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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Ex-Police Officer Hangs Up Holster to Strap on Guitar

Country singer Chris Ward hopes nothing will arrest his climb up the charts with a new single from his debut album.

September 05, 1996|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For country singer Chris Ward, the shortest distance between Simi Valley and Nashville was via Washington.

The onetime Simi Valley police officer now has a record contract, a debut album titled "One Step Beyond" and a music video on country cable stations. And six weeks ago, the former SWAT team member released his first single, the ballad "Fall Reaching."

But it was a circuitous journey from Ventura County in 1991 to realizing his lifelong goal in Nashville three year later.

Ward will return to his old stomping ground Sunday to headline the two-day Country-Western Music Festival, a prelude to Simi Valley Days events slated for Sept. 18-22. The concert will also prime the pump for a month of country-and-western activities planned in Fillmore and Moorpark.

With a song playing on radios across the nation, Ward's future might seem secure. But in the country music biz, each rung of the success ladder brings its own challenges. Though he has managed to get a recording contract, now he's facing more subtle difficulties.

Conventional wisdom is that record companies like to discover talent under age 25 to appeal to a youthful market and get a 10-year run out of their investment. At 36, the youthful-looking Ward seems to have avoided the age trap. What remains to be seen is if he can get enough airplay for "Fall Reaching" to propel CD sales and win fan recognition.

But if this song doesn't launch his career, he'll try again. He has resolved not to be a flash in the pan. "If you give up, you're dead. You never expand who you are. If I was a police officer I'd still constantly be trying to better myself."

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Last week, Ward took a break from his radio station meet-and-greet tour. Calling from his hotel in Salt Lake City, he spoke with a refreshing mix of candor and intelligence.

"This puppy face always made me look younger. When I was 18, people used to think I was 12 or 13," said Ward. "When I got my license, I had to sit on a phone book to drive. I had a girlfriend with me who was taller than me back in Spokane, Wash. And I went out for my first night, first date, and I was pulled over four times."

What now seems like a Cinderfella story actually began when Ward got his first drum set at age 6. His father's job with IBM took the family from Ward's birthplace in the South Bronx to South Carolina and Texas before they settled in Washington.

As a teenager, Ward met Bonnie Guitar, a 1950s country-and-western artist who played at a nearby club. He wound up playing drums in her band during summer tours until he graduated from high school in 1978. Meanwhile, she taught him how to play guitar.

Then came the first life-altering choice. "I was feeling societal pressures to get a 'real job,' " said Ward. So he joined the Marine Corps, became an MP, and attended the San Diego Police Academy. After an honorable discharge, Ward married his high school sweetheart, Kim, and the couple moved to Simi Valley in 1982.

During his nine years in Simi Valley, Ward earned the respect of his colleagues and supervisor, Lt. Tony Harper, while working as a patrolman, a motor officer and a detective with the narcotics unit. He was also the sniper and hostage negotiator on the SWAT team.

"Chris is very disciplined, articulate, intelligent, humble and accepting of life's ups and downs," said Harper. "He pursued his music very quietly. When he was here at work, he did police work--and he dedicated himself to doing what he was sworn to do. I appreciated that. And I found it touching that he sang the national anthem at several of the Ventura County Police and Sheriff's Academy graduations."

Ward's time in Ventura County has given him a leg up with the area country radio stations. Mark James, program director at KHAY-FM (100.7), said Ward has all the trimmings of an up-and-coming country star.

"Chris is a quality artist with a quality voice. He will make it--I'm totally confident of this," said James. "He was on [KHAY's] Santa Fe Cafe evening show hosted by Matt Michaels recently and he performed some live acoustic numbers very well."

*

But according to James, talent and luck are only half the battle. Over the past year, country radio stations nationwide have become more conservative in adding new songs--especially those by new artists--to the limited number of slots in the weekly playlist.

"A station does not want to add so many new artists as to confuse the listener because familiarity is the main strength of country," said James. KHAY has been randomly playing "Fall Reaching" about 12 times a week. And Ward's Simi Valley connection has generated some calls on the request line.

"His whole career, of course, is not contingent on this record. The album's an exceptional album." Industry insiders seem to agree that Ward is not destined to be a "one-hit wonder."

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