Pandemic presses pause on Claiborne native Andrew Hopson’s climb to top of country charts

Claiborne native Andrew Hopson is making a name for himself as a country music throwback.

Andrew Hopson is an unapologetic country music throwback, an unflinching Music Row anachronism who’s naturally ill-positioned to be the next jumper onto a Nashville bandwagon that’s already groaning under the burden of copycat, new-school singers and songwriters.

Like country music artists past and present, Hopson wears a cowboy hat, but unlike some all-hat-and-no-cattle singers and songwriters, Hopson’s black brim tops a young man that actually has cattle, along with goats and nearly cattle-sized Katahdin sheep.

Instead of a glitzy, GPS-equipped pickup truck that allows drivers to “see through” trailers in tow, Hopson’s Dodge Ram diesel sports a diamond-plate ranch-hand bed, a bull bar up front and three rear-facing mirrors in case he wants to check traffic, back up or just see where he used to be.

And while some aspiring country music artists hire voice coaches to teach them to imitate the sounds of the South, Hopson’s accent is authentic East Tennessee, forged and honed in the hills of Claiborne County.

He requires no schooling on the down-home sensibilities that were the backbone of country music long before Hank Williams Sr. knew the difference between the staccato call of a bobwhite and the lonesome wail of a whippoorwill.

Bona fides aside, Hopson’s country music career hasn’t been a straight-line scorcher.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled Hopson’s once-momentous progress, diverting his ascent into a stacked, holding pattern above Nashville. When that will end is anybody’s guess.

The success of his first single and video, however, and the promise of his second, is enough to give the 22-year-old singer and songwriter optimism that blue skies await beyond the disheartening lockdowns of influential country music radio stations and music venues.

Hopson’s first release was “Stronger Than That,” a rocking, honky-tonk stomp-along that visits the timeless country music theme of neon-illuminated, alcohol-assisted sparking. The song fits Hopson like a glove, not surprisingly, because he co-wrote it with accomplished Nashville songwriter Steve O’Brien.

“Stronger Than That” reached No. 4 on the Daily MPE streaming site and piqued the interest country music DJs as far away as Ireland and Germany.

His second single, “New to Neon,” which was written by country music mainstays Brian Callihan and Phillip O’Donnell, is a little starboard of Hopson’s wheelhouse, but it’s ballad that shows – more than his first release – that Hopson has mad country pipes.

By Saturday, Hopson’s second release was No. 26 on the Hotdisc Top 40 chart, which gauges the favorites of country music fans who live in Europe. “New to Neon” is the story of a new-to-Nashville woman who ends her self-imposed exile by seeking companionship at a country music pool hall.

Again, sparks fly.

While Hopson has enjoyed some acclaim and early success, to be clear, it wasn’t a lightning bolt from the blue. Almost nothing on Music Row happens entirely by chance.

His first big break in Nashville was a long-shot hook-up Preshias Harris, a country-music journalist and career-development consultant. Harris, who describes herself as a stylist, educator, and empowerer, schools young artists on what has to happen before folding money changes hands.

Harris inserts professionally novice singers and songwriters in otherwise-inaccessible social circles that include country music movers-and-shakers who can change lives. Harris also coaches up-and-coming artists about how to avoid Music Row “bottom-feeders,” an ever-present, predatory element, which regrettably, Harris knows all too well.

The career-development specialist accepted Hopson as a client sight-unseen because he checked all the boxes – a good voice; measured ambition; respect for Music Row traditions; a type of faith that differs from boundless self-confidence; and the promise not to try to date the pretty young women in her office.

Harris says she sees in Hopson the same attributes she once recognized in wet-behind-the-the-ears, wannabe country music artist from Oklahoma, Garth Brooks, and a talented, but haltingly shy 14-year-old named Taylor Swift. What also stuck in Harris’ mind and prompted her meet with Hopson is a photo of him as a young teenager, sleeping with his guitar.

“He didn’t just want to go to Nashville,” Harris said. “He didn’t just want to be in Nashville because he saw a talent show. He was in love with music early in his life. He has a unique baritone voice. He didn’t sound like anybody else. He was humble and sincere, and the biggest thing was that he didn’t have an ego.

‘It’s all about we, we, we, not me, me, me.’” Harris added. “If I even smell me, me, me and see somebody who’s willing to step on people, they’re not worth my time. Don’t let the door hit you in the hind-end ... And if I’m chasing your dream faster than you are, then I’m in the wrong dream.”

Breaking better

While anything could have happened in Hopson’s life, from a strictly statistical perspective, he came into the world behind the eight ball, a pair of cue sticks and stack of pool racks.

