Mike Rimmer met up with Kevin Huguley, co-founder of Birmingham, Alabama's CCM hitmakers RUSH OF FOOLS
The major CCM success of pop rock band Rush Of Fools in the States with their debut album has been pretty quick. The group, consisting of Wes Willis (lead vocals, electric guitar), Kevin Huguley (acoustic/electric guitars), Jacob Chestnut (bass) and Jamie Sharpe (drums), formed in 2005. Rush Of Fools won the inaugural Band With A Mission talent search in April 2006 and became the second Christian artist signed to Nashville-based Midas Records. The band's self-titled debut album, produced by Jason Ingram (frontman for The Longing and producer for Bebo Norman, Grey Holiday), Matt Bronleewe (Michael W Smith, Rebecca St James) and Scott Davies, soared up the Christian charts on the strength of the album's first radio single "Undo". So how have the band found their quick rise to the Christian music premier league? "Overwhelming," laughs guitarist Kevin Huguley. "Honestly, this past year has just been kind of all fast forward. We can't deny the fact; it's obvious that there's been an album sold and we've had success but we've been very humbled by the situation because I don't think that this is something that a human could have formulated had they wanted to. We could have not done something, we could have not raised our standards to a certain place to really be able to be at this point in our career that we are. And we give the credit back to God; God has really just allowed us to be a part of something that he's doing and that's what Rush Of Fools wants to be known for."
An aside. . . One of the occupational hazards of living in Birmingham is that visits to America confuse the natives. They ask, "Where are you from?" and when I reply that Birmingham is where I'm based, they note the lack of a southern drawl and the frequent reply is, "Well you sure ain't got the accent!" Can you imagine what it would be like if I tried to communicate with them in a true Brummy accent? Total communication breakdown! Kevin Huguley, like the other members of Rush Of Fools, is from one of the other Birminghams! The one in Alabama! The one in England is famed for its rock roots and though Alabama is in the south he points out, "Birmingham - this city - it's in the Southeast and so it's in kind of the Southern culture but I guess for Birmingham it's a little less country maybe, so we were the rock and roll kids." That means he grew up listening to mainstream classic rock and songwriters like Dylan and Johnny Cash.
Did Dylan and Cash inspire him to write songs? "Yes I think so," he admits. "I mean I don't think I knew it at the time but I think it's been kind of a surprise for me to see, 'Oh, I write songs!' I didn't really know that about myself and I think I just kind of gave it a whirl one day and realised that I felt like there was something there that I could run with. That's kind of what happened I guess with this album and it's been a really cool experience to write by myself or write with other guys and just collaborate together, it's a really cool process. Songwriting is my thing now and I really enjoy it."
The guitarist was raised in church and started to get serious when he was around 10 years old. He remembers, "I actually had two brothers that were older than me and they ended up getting out of church, and my parents were very adamant about having us make our faith our own and they didn't really force them to go to church. So it was kind of a cool thing. In the 'Bible Belt', it's a really religious area and so many kids are just forced to go to church so it was cool that my parents were like, 'Look, you can't get to Heaven under our footsteps.' So my parents are different from a lot of church people in our area. I listened to a lot of mainstream music growing up and wasn't really in the bubble of Christian music. But it was really cool, I love my parents."
He continues, "I was about 12 years old when I got saved. God just revealed himself to me and I realised that I needed him because I had sin in my own life. I had problems and things that I couldn't take care of myself and God just poured himself into me. I started growing then even at that early age and learning more about him. I kind of stopped caring a little bit when I was 17 or 18, later in high school and my first year at college but the cool thing about being a child of God is, he's always after you and you can't really get away from him. Towards the end of my freshman year in college is when God really started to draw me back to himself and that's when I was called into the ministry and called into church planting and things like that, and now he's got me in this path of writing music and playing in a band. It's been a really cool journey for me."
It was while Huguley was still living away from home after studying psychology at Auburn University in Alabama that he met fellow band mate Wes Willis. He remembers, "I had graduated from Auburn and I was there and had just married and was waiting on my wife to finish with college. So Wes and I met through my wife's little sister and that was the summer of '05. We starting writing some songs together and that's the birthplace of what we know as Rush Of Fools."
Huguley was looking for a singer, so why didn't he want to sing himself? He answers honestly and simply, "I just didn't have the vibes. And honestly, I don't really even enjoy that and I guess that's enough. I like singing background and stuff like that. I think I love moving around too much to be tied to a microphone for the entire show!" he laughs. So does he just prefer being a guitar hero? "I don't know about that!" he laughs again.
The funniest thing is that when it came to the talent contest, they weren't really serious about competing to win. The band just thought it would be a fun thing to do. Huguley explains, "We were part of an independent booking agency called Indie Community, and they had told us about this event and were sponsoring it and had shared with us that it was kind of a ministry-focussed thing where the guy was looking for mission-hearted bands. The winner was going to get a mission trip to China and a Development record deal, and we just weren't that interested; we just felt like we were not a 'battle of the bands' kind of band, we just weren't really competitive. The agency explained that the judges were industry guys and that they were going to give written assessments and critiques on how they think we could better our worship set or be better worship artists, and we were like, 'Well that sounds cool enough to go so let's give it a shot!' And we went."
