Sift through almost any story, TV feature or news release about Florida-born country singer Easton Corbin, and one name is sure to pop up: George Strait.
Maybe that's because, outside of Alan Jackson, no other contemporary voice so openly and assuredly champions the great Strait's sense of country tradition as heartily as Corbin. But one has to wonder whether this new-generation singer, riding the chart-topping popularity of his debut single, A Little More Country Than That, feels pigeonholed or just plain tired of all the comparisons to King George.
"Not at all," said Corbin, one of the eight performers featured at Lexington's annual Red, White and Boom concert Saturday. "Growing up, I was really exposed to a lot of traditional country. I stayed with my grandparents a lot, and they loved it. My parents did, too. So I grew up listening to a lot of George Strait's music. It's a huge compliment when I hear I'm like him.
"But I always say my biggest influences were Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley and George Jones. For me and the style of music I do, those guys are really huge."
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A Little More Country Than That more than simply echoes the old-school country accent of singers like Strait and Whitley. It reflects a relaxed confidence usually associated with artists who have been in the game for years, even decades. Most of Corbin's Nashville contemporaries are too busy co-opting whatever they can from pop music to construct a career with American Idol-like flash and immediacy. Corbin, much like his hit, has taken his time nurturing his traditionalism.
So has, for that matter, the fan base he is building. A Little More Country Than That debuted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at No. 56 in August. It didn't hit No. 1 until late January. But such a long ride to the top contained a major benefit: nearly five months of radio play, much of it from stations that added the single to their playlists, dropped it, then added it again.
The song earned an additional honor for Corbin. For the first time in seven years, the debut single of a country artist hit No. 1. That hasn't happened since 2003, when Dierks Bentley introduced himself to the world with What Was I Thinkin'.
"We've been lucky in that the song has been a pretty big recurrent record on radio," Corbin said. "That's been a good thing.
"I mean, we all knew it was going to take a while, especially with me being a new artist, for the song to catch on. But I'm just glad it made it to No. 1, no matter how long it took."
A similarly relaxed but more cosmopolitan-favored follow-up single, Roll With It, is now in the top 30. That signals another slow, steady chart escalation for Corbin. Giving the tune a nudge is a hearty level of summer touring that is mixing festival, fair and club shows where Corbin is playing on his own with opening-act slots at amphitheater concerts headlined by Brad Paisley.
"The vibes are different altogether at these shows," Corbin said. "The shows with Brad are a great opportunity just to put the music out to as many people as possible. It might be the first time a lot of his fans have heard me play. But hopefully, we will win a few of them over every night.
"You really beat up the road doing things this way, but it's a great pace to work at. It's a fun pace. I mean, I get to play music for a living. What else better could there be than that?"