Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Kevin Fowler hitting stride and the charts

Michael Corcoran

In a 2004 interview with the American-Statesman, raucous country singer Kevin Fowler assessed his career at the time regularly selling out 5,000-capacity venues, having his songs covered by Sammy Kershaw ("Beer Bait & Ammo") and Mark Chesnutt ("The Lord Loves a Drinking Man") and selling 35,000 copies of his albums, without the help of a label. "If this is as good as it gets," he said, "then that's great."

But the Amarillo native, who has lived in Austin since 1990, also burned deep inside for more mainstream success. Which is why he recently spent the better part of a week driving up and down the West Coast visiting country radio stations. More than 10 years after chucking life as a hard rock guitar slinger to play the music he grew up on, Fowler has a recording on the Billboard Top 40 country single chart. With the opportunity to cross over with the hangover ode "Pound Sign (#?*!)," Fowler's out to make the most of it.

"I feel like, for the first time, we've got the right team in place," he says of his Disney-owned Nashville label, Lyric Street Records, his Austin-based manager George Couri and the various independent radio promoters pushing "Pound Sign" (chorus: "I feel like pound sign, question mark, star , exclamation point").

"Nobody's telling me I've got to change this or change that," says Fowler. "Nobody's suggesting I get a personal trainer." The focus is firmly on the single, currently at No. 35, and the new album (working title: "Songs In the Key of Beer"), which is looking at an October release.

"I'll tell you the exact point where I thought I might have a winner," Fowler says, from his car hurtling up the interstate toward Bakersfield, Calif. "It was this past spring break and I was driving with my three girls (ages 3, 9 and 15) and when I played 'Pound Sign', they all went 'Yeah!' and started singing along on the chorus."

The tune was Fowler's first single that he didn't write himself; it was penned by his producer David Lee Murphy, who's served up No. 1 hits with "Big Green Tractor" for Jason Aldean and "Living In Fast Forward" for Kenny Chesney. But Fowler had to wonder if this outside material was right for him. The reaction on that drive made him realize the label was right. "My girls didn't know anything about who wrote it or who had publishing or any of that. The song just connected with them."

Who needs a focus group when you have part of the target audience in the back seat of your pickup?

One area in which Fowler is fully confident is onstage, where every song becomes a redneck anthem and the beer sales go through the roof. He's the latest in the line of Texas collegiate country crowd-pleasers that can be traced back to Jerry Jeff Walker, then Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green.

"It's really about promoting a lifestyle," says Fowler, who traded sex and drugs and rock n' roll for beer, bait and ammo in the mid-'90s. "I and most of our fan base enjoy the same things — drinking beer, hunting and fishing, tubing on the river. Any excuse to get together and drink beer and listen to country music."

The singer's annual Fowler Fest is a celebration of that Texas country state of mind Saturday at the Nutty Brown Cafe's 4,000-capacity amphitheater on the county line.

"I love the Nutty Brown," says Fowler, 44, who launched Fowler Fest in San Antonio three years ago. "It's, let's see, two lefts and one right turn from my house."

You could say that Fowler's career as a country singer-songwriter began on the outskirts of Austin. He was making money as the guitarist of Dangerous Toys, a hard rock outfit on Columbia Records which had a gold album, but when grunge came along and swallowed up bands like the Toys, Fowler had to get a job to help pay the bills. For eight years, he delivered the Austin Chronicle every Thursday, and to make the time pass, he wrote a new song each week on his route. One day, at a convenience store in rural Hays County, Fowler saw a sign that said "Beer, Bait & Ammo," thought to himself, "Well, they've got it all," and before too long he had a regional radio hit.

In concert, Fowler applied his blazing passion as a rocker to his honky-tonk odes and became a bit of a sensation to audiences raised on U2, but digging the escapism provided by Texas country.

Out on the road, Fowler still makes most of his money in five states — Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico and Kansas — but there are displaced Texans all over the country who come out to his shows for a taste of home. "We recently played in Akron, Ohio, and it was like playing in Waco or something," he says. "I was wondering, 'How did all these Texans get to Akron?'\u2009"

If "Pound Sign" keeps climbing up the charts, Fowler soon might be attracting fans whose only experience with Texas was a four-hour layover at DFW.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652.