Elbert West is “livin’ the life.” Sure, that’s the name of his new album on Broken Bow Records, but more importantly, it’s the state of mind he lives by.
“It’s Friday night for me every night,” West says. “It’s Christmas every day. I’m livin’ the life. Most people dream about it, but I’m in it.”
West is a “new traditionalist” with more than a few eccentric twists. His voice inevitably draws comparisons to George Jones’ rich baritone, while his live shows — with a band featuring a half-dozen or so well-weathered players — are something akin to Mad Dogs & Englishmen meets Conway Twitty and Hasil Adkins in a fight-your-friends roadhouse.
Country artists often borrow all the wrong things from rock ‘n’ roll (distorted guitars, crashing backbeats and light shows), but West was blessed, or cursed, with James Dean-style rock ‘n’ roll irreverence. Yet at 33, he’s also no stranger to one of the more cutthroat sides of the music business. In the early ’90s, he penned “Sticks And Stones” and “Can’t Break It To My Heart”, the first two No. 1 hits for singer Tracy Lawrence.
It was a time of learning — the hard way — for West, who grew up dirt-poor in the southern West Virginia coalfields. “I made about a half-million dollars within three or four years, and pissed it all away,” he confesses. “It’s amazing how quick green paper turns into water when you haven’t had it.
“You don’t think this business is crazy? You walk in, tell them who you are and what song you wrote. They pull it up on a computer and hand you a big ol’, fat juicy check. I was broke, I didn’t have no lights on in my apartment, but I looked good for a day and ate like a king for a week.”
Older and wiser, and tired of hearing publishers tell him his songs are “too country for Nashville,” West is now an artist as opposed to a songwriter, a distinction more to his liking.
“Songwriting is a nasty, nasty job, and only a handful truly get enough cuts to make a good living at it,” he says. “I was not comfortable in that political thing — trying to fight and scrape for those cuts. Plus, there’s no freedom because publishers want you to write ‘with the times.’ I just want to tell the truth and be what I am.”
West says Livin’ The Life represents exactly what and who he is, and that he’s not beholden to anyone or anything but himself. “Don’t get me wrong, those songs were good to me,” he said. “But this record I got — that’s me. It’s what I want to say, and the sound that I want to make.”
As his own career takes off, West is no longer concerned with pitching his songs to other artists. “Don’t try, don’t care about it,” he said. “I’m a recording artist now and I happen to know me personally. So I can pitch my songs to me and I know me will listen to them. That way, I don’t have to go through all the bullshit I had to as a writer.”
And you’d better believe that when his single “Diddley” brings home the bacon, West will be breaking ground on a guitar-shaped swimming pool a la Webb Pierce.
“Definitely,” he said. “In fact, I’m not only gonna do the guitar, but I’m gonna go ahead and do the whole seven-piece band — fiddle, steel and everything.”
But seriously, folks: “I’m not an extravagant guy,” West says, “but if I’ve got it and the basics are taken care of, the rest of it’s just to have fun with, to help people and enjoy some things I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”