Over the three days of the contest 60 bands played. Hugely remembers, "We were the first band on the last day; we played our set and packed up our stuff and we figured they'd mail us our packet. It was lunchtime and we were getting ready to hit the road and the organiser called and said, 'Hey! You guys have gotta stay the night because you're in the top six; you're playing tomorrow night in Nashville at Rocketown.' And we were like, 'You're kidding me? This is crazy!' So we had to call our families and we ended up sleeping on this guy's apartment floor because we didn't have anywhere to stay. We stayed the next night and played with five other incredible bands and we really felt honoured to be there. A couple of weeks later they called and said that we'd won the event."
He continues, "One of the judges at the event is now our manager and he got us a deal with Midas Records, and that's kind of how everything began unfolding. But we had no clue going into it that it would spark something off." Thankfully the band had an album's worth of material already written so it was a case of revamping it for the studio. They were signed in September 2006 and started recording in December and the album was completed by March 2007.
Looking at the album credits, there's a suspicion of the band being manufactured since it appears that other musicians did the majority of the work on the album, not the band. Huguley explains, "Yeah, the simple reason of that is because at the time it was me and Wes, we were the songwriters; we did our parts, but Jamie, our drummer, was 17 and still in high school so we couldn't get him out of class to come! And Jacob, our bass player, was still working fulltime, so we literally couldn't afford to just do it and the label was really wanting to push to get the album out. Wes and I were there for every strum on the record and we got to do some of our own parts as well. But yeah we had to get some of the guys in Nashville to help us out simply because we didn't have our guys there to do it."
So before we dismiss the band as a "manufactured" act who won a talent contest and had other guys record their album for them, Huguley is excited about their future. "Now that we're fulltime we're excited about getting into our next album where we're going to have months that we all get to be in there together and just do our own thing. We already know where we're going to record and we're going to rent this house and we're just all going to be in there and we get to do it together; it's going to be a cool thing. I think we'll be able to make it more of our own, you know? And because Wes and I were the executive producers on our debut so the album definitely shares the heart and the message and the music of our band and what we've created. It'll be a little bit more experimental on this next album." And I suggest to him, maybe a little less polished? "Yeah probably," he concedes. "I hope so. I like the raw sound."
On the debut album, the band's breakthrough song has been "Undo". Huguley remembers the song's beginnings, "Wes and I were writing with a friend of ours in Nashville one day and we'd been at home all day writing with him. We'd got writer's block and we wrapped up, it was like dinnertime so we were ready to jet out to get some food. We'd packed up our guitars and our bags; everything was out by the door and we were saying our goodbyes and this lyric hit one of us, it was just: 'I've been here before, here I am again.' We were like, 'Man, we gotta wait to eat dinner now!' We picked everything back out and we grabbed our guitars and it was about 45 minutes or an hour and we'd written this song."
He continues, "It was a new level of honesty for us. We have really strived to be true and open and transparent in our lyrics but with 'Undo' God opened the door for us to really just put it all out there and describe the sin in our lives and the problems that we've had and how we've failed and fallen in our Christian lives and how God's the only one that can undo all the junk that we've messed up in our lives. I think the cool thing with the song is so many people have been able to access it; it's been really cool, we've had so many emails with people saying, 'That's my life song. That's my theme song.' And we give God the credit and the glory for it. It's just a really cool thing that's happened in the States and we're hoping it'll happen with people in the UK as well."
So what about the ministry of the band? How do they see that developing? Huguley reflects, "I think we've learned in our writing process and travelling around that our main goal is to tell the truth. We're a worship band so we go and join people in worship and we love doing that, we love celebrating God's grace in our lives. Our number one goal is obviously to love God first and foremost, and to love other people. We want to spread that message of truth and hope and the Gospel in our own lives and in everyone's lives that we're able to come and worship with."
From this distance, it feels as though America is spawning an awful lot of bands that look and sound like Rush Of Fools. The "worship artist" approach isn't anything particularly new. Do Rush Of Fools have anything that distinguishes them from everybody else who's out there? Huguley thinks for a second then responds, "You know I think there are a lot of great guys that are doing the industry thing and there's a lot of fulltime artists that are just awesome; writing great music. We're quick to say that we don't think we have anything special or new or unique or incredible to offer; I think that our heart is just to be as open and honest about our own lives, and the fact that we still have struggles and sins. I think one of our biggest goals right now is to break down a mentality in the States: that a Christian musician is a Christian rock star. We don't really see that as a Biblical concept. We don't really think that it's a God-honouring thing. There's something in the Bible that says something like, 'Your life is no longer your own.' So that's kind of our hope, to share that this life cannot be about the five guys in Rush Of Fools. Our ministry and our focus as a band can't be about the five guys that are just five little guys from Alabama; it's got to be about the glory of God. And that's our heart; to share with people, not to make them think that we're incredible people or really spiritual, because we're not. Man, we have struggles, we have bad days, we have sins that we need God's grace to help us with. That's kind of what we want to be known for; known for telling the truth and being honest with each other and being honest with people that we come in contact with."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.