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As soon as he laid his hands on a guitar emblazoned with Mickey Mouse across the front, Jared Ashley knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Never mind that he was only five years old at the time, he was hooked on making music. But it wasn’t until years later, while he was serving in the Navy, that his fate was sealed. Sitting on a ship in the middle of the ocean, Jared stared out into the still blue waters and began to write songs.
Encouraged by his fellow soldiers, who hollered for more during impromptu jam sessions, Jared went on two Persian Gulf Department of Defense tours, where he performed for thousands of military personnel around the world. Once he got out of the Navy, he headed straight to Nashville to live out his dream. With unshakable determination and without a penny to his name, Jared assembled his Dirty South Band and landed a permanent gig at the city's legendary Tootsies Orchid Lounge, where he shared the stage with Merle Haggard, ZZ Top, Blues Traveler, and Toby Keith. Millions of viewers were introduced to Jared’s high–energy country rock when he was a contestant on the fourth season of USA Network’s popular show Nashville Star.
It took going halfway across the world for me to find my country roots. After I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I’d just come off doing the Texas–New Mexico tour circuit. I hadn’t made a dime and I was tired. Screw it, I thought, there’s gotta be something better than this. I knew there was life outside of my hometown, so I joined the Navy and figured I was giving up on music. I ended up spending four years overseas. I wanted to see the world and I did. And you know what I learned? People in America should be so proud to be born American. There’s nothing that you can’t do here.
After boot camp, I was stationed in Japan, and I’d sit on our ship playing acoustic guitar to pass the time. You have a lot of time on your hands when you’re out at sea. Soon, all the country boys on the ship made their way over whenever I was playing. North Carolina, Nebraska, Georgia, Alabama—they were real country boys. We came from different places, but we were the same, too. We all came from good families, and we’d all worked our asses off. We formed a tight group pretty quick. Then we found George’s Country Bar, right outside the base in Yokosuka, Japan. We all started hanging out there, and I asked George if I could play on Sunday nights. With my harmonica and guitar out there in Yokosuka, I rediscovered my love for playing music. One of my Navy buddies had a connection in Nashville. His grandfather was in the music business, so one day I sang for him over the phone. He asked me to make a demo tape. I sat in the bathroom on the ship with a tape recorder, while everybody in my division stood outside being real quiet. You could hear a pin drop—until an aircraft took off from the flight deck. But the tape was good enough, and my friend’s grandfather told me to come to Nashville as soon as I could.
When I got out of the Navy, I moved to New Mexico, where my family was living. It was tough. My best friend from high school was still working at Subway five years later. My parents were still having the same arguments. Everybody from high school was hanging out at the same bars talking about the same things. The girls got pregnant and had to stay in town. The guys all worked for their fathers. It was like a spiderweb, being back home, and I didn’t want to get stuck in it. I stayed in my bedroom for the first three weeks I was home, and on one Friday night I decided I’d had enough. I packed one bag, grabbed my guitar, jumped in my truck, and drove to Nashville.
Thanks to a friend from the Navy, I got a job in a bank doing security and investigations. But I still didn’t have enough money for a place to live. I called up my dad, bought his Suburban, and slept in it until I was able to get a house. In the middle of winter. I slept in that damn thing until the heater coil went. Before I left New Mexico, I was smart enough to apply for a Texaco card. If it weren’t for that card, I would have gone hungry or froze. Every day I headed to that gas station to buy hot dogs and fill my truck’s tank so I could leave it running all night long to stay warm. I was in pretty bad shape. My boss insisted that we all be clean–shaven, so I spent a lot of my day just avoiding him. Finally, one day he pulled me aside and said, “Jared, when you got this job you knew our policy and you looked great. You had your military haircut and your suit and tie. But now you’ve got a beard and you just look awful. What the hell’s wrong with you?” I told him my situation, that I didn’t have a place to live, that I didn’t even have enough money for razors. I was just trying to survive until my first couple of paychecks. He gave me twenty dollars, and I worked there for three and a half years.
I started playing six nights a week, from six to ten o’clock and from ten o’clock to two in the morning. I played as much as I could. I got off work at seven, and my band had started at six, so I’d try to bail out of work early, pull up to the bar downtown on Broadway, change out of my suit and into my Wranglers, and jump up on that stage. I moved to Nashville to play country music because I loved country music. I didn’t move to Nashville to be a big star. I moved there to play music for a living. After traveling around the world, searching for what I wanted in life, I had finally found it.
At six feet seven inches, Ray Benson cuts a striking presence onstage, and he’s got the musical chops to back it up. As front man (and sole remaining founding member) for the nine–time Grammy–winning Western swing collective Asleep at the Wheel, the prolific master of Texas music has been performing and touring for over thirty–five years while also finding the time to make more than twenty albums. In the band’s early years, the members lived together on a fully functional West Virginia farm, working on the land and gaining an understanding of the nuances of country life that influenced their music. At Willie Nelson’s invitation, the band relocated to Austin, Texas, where it remains based today. In 2003, Ray released his solo album, Beyond Time, which earned two Grammy nominations. The toe–tapping, ever–jamming crew is currently traveling the country performing Ride with Bob, a musical play written and performed by the band members about the legendary King of Western Swing Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
I was a kid in the suburbs, but I didn’t know it. We lived right on the edge of open country, so as far as I was concerned, I thought I was a country kid. I was in the 4–H club, I had a Jersey—she was the best milk cow around—and for most of my youth I ran around thinking I was a cowboy. Or Davy Crockett, roaming the country and bringing home every animal that I could trap or catch. My mom thought it was very cool until a ringneck snake got loose in the house. But he was just a little guy, and he wasn’t even poisonous.
