Bobby Bones: ...that my greatest fulfillment would come from giving back
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. If you're even somewhat of a country music fan, chances are that you've heard of our next guest. Bobby Bones is the host of The Bobby Bones Show, which has an audience of more than 7 million per week. He's a member of the musical comedy group, Bobby Bones and The Raging Idiots, and even mentored the top 24 on American Idol this year. His latest book, Fail Until You Don't: Fight Grind Repeat, is about how he and some of his famous friends made it through their failures and found their way to enormous success. Welcome to the show, Bobby.
Bobby: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate that.
Laura: Talk to us a little bit about your background, because you grew up in this very small town in Arkansas. How did you go from this town to being a big, big radio star?
Bobby: I don't know if I'd use the word, big, big and star. I was born in Mountain Pine, Arkansas. The population, 700 people. There's a sawmill, or there was a sawmill, it's been shut down. The town, it struggles now. My mom had me when she was 15 years old, I don't really know my biological father. She had a lot of issues with alcohol and drug use, she died in her 40's. A lot of that was me having to figure out how to raise myself in a lot of ways. My grandmother was a big influence, I was adopted for a while. I kind of had to figure out if I wanted to get out, how to get out. I was the first kid to graduate high school from my family, I was the first kid to graduate college. For me, there was only one way to get out of my town to do what I wanted to do, and that was through education. I just started learning and studying. At the same time, when I was 17, I begged for a radio job in my hometown and that's kind of what started at all.
Jan: You obviously had some kind of real internal motivation that got you out of this situation. What advice would you have for somebody else who's listening to this and thinking, "Wow, I want to be Bobby Bones one day, or my own version of Bobby Bones. What do I do?"
Bobby: For me, it was kind of realizing that coming from a disadvantage actually can be advantageous because it had to be. For a long time, I think I was just dwelling in the fact that I had a rough upbringing. I didn't quite understand how mine was supposed to be so rough until I would meet other people and I would realize that theirs was also rough. A matter of fact, it's all relative.
It's not just about what socio-economic part of the country you come from and where you fall on that ladder. I started to realize that once I take the skills that I learned from my disadvantage and apply them in the way that I have, which is for me, it's a strong work ethic. It's a lot of the common-sense type things. That's what I wrote my book about it.
Listen, I'm not Socrates, I'm not Gary Vee. My style is, here are the things that I've learned, you can use these every single day, I hope you use some of them. For anyone that wants to be like me, I think it's just trying to learn who you are and what actually motivates you. I think that's where all our success is. How do we motivate ourselves to success because we're all motivated by different things?
Laura: Forbes called you 'The Most Powerful Man in Country Music.' How did you get to be called that?
Bobby: I don't know that's true. It's not true. Listen, I love that quote, don't get me wrong. When people say that, I think it's the coolest thing ever.
Laura: Oh my gosh, yes.
Bobby: But it's not true. I don't know that there's a most powerful person in country music. I think Garth Brooks or God are the most powerful people in country music. But for me, I do have a lot of listeners that listen to my show and listen to my podcasts and it's in the millions per week. I think just because of the amount of people that I reach, I think eyes and ears actually are currency now, more so than dollars and cents, that's probably why they said that. I can't say that it's true, but that's probably the reason.
Jan: We mentioned that the title of your book is, Fail Until You Don't: Fight Grind Repeat. Under the Fight section, one of the subtitles is, Not Everyone is Going to Like You. Now here you've got millions of people listening every week, how can you think not everyone is going to like you? It sounds like you've got a lot of popularity there.
Bobby: I think I found my niche. But when I came to Nashville to be 'The Guy'... I have, by far, the biggest country music show. I think my show is the most syndicated show in any music format. It looks, again, on Instagram, very cute and look at this large galaxies that he's built. But when I came to Nashville, I was on about 30 radio stations. I've been doing pop and I was on 30 or so stations there because I built my own company. But I wasn't the guy that anyone wanted to be country. I knew I was from Arkansas, I knew that my sensibilities matched to most of the country music format, but I didn't have a belt buckle, I didn't have a cowboy hat. Everyone that did and everyone that had those, we'll call them for the sake of this conversation, older-style sensibilities, did not want me to succeed because they felt it represented something that wasn't them succeeding, which meant they wouldn't succeed.
Now that hasn't been the case. I think there's room in this format for lots of different people, including myself who, I'm playing to the consumer. I'm not a genre guy, I'm not someone who believes that people have a phone, they only listen to one format, I play hip hop on my country music morning show. I think with the success of my show, the people that were doing the opposite of what I'm doing, felt threatened which wasn't correct because there are a lot of great country music guys that are super traditional. That's where I faced a lot of my pushback at first. I think most of the town, most of the industry did not like me for a long time. I think a lot of them still don't, even today.
