Country newcomer Larry Fleet had his game-changing moment – which is truly one of those only-in-Nashville stories – when he wasn’t even living in Music City. At the time, he was a couple of hours away in Chattanooga.
Before his career pivot happened, though, Fleet was no stranger to country music. In fact, he tells us he’d played the Ryman Auditorium when he was only seven years old with his family’s bluegrass gospel band. “I’d been playing the guitar since I was about six years old,” Fleet says, “but I just never knew you could make a living off it". As time marched on, Fleet continued to play guitar, and then in high school he started to sing. Then, he got bored.
“I was singing covers, and I just thought, ‘I’m gonna write and sing my own songs.’” His first one was called ‘Friday Night at the Pub’, inspired by his dad hanging out with friends at Abiff’s Pub, west of Nashville. “I always loved writing, I even wrote poems as a kid. I think that’s what country songwriting is: telling a story, making it rhyme, and doing it in three minutes.”
Fleet sat down with Holler to talk about that pivotal moment, and a handful of other right-place-right-time occasions, that landed him where he is now: poised to be the next big country star, with a voice like Cody Johnson and a pen like Chris Stapleton.
So you’re writing and playing gigs in high school, you tried college and decided it wasn’t for you, but then what?
When I was 21, I got a developmental publishing deal to be a songwriter, which was my first love. But when the economy went to crap in 2008, I started playing around town so I could learn how to perform for a crowd. I thought I was really good, but then I would go sit in a writers round with really good songwriters and would think, “I’m garbage.” Instead of that getting me down, though, that made me want to get better.
And were you getting better?
Well I was only in my 20s, and was trying real hard to be a songwriter. Instead of trying to write a hit, I just wrote what I thought people would want to hear, and that tends to work. I never cared about being an artist. I was happy to sing demos. After a while, though, I was just like, “This ain’t working. I’m done.”
Is that when you moved to Chattanooga?
Yes. My wife and I moved there, and I was working in concrete, paving and masonry work. I enjoyed it, but I still played on weekends in little crappy bars around Tennessee. Then I got a call to do a private show for $500 in Nashville. I played for about four hours, and Jake Owen was there at the event.
He’s the kind of country artist that knows a country artist when he sees one. I can just picture him watching you and sussing out the potential in you.
He did watch me. Near the end, he came up to me and asked me what my deal was - like if I’d signed a record deal. I said, “No, man, I’m doing concrete work.” He said I was too good to not have a deal. I told him I’d tried that, it didn’t work and that I was okay with that. He was like, “Nah, you need to quit your job”. So I made a deal with him that if he took me out on the road, we’d see.
Just like that, you were opening at Owen’s shows?
Well, first he called me a week after that private event and asked me to come over to his house. I’d just worked 12 hours that day. But my wife said I had to go. So at seven, I got in my truck and drove to his house. We had a good time, drank beer, hung out and played old country songs on guitar. We hit it off. That’s when he invited me on the road for a few shows in the south, then a few more in the Midwest - then I quit my job. He helped me get into songwriting sessions that were hard to get into, he called in some favors, and one thing led to another. I signed with Big Loud and released my debut album Workin' Hard in 2019.
“As a songwriter, to have Luke Bryan put your song on hold is a very big deal. It was my first major hold. That is huge. That could change our lives”
Was that how you ultimately got into a room with Connie Harrington, one of the most prolific hitmakers in Nashville? She penned Lee Brice’s ‘I Drive Your Truck’, Blake Shelton’s ‘Mine Would Be You’, Joe Nichols’ ‘She Only Smokes When She Drinks’, Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, Kenny Chesney’s ‘Every Other Weekend’ and Jana Kramer’s ‘I Got the Boy’. Can you tell I’m a fan?
I am too! But no, Jake didn’t help with that one. She actually came to me. I was doing this thing on Instagram called Gospel Song Sunday, and she hit me up through Facebook. I was like, “Is this the same Connie Harrington?” She told me she really liked what I had going on and that she’d love to write with me. So I went to her office and we got to know each other, then we wrote ‘Where I Find God’ that day. She had the title and I said I could get behind that. We laid out all the places where you find Him. It was a big list.
I thought people would never hear it, though, because I still didn’t have a record deal at that point. But right after we wrote it, Luke Bryan put it on hold. As a songwriter, to have Luke Bryan put your song on hold is a very big deal. It was my first major hold. That is huge. That could change our lives. He held it forever, so when I got my record deal, Jake called Luke. Jake was the only famous person I knew, so I was happy he was able to call Luke. Luke told Jake he wasn’t going to cut it, so I cut it the next day. We were just getting ready to release it, on Good Friday in 2020, when the world shut down.
It almost seems like fate, then, that you released a song about talking to God - on a bar stool, with an Evinrude, in a deer stand, on an interstate, in a Chevrolet with the windows down with you and Him just ridin' around - right when we all needed to be reminded that He is everywhere. And like the song says, whether we’re looking for Him or not.
The timing was good, for sure. I think people connected with it, which is always a good thing, especially when they could see the visuals in the video. We shot that 'Where I Find God' video with Matthew Paskert and it just took off.
The video was shot in and around Eclectic, Alabama and Neros Point on Lake Martin in early March 2020 and was released a month later. It’s had nearly 17 million views since. Watch below now.
Larry Fleet's latest album, Workin' Hard, is out now via Big Loud.
Photography by Matthew Paskert, courtesy of Big Loud Records.