It's not often Justin McBride finds himself feeling nervous.
In fact, rarely, if ever, will you find him as scared as he was a few weeks ago.
After all, the two-time World Champion spent 10 years matching up against the rankest bulls in the world, but on a recent trip the 33-year-old was second-guessing his decision to play three solo acoustic songs at what he thought was going to be a small benefit at a local bar in Nashville.
The anxiety didn't have to do with the fact that the show, which benefitted Western Wishes, was packed beyond capacity and everything to do with the fact that McBride had no idea he was going to be sharing the stage with the likes of Aaron Tippin, Pam Tillis, Darryl Worley, Jake Owen and accomplished songwriters Bobby Pinson and David Lee.
"There was a pile of people in there and they were right up in your grill looking at you," recalled McBride, "and I was scared to death, but it went really, really good. I was so happy when it was over because everybody else-you know, I definitely stood out with the way I looked-and the three songs that I did were really unlike the songs anybody else did.
"I mean, I didn't know anybody in there."
He opened with the Chris LeDoux classic "Cadillac Cowboy" and then played two new cuts -"It Makes me Lean" and "It's Sure been a Good Ride"-from his upcoming album. He wasn't on stage much more than 10 minutes and in that short time he won them over.
This weekend, a much more confident McBride will be in Molalla, Ore., where he'll perform each night at the Buckaroo Grounds following the Ross Coleman Invitational.
He said he'll be performing with a pared-down version of his band-Johnny Carpenter (Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt) on fiddle with songwriters Buddy Owens ("Red River Blue") and Brice Long (No. 1 hit "Nothing on but the Radio") on guitar-along with an appearance by The Piedmont Boys.
"It'll just be kind of a free-for-all," McBride said, "and just a pretty laid-back type of deal."
"There was a pile of
people in there
and they were right up in your grill looking at you."
For the first time since he retired from the PBR to focus on his country music career, McBride has maintained a fairly steady calendar of performances from one week to the next.
In the past, he explained, he would play one or two weeks and then take a month or two off. He was traveling with a full band and the expense of doing that eliminated opportunities to perform more often.
He called that period of his career a "learning process."
When he first started playing live, he admitted he didn't know the cost involved in touring with a band.
"I didn't know any of that," he said. "I knew that I was a two-time World Champ, who liked to go out and pick and sing on my guitar. That's about as much as I knew about it."
McBride was spending a lot of time in Nashville and saw his songwriter friends play acoustic shows themselves or with one or two other players. He said they were able to stay as busy as they wanted.
He still plays with a full band as much as he can, but scaled down and upped his schedule with shows in which he's only accompanied by two guitar players and a fiddle player.
Like the Western Wishes benefit, in Nashville, he can also play solo acoustic shows.
It allows him to book performances like the one he did in Odessa, Texas, when he played three songs during the intermission of a bull-riding event.
"It's not always like you're putting on a full-blown concert or anything," he said, "but on the other hand it's a good way of staying out there and playing your new stuff and playing music."
However, playing a solo show or even with a few other players can really expose an artist if he's not confident in his own abilities.
As much as he wanted to "throw (his) guitar on a plane and just go," he had to develop a comfort level that had eluded him after years of being able to "lean on the rest of the band."
"You really have to carry your weight," he added.
He's releasing his third album in September and whether he ever played another solo acoustic show, he's well aware that if he were to have a radio hit he would have to go into various stations with his guitar and play live on the air.
When it comes to country music radio, artists are expected to do that.
"That's a scary situation," McBride said, "but then I just got to a point where I'm going to have to be able to start doing that.
"I've really been easing into it and I picked my battles pretty wisely, I think."
He loves being afforded the opportunity to play PBR events and rodeos. He added that he feels at home not having to win them over and, more important, likes that people relate to the Western lifestyle.
He appreciated that audiences recognize he's a tried and true cowboy and not just another hat act from Nashville.
Like his past albums, his forthcoming release was a collaboration of sorts.
Wynn Varble and Phil O'Donnell both have songs on the new album-"they always have songs that I love"-and this time longtime friend Moe Bandy sent "a pile of songs" for consideration. He and Bandy actually wound up cutting a new version of the classic "Bandy the Rodeo Clown."
"I was excited about that," McBride exclaimed.
"He had a huge hit with that and I don't know if it was a respect thing, but Moe was nice enough to give us his blessing and then nice enough to come in and sing on it, so I had him sing the first verse. It sounds just like it did when he first cut it and that was really important to me."
Bandy's original cut was a Top 10 hit at country radio-peaking at No. 7-back in 1975.
There are elements of McBride's music that fits within the musical landscape of today's country sound, but his cowboy lifestyle embodies the country music heard in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
McBride said he started gathering songs in January and by February he was recording a few of the first tracks. The last track-"All in the Same Boat"-was cut on Monday and will be mastered as soon as Kevin Fowler and Aaron Watson record their vocal tracks.
"All in the Same Boat" is likely to be the first single.
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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