Emerging singer/songwriter Robert Counts grew up about a half-hour away from Nashville’s bustling music scene, but his path to landing a career in country music isn’t quite what you’d expect.
Early on, Counts set his sights on becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon. After high school, he received his undergraduate degree at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn, and was only a few tests away from enrolling in Medical School.
But his plans changed during a brief performance at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant in Franklin, Tenn. It was there that Counts re-discovered both his passion and potential as a music artist. Not only did he walk away with a cash prize from his performance that night, but he also met a publisher, who would later offer him a publishing deal to begin songwriting for other artists. After writing on Music Row for some time, Counts received encouragement to perform his own music.
In October of 2019, Counts dropped his self-titled debut EP via Arista Nashville. His most recent release is a rock-induced country anthem entitled “What Do I Know,” which he co-wrote with HARDY and Jake Mitchell. After receiving an incredible fan-response to the song, Counts followed up his release with an alternative version featuring HARDY.
“This song is really about how some of the simplest pieces of advice you get growing up — especially as a kid in the south — tend to stand the test of time and be pretty solid words to live by even as an adult,” Counts said of the song in a statement posted to his Facebook page. “I wrote “What Do I Know” a while back with HARDY and I’m thrilled to have him on this version with me!”
Counts caught up with Country Now to talk about his current single, musical success, and more.
Read on to find out more about Robert Counts in this exclusive Q&A below.
How did you begin a career in country music?
Well, I grew up in Franklin, Tenn., which is about 30-minutes south of Nashville. So, I’m not too far from home. Initially, I was pursuing a career in the medical field. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. So, I went to a university in Chattanooga and got my degree in biochemistry. Then, I moved back home, and I began applying to different medical schools. During that time, I was also playing guitar and writing songs, as a hobby on the side, wherever I was. So, after college, I ended up entering a songwriting competition in Franklin. It was an amateur songwriting competition. But, I ended up meeting a publisher and learned a little bit about how the country music industry worked. So I decided to take a year off and write for that company to see what would happen. So, that was the first step for me in terms of being in the industry. I wrote that year, and I loved it. I ended up meeting more songwriters and people. So medical school took a back seat at that point, and I haven’t looked back since.
What did it feel like for you to officially put medical school aside?
Initially, my thought was, ‘Well, most people do not get the opportunity to have a publishing deal to get to write country music and try that out.’ So, I thought that would be fun. So, I wanted to take the year off and do that because, at the very least, I would have something cool and unique to put on my med-school resume. So, that was how it was. Then, as I dove into it, I realized I loved it so much. I saw that there was a way to make a career out of music. Being from Franklin and being so close to Nashville, I have seen people move into town and have their musical dreams get dashed. So, being raised here, I have this first-hand view of people’s dreams not working out. So, it didn’t seem like a viable career option for me at first. But, once I got my feet wet, met people, and learned how things worked, It was kind of easy to kick medical school to the curb. Also, I’ve reached a point where I can always go back to school, even now, if I needed to. All that’s in my way of getting into medical school is the tests. But, all that said, I love what I do, and I’m happy that things played out the way that they did.
Speaking of how things have played out for you in terms of success, what kind of advice would you give to other artists trying to reach similar benchmarks?
I think talent is involved, and meeting the right people too. But I think the biggest thing is luck. If I was to say anything, the right place, the right person, or the right time, I can’t pinpoint one thing that I did that was different than anybody else. So many people in Nashville are hugely talented singers, songwriters, musicians, and artists. So, I feel humbled to be one of those people getting through the gate and getting a shot at terrestrial radio. I feel lucky to have had that happen. Honesty, that’s a big reason why I decided to take this route. I knew it didn’t happen for a lot of people. And, the fact that doors were opening for me at an early stage of having an initial publishing deal and noticing how people liked the songs I released, I thought, ‘Well, I need to keep going through these doors because maybe this is my shot and my lucky break.’ So, it is a little bit of everything, but also a lot of luck.
Did your family support your decision to put off medical school?
Growing up, they were always fans of my music. They liked whenever I wrote a song and would run downstairs and be like, ‘Hey, you guys listen to this!’ So, they were fans of what I did. But, again, they come from a working-class family. My mom’s an accountant, and my dad’s a builder. So, they didn’t see that this could be a viable career that would allow me to raise a family. They knew I wanted to have a house and raise kids one day, so it was a bit hard for them to swallow at first. They thought, ‘Well, you’re halfway to being a doctor.’ But, they love what I did, and they knew that it was a passion of mine, and they knew that a publishing deal, at that stage, was pretty hard to come by. And I think I got them to agree to me saying, ‘Hey, I’ll take this to see if something happens.’ So, I think overall, they were supportive of me, for sure!
