—have molded him into a truly unique and driven artist.
Raised in tiny Duncan, Ariz., not far from the New Mexico line, Troy split his time between his parents' ranch and his grandparents', where he worked with his cousins. His grandparents didn't have electricity, but during the day a portable radio pulled in the signal from a local AM station. “The playlist was probably 10 years behind,” Troy says of the ‘70s and ‘80s country he heard. “I love that era.”
He had become so passionate and obsessed with seeing and listening to more of this music, he would drive a pickup truck to the top of a nearby mesa in order to get reception so he could watch The Nashville Network on a portable television plugged into the truck's cigarette lighter. It was there that he was exposed to the videos of Yoakam, Foster & Lloyd, the O'Kanes and other late ‘80s stars. “I had to have a guitar,” Troy admits with a smile.
He got one and taught himself to play. Emulating his heroes Yoakam and Earle, songwriting soon followed. “Almost from the beginning I realized that I should write songs because that's what they did,” he says. “It felt natural.”
Troy soon discovered, by accident, that he could make a microphone out of his Walkman when he inadvertently plugged his headphones in to the input instead of the output. He quickly adapted his cassette deck into a multi-track recorder and his recording career was born. “I was always recording, but I wasn't really doing anything with it,” he says. “It was just something fun to do. Nobody told me to do it. I just loved doing it.
In high school he met two brothers who played in their dad's band. Troy began jamming with them and his music moved beyond his bedroom. “I was hooked,” he says.
After high school he began playing gigs on Friday and Saturday night. “I made 50 bucks a night, $100 a week and I actually lived on that,” he says.
While he took some college classes at the behest of his mother, it didn't last. “My heart wasn't in it,” he admits. “All I wanted to do was play music.”
Buoyed by an innate ability to entertain and a strong work ethic, Troy's reputation grew. Roadhouse playing led to bigger and better gigs. At one point he was leading two performing lives: one the successful performer who covered other people's songs to the delight of club owners and patrons across the Southwest and the other a singer/songwriter who recorded his own music. “I was living a dual life,” Troy admits.
Although very successful, in 2002 Troy decided to leave his life on the road and move to Nashville. He had a career that many could only hope for, but he wanted more. “My idea of success was to be on the radio. I'd opened for every major country artist there was, I'd played for all sized crowds, from 20-20,000 people. I had done everything you could possibly do with that type of existence.
“I knew in the back of my mind that if I never came here and tried it, I would have hated myself later in life for never taking the leap,” he says.
Troy dedicated himself to perfecting his craft as a songwriter and singer. He purchased a studio rig and spent 12 hours a day learning how to master both the board and the booth. He dove headlong into figuring out how to reach his goal: to be on the radio.
Like a cook in his kitchen, Troy would emerge from his studio to share what he had created and then return to tweak it some more. “I could cook it up and make sure it tasted great before I served it,” says Troy. “It's all I thought about. I didn't want my demos to sound like demos; I wanted them to sound like masters.”
Along the way, he co-wrote a hit song for Blake Shelton, the top 10 “I'll Just Hold On,” and a cut that Tim McGraw recorded for his Southern Voice album, “Ghost Town Train.”
He wrote the latter song, a plaintive cry for a lost lover, with hit songwriter Marv Green (George Strait's “It Just Comes Natural”). The song represented a breakthrough for Troy. “It was the first time I had the DNA of what I thought my sound was in my head,” Troy admits. “If I never write anything else, I've got one song that really represents me and my music.”
In the fall of 2009, he took six of his self-penned songs and performed them at a Nashville showcase packed with the industry's elite. His unique western sound, lived-in voice, and authentic delivery were unanimously well received.
The following day Troy signed with the legendary EMI, home to Capitol Records artists as varied and successful as Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks, and Keith Urban.
His hard work has finally paid off and Troy sees his goal of being heard on the radio within reach. No doubt, he's got the songs. First single “Summer Thing,” which he penned with Ben Hayslip and Jimmy Yeary, is an enchanting ode to warm weather and women.
“Tryin' To Find The Sun” is another radio-friendly tune. “It's about a girl leaving town. The beauty of it is that it doesn't say why she's going, just that she's going.”
“Tumbleweed,” which he co-wrote with brothers Jim and Brett Beavers and which conjures images of cowboys and barbed wire fences, is a perfect example of where Troy's music comes from: that place on the horizon where the sun goes down. “From the birth of the song to the mastering, I make every decision with my heart and my heart is in the West,” Troy says.
Not that a fan in, say Atlanta or Des Moines, Iowa, couldn't relate. “Everybody has sunsets,” Troy explains. “If you stare west, that's where my music comes from.”
In the world of Music Row recording, it's rare for a new artist to have a hand in producing their major label debut, let alone self-producing it, but Troy did just that, using the skills he began honing many years before on a modified cassette deck that he turned into a multi-track recorder.
Troy's usage of modern techniques applied to traditional country songs creates a unique sound that's undeniably country, but fresh. His songs resonate with the richness of the American Southwest while still representative of 21st century culture. “My journey has been a long one,” Troy admits, “but it's taken every minute of it for me to get it together.”
In attempting to emulate heroes Yoakam, Earle, Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, among others, Troy finally discovered his niche. “My inability to sound like my heroes is what makes me sound different from everybody else,” he says.
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