It didn’t hit me what real country was until I was eighteen years old and, with a tax refund of fifty bucks, moved with some friends to Paw Paw, West Virginia. We worked out a great deal where we could stay on a fifteen–hundred–acre apple and peach orchard in exchange for caretaking. There were two houses and a two–hundred–year–old log cabin on the property. We hauled freshwater from the spring instead of turning on a tap and used kerosene lamps instead of electricity. We kept warm thanks to a woodstove. We were basically living like it was the eighteenth century. We rode horses all over—mine was named Hillbilly—and we kept busy clearing brush and repairing buildings. My friends and I had the run of the place, and we kept convincing more friends to join us. That’s how Asleep at the Wheel was started. We’d been living on the farm for a couple weeks and playing music any chance we could when Lucky, the steel guitar player, came running out of the outhouse shouting, “I've got it! I know what our name is—Asleep at the Wheel!” I have no idea how he came up with it or what it means, but it’s stuck all this time. When we weren’t out hunting for our dinner, canning vegetables from the garden, or working on the land, we were cranking up the generator for band practice.
We had this idea that we wanted to really live. To see what it was like to fend for ourselves in the country. We sure found out. After two years, and countless missed gigs thanks to our van getting stuck in the mud bogs (the van was the one modern convenience we kept), we realized that old–fashioned life was hard. Real hard. So, with a new appreciation of the hardships of honest country living, we got back on the road, glad to have the lessons we learned to guide us.
You could say Ross Coleman was a natural–born cowboy. There’s no doubt that a daredevil streak runs in his blood. His father and hero, Steve, was an accomplished bull rider, and his sister, Bridgett, is in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. At just seven years old, Ross climbed onto his first calf. That same year the pint–sized champion in the making won his first buckle. With a sprawling cattle ranch in Oregon as his training ground, Ross rode every second he could. An adrenaline junkie who takes bull riding to the extreme, he pushed himself to his limits and quickly rose in the hardscrabble world of rodeo. In 2001, his name became synonymous with the richest eight seconds in bull-riding history during his awe–inspiring ride on Copenhagen Tuff–E–Nuff, the meanest bull he had ever seen. When he’s not driving cattle with his dad or taming a bull on the circuit, this extreme cowboy can be found getting his rush riding a snowboard or jumping out of a plane.
It was springtime on the ranch, which meant it was time for the branding run. All the cattle got their shots, and the calves were branded. I was seven years old, and I was ready to ride my first calf. I got a lead rope around its belly, and the grown–ups helped me get on and turned me loose in the middle of the ring. I didn't last more than three or four jumps before getting drilled pretty hard, but I thought it was the most fun I'd ever had. I was hooked. I worked my way up from little Shetland ponies to bucking horses, from calves to Black Angus cross bulls. Riding my favorite horse, Shotgun, around the ranch, I kept busy with the chores my dad gave me.
Once I got to high school, I started riding Peanut Butter. At twenty years old, he’s still around today and is the most famous horse in town. We bought him for roping, but he kept bucking everyone off. We got fed up with him, so we just put him in the bucking chute for practice as a saddle bronc. For a couple years he was great to practice on, but one day he got tired of it and decided he wanted to go back to being a roping horse. He’s still got a little buck left in him, and every now and then when you’re roping, he’ll let you know it.
I don’t remember a day when I wasn’t on horseback, working the cows or heading off to a rodeo. Our ranch has all the stock you can imagine, plus outdoor and indoor arenas with bucking and roping chutes. Thanks to my dad, I was given every opportunity to train, compete, and pursue my dream of being a professional bull rider. Once I built my confidence up on the Black Angus cross bulls, my dad bought more bulls that bucked harder. After school my friends would come over and we’d ride all afternoon. Every Wednesday during high school we’d each throw ten bucks in a pool for whoever would ride the best that day. We were riding ten steers a day—six– and seven–hundred–pounders, which were real docile compared with what I get on now.
In 2001, I rode one of the baddest bulls in the country—Copenhagen Tuff–E–Nuff was known as a big–time eliminator. Every time I ride a bull my adrenaline goes crazy, but it was pumping twice as much that day. My hero, Ty Murray, helped me get on him, and right before he pulled my rope down, he looked me in the eye and said, “Go psycho, Ross. Get out there, be a cowboy, and just go psycho.” So that’s what I did. I matched that bull move for move, and I knew there was no way he was going to throw me off. I covered that bull, and twenty thousand people in the stadium went nuts. It was the best feeling of my life. All the years of training on the ranch finally paid off. And it never would have happened without my family’s support.
From the Hardcover edition.