There were two surprises at the 2008 A Day in the Country music festival recently at Augusta Riverfront Marina: One was how good unknown country artist Eric Durrance sounded. The other was that Mr. Durrance's companion was former Alabama vocalist-songwriter-guitarist Teddy Gentry.
Mr. Gentry is producing Mr. Durrance's debut CD for Wind-up Records, to be released in the fall. The first single, Angels Fly Away , will debut June 9.
"We went in the studio and cut some of the stuff Eric wrote and found some really, really great outside songs (written by others)," Mr. Gentry said at A Day in the Country. "I think we've got a couple of songs on there that could be career launchers for him."
Mr. Gentry certainly knows a hit when he hears one. My pick from the ones I've heard is a powerful ballad, This Side of Sober, about a recovering alcoholic fighting his addiction.
Contemporary Christian music fans first heard Mr. Durrance as the lead vocalist of the short-lived quartet Big Dismal, based in Tallahassee, Fla. Rolling Stone magazine called Big Dismal one of the "five Christian bands on the rise," and the band's single Reality reached No. 3 on Christian rock radio charts.
He split with Big Dismal after being with the band for two years.
Mr. Durrance, a native of Tallahassee, was reared by his grandparents.
"My parents divorced when I was young," he said. "My grandfather, James Mayo, was a big gospel singer around that area, and both of my grandparents were old-time country musicians. We listened to a lot of George Jones, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. My grandmother loved Hank (Williams) Jr. in his early days."
Through his teens, Mr. Durrance also loved the big-hair rock bands and had photos of Motley Crue plastered on his bedroom walls.
"Believe it or not, I also listened a lot to Lionel Richie, and, when Michael Jackson's Thriller album came out, it changed my life," he said. "I love big ballads, and Ronnie Milsap was one of my favorite ballad singers."
Trying to land a country record deal seemed elusive for Mr. Durrance for several years and almost didn't happen.
"My manager of the last 12 years, Dan Godwin, and I had been driving back and forth between Tallahassee and Nashville, probably 120 times or more, working with Mark Bright, Carrie Underwood's producer.
"We were cutting a lot of tracks, but then the label put a stop on the project for a little while ..."
Mr. Godwin died in a motorcycle-car accident a couple of weeks before Christmas near Mr. Durrance's home.
"Not even a week later, I was praying real hard about everything and thinking it (a recording deal) was over, and I got a call from Teddy," Mr. Durrance related. "He had been contacted by the Wind-up record company to see if he could work with me in the studio, and a week later he found me the song Angels Fly Away .
"If I become a big star, obviously that would be great, Mr. Durrance said. "But, for me, it's just a life-long dream to play music and be a songwriter. I just want to tell stories with my songs and give people a chance to read and hear them."
Don Rhodes has written about country music for 37 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to listen to part of Eric Durrance's song This Side of Sober.