Beneath the stomping country rock of Ben Dukes’ latest single, “Old Fixer Upper,” is the beating heart of a man who has lived through it all – loss and success, united together in the passage of time. Performing live on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson this Wednesday, Dukes has been discovering more of the latter recently and deservedly so. The hard-working singer/songwriter has just released a superb new album, Walkin’ Thru Hell, while the sizzling riffs and slice-of-life narrative of “Old Fixer Upper” is about to uncork on Americana radio.
Q: Every artist was once simply a fan. How did it begin for you?
A: The first record I personally ever paid for was Garth Brooks' second album, No Fences. Ever since I first heard Garth, I've been in awe of the way he tells a story and the emotion behind his music. The first concert I ever attended was the beginning of his tour in 1996, and I fell absolutely in love with the raw power of the live show. He brought over 60,000 people together as one and sent us on a non-stop thrill ride over the course of three hours. It was absolutely incredible. I'll always consider Garth one of my biggest influences. Others include Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and pretty much anyone who had a hit at country radio in the ‘90s and ‘00s. It all blended together to create my style.
Q: When did you start playing guitar?
A: Well, I bought my first guitar when I was a kid, but I didn't start off learning to play straightaway. That old thing collected dust for about a decade, being pulled out occasionally when my interest circled back around to it. But I was too busy being a kid to have the discipline to sit down and learn the instrument. After college, I moved to California, and for some reason I packed the guitar in the Jeep. Once I got to Los Angeles, I found myself with ample time to play, and I picked up the guitar. I soon found that using those six strings to put music to my poetry gave me an outlet, a home, and a way to connect with folks like I never had before.
Q: When did you decide to pursue music as a career?
A: I came upon chasing music for a living in a bit of an interesting way. When my father died, I found myself lost, confused and angry. I didn't know how to feel, and had nowhere to direct my emotions. The last gift he had given me was the money to go on a retreat with my church. The retreat focused on prayer, and while I was there, I couldn't find a way to focus at all. We were told to go out and pray for an hour, and instead of that, I sat on a stump and penned the song, "I Can't Pray." I couple of years later, I was with a producer friend of mine, and I sang him the song. He told me I needed to cut it, and that he thought I might have a future in songwriting. We cut the song. It was played over 20,000 times online, and a video for it was played on GAC as a "fan favorite" in their Next GAC Star competition. After that, I simply kept writing and started playing everywhere I could. I played open mics, solo acoustic shows, fronted various cover bands, etc. With every performance, I came to realize more and more that there really is nothing else in the world for me to do than entertain.
Q: How would you describe your approach to writing songs?
A: I seem to be driven more by the words. I've always loved the stories told in country music, and the words are what give us those stories. I grew up reading and writing poetry - words always seemed to just come naturally to me. Sometimes it will be the germ of an idea - perhaps a rhyme, perhaps a theme; at times I'll simply think of a single line and build out the entire song from that line. There really is no set way to how the process works - it just works. I write a line, then repeat it and repeat it, and let the song direct me to the next one. As it builds, I will write lines and throw them away, and write lines that fit, and write lines that I'll throw away, but they come back in another song. There simply are no rules. I don't conform to any one structure; I don't force myself to write verses and choruses and bridges and put them in the perfect "hit song" order. I let the song decide.
Q: How do you feel about performing live on The Late Late Show on Wednesday? How did that come about?
A: We're very excited to be going back to The Late Late Show. I've always loved Craig Ferguson - the man is brilliant and absolutely hilarious. When you're working on a music career, you often need a "survival job" to pay the bills. We've all done the waiter and bartender thing, sales, etc. Well, I started working as an Audience Coordinator to pay the rent while I chase music. I landed a job at The Late Late Show, and worked there for about a year before Craig needed someone to play guitar in a sketch. The staff knew I played, so they asked if I could do it. I did, and Craig loved it. Suddenly, he knew who I was. I was cast in another bit later that year, and then in early 2012, I had to remove a member of the audience for being disruptive. When I did, Craig noticed and brought me on the show to discuss it. He then followed me on Twitter, where he learned about my music. A couple of weeks later, I received a call requesting that my band play the show. It was the most remarkable phone call I had ever received - absolutely exhilarating. I felt like all the work I'd put in over the years was paying off. Someone was willing to take my music and air it on national television, on a show with his own name. That's validation. That's the thing that so many artists hope to one day receive, and I had received. Now, here it is a year later, and my career has accelerated. I've played SXSW, I've toured nationally, released an album, and now I'm returning to play my second engagement at The Late Late Show. Playing that show is amazing - the way you're treated by Craig, the staff, etc., and then the audience. The audience is amazing. They really let you know their appreciation for what you do, and in the end, that's what we want: To connect wit the fans. I can't wait to do it again!