The Americana rocker’s new record might be called New York, but it’s straight from the soul of a Texan, born and bred.
Rich O’Toole comes from the Lone Star State, but he figures he probably could have been born in New Jersey. “Most people from Texas are from a rural background,” he explains. “And I do wear jeans and cowboy boots. I like being outdoors. I just got attracted to the whole Creedence/Mellencamp/Springsteen thing because I was a city kid. They sang about things I could understand, so I went in that direction.
His latest direction finds him releasing a new album, New York, on June 26, showcasing those influences as well as O’Toole’s Texas upbringing. The new outing follows Jaded, which hit the Country Music iTunes Chart and topped the Texas Music Chart three times. O’Toole followed that up with American Kid; the time in between records, he says, was a time for lots of growing up. “When you go from your twenties to your thirties, you’re not in party mode anymore,” he says. “You’re taking life seriously and trying to represent yourself honestly as a songwriter.”
Most recently, he started “Taco Tuesdays” during lockdown, which saw him going to people’s houses, playing music, and cooking tacos.
We talked to O’Toole about his new record, the C&I premiere of “American Steel,” what he’s a sucker for, and what’s on his Feel Good Playlist.
Cowboys & Indians: Congrats on the new album. We’re pleased to be able to premiere the song “American Steel” from it. Tell us a little bit about the new record. Why title it New York?
Rich O’Toole: Every album I write I try and tell a story of what's been going on in my life since the last album. It was the summer of 2017 and I had been touring nonstop and needed a break to write. So I decided to rent my friend Kate’s apartment in Manhattan. Write every morning and go out every night. So a lot of the songs on New York are about the world I saw and the fun adventures I got into. When I left New York after three months, I kept writing all my ideas into 2018 and 2019 and named the album New York. New York is a powerful city and I wanted a title with some power.
C&I: Any good behind-the-scenes stories about going into the studio and recording it?
Rich: It was a blast recording this album with Ilya Toshinsky. He and I have a lot of fun in the studio. I like to work fast and really challenge the band. But one day when we were in the studio it was the morning after my buddy Danny Pellegrini's 30th birthday party so I pretty much produced three tracks lying on the couch. [Laughs.] It was a really rough morning, but the show must go on.
C&I: Let’s talk about the song “American Steel,” which is about a nine-to-fiver who breaks free and hits the road — a revved-up rebellion song. It’s one of only a couple on the record you didn’t write — your college buddy Mike Ethan Messick wrote this one. You typically write autobiographical stuff. What makes this song so relatable that you decided to record it?
Rich: I really looked up to Mike when I was in college at Texas A&M. I would go watch him play on Northgate all the time and eventually we became friends. When I first heard “American Steel” I knew I wanted to record it one day. I usually record two covers per album and write the rest. I needed a great American rock-country jam and “American Steel” was it. It's just a great song about hopping in your old Chevy or Ford and leaving your past behind.
C&I: You’re from Houston — not just a city boy, a big-city boy. But like a good Texan, you wear boots and gravitate toward Americana. What makes country music a comfortable lane for you to be in?
Rich: I’ve always considered myself a rock act, but there’s really no room in rock with a Southern twang in your voice. That kind of pushes you in a vein with Drive-By Truckers, Son Volt, Wilco etc. Growing up in Texas and obsessing over Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen I decided to try and get my start in the Texas country/red-dirt genre. It just made sense. Our live show has become very much rock ’n’ roll after I saw Bruce Springsteen play live. It was never the same after that.
C&I: You sing and play guitar. What kind and how did you pick it up?
Rich: My first guitar was a black Epiphone — really cheap, but I needed something to learn on. I was 15 and started to cover every Robert Earl Keen song I could get my hands on. I just never heard writing like that, and it was the first time I heard music as poetry. Finally, I upgraded and got a Martin D-2R. I played my first 200 to 300 shows with it, and I still write on it today. About 15 guitars later, I choose to play a Fender Telecaster when I'm on stage. It's a working man's guitar and I can get the best tone and sound out of it. It's not bulky or heavy, so you can really bust a move up there on stage.
C&I: Assuming lifting lockdown goes well, what are some of the back-to-(semi)normal things you’re excited to be able to do?
Rich: I'm a big restaurant guy. I miss being at the end of the bar, reading the news while drinking an Aperol Spritz with a side of bacon. Weird, I know, but it's the simple things in life that give us the most pleasure.
C&I: What’s something most people don’t know about you that might surprise them?
Rich: I’m a giant nerd. I collect silver coins and cool old pocket watches. That, and my love for tacos and Asian food. I’m a sucker for hibachi grills and authentic taquerias.
C&I: What’s next for you musically?
Rich: I'm just going to keep writing music and putting on great live shows. I want to get to a point where I release 15 to 20 tracks a year. I think the future of music is releasing a song a month. It keeps your fans current with what's going with you and your career. In the meantime, I really hope everybody enjoys my new album, New York. I think It's the best album I have written yet.
Rich O’Toole’s Feel-Good Playlist
“Feel Alright” — Steve Earle
“Long Walk Home” — Bruce Springsteen
“Let's Just Fall” — Reckless Kelly
“Rock Springs to Cheyenne” — Micky and the Motorcars
“Pink Houses” — John Cougar Mellencamp
“Dreams” — The Cranberries
“Til I Hear It From You” — The Gin Blossoms
“Heartbreak Is a Currency” — Rich O'Toole
“Windfall” — Son Volt
“Mississippi Baby” — Rich O'Toole
“Save It for a Rainy Day” — The Jayhawks
“Corpus Christi Bay” — Robert Earl Keen
Photography: Images courtesy Natalie Barrett