f the Country Music Association ever creates an award for the Best Album Written in a Crack House, put your money on Chris Richards' "Tumblers & Grit."
"By the time I got to Nashville, the economy was really suffering," Richards, 31, explains in a phone interview from his (drug free) Nashville home. "I moved into this horrible little house and began writing songs. Before I moved in, it had been vacant for about a year. The neighbors told me that the last tenants sold crack out of it. It was all I could afford, so I bunkered myself in there and knocked out whatever songs I could while I didn't have a job. Most of the record was written there."
The road from his original hometown of Sheboygan, Wisc. ("the bratwurst capital of the United States") to a Nashville crack house was a long and windy one.
"Sheboygan is a little manufacturing town with real blue collar, working class folks," Richards explains. "It's a very good place to raise a family, but not a whole heckuva lot going on there artistically. After college, it was definitely time to go to bigger pastures. The cool thing is that I love going back there now because it's a real interesting part of the country. It's got lots of German people, Polish people and Dutch people. There's still a lot of German-esque lingo up there."
Today, Richards is regarded as one of the brightest new country storytellers in the genre. He traces his love of musical tales to his Wisconsin youth. "The reason I became a songwriter is because, as a kid, I was really intrigued with story songs," Richards says. "My formative years were in the mid to late seventies, and there were these great story songs from that period - the stuff that doesn't necessarily hold up well today - like John Denver, Michael Martin Murphey and Glen Campbell. I still remember 'Rhinestone Cowboy' coming out when I was a young kid."
Richards thanks his grandmother for introducing him to the music that now provides his livelihood.
"There were a lot of taverns around Wisconsin," he recalls. "My grandma loved to hang out in taverns, so I would always go and play with the jukebox while she drank a beer or two. As a result, I was very captivated with the country music near the end of the '70s - Kenny Rogers-type stuff."
Like most kids of the era, his tastes gravitated toward rock and hip-hop after MTV began pumping the hits into his home.
Even then, the concept of the story song never lost its appeal to Richards. "We used to go see the rap shows when they came through Milwaukee," he says. "They were telling stories, and that's always intrigued me. To me, there's not a big difference between Doctor Dre and Guy Clark. A good story is a good story. The format doesn't matter."
Although he was fascinated by the combination of music and words, Richards had no local role models for music as a career in Sheboygan.
"I went to a pretty big high school with 1,600 kids, and I didn't know a single kid who played an instrument outside of the trumpet in the school band. There wasn't a whole lot of garage band stuff going on, so I was never exposed to playing music."
He studied English in college, yet his free time was dominated by athletics. Richards was all-American in the triple jump, an esoteric track and field event consisting of three consecutive long jumps.
This would later prove to be a metaphor for his professional life as he bounced between living in Sheboygan, Los Angeles and Nashville after graduation.
Richards moved to California after college to pursue a lucrative job as an advertising copywriter. "I moved out to L.A. when I was 22," he says. "I then discovered the music of Guy Clark and Steve Earle and all these people who were unknown in the upper Midwest."
Although he hadn't listened to country music since his young childhood, Richards made a concerted effort to study the genre's pre-1970s era.
Working backwards, he fell in love with the music of classic country. "I always liked the simplicity of country music," he says. "Within a couple years, I started dabbling in songwriting after I bought a guitar in Santa Monica. I took group lessons and figured out how to play enough to get through writing my first record. I wasn't a skilled enough musician to write a song like Queen or The Replacements would. The stuff I wrote came out as fairly simple country story songs. All of the sudden, I realized that I had six or seven of them sitting around."
In 2000, Richards took one of his songs, "Prairie Smoke," to country singer Rick Shea, a member of Dave Alvin's band. Shea liked the song and encouraged Richards to pursue music professionally.
The resulting record, "Jam the Breeze," was recorded on a shoestring budget in three days. Shea served as producer, and he also assembled the artists who would play the backing instruments.
While most struggling musicians begin their careers by playing open mics and crummy gigs for inattentive crowds, Richards eschewed this convention in favor of a more isolationist approach.