Hopson was born homeless. His birth mother, father and brother, who is 11 months his senior, were barely subsisting in a seedy Morristown motel room in the days until his life was transformed.

Not long before, Hopson’s mother, Tazewell resident Joyce Hopson, had approached Morristown attorney Laura Perry and disclosed her desire to adopt a child.

Perry said she’d “poke around.”

The attorney caught wind of the destitute couple and their two boys. The infant, a future country music singer and songwriter, was manifestly more than the young parents could handle. They opted to give up their youngest and try to make ends meet with one fewer diaper bill and one fewer mouth to feed.

Just five days passed before the young couple realized one child was one too many.

Perry handled both adoptions.

Before their first memories were etched in their brains, Andrew and Matthew Hopson were reunited on the Hopson family farm in Claiborne County, and it soon became apparent that a fraternal bond already existed.

“Matthew said, ‘That’s my baby. I want my baby,’” the boys’ mother recalls. “It happened really fast. Within hours of the call, I was suddenly a busy mom taking care of two babies under the age of 1 year old. I was overjoyed.”

The Hopsons are a musical clan, so it’s no surprise the brothers’ musical instruction began at an early age. After a few piano lessons – an instrument he still plays – the future country singer and songwriter gravitated toward the guitar and there remained.

His first guitar was a bargain-basement American brand, red with a white pick guard. His teacher, Ben Eller, a renowned Morristown guitar instructor and YouTube sensation, didn’t cloud Hopson’s head with music theory. Eller’s method involved sending students home after the first lesson with something to learn.

The first song that Hopson committed to memory has been the safest refuge of novice rockers since 1972, “Smoke on the Water.” Hopson’s second song was the Cream classic, “Sunshine of Your Love.” And while Hopson’s later musical influences would include Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and both Hanks, Hopson never stopped rocking.

Fast forward 11 years.

Hopson is a senior at Claiborne County High School. He’s still playing guitar, but his once high-pitched voice had fallen into a smooth baritone. He was contemplating beginning higher education at Walters State Community College and then earning a law degree. He was also musing a music career, and the latter one won out.

“Part of me wanted to go to college,” he said. “Then one day, I decided. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to commit to it. Here goes nothing.”

Hopson and his mother made a deal – give music a shot for a year, and then pause and reassess. If Nashville wasn’t working out, he’d settle for being a lawyer.

Joyce Hopson telephoned attorney Perry, the same person who 18 years before had facilitated the adoptions. By this time, Perry was living in Nashville. Hopson’s mother wanted to know if Perry had any friends in the country music business,

Years practicing title law in Music City and nary a concrete contact on Music Row did Perry have. Perhaps with less confidence than before, Perry said she’d “poke around.”

Fewer than two weeks passed until Perry was returning to Nashville on a long Southwest Airlines flight. Perry, who is never the shyest person on an airplane, struck up a conversation with a passenger named Wayne Halper.

Halper is a well-established entertainment lawyer in Nashville. Perry told Halper about Hopson. Before Perry and Halper parted, Halper scratched a name on the back of his business card and handed it to Perry.

In two instances separated by 18 years, Perry had been in the right place at precisely the right time elevate the trajectory of Hopson’s life.

“It’s a very long circle,” Hopson said. “But it’s pretty cool.”

Learning to crawl

After graduating from Belmont College, Preshias Harris returned to Nashville with a couple of chips on her shoulder.

A hard-hearted high school English teacher once told her that she was generally stupid, more specifically that she had poor grammar and “would never amount to anything.”

Harris writes “The Inside Track on Music Row,” the longest-running monthly country music column in the United States. She also authored a book on the dos and don’ts for singers and songwriters and credibly claims to have interviewed “everybody from Alabama to ZZ Top.” She was the first journalist in Nashville to interview the young Oklahoman.

Touché.

The other chip was a heavier burden, and to some extent, it’s still there.

Harris came to Nashville as a child with her mother, a gospel music singer. Her mother fell victim to the bottom-feeding element, lost everything and was forced to go home. What made the retreat from Nashville more painful was that two of her cousins, the brothers Everly, hooked up with the right people and had a good run.

Attorney Perry kept Halper’s card. Perry forwarded Harris’ name to Hopson’s mother. Hopson’s mother sent a link to Harris. Harris said she wanted Hopson in her office in Nashville as soon as he graduated high school. Hopson graduated on May 25. Two days later, Hopson and his mother drove to Nashville.

Harris recalls it was her birthday, but she agreed to carve out 30 minutes to meet with Hopson. Hours later, Hopson and his mother left in much better shape than when they had arrived.

When it came to learning the basics of the music business in Nashville, by his own account, Hopson was at first a reluctant, inattentive and ineffective student. Every few weeks, he traveled to Music City to attend an event that Harris reckoned might advance his career.

