"When I walked into the studio to cut that first record, I hadn't sung in front of people since fifth grade," he says. "It was never a thing of mine to play live. I only played in my house. For me, it was always about writing songs and making a record. The live part didn't interest me as much at that point. In fact, the record release party was the first time I ever played in front of a crowd."
"Jam The Breeze" received a warm critical response and sold about 2,500 copies - not bad for a self-released CD. A song from the disc was also included in a BBC independent artist sampler.
Shortly after the album's release, Richards returned to Wisconsin to focus on the business side of promoting his debut. He continued to write songs, but avoided playing live shows. Finally, he decided that if he wanted to make a living in country music, Nashville was the city to call home.
So, another long jump from Wisconsin to Nashville landed Richards smack into the music city's post-9/11 recession and into the former crack house.
"All of my money had been shot putting the first record out, and then I began a long career of starving to death in Nashville while trying to get work," he says.
Soon enough, Richards became friends with a pair of his musical heroes, Allison Moorer and her husband/collaborator Butch Primm. They helped Richards become acclimated to Nashville life and, more importantly, allowed him to live in their house while Moorer toured the nation - releasing Richards from the stress of living in a ghetto hellhole.
Despite the squalid conditions, Richards felt that living in Nashville was critical in order to tap the city's historic vibe.
"Bob Dylan once said that whatever your trade is, you have to start at the bottom - if you can find the bottom," he explains. "When I moved to Nashville, it was about finding the bottom. I fell in love with this great Nashville DJ named Eddie Stubbs who has a nighttime program that plays Johnny Paycheck, Hank Snow and Ray Price. If you want to learn about great country music, that's definitely the place to start. While country isn't just about Nashville, it was the place for me to get to the bottom. And I don't think you can pull things forward unless you get to the bottom."
Moorer introduced Richards to her former producer R.S. Field, who had also worked with John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver in the past.
Richards and Field assembled a team of accomplished musicians for the "Tumblers & Grit" recording sessions including pedal steel legend Lloyd Green who has played on 117 number 1 hits.
The songs on "Tumblers & Grit" are consistent with Richard's childhood fascination with story songs. Many of the tracks seem deeply personal, but Richards insists that he is not the "I" in the tales. "There are kernels of my own personal experiences in the songs, but I twist them and turn them in order to make interesting stories," he explains.
For instance, the main character in "Hard Livin'" is based upon real people Richards knew in Sheboygan, who toiled their lives away working at a local plumbing manufacturing plant.
And after reading the novel, "Cold Mountain," Richards became inspired to write the Civil War number, "One Foot."
The albums' best moments are the final two tracks, "Honkeytonk Graveyard" and "Ballad of the Analog Kid," in which Richards explores the role of "real" country music in today's modern world.
Regarding "Honkytonk Graveyard," Richards explains, "I wanted to write a song about the notion that roots music is dying, and country music has become something it shouldn't be. It's evolved into something that's not really country music anymore. The song's main character is the last of a breed trying to carry on a tradition that he loves."
Although Richards is living in the belly of the music industry beast, he has no interest in becoming a part of country's modern establishment.
"I really think that within the country world, they've run out of ideas. They're just banging their heads against the wall. The whole record business is disintegrating, which is why we decided to release this record independently."
As further evidence of the decline of country civilization, Richards points to the example of the new single, "(I Wanna Hear) A Cheatin' Song" from Anita Cochran and Conway Twitty. The song was recorded by digitally sampling selected words from Twitty's body of work and weaving them into Cochran's song to create the illusion of an actual duet, even though it's not a song Twitty ever sang. Richards has nothing but contempt for this approach to music.
"At what meeting was it decided that this was a good idea?" he asks. "It's a completely Frankenstein duet with Conway Twitty. These are the types of decisions they're making up on Music Row. To me, that's a sign that they're completely out of ideas."
With a July release date, Richards plans to mount a back-to-basics tour of the Midwest in support of "Tumblers & Grit." Consistent with his core beliefs and lifestyle, the tour is sure to be a no-frills affair. "Six guys sitting around playing country music - it's not all that difficult," he says. "It's certainly not brain surgery."