Delving into deeper musical realms shaped by who he is and where he comes from, Colby Acuff introduces his latest sonic endeavor, the spellbinding Western White Pines.
Setting his creative compass far from his native Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Acuff embarked on a transformative expedition to Nashville, where he crafted this 10-song set at the revered Sound Emporium.
Guided by esteemed producer Eddie Spear, known for his work with luminaries like Chris Stapleton, Acuff's recording sessions took on an air of sonic alchemy, "putting a new flavor on everything," he asserts. Through collaboration with an array of songwriters, including Lukas Nelson, Meg Mcree, Ben Chapman and accomplished members of Sierra Ferrell's band, among others, Acuff ventured beyond his artistic comfort zone to unlock new dimensions of musical expression.
The haunting melodies and introspective lyrics of Western White Pines reflect Acuff's profound connection to nature and the awe-inspiring landscapes that shaped his upbringing. Each track serves as a captivating testament to his artistic evolution, one he's earned from long stints on the road with friends like 49 Winchester, Luke Combs, Lainey Wilson and, coming up this July, Shane Smith and the Saints.
We dug into Acuff’s vision, how he identifies himself as a western mountain country artist, how writer's block can sometimes be overcome by simply writing a song to your cat and much more.
Growing up in Idaho, how did your surroundings and the spirit of that place influence your creative drive and the themes you continue exploring through your songs?
I grew up in the outdoors a lot—a ton of hunting and fishing. Before I did music full-time, I was a full-time fly fishing guide on the Coeur d'Alene River. I've spent a lot of time in the throws of what Idaho really is, the true nature and the isolation. That's the fuel for the fire in my mind.
How would you describe the sound of Western White Pines?
In country music, there's country and there’s western, you know? I think there's a big difference. The western, cowboy stuff has always been a big deal, obviously, and I feel there's not a lot of representation for western mountain music right now, or really ever. So that's what we went for. That's the sound. That's what we do. That's who I am. And what you hear is a lot of me - a ton of where I’m from, where I was raised, the kind of person I want to be and the kind of person I am. Specifically, it's western mountain country music.
Is it important for you to maintain a sense of individualism or non-conformity?
Yes. There are a lot of people who've told me, "I don't know if you're going to make it because you're not fitting a mold", or maybe, "You're going the hard way". Like my mom always said to me, "Colby, I don't know why you always pick the hardest way to do something”. But, in everything I've ever done, I don't want to learn how to do it in a way that doesn't make sense to me. It seems like the hard way to everybody else, but I'm sticking to what I do best and what I know.
The only way we were going to make it, which we found out early on, was if we sold authenticity. I can't try to be something that I'm not. Hell or high water, this is what we're going to be. If people love it, great, and if they don't, that's fine too, but this is what we're going to do.
Your musical influences match that sentiment, including traditional trailblazers and modern-day mavericks. How have the artists you admire shaped your approach to country music?
As far as melody writers and storywriters, the actual songwriting aspect of things, that's a different list of people. I listen a ton to the people you're talking about, like Waylon, Willie, Childers, Sturgill and even Eric Church. The list goes on with outlaws, mavericks or people who beat their own drums. That's when I ask, "How do you handle yourself? How do you run your business?" And all they did was stay true to themselves. Some of them can get a little jaded, and I don't think that's a good thing, but being authentic creates an extremely favorable fanbase.
If you're not a person that likes to go against the grain, then don't act like you are. For me, I'm just being myself. When I talk about these influences, I look at how they did it and the answer is so simple. It's not rocket science. When you talk about songwriting inspiration, those people are definitely on that list, but my favorite melody writer of all time is Elton John. My favorite songwriter is probably Jim Croce. The influences go on, but it's not all just mavericks of country music.
It's hard to stick to that. We all desire to remain authentic, but you also have people advising you, saying do it this way or that. It's sometimes hard to turn off the noise and listen to your gut.
It is, but if you spend some time with me, you won't be too concerned about it. I try not to be stubborn, but I'm uncomfortable with not doing something that feels authentic to me. And when I get uncomfortable, I push back a lot. It's a blessing and a curse.
On collaboration - for this record you worked with producer Eddie Spear. How did that teaming influence the creative process and overall direction of the songs, and was that an enjoyable process for you?
Yeah! Eddie is one of my closest friends. He's an absolute genius. He and I work extremely well together. I don't know if I want to chalk it up to fate, I needed a producer real bad at the time and we'd already signed on to do the record, and I didn't actually have a producer even though I’d told the label I did. Eddie came to me, and I told them, and they signed off on it. In seven days, we cut the record, which is such a different way to cut a record in Nashville. It's an old-school way of doing it. He's got such a great creative mind that we're putting a new flavor on everything.
You did some co-writes for the first time?
I did. ‘Western White Pines’ I wrote with Aaron Raitiere and Lukas Nelson, ‘Boy and a Bird Dog’ I wrote with Meg Mcree and Ben Chapman, and ‘Playing God Again’ I wrote with Dwight Baker.
Are there any highlights from those sessions you'd care to share?
