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Small-town Indiana country star Clayton Anderson wrestles with fame


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By Stephanie Kuzydym



Whiskey and an open bag of bread scattered across the granite countertop.

In their tour bus, parked outside the Tin Roof bar in Knoxville, Tenn., Clayton Anderson and his band relaxed before a four-hour set.

They wanted some music to go with the mood lighting of their ceiling, which looked like a star constellation.


“Look, there’s the Big Dipper,” one guitarist said as he pointed up.

“C’mon man. Help me out,” another guitar player said in frustration.

The two band members couldn’t get the iPod to play through the bus’ speakers. Country music star Kenny Chesney had lent them the bus for a road trip from Knoxville to Cincinnati. They punched buttons on the television, iPod and touch-screen controller. Nothing.

Clayton laughed as he walked toward his master suite. He sat on his queen-sized bed and tried to switch the channel.

“I was told I’m on a different satellite back here, so I don’t have to watch what the guys watch in the front if I don’t want to,” he said.

He pointed the remote at the flat screen. Nothing. He leaned back to a panel of buttons on the wall, pushing and changing them from red to green and back to red. Still nothing. He pouted and began to reveal his frustration.

It was a bus of new adventures, from a hidden cooler inside a table to the soap Chesney left behind and the reality that Clayton hadn’t settled in with the big stars just yet.

Clayton Anderson isn’t a household name, though he is a regular at Bloomington’s Bluebird Nightclub. Clayton and his band will perform at the Bluebird on Friday, two days after releasing a new single.

The 2005 IU graduate is known by high school teachers and family friends in Bedford, Ind., and some Hoosiers at IU.

They know Clayton as the genuinely-smiling country crooner with a deep southern drawl. He’s the grandson who still drives five hours home for his grandmother’s birthday party and the small-town guy who sings about Muscadine wine. But he’s also the one, they whisper, on the cusp of making it.

But what is “making it?” Was it when a part of Clayton’s debut CD “Torn Jeans & Tailgates” made it into the IU Dance Marathon line dance? Was it when he landed his own Pandora station? Or will it be next year, when he is scheduled to open for national acts such as Chesney and Tim McGraw?

Clayton hasn’t been able to define “famous” yet. There are goals he’d like to meet — such as singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at Wrigley Field or chatting on set with David Letterman  — but this country singer is waiting for what he feels is the right time.

“I could be signed,” Clayton said. “I could be signed right now to a label, but I wouldn’t be happy.”

There’s a whole world to avoid in Nashville, a world that signs singers and then never hears from them again. Clayton doesn’t want that. He wants to entertain. That’s why he’s in Knoxville.

Just as his show in the Tin Roof was scheduled to begin, Clayton picked up his guitar case and walked off the bus to no crowd.  

***

Clayton first stepped into the spotlight in 2008 at the Riverbend Amphitheatre in Cincinnati. The crowd was recorded at more than 10,000 people.

Chesney was looking for the “Next Big Star” through a battle of the bands competition the night before his concert. The winner was handpicked as his opening act.

Clayton stepped onstage. This was not a small bar, it was a big arena, the first of many Clayton dreamed of playing in. He wasn’t nervous, but he stood on stage repeating: “Live in the moment, just live in the moment.”

He still remembers winning the competition and jumping around the stage like cheerleaders with his band mates.

Clayton thought after the 15-minute set that he’d made it; all the doors had to be open now. He went to Nashville to start his career as a country music star and told people he’d opened for Chesney. They didn’t care.

Plenty of people had performed for major acts before him, and there was nothing
special about just opening for Chesney. He had to prove to Music City what made him different.

“That was a rude awakening,” Clayton said. “So, I tucked my tail and came back up here, and I started playing tailgates.”

It’s a life few know about, and it’s one Clayton doesn’t know the exact direction of. He’s got a bit to live up to since Chesney named him the next big star.

From tailgates at the University of Michigan to the University of Georgia, Clayton began to understand who he is and why people shouldn’t compare him to country music star Luke Bryan.

