A few years ago, Fort Worth singer-songwriter Phil Hamilton did what a lot of people dream of: He quit his lucrative day job as a construction contractor, sold his truck and house in Burleson, and became a full-time musicmaker. A troubadour in the classic vein of his idols Robert Earl Keen and Chris Knight, the 30-year-old Hamilton had been writing and performing songs with friends for most of his life. But when the paid gigs started multiplying, he began to think he could make a decent living from his songs and jumped into the musician’s lifestyle completely. Beginning in 2010, he released two albums in a little over two years, playing 175 to 200 shows a year across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado. The transition from nine-to-fiver to road warrior has been dizzying and not without its bumps.
“The upside is, there’s no better feeling than being onstage and playing the songs,” he said. “Every day is a new day [while touring]. It keeps you on your toes. The fans can be crazy.”
How crazy? Hamilton pauses long, and you can practically hear him grinning through the phone. Like his singing, his talking voice darts easily between angelic and devilish, resembling his physical appearance: a cross between young Charles Manson and Jesus Christ.
“It’s hard to pinpoint just one example, and they’re probably not for print, anyway,” he said. “Fans remove articles of clothing and do all kinds of outrageous things, let’s just say that.”
What about the downside? “Being away from family and friends so much is hard,” he said, his voice sounding a little weary. “I live out of a suitcase now. The clothes I own consist of whatever’s on hangers in the bus.”
Hamilton’s second release, 2012’s Renegade Rock ’n’ Roll, has been out for over a year now. Like his 2010 debut, Nothing to Lose (recorded with his then-backup band The Backroad Drifters), the album has notched notable sales and airplay on Texas Music charts and radio stations. Tunes from Renegade, like “Willie’s Bus,” “Running,” and “Bad” — a sweet, funny ode to a wild girlfriend who “drinks Bud Light from a coffee cup” — manage to be smoother and tighter but also more raucous in spirit than material from the rougher, rootsier first album. Hamilton co-wrote all the songs on Renegade with producer Beau Bedford and credits Bedford with creating a more accurate showcase for the artist’s signature blend of Southern classic rock and old-time Nashville influences.
Hamilton has enjoyed enough success in his relatively new career as a professional touring and recording musician to enable him to move from Burleson and buy a place in the smaller, quieter town of Granbury, where he can fish and hunt when he’s not traveling. His earnings have also cushioned his life on the road, allowing him to ditch his first rickety van in favor of a larger, cleaner touring bus. They call her “Black Mamba,” he said, because she has “a deadly strike.”
“She still breaks down a lot,” he added. “That’s just part of bus ownership.”
Hamilton claims not to spend a lot of time planning his future career moves — that’s why he hired a manager and works with a digital music distributor, Fort Worth-based Winding Road Music. Right now he’s putting the finishing touches on a live album recorded at Whiskey Girl Saloon in the Stockyards. Scheduled for release in August, the collection will include a couple of new studio tracks ready for play on Texas Music radio stations. If Hamilton isn’t too fixated on structuring his career, he also doesn’t worry much about how promoters and fans describe his music.
“I don’t label it anymore,” he said. “I just say we’re Texas musicians playing country music. There’s a lot of blues and a lot of rock ’n’ roll influences, because those are the roots. But our specialty is country.”