JOPLIN, Mo. —
Dancers in the Barrett Ballroom Monday night dressed to the nines and waltzed the evening away. Paired in couples, about 30 of them wore gorgeous gowns or sharp suits and ties.
Two of those people are bosses of singer/songwriter Carter Hulsey. Mike Wakefield and Jon Buck, the owners of Binky Guy Custom T-shirts and JB's Piano Bar, each employ Hulsey throughout the week.
But Monday night, Hulsey was giving directions to those who danced for the music video for "NPR," the first song on Hulsey's new album, "Drive Out."
Hulsey didn't give too many orders: He quickly turned things over to video director Kevin Deems and choreographer Brooke LeMasters.
But during the rehearsal, he said he felt the same overwhelming feeling of gratitude that he felt during other scenes for the music video. Seeing his two bosses taking part in the shoot meant a lot, he said.
"That's what it's about, right there," Hulsey said. "That's one of the blessings of a small town. It's a blessing to be in a tight-knit community where I feel like people are rooting for me."
Despite the jobs, Hulsey has played a long list of sets across the country and around the world. He and his guitar, a Gibson Hummingbird, have been in almost every state and toured with a long list of musicians, including Never Shout Never, Honorary Title, Good Old War and more. The guitar, which is missing its pick guard and has some damage at the top of the body, has been his for only three years.
A big crowd will root for Hulsey next week, during the release party for his latest album.
Hulsey has played since he was 13 years old, starting out in several different bands before pushing forward with a solo music career. Inspired by Jerry Walker, Willie Nelson and other honest songwriters, Hulsey has honed a twist on country music that features the insertion of raw emotion and storytelling.
The storytelling has such an emphasis that he said some of his biggest musical influences aren't musicians.
"I also read a lot," Hulsey said. "Like Stephen King. I'm amazed at how he develops his characters. I love 'The Stand,' but the same guy also wrote 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.' It's unreal how he's able to do that."
In pursuit of King and Kurt Vonnegut's storytelling, Hulsey tries to encapsulate in four and a half minutes what the writers get pages for. He knows his advantages, however: He can set a mood with a single minor chord or four bars of rhythm, such as in the song "Long Black Veil."
The eight-song album is his third full-length album. It was recorded in a studio outside Philadelphia with producer Ace Enders, of the Early November.
In a departure from the sound of his other albums, "Drive Out" features more ambience and finished sounds in the background, even during faster, more rhythmic songs such as "Unstuck in Time" and "One That Fell." Traditional country instruments, such as the mandolin and banjo, are given more echoes and sustains than usual, adding to a vibrant background.
While the music is finished and polished, the vocals retain the feel of a live performance. The change in tack was a surprise to Hulsey, who said he was used to repeated vocal takes.
"I sang through a song twice, and the producer is like, 'All right, next song,'" Hulsey said. "I'm used to doing vocals a bunch, so that was different. But those are some of my favorite parts of the album."
The songs are about a collection of thoughts Hulsey has experienced over the last two years, ranging from dank restrictions of poverty to dark feelings of loss, and brighter feelings of appreciating beauty.
Though the album features a variety of emotion, the one lingering feeling that has stayed with Hulsey is gratitude.
The video for "NPR" is another part of sharing his music to fans across the world, not an attempt to snare the attention of a label. Hulsey has already talked to several labels, he said, but remains unsigned and OK with that.
"It's just never worked out or never made sense," Hulsey said. "What I do is not like a quick thing to get a No. 1 track on Billboard. It's honest songwriting. I've grown a fan base over years of hard work and touring.
"The goal with my music is to get as many as I can to hear it," Hulsey said. "We came up with the storyline, and he's put so much into this. We want it to be a certain quality, well done."
But that doesn't happen without help, he said. Deems, who played drums and percussion for the album, directed the video. All of the waltzing dancers were volunteers, happy to dress up and work on a dance for hours.
Hulsey asked for all that help, including the use of JB's, a friend's house and a loan of pieces from Comeaux Jewelry. The Barrett Ballroom was also loaned to them by manager Jason Williams.
"I'm really glad this day is finally here," Hulsey said. "I'm always amazed at how giving people are around me. Most of the time I hate asking, but I've been asking so many for so much."
Want to go?
The album release party for Carter Hulsey's "Drive Out" will be held Friday, Feb. 7, at JB's Piano Bar, located at 112 S. Main St. The evening will feature performances by Hulsey, Me Like Bees and The Too's. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Cost: $10, includes a copy of "Drive Out."