When Jeff Pearson's gently humorous "Orange County Cowboy" turned into a surprise local hit last year, the Huntington Beach singer promptly moved 2,000 miles away from the region his song celebrated.
Pearson wasn't run out of town by the suburban cowpokes his song satirized but simply felt it was necessary to relocate to Nashville to further his career as a songwriter and performer.
Living for nearly a year in Music City has produced "some culture shock," Pearson said in an interview at his manager's house in Costa Mesa. "For one thing, there are no ocean breezes in Nashville," he said with a laugh. "But it's been great. The town has really opened its arms to me."
Nevertheless, Pearson, 34, is anxious to return to his home turf for four shows Monday and Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, one of the few country music showcases in Southern California.
Following the Crazy Horse shows, Pearson will remain in Southern California for a few days to serve as one of the hosts for a June 29 March of Dimes telethon on KHJ-TV. He will also appear at a chili cook-off later that day in Placentia.
"I can hardly wait to play again," he said. "I feel like a boxer who retires, and then in a year he wants to get back in the ring again. I've been working all this time on my songwriting, but I'm still a performer at heart."
Pearson had played Orange County nightclubs for years, mixing his original songs with cover versions of other artists' hits, before the "Orange County Cowboy" record helped him break out of the nightclub circuit." Pearson then discovered the differences between rock musicians' and country performers' prospects for success in Southern California.
If an aspiring Orange County rock performer manages to get substantial local air play and retail sales, he or she needs to look only as far away as Los Angeles, where most of the major record companies are headquartered.
But it is another story with country music, which is still centered in Nashville. Although it required a major change in his location and life style, Pearson said he has found that songwriters get more respect in country music than they generally receive in rock.
"The songwriter is the heartbeat of Nashville," Pearson said. "They always say, 'It all starts with the song.' "
That appreciation for songwriters also means plenty of competition, Pearson said. "Everyone in Nashville is a songwriter--the guy on the corner selling fruit, the waiter, the guy tending bar, but that's what makes it exciting. The clubs there aren't oriented toward hearing you do cover tunes of Jimmy Buffett or John Denver songs. The audiences are interested in what you are doing."
Barbara Mandrell proved her interest in Pearson's writing by recording one of his songs, "You're Still My Hand Holder," for her next album, due for release in August.
"When I got into town, I was told to expect it to take three to five years to get a song cut by a major artist," he said. "But I never subscribed to that notion." His relatively quick success, however, came in part because the song was heard "by the right guy at the right time"--music publisher Tom Collins, who immediately signed Pearson to a deal as a free-lance songwriter.
Pearson chose to pay his dues in Nashville by establishing himself as a songwriter before trying to record his own songs. He's collaborating with other songwriters in Nashville. He said those contacts are opening even more doors to him.
"You can't just pull into town and say, 'Hey, look what I can do.' There are a million guys like that in Nashville," Pearson said. "It's different for everybody, but I didn't want to be an outsider coming into town looking for a handout. I also wanted to grow as a writer, and that's what I'm doing."
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for the following shows at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre: the Cult (July 24), Julian Lennon (July 25), Ronnie James Dio and Accept (July 26) and Hank Williams Jr. (Sept. 17). . . . Jonathan Richman will play Safari Sam's in Huntington Beach July 23-26. Tickets go on sale Monday at the club or by mail order. . . . David Lindley returns to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on June 28.