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Tate Stevens: 'X' marks the breakthrough

Family man and journeyman country singer graduates from reality TV to a solo debut album and tour

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

Tate Stevens / ©Jeff Lipsky
Tate Stevens (©Jeff Lipsky)

As a contestant on Season 2 of "The X Factor," country singer Tate Stevens was given two valuable bits of advice from the show's judges, and he's taken them to heart.

Early on in the run of the show -- which Stevens ultimately won last December -- show creator and judge Simon Cowell pulled him aside and told him, "Don't change who you are for anyone. You be you, and you're going to be great."

Later, judge L.A. Reid -- a veteran record executive who was Stevens' assigned "mentor" on the show -- observed that when Stevens was onstage, he lacked for nothing in the confidence department. But offstage, it was a different story. Reid told him, "Stars don't have confidence issues."

Stevens agreed, and has been working hard to overcome those insecurities he says were most evident in areas such as interviews. Those were largely new to the singer who, up until being cast on the show, had worked at a road construction job in his hometown of Belton, Mo.

"There's things I need to work on that I still kind of struggle with a little bit," he candidly admits, noting his biggest worry is that "I don't want to sound like a moron."

For the record, Stevens did just fine in his recent chat with MSN Music, possibly bolstered by his recent media training, a staple for most country artists signed to major labels these days. But Stevens jokes that such training may not have worked on him entirely. "I'm me," he says. "I don't know that [they're] ever going to change that. I'll say dumb stuff all the time."

Interviews aren't the only new experiences the 38-year-old husband and father of two is having these days. Promoting his self-titled debut album, released April 23, Stevens recently played a sold-out show in Kansas City, got booked to appear on "Good Morning America," and open for Alan Jackson in Atlanta. He also recently received the ultimate country music honor: a water tower in Belton newly painted to read "Home of Tate Stevens," something he says was "very humbling and very cool."

Bing: Tate Stevens videos and more

Not surprisingly, he calls his life these days "amazing."

Just two weeks after his "X Factor" win, Stevens began making regular trips to Nashville, first to co-write potential songs for his album, then to record it, and now to promote it -- all in a short window of time since the record label wanted to release music quickly to capitalize on his newfound fame.

In the co-writing sessions, Stevens found himself sitting with several fellow artist/writers including Joe Diffie, David Lee Murphy, and RCA Records label-mate Chris Young, as well as other Nashville A-list writers, and sometimes taking two songwriting appointments a day. Ultimately, three of his co-written songs made the 11-track album, including his collaborations with Diffie and Murphy. He's hoping the song he wrote with Young will be a contender for a follow-up set.

As for writing with Diffie, one of his musical heroes, Stevens says, "It was a lot of fun kind of learning and watching him do his thing. He's an amazing songwriter."

Stevens is still honing his songwriting chops, and jokes, "When I grow up, I want to be a songwriter. So I was fortunate enough to sit with some of the best in town, and they were nice enough to write with me."

Despite the pressure of making his debut album quickly, Stevens says the finished project largely hit the creative goals he'd set for it.

"My vision was to make an album that was me, that showed me as an artist and showed my personality throughout," he says. "I want to make good music that touches people."

He also wanted to create a set with no filler songs. "If you listen to a Merle Haggard album, a George Strait album, a Garth [Brooks] album, a Bob Seger album -- you don't have to switch from song three to song six because four and five aren't that great," he says. "I wanted an album [like that] that you could just listen to start to finish, and I think we got really, really close.

In a story that's now widely known, Stevens was reluctant to audition for FOX's "The X Factor" but did so after his wife, Ashlie, and children, Hayden and Rylie, signed him up just over a year ago. A lifelong musician, he'd recorded a couple of albums independently and made one serious run at a Nashville record deal in the mid-'90s when he was in a band called Dixie Cadillac. In recent years, however, he'd settled for just performing locally because of his family. "Having to have a 'real' job, as they say, kind of put a hindrance on it," he says of his ambitions.

Even after his win, he continues to put his family first, placing his previously announced plans to move to Nashville on hold at the request of his son, a high school sophomore. "He asked me if he could graduate with his buddies," Stevens says. "So we'll move when he graduates."

On "The X Factor," Stevens amassed a passionate following (his fan club is now known as Tate Nation) largely because of what has routinely been described as his "everyman" appeal. In fact, Stevens never finished lower than second place on the show every week fan voting was in play.

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Based on comments from fans on his own social media sites -- and those of the show -- Stevens also helped bring some new fans to the country music format, and he's especially proud of that. But he also clearly appealed to the genre's core audience.

"Because I'm a country fan and I have been forever, I can speak for all of us when I say this: Country music fans are the most loyal and giving fans, and they rally behind the music, and they rally behind artists," he says. "That's exactly what happened [to me]."

So far, country radio hasn't been as quick to embrace his debut single, "Power Of A Love Song," which has not yet charted, but Stevens isn't discouraged. "It seems like we get new believers every day," he says of radio programmers. "I just did a big thing in Rochester, N.Y., a guitar pull for WBEE up there, and when we did 'Power Of A Love Song' in the show, there was like 3,000 or 3,500 people singing [it] back to me. It was awesome."

Stevens has about 20 dates on his tour schedule through the summer and hopes to land an opening slot on a superstar's fall tour. "We were late to the dance, so we didn't have a dance partner for the summer [tours], but definitely that's the goal to get on a fall tour," he says. In the meantime, "We're going to go out and do our own thing this summer, have a lot of fun doing it, and build our brand out on the road."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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