“I was asking why I needed to do this,” Hopson said. “I felt that it was a waste of time that never gets anybody anywhere. For the first two years, I kinda felt stuck. Nothing was happening. I was running in circles. You see everybody doing things … I was just walking around and talking, asking how this benefitted me. I didn’t know anybody. Then I realized, I didn’t know anybody.”

At some point, Harris wrangled an invite to a day-before-the-event, Country Music Hall of Fame get-together. That’s where Hopson first crossed paths with songwriter and producer O’Brien, whose credits include the Brooks & Dunn hit “Rock My World (Little Country Girl).”

Hopson and O’Brien, who didn’t meet again for a song-writing session until about six months later, are an odd couple.

After graduating from Fairfield University, a private Jesuit school in Connecticut with a major in English and a minor in music, O’Brien surveyed the music scenes on the east and west coasts before hitchhiking to Nashville in 1973 and landing a job at the offices of Chet Atkins, Ray Stevens and Owen Bradley.

Hopson says he once had wrong-headed preconceptions about people from the Northeast like O’Brien. O’Brien counters that he had to travel to Nashville to meet someone from Claiborne County.

“I guess we both lucked out,” O’Brien said. “I really believe in him. He’s a real artist. Some people on the radio come and go. They’re good, but they really don’t have something inside. Andrew definitely has that …I know he’s really good and then he’ll do something that makes me realize he’s even better than I think.”

Hopson and O’Brien once scheduled a writing session while composing “Stronger Than That.” Nature called and O’Brien left the writing room. By the time he returned, Hopson had finished the chorus and was making headway into the second verse.

“It was funny,” Hopson recalls. “He said the next time I’ll take a trip to the grocery store. We just clicked. If felt comfortable.”

New path for

old-schooler

Once upon a time, the goal for aspiring country music singers and songwriters in Nashville was to sign with a label and ride the wave.

At least for now, Hopson is taking a different route.

“It’s not a good idea unless you are entirely prepared for what’s going to come,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to hop onto a label unless I’m willing to commit to that lifestyle. They pay for promotion and they can blow you up overnight. In a month, they can put your name out there big time.

“It sounds good at first,” he added. “They’re offering to do all this for you. They’re working for you, but it’s like you’re working for them.”

If a label-affiliated artist does not meet the expectations of recording executives, Hopson says, they can let it slip on Music Row that the artist is difficult to work with, and “it’s going to be harder the next time.”

Without a label or professional management, Hopson is already keeping good company.

O’Brien, his collaborator on “Stronger Than That,” once had six singles on the charts, according to Harris. The collaborators on “New to Neon,” O’Donnell and Callihan, also have notches in their song-writing belts. O’Donnell has written songs recorded by George Strait, Blake Shelton and Billy Ray Cyrus. Callihan has written for Cole Swindell and Dylan Scott.”

Still, Hopson needed a corporate name for his songs and recordings. He chose the name Tower Road Records, commemorating the road that leads from Highway 33 in Claiborne County to a Hopson farm.

“That sounds pretty legit,” he said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the music industry, Hopson had booked appearances at high-profile country music stations around the country. That’s a tried-and-true means of getting on play lists, which will broaden an artist’s familiarity among fans who will buy concert tickets.

Harris says she “can only imagine” how much further along Hopson would be in his career if he had been able to make the radio appearances. Hopson says he’s certain he wouldn’t have made this much progress without his chance meeting with Harris.

“None of this would have happened at all,” he said. “I honestly believe that. I would have been many years into it and running in circles.”

O’Brien’s characterizes Hopson as a neotraditionalist.

“He has something he wants to say, as opposed to some of the bro-country artists, who will say anything to get on the radio,” O’Brien said.

Hopson says he believes the sub-genre of bro-country was devised because nobody in Nashville wanted to call it pop-country.

“That’s what is it,” Hopson said. “Lots of young people in Nashville don’t come from a Southern music tradition. There’s nothing country about them. They would be amazing pop singers, but they have fake country accents.”

Hopson says it was hard getting used to so-called country music that did not feature real drums, a steel guitar or dobro. He says he added pickups and further modified his first guitar, the red, bargain-basement American brand with a white pick guard. Now it’s a dobro.

Five years from now, Hopson envisions himself leading a band with real drums, a fiddle, a bass, a steel guitar and maybe an extra second guitar player. He says he already has prospective band members in mind.

Fifty years from now, the Hopson family farm in Claiborne County won’t be for sale, and Hopson says he and his brother will continue to raise cattle, goats and sheep.

“Maybe one day I won’t have to do the work myself,” Hopson said. “I can hire a bunch of farm hands.”