I won't say I'm picky about who I write with, but I am a songwriter first. All three records that we've put out and the majority of this record I wrote by myself. Not because I'm against co-writes, it's just like, coming up in Idaho, that was the option. I grew to enjoy writing alone. It's a therapy, for sure. But I'll tell you this, all three songs that are co-writes are on side-A of this record. So they’re some of my favorite cuts.
What can you share about ‘Boy and a Bird Dog’?
I had a dog who passed away a few years ago. She was like my best friend. I felt an extreme amount of sorrow. I came up with the title ‘Boy and a Bird Dog’ but I couldn't write it. I was way too close to the title. It was impossible for me not to make it sad, and I wanted it to be happy. I didn't want to write another sad dog song, so I brought it to Ben and Meg and told them what I wanted. We started, and with their influence, the song became the perfect embodiment of what I wanted.
Your cat also inspired a song once when you had writer's block.
That's right, the second track on the record, ‘One Day at a Time’. It was early last year when I started writing for the record, and I called a songwriter buddy of mine who lives in Tuscon. I call him whenever I have writer's block, and he'll say, "Writer's block isn't real. It just means you have nothing to say. But that said, if I ever feel stuck, I usually just write a song for my cat." I picked up my guitar and came up with that first line, and the song kind of wrote itself after that. It's such a fun, fatalistic sort of song.
Are there other songs from the record that stand out for their emotional weight?
The last track on the record, ‘Rollin' With the Wind’. I wrote it two years ago for our second record If I Were the Devil. It's from a point in my life when I had no idea what I was doing or how this all would turn out - a place of fear. I had so many people telling me that I wouldn't make it and so many people judging my decision to chase this dream. We passed on that track for the Devil, and we passed on it for Honky Tonk Heaven, but it came back up for this record. Eddie and I both felt really attached to the song. It's cool that I now get to sing to the past version of myself in a way, basically just saying, "You were right, and you did a good job." That cut is extremely emotional. In the recording, I'm actually crying a little bit. You can hear it in my voice, quivering a little bit.
Looking at If I Were the Devil as your breakout record, what elements of growth have taken place in your life since releasing that?
I've changed a lot. That record came out when I was 23. I cut that thing in my buddy's basement. The writing's there, but the maturity is lacking a little bit, which you gain with this new record. Every record is the “present” of where you were at that point when you cut it; it's a set-in-stone thing. So when I go back and listen to Devil, I think about everything I was writing about. It was a different time in the swing of the pandemic, with a decent amount of anger and confusion. There's true anguish in that record, which makes it super raw, and I love that about it.
This record's more about the acceptance of who you are and understanding that everything is going to be okay. You can't change things you can't control. It's just more mature, I think. I've realized that this is the man I am - all these things that brought me here - what you see is what you get.
Does Western White Pines reflect the energy and connection you've established with your audiences during your shows?
We put out If I Were the Devil before we were touring heavily, and that was a songwriter's album. I didn't know where it was going to take me.
But Honky Tonk Heaven, the next record, was specifically for live. I knew that record wouldn't have as much reach or scope, but I wanted those songs and to cut them live with my band. I wanted to have those songs on the road so that if we wanted to, we could break into these honky tonk, upbeat, really fun songs. So it's like a whole chapter of a live show in Honky Tonk Heaven.
This new record is a great combo of both. You're going to get a ton of songs that are upbeat and a ton that are singer-songwriter-y. But they all are fan-connected.
Let's look back at the production process for the new record. What else can you share?
My band played on the record, which typically when you cut a country record in Nashville you don't get to do, but I wasn't willing to bend on that. My guys have been with me up to here, so why would they not be on this record? And they can play it. That's the other thing. They're exceptional. We also brought in some of Sierra Ferrell's band.
We recorded at a place I have always wanted to cut a record at, Sound Emporium. So many great records have been cut at that place. It was such a right place, right time thing.
Have a favorite record cut at Sound Emporium?
Honestly, I love Taylor Swift's record that was cut there. I believe it was her first record.
You've been sharing shows with Flatland Cavalry and Luke Combs. How does that feel?
The people who've brought us out have been incredibly kind to us, every single one of them. For me, that list starts with 49 Winchester. We went out with them in February and were instantly like kin. I love those guys so deeply and dearly. It was our first time going out on a run with another band so I had no idea what to expect. They didn't owe us anything, but they treated us so well.
As soon as we jumped off that tour, we went out with Cadillac Three, and I could say the same thing. They treated us great. We did a show with Lainey Wilson, and she was amazing. And Flatland has treated us unbelievably well.
How have these tour opportunities contributed to your artistic growth?
Immensely. Let's take artistic growth out of it and say personal growth. Learning how to be a headlining act is not something that you walk into. Being a good person is something that you kind of just have to have. If you're not a good person, if it goes against your character, you'll probably be an asshole.
Everybody we've been out with has truly been kind and not forgotten that they might have been doing what we're doing two years ago, and someone treated them with respect. Or maybe someone didn't, and that's what changed their perspective. Either way, it's taught us where we want to be and how we want to be when we eventually get to that headlining position.
Western White Pines is out now via Sony Music.