Winning Battle of the Bands competition spurred Gem City Music Festival headliner to become singer-songwriter

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QUINCY — Like many little boys growing up in southern Indiana, Clayton Anderson wanted to be Larry Bird. A lack of basketball talent ruined that dream, so he eventually went to the University of Indiana with plans to be a chiropractor. 

The last thing he thought he’d be doing was headlining the Gem City Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 20 at On the Rail, 129 S. Fourth.

Anderson didn’t touch a guitar until his senior year of high school.

“I played the tuba (in high school) because I was the biggest kid in my class,” he said. “Growing up, we would have campfire parties in the sticks in hillbilly Indiana. We would have a bunch of bonfires in the cornfield or somewhere, and my friends played the guitar. They kind of taught me how to play … we were sitting around, and nobody would sing any songs. 

“I was like, ‘Come on, man. Somebody sing the words. It’s getting boring, playing the same chords over and over.’ So next thing I know, I was singing, and they were playing.” 

A buddy then handed Anderson the guitar.

“It was just all picking up little things from my buddies, teaching myself and I’m just a strummer,” he said. “I can’t play. I’m just a banger.”

Things got more serious in college when Anderson put a band together, stealing someone from the optometry school and three from the school of music before he graduated.

“I was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing.” Anderson said. “I was doing landscaping at the time, and this lady I was working for … she came out of the house and told me about this competition (country music star Kenny Chesney) was having. She’s like, ‘You need to sign up for this.’ We signed up. 

“I didn’t know what a Battle of the Bands was. We ended up winning the whole dang thing. Well, we got to open for (Chesney) in Cincinnati, and after that, the rest is history.”

After winning Chesney’s “Next Big Star Battle” in 2008, Anderson released his first album, “Torn Jeans & Tailgates,” in 2011. He released “Right Where We Belong” in 2014.  He toured non-stop, opening for acts like Eric Church, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean.

With no classical musical training, songwriting came naturally to him. 

“Songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘You just need three chords and the truth,’” Anderson said. “So, if you know three chords and you can make up some lyrics, that’s all you need.”

Then there was the challenge of Nashville. 

“We were building a fan base playing all over the Midwest and Southeast, and doing it got me in a lot of doors,” Anderson said. “But Nashville is a dog. I mean, it’s such a tough town and honestly, I was told ‘no’ so many times. I’m still told ‘no’ on things. It just it eats you up.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that I was out on the road playing shows with people singing songs back to me, that keeps me going.”

He’ll never forget hearing one of his songs on the radio for the first time.

”I was driving down State Road 37, headed back to my hometown, and I just turned it up and screamed about as loud as I could,” Anderson said. “Dang near drove off the side of the road. It was the coolest thing in the world.  It’s just so cool. I mean that’s what we worked so hard for. All the sweat … all the down times.”

Now that Larry Bird-wannabe is a singer-songwriter.

“Every song’s like your little kid,” Anderson said. “You try to nurture it, do the best you can with it, then send it out to the world and hope it does well. Sometimes the one you think is going to be awesome didn’t end up doing so good, and the one you think wasn’t worth a crap ends up being the best one. It’s the people who have the power.”

Anderson can’t wait to hit the stage Saturday at On the Rail.

“I love doing it,” he said. “I love entertaining people. I love making people happy. It’s a communal thing. It’s like a religious thing. Religious maybe is the wrong word, but it’s just, it’s something bigger than ourselves. When we get at our show, there’s a lot of energy, and we’re just all in it together. 

“And it’s just so much fun.”

Tickets for the Gem City Music Festival are available at–quincy/music/

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