It's hard to imagine Kevin Fowler as a student at Los Angeles' Guitar Institute of Technology, the school that annually sends an army of hyperactive metal guitarists out into the marketplace.
"I was never very good at all that fast stuff," admits the author of sentimental country classics like "Don't Touch My Willie" and "Long Line of Losers." "But at that time, I was just a guitar slinger, gun-for-hire kinda guy. When I left there, I was still doing all the big hair-metal stuff."
Nowadays, Fowler is clean-cut and comfortably ensconced at the honky-tonk end of the country spectrum.
But his first post-grad band, the Austin-based Dangerous Toys, was pure sleaze-rock, complete with demonic clown mascot and, yes, mountains of hair.
"Oh yeah, I had big hair, and it was blow-dried," brags Fowler. "There's still pictures of it floating around online."
It was during his hair days that Fowler, who'd grown up as "the band geek in high school," began focusing on his writing. His songs have since been covered by artists like George Jones, Mark Chesnutt and Montgomery Gentry. (Jones even sang a "duet" with him, although Fowler was off performing for troops in Iraq by the time the country legend was able to record his part.)
"I started trying to get people to cut my tunes, and the demos kind of turned into gigs, and then the gigs just kind of started growing," says Fowler, who was playing in a Southern rock band called Thunderfoot when he finally decided to strike out on his own. "But I never had any intention of being a singer. I'm still not real comfortable with it."
Not that you'd know it. For a decade now, Fowler and his band have been averaging 150 shows a year.
"When I smell diesel, man, I'm ready to go," he enthuses. "If I'm home more than a day or two, my wife's ready for me to leave and I'm ready to go."
In addition to his energetic stage shows, a big part of Fowler's appeal is his knack for writing endearingly smart-ass songs like "Cheaper to Keep Her," in which the narrator considers his wife's plea for an anniversary divorce, and the aforementioned "Don't Touch My Willie," which pretty much speaks for itself.
"If you got a dirty mind, it's a dirty song," says Fowler. "But if you're a Willie Nelson fan, it's a nice song. Yeah, I'm kind of known for my tongue-in-cheek songwriting. I think it's just my inability to take life too serious."
But even Fowler's gift for taking it all in stride was tested by the recent demise of Clint Black's Equity label, which had released his previous two albums.
"Man, the record industry right now is about as successful as the stock market," says Fowler. "I own my masters, so that didn't kill us. And we've already got an offer from one of the majors, so we may just go that way."
In the meantime, there's always merchandise. One of Fowler's biggest sellers is a T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag. When asked if he realizes that his side lost the war, Fowler laughs: "Yeah, but when we're playing the South, man, those things sell like hotcakes. So I'm a merch whore, what can I say?"