For reasons that defy geography, there are two distinct camps when it comes to describing Florida culture: those who consider it the south and those who don’t.
“It’s definitely southern. Where I live, especially. If you go 20 minutes in any direction, you’re in the boonies,” says Tallahassee-bred singer and songwriter Eric Durrance. “The Panhandle in general, you can’t get more southern than that. Hunting, fishing, and cows and horses and tractors, everything. You go north, south, east, or west here and you’re in the country.” Durrance and his band Tobacco Road will perform at the 28th annual Great Atlantic Country Festival June 17 at the SeaWalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach (www.greatatlanticfestival.com).
Tobacco Road, featuring lead singer and songwriter Eric Durrance, lead guitarist Ben Castro, bass player Dale Shumate and drummer Joe Markham headlines the event known as Beach, Boots, Bikinis, and Brews. “It’s a big deal for us. We’re going to put together something special for it and go out there and give it all we’ve got,” says Durrance, who plans to film his band’s performance. “There will be some good memories there. It seems like a great place to get some live footage. Who knows, the next morning, I still might be on stage somewhere.”
Durrance grew up in the outer area of Tallahassee, a sprawling rural paradise of fields, lakes, and farmland that sounds like fertile breeding ground for a country music career to blossom. But for Durrance—and every other aspiring country artist—Nashville was the promised land. It didn’t take long for him to realize the grass ain’t always greener on the other side of the fence.
“When I was younger, I made my first recording here in Tallahassee that I finished all myself. It was all acoustic and I wrote all the songs. Creed was a big band out of here at the time, and their manager lived here, so naturally the first person that I took the CD to was him,” says Durrance. “He liked it, and the next day we were on a plane to New York. We signed a seven-record deal and once we made a record, they listened to it and they said, ‘We feel like your music would do better in the Christian market,’ so they actually made that choice for me. I never thought about being in a Christian band but it just played itself out. It wasn’t really where I belonged.”
When Durrance left the Christian rock market for Nashville, the label followed to become the first rock label to open up a country division. He opened for such artists as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, but it was a chance encounter at a karaoke bar with then-unknown artist Jake Owen that set the future in motion. “We just got off tour and I went in to get a beer. I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, I love your voice. Have you ever thought of singing country?’ He told me no at the time because he wanted to be a golfer and singing was more of a hobby,” says Durrance. “About three weeks later, he called me and said he had an injury and the doctor told him he wasn’t going to make it in golf and he wanted to do music.”
Owen and Durrance “wrote a whole bunch of songs together,” including the track ‘Eight Second Ride,’ which would became one of Owen’s top 10 singles years later. In the meantime, his own label fell apart. There was nothing left in the budget, and Durrance was cut loose. “They said, ‘Go home or do whatever you want to do.’ I stayed in Nashville for a couple more months after that but I was just lost and didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I did the only thing I knew to do, which was come home and start a band. Everyone in Nashville said, ‘Your’e crazy. Nobody is going to take you seriously because you’re used up.’ That was seven years ago. We’ve defied everything they we said we couldn’t do.”
Durrance formed the Tobacco Road Band and quickly established a fan base. The band released its debut EP Where the Girls Are in 2012 consisting of six tracks: ‘Where the Girls Are,’ ‘Jesus & Guns,’ ‘All About Me Today,’ ‘There’s No Such Thing as Goodbye,’ and ‘Dear Life.’ The band later released the single ‘That’s Country,’ featuring a guest performance by Colt Ford. Their single ‘Stiff Drink’ received major airplay on country radio stations, earning the band opening slots for such artists as Josh Turner, Justin Moore, Jason Aldean, Cole Swindell, Brantley Gilbert, and old friend Jake Owen.
Today, Durrance says Tobacco Road Band is finishing up its fourth studio album on his independent label Big Southern Records. It’s the way he always envisioned country music should be: simple, independent and free. “I was always a songwriter first and a performer second. I pretty much just wrote my way out of it. I don’t think I would ever sign with another label again. I don’t know why anyone would want to give up all that,” says Durrance. “If I feel like releasing a song, I don’t have to convince 20 people to see the same thing I’m singing when they couldn’t write a song to get out of a corner. They couldn’t do it but they sure want to tell you how to do it. At the end of the day, I can be me. It gives me time to create and I’m free.”
Check out Tobacco Road at the 28th annual Great Atlantic Country Festival June 17 at the SeaWalk Pavilion. For more info, go to eujax.com.