On a crisp November day in Chicago eight years ago, Josh Farrow packed up everything he owned, stuffed it into a backpack, picked up his guitar case, and bought a one-way ticket to Nashville.
But the singer-songwriter didn’t come to Tennessee to chase music.
“I was broke,” says the 29-year-old, whose dark, curly hair hovers just above his shoulders while he sits back relaxed on the couch in his Riverside Village home, Paul Simon’s Graceland humming quietly on the stereo. “I didn’t really move here to play music. I moved here because I met a girl. I was chasing her.”
Years later, music would enable the songwriter to share the stage with celebrated artists like Leon Russell, Butch Walker, and Shawn Colvin. Music would also provide him an opportunity to perform high up in the hills of Wilkesboro, N.C., at MerleFest and feel the sea breeze while playing the main stage of Hangout Festival on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Ala. In 2014, his music found an even wider reach when his song “Before You Leave” was featured on the television series Nashville.
But according to Farrow, all of that was just a “happy accident.” In 2008, his eyes weren’t set on playing main stages with prolific artists or getting airplay on television dramas. Instead, they were set on a peppy brunette from White House, Tenn., named Brittney.
“We met on Cinco de Mayo,” Brittney, now Farrow’s wife, recalls. “I went to Daytona with some friends … and we were just trying to find some cute boys and there was no one. Then he walked by, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he is so cute, I need to talk to him.’ ”
With the help of a drink or two, she broke the ice and the two hit it off. But there was a problem: Farrow and his traveling companion would be heading back to Illinois the next day.
Of course, for every problem, there’s a solution. “We got them so drunk that they couldn’t drive back the next day, but I cried to him that night because I knew I was never going to see him again,” Brittney says. “But the next day I got a text from him, and ever since then it was constant communication. We would talk on the phone every day for hours.”
Their long-distance love bloomed through phone calls lasting well into the night and multiple eight-hour trips up and down Interstate 65 to see each other.
Farrow knew he had to be with her, and that was that. “I flew here with a guitar and my clothes and just moved in with her and figured it out,” he says. “That’s all I had. I didn’t have anything else. No money, no car, no job. It was crazy.”
As far as what was next for Farrow once he arrived in Music City, he only knew one thing was certain. “I knew that I didn’t want a job,” he says with a laugh. “But I didn’t ever think that I would move to Nashville to become a full-time musician. I just didn’t have it in my mind.” Living in Murfreesboro while Brittney finished up school at Middle Tennessee State University, the couple kept finding themselves drawn to East Nashville. They would head to the East Side for shows at The 5 Spot and drinks at 3 Crow. For the Farrows, the neighborhood’s spirit of collaboration, creativity, and community were magnetic.
After Brittney graduated, the two found a three-bedroom rental off Gallatin Avenue on Mansfield Street.
“It was awesome,” Farrow says. “We had a great time on Mansfield. Allen Thompson, Patrick Sweany, guys from Apache Relay all lived on the same street. There were a whole bunch of artists on that block. Even though I had a bullet hole in my wall, nobody wanted to leave.”
Not long after the couple settled into their new home, Farrow started picking up shifts at Five Points Pizza, which is where he can still be found on just about any given night throughout the week. He’s the guy behind the bar, slinging prosciutto and basil slices, pouring Czann’s Blondes while wearing an Alkaline Trio or The Lawrence Arms T-shirt — an ode to the punk music he grew up on.
His debut album, Trouble Walks With Me, is the epitome of that evolution. It’s the culmination of four years’ worth of work meticulously poured into 10 tracks. When an artist puts four years of work into an album it becomes a journey — one you catch a glimpse of in Farrow’s eyes when he talks about
“It kind of all came from very dark, Southern gothic imagery and religious undertones that all stem from figuring out what I’m doing, and not being comfortable with everything that’s going on in the world,” Farrow says. “It’s realizing how hard this is, and feeling like I’m not good enough.”
The dark and at times haunting sound of the album was born in producer Dexter Green’s basement studio in Inglewood. Green’s impressive production work includes recordings by Derek Hoke, Elizabeth Cook, and Collective Soul, among others. Despite the complexities of recording an album independently over the course of four years, the relationship between Green and Farrow began on a simple note.
