Originally published in the July 27, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
In the realm of kindred spirits, Billy Currington might have more in common with the perennial boy of summer Jimmy Buffett than your typical country role models. He is drawn to the water like an aqua magnet and can educate you on the finer points of buying shrimp (you’ll be surprised at what you learn). And Billy definitely takes an unconventional, laid-back approach as to how he spends his down time, escaping so far away from the business of music as to be virtually unreachable by land or sea.
Not that he’s some sort of slacker, though (and neither is the estimable Buffett, who has built a marketing and merchandising empire that’s a sailor’s salute to capitalism). When he’s on his game, Billy cranks it as hard as anyone, effortless as it may seem to those who have seen him in concert. He would scarcely have survived a dozen years in the industry without dedication and a solid commitment to his art.
The “dozen years” part of the story catches your attention, because it hardly feels as if he’s been around that long. It leaves even Billy himself a little incredulous. “That has gone by fast,” admits Billy, who made his debut in 2003 with the openly confessional “Walk a Little Straighter,” about his alcoholic stepfather. “I had my first No. 1 ten years ago [“Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”], and that doesn’t even seem possible that it’s been that many years.”
Billy has tacked on eight additional No. 1 singles to that first one in 2005. He’s also just released his sixth career album, Summer Forever, featuring “Don’t It,” his latest chart-topper, and the current single, “Drinkin Town With a Football Problem.” You’ll also find Billy on Tim McGraw’s Shotgun Rider Tour, which keeps him busy throughout the summer and into the fall season. So, he hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. But neither is he the first name that comes to mind when the topic turns to male country singers.
That’s partly because he prefers to live his offstage life in Savannah, Ga., his birthplace, rather than Nashville. By his own admission, he shies away from the Music City social scene and watering holes. Give him the ocean any day.
“As quick as I can, I get to the ocean,” Billy smiles. “That was always my first love. I mean, I love making music and I do that as much as possible. But I love the separation from the business. When I’m not touring or in the studio, I look forward to just getting away and going out on a paddle board or a surfboard and just get so far out in the water than no phones can reach me. I just kind of disappear.”
During the winter, Billy performs the disappearing act in Hawaii, but not the way you might assume. There’s no luxury condo, no fancy resort he retreats to and nothing resembling what one might call a “yacht.” Instead, Billy revels in a modern-day surfer’s lifestyle, holing up with the same buddies he’s known for years. One day at a time? More like one minute.
“I always just stay with friends,” Billy says. “I sleep on their couches. In all the years I’ve been going to Hawaii, I have met enough people where I always have a place to stay for a month or two and not have to buy a place. It’s a perfect chance to be with friends and do the things I love.”
So, he’s not necessarily a 24/7 artist. Where many stars can’t seem to tear themselves away from the industry, always taking care of business, Billy has no such dilemma. He admits that, in the early days of his career, his laizzes-faire approach required some patience among his record label execs.
“In the beginning, I was definitely being pulled in a lot of different directions and away from the surfing,” Billy concedes. “They never said I couldn’t go away or couldn’t surf, but I think they wanted me to be in Nashville more. I don’t know that they understood how passionate I was about that. So, there was a tug of war there for a while. But it slowly dissipated. Now, I set my schedule every year. I know when I’m supposed to be at work and,” he pauses for a quick smile, “they know when I’m not going to be at work.”
Sticking to his guns came with a trade-off. Some money-making opportunities were missed in years past, simply because Billy was nowhere near Nashville. During touring season, he operated out of Savannah. In the winter, Billy answered the call of the wild and migrated to Hawaii as son as the temperature dipped below 70.
But no regrets. “It’s true that if I played music all year long, I’d probably get a little more back and make more money,” Billy agrees. “But my life has never been about that. Getting away from music and not living in Nashville keeps me healthy and happy. I enjoy my life.”
Right now, though, Billy’s in summer performing mode, as he tours with Tim McGraw and promotes the new Summer Forever album. The record fairly brims with a summery, feel-good air, perfectly suited to Billy’s overall philosophy of life. But in truth, that was never intended as the album’s theme.
“You know, ‘Summer Forever’ was actually the last song we recorded,” Billy recalls with a grin. “That came in at the last minute. “I loved the title when I first saw it and I even thought, man, if this works out, it would be a great title for the album.” Billy doesn’t necessarily view the collection as a “beach record.” But it’s likely to put a smile on your face. “If you are sitting on a beach or cutting your grass or whatever you’re doing, this will be a happy album for you,” he says.
It would come as little shock, however, to hear him affirm that summer is his favorite season. The smile grows warm and nostalgic as he reflects on the summers of his youth in Rincon, Ga., about 20 miles from Savannah and the historic city’s beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. “I have so many great memories of growing up on the ocean as a kid,” Billy begins. “Mom had us on the beach all summer long, and I think I was fortunate to grow up in that environment. We went swimming, surfing and crabbing.”
By the latter, he means, of course, the pursuit of the tasty crustacean that dwells in the Atlantic. “We are big time into blue crabs and stone crabs down in South Georgia,” Billy declares, leaning forward in his chair as if he’s about to nab one himself. “And we catch our own shrimp, too. I don’t eat shrimp unless I catch it.”
And for good reason. Some of the shrimp we buy in stores have questionable, to put it mildly, health benefits. So, here’s the lesson for the day, from a guy who knows his seafood. “If you see shrimp and it’s white, don’t buy it,” Billy says with authority. “Some of that shrimp that comes from China and other places, they bleach it (to remove black spots, according to several reports). It’s bad. I have seen the difference. The best way is to get it fresh if you can.”
When you take in the overall picture, you must concur that life has been good to Billy. He turns 42 later this year, but sports the look of a much younger man. The full curls still spring from his hair and the former fitness instructor maintains a trim physique (must be all that surfing and paddle boarding).
He takes inspiration from his grandmother, evidently a spitfire even into her late 80’s. “She teaches me all the time that you just have to keep moving,” Billy says softly. “My grandma is in her eighties but she hasn’t stopped. She still goes to the Y and stays active. That’s the key–be active.”
And, he might add, live life on your own terms. “There were times early on when I thought, you know, am I ever going to realize my dream? I wondered if things would ever happen for me,” Billy says. “Now, it all seems to be working out. I have enjoyed every minute of it. I‘m always looking forward to the future but I enjoy the moment, too.” And flashing one more smile, he can’t help but note, “I wouldn’t change anything. Not one thing.”
Billy Currington reveals his five favorite summer songs as he releases his latest album, Summer Forever.
- “Summer of ’69” Bryan Adams. “That is just a great song.”
- “Friends in Low Places” Garth Brooks. “I know it’s not about summer but it reminds me of summertime and big parties.” [The song was released in the summer of 1990].
- “Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett. “It puts you in that summer mood. A lot of his songs I could put on here.”
- “Something Like That” Tim McGraw. “It takes you back to summer and having good times.”
- “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Beach Boys. “My mom used to play me The Beach Boys’ stuff all the time. I love this one.”