Tell me about your recent single, “What Do I Know.”
So, I wrote that song with Michael Hardy and Jake Mitchell, a couple of years ago. We didn’t know each other. We got in the room, and it was that awkward first-date co-write you have when you’ve not met the other writers. So, we showed up and we were kicking around ideas, and little grooves..? So that idea of ‘What do I know’ came up. And, we started unpacking that, and what it meant to us. So, we thought maybe that we could turn that into a cool song. So, we just thought about going the route of using the voice of our father, or grandfather, or whoever it is in your life that has given a young boy advice growing up. Those lessons that you learn while growing up. So that was the way that we wanted to write the song, essentially. So, we did that, and we wanted to just throw it away into the chorus but with all the ‘What do I Know’ I’m just a redneck sitting down here and you know, why listen to me and that sort of thing. So, it just is weird, and cool, and we got done, and thought, ‘Wow! I didn’t think this would turn out as cool as it did.’ So we were all pleasantly surprised, so that was the thought for this song.
Given this track, how would you say your sound has changed since the release of your debut EP?
Well, I started as a songwriter in town, and I was writing songs for other people. My catalog of songs just stretched this huge spectrum because I was thinking about songs in terms of pitching them to other artists and not necessarily for me building my brand and showcasing who I am to the world. When I got my record deal, those were some of the best songs in my bag at the time. A couple of them got me my record deal, and we thought those would be the ones we would put out. But as I got in there, I realized that you get one shot to showcase who you are and what your lane will be as you’re presenting your first song to the world. And I did not know that anything on that EP was what I wanted to release. So, when I released my EP, I was transitioning out of the songwriter world. I grew up listening to a lot of indie rock music and country music. And I wanted to be associated with an edge and a grittier side with this first song. So, I dove back into my catalog and found “What Do I Know,” and we re-shaped it. I think we were able to paint that picture of this meaty, heavy-lyric that not only says something but is also paired with a rock ‘n’ roll country vibe. So, I think that is why that sonic difference is there.
Who would you consider to be your biggest musical influences?
I think everybody’s influenced by whoever their parents were listening to early on in their life. For me, it was Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, George Jones, and all of those storyteller music artists. There were a lot of Midwestern rock influences too. My mom was a fan of Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen. So, I think that’s where I get a lot of my gritty vocals. Then, as I got older, I listened to indie rock, punk rock, and Americana folk music. I’m a big fan of Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams. But I also love Kings of Leon.
What was it like filming the accompanying video for “What Do I Know” during these times?
We wanted to shoot the music video outside because of everything that’s going on with the pandemic. So, we ended up at this big bison farm way south of town. So, it was a very open-air environment. We had a skeleton crew and just invited pertinent people, including the cast, to the video shoot. So, we kept it pretty slim, and everyone was wearing masks. We took all of the necessary precautions that we could. And, we were all spaced out. So, it felt pretty safe, which was important to me.
Over the past 12 months, what has been the most challenging part of your creative process?
All of our co-writes are typically in-person on Music Row, which is how I like to write. But in the last year, those co-writes have gone to Zoom or chats. So, that has been tough because you’re trying to play guitar with each other and sing. It’s a different vibe, and we’re all figuring that out as songwriters and artists. So, that’s been a huge change. As far as connecting with my fan-base, I’ve started an Instagram and Facebook Live series. I try to get on there each week to answer questions and play songs and keep people updated about what’s going on with me.
Can you share anything about current projects you’re working on?
We are about to go back into the studio. I think we’re going to release two or three songs here soon, depending on how quickly we can get back in. I want to put out another EP. But I don’t know if we’re going to round this out or call it a record with all of the other things or have a new EP full of this rock ‘n’ roll thing that I have been doing. But, either way, there will be new music in the air. So that’s all I know so far.
What’s next for you?
I am looking at getting my full-band show together. As a new artist, you do not get many 45-minute to hour slots where you can put a good-sounding full-band show together. I hope that by summer, I can have that figured out so I can play with the band, as opposed to doing a show acoustically before another artist as an opener. I am also excited about my single and the progress that it has had so far! Hopefully, it keeps climbing up the charts, and people are still enjoying it and requesting it and streaming it. It’s a goal of mine to have a top 10 or top 5 in the next year!
Fans can keep up with Robert Counts on Instagram.