“It was all about pizza,” Green says and laughs. “My buddy Patrick Keeler from The Raconteurs and I would go down to get a slice at Five Points, and I just always liked (Farrow’s) vibe. He came over initially, and we put together a little 45 with ‘Worryin’ Kind’ and ‘Devil Don’t You Fool Me,’ and that’s where it all really started.”
Not only did Green and Farrow hit it off from the beginning, but the two also became neighbors, which made impromptu writing and recording sessions convenient —
“He lived on Rosebank and Solon, and I bought the house a few doors down,” Farrow says. “Depending on what time of day it was, I would walk over there with either coffee or whiskey in a cup and go record.”
It didn’t matter what day of the week it was or what hour of the night; whenever one of them got an idea, Farrow would stroll down the street and get together with Green and write. The sound and the journey were beginning to take shape.
“We just started writing together and sort of pieced together the record doing it that way,” Green says. “We probably composed it over nine months. It was cool because we were able to explore a new direction for him.”
At the time, it was still the early stages of developing a sound for Trouble Walks With Me, which was an exercise that also allowed Farrow to develop his sound. Two years into the writing and recording process, both Green and Farrow looked south for inspiration and began drawing influences from the sounds of New Orleans — specifically the music of Allen Toussaint. Toussaint’s work inspired Farrow to ditch the electric guitar on some of the album’s tracks and hone in on keys and vocals instead.
The end result can immediately be felt on the album’s opening track, “I’ll Be Your Fool.” Poppy keys accompanied by a grooving bass line and snug drumbeat chug their way throughout the track without so much as a hint of guitar to hold the song’s hand.
“Electric guitar is a funny thing. I’m way into vocals, and a lot of people tend to insert guitar because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But electric guitar can really compete with the vocals if you’re not careful,” Green says.
Tossing out the guitar on some of the tracks didn’t come without certain challenges, however. “We went through a lot of issues of making the keys sound right, because if we weren’t going to have any guitar in those songs then the keys had to sound right,” Farrow says.
As it turns out, the right sound came with help from The McCrary Sisters and an organ player from Memphis named Ralph Lofton, who blended their own soulful flavors into the album. These were the last ingredients Farrow says he needed to create the sound he was seeking.
“After we brought The McCrary Sisters in, it really changed the vibe of some of the songs to become the gospel-ly, New Orleans sound we were looking for, and what pieced it all together was finding Ralph Lofton,” Farrow says. “He’s just a badass organ player from Memphis. He was exactly what we needed.”
Once Lofton laid down his Hammond B3 organ, and The McCrary Sisters showered background vocals on tracks like “I’ll Be Your Fool” and “Wash Me In The Well,” the album’s sound tightened up, Green says. “I like to let the song tell me what to do and some of those songs needed The McCrary Sisters,” he explains. “And Ralph Lofton, he’s the glue, man.”
After four years, everything finally seemed to stick while wrapping up those last two tracks. But for Farrow, the hard work of getting those tracks into people’s ears is only just beginning. With an album release date set for Oct. 28, Farrow has been busy being a one-man band when it comes to marketing his new record.
From the album’s art direction, to his website design, to flyers hanging around town promoting his shows at The Basement East and The 5 Spot, Farrow has funded and created every detail of his music and work independently. He’s put in long hours both in the studio and behind a computer screen — and damn near wore holes in his shoes working behind the bar at Five Points Pizza — to make it all happen.
“Every little skill that you need to have in the music industry, I’ve had to figure it out all while writing an album and working full-time,” he says.
But the work is starting to pay off. Farrow was tapped for a performance at Lightning 100’s Live on The Green. He also has interviews lined up, radio airplay on Lighting 100, and a pair of singles ready to be released. In addition, he was a finalist in the folk category for The John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
It’s been a quite a journey since Farrow showed up in Nashville eight years ago with nothing except a backpack and a guitar, and he seems to be poised on the brink of a
“I think that Josh’s music has that cinematic tone,” Green says. “To sit back and hear that album come to fruition was a real joy. I think he’s onto something.”