Clayton Anderson can cover Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” in a way that makes the crowd raise its drinks just a bit higher. He has a smile that makes girls melt, and he doesn’t even realize it.

In the midst of tailgates and national acts, there are still a lot of unknowns. Clayton has positioned himself to not be another artist who was signed to the shelf, but he is still figuring out what his music means to people outside Indiana.

***

Before that night in Cincinnati , Clayton was going to get serious about a
real job.

He’d played fraternity parties and the occasional bar gig, but the feeling from that first night on that Bedford stage was beginning to fade.
 
Clayton had a reliable landscaping business he could lean back on. The kid who grew up listening to country with his grandmother no longer wanted to sing Conway Twitty. He just wanted to be done.

But those 15 minutes of fame as the “Next Big Star”  changed his mind.

“It happened and it was, ‘Oh man, I can’t quit yet,’” Clayton said. “If I don’t try, I’m going to regret it the rest of my life and I’m going to be a grumpy old man. So from that moment on, I just put everything I have into what I’m trying to do.”

He has grown since the fraternity party days. He used to be able to save seats at his shows for people in his community, including his mom. Now, she stands in the back selling merchandise.

When she looks to the special section for Clayton’s guests, she sees young girls in her place. She laughs about it with her girlfriends and knows her son’s fan base
is growing.

Clayton is unwilling to give up his Indiana roots. It’s become part of his image, one he isn’t going to change.

“My niche is the Midwestern charm,” said the boy from Bedford. “I’m Clayton Anderson from small-town Southern Indiana, and I sing country music.”

***

An old Chevy’s headlights partially lit the self-built stage in Bedford, Ind., during a cool October night.

It’d been two months since the country music singer’s debut record was released off his indie label. He was ready to record the music video for his upcoming song release “What You’re Missing.”

Clayton walked across the expansive lawn behind his house. He glanced behind and saw a line of little girls skipping to try and keep up with his strides. The sun was setting behind the hills of the small Southern Indiana farm town.

Clayton took the dimly lit stage in his typical attire: a plain shirt, a pair of jeans and his brown boots.

IU sorority girls and Bedford’s children crowded the stage. Clayton’s mother stood behind a bonfire surrounded by a ring of lawn chairs, singing along.

More than two hours later, the video shoot was near a close. Trucks began to leave as Clayton played “Sweet Home Indiana.”

The engine revved as a souped-up Chevy with a window sticker proclaimed “Loud, proud and country by the grace of God.”

“Yeehaw,” Clayton shouted into the mike as the Chevy tumbled across his backyard to the Bedford road.

Old high-school teachers stood by the bonfire discussing their former student: “He’s on the brink of something happening.”

When that something will happen remains unknown to Clayton.

After the video shoot, the group of little girls stood staring up again at the country music singer.

Clayton smiled at them and extended his guitar-picking right hand to pull them on stage. Miranda Lambert’s top 20 hit, “Famous in a Small Town,” echoed across his childhood backyard.

“Every grandma, in law, ex girlfriend /

Maybe knows you just a little too well /

Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail /

Hey, word’s gonna get around /

Everybody dies famous in a small town.”

***

Clayton slipped through the side door of the Tin Roof bar  in Knoxville and stepped onto the stage. The bar was packed from wall to wall. Clayton glanced down to a front row of blue-jean jackets, sundresses and brown boots. He flashed them a calm smile and kept on singing. A line outside stretched, an hour wait.

Clayton stood at the microphone as one college girl after the next jumped on stage for a photograph or to help play along. He never asked any of them to leave. He just smiled and strummed. To these people, his fans, he had already made it.

Three and a half hours later, the set was winding down. The band packed up to leave with just enough time — four hours — to drive to the next weekend stop: Cincinnati.
Cincinnati’s been a good city to him. After winning the competition in 2008, Clayton has had some lucky breaks and eventually landed his first cut, which he released
in August.

The bus began to quiet down as everyone tucked in for the night into their respective cubby holes. Empty whiskey bottles lay sideways on the granite countertop.

Back in his master suite, Clayton lay beneath the constellation of ceiling stars, thinking about how he is different from everyone else trying to make it in Nashville.

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