I just think, generally in life, if you have any sort of opinion at all, at all, some people aren't going to agree with that opinion. You can either be warmly greeted by 100% of the people and really not have a lot or an agenda to push across, or you can have something you're super passionate about, put it out there, and have some disagree with you, but also some really agree with you and kind of split it 50/50. That's kind of how I live mine. I have what I believe in, I have what I love, I put it out there, and I find the people that also have a similar viewpoint.
Laura: I thought something that was really cool about your story from the first book was that you ended up getting all of this negative press and you started it yourself; but that grew you to have this enormous following. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Bobby: The negative press at first was super organic because everybody hated me. But what I decided was there was so much negative energy going into what I was doing, it was every blog, every trade magazine. There were constant articles about how I was a failure, how I was no good, how I wasn't authentic to what the format was. Meanwhile, I was, and I am, the country music consumer. I think there's a separation in people's mind who actually produce or work in the industry of, 'we know what the consumer actually does.'
I feel like I'm a consumer-minded creator. For me, I was the consumer but I'm feeling all this heat, and it's constant. I think, "How can I take that energy that's being shoved at me in this negative way and actually just ride the wave?" Instead of punching into the wave, I just went to get a surfboard and ride it. What I did was, I bought four massive billboards, I spent many thousands of dollars, right in the middle of Nashville, these billboards were completely white, I put the letters, "Go Away Bobby Bones" on the billboards. If you're driving through Nashville, you see these humongous billboards that say, "Go Away Bobby Bones." You couldn't track them back because I had created a fake company to actually purchase the billboards through. There was no other logo or emblem.
People were going, "Who wants Bobby to go away?" Or "Who is Bobby?" Or "I agree." All of this was happening, but people were talking about it. People are either learning about me, feeling sorry for me, or agreeing. Really, all I wanted was for people to give me a chance. I rode the wave into people turning my show on to hear what I was going to say next, or how I was going to react to this negative press. Yeah, I wrote that, I was able to keep it secret for three years. I put it in my first book and that's how people found out about it.
Jan: You seem like somebody who's pretty fearless, would you characterize yourself that way?
Bobby: I think I'm pretty scared of everything. I think there's a fine line between the two, between being fearless and able to lower your head into everything at all or just being so scared of everything that you're trying everything. It's a single step that separates the two. I'm petrified that I'm going to be found out as, well what I think I am, I think I'm quite the talent fraud. I don't really have anything about me that's dynamic. I'm not a great speaker, yet I talk to millions of people on the radio. I'm not that good of a writer, I've written two books now that have done well. I can't sing and I have two number-one records.
For me, I've just found all these ways to, a bit, trick the system and I keep waiting to be found out. I even talk about it openly. I'm like, "Guys, I'm not good at this stuff." For me it's, I'm a little scared that it's all going to fall apart. I'm, a bit, diversify my portfolio. At the same time, I'm doing the things that I love to do. I don't have to be good at them to try to do them. I love doing stand-up comedy, that's a passion of mine. I'm on the road doing 60 shows a year in theaters all across the country. There's a lot of bombing at first because you can't really practice jokes in your mirror, you have to go out and practice jokes into a crowd. It's a different skill set on the radio. I think, if anything, I'm numb to fear, maybe that creates a sense of fearlessness. If anything, I'm running scared more than anyone.
Laura: But how do you just get yourself to face these fears head on, even though you're afraid?
Bobby: If you don't have anything, you don't have the fear of losing it. Especially early in my career, I didn't come from money at all, the opposite. I was a food stamp kid, a welfare kid. It wasn't a big deal for me to try these grandiose ideas because so what if I failed? I was back at even, I didn't lose anything. A bit of that philosophy has just stuck with me the whole time. As I mentioned, I didn't grow up in the best environment, I'm pretty good at being poor. If I lose everything that I have now, financially, I'm good. I don't do this for that anyway. I think that's what it comes down to, it's that there's nothing for me to lose at this point. I'm playing with, as they say in Vegas, "house money," this is all extra. I don't do it for the money. It's just chasing passions.
Jan: One of the things you talk about in the book is the art of sucking it up. Tell us more about that.
Bobby: I think that sometimes you just have to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I think it's easy to fall into that trap of, this sucks for me. Sometimes you got to suck it up and not even believe your own press. I'm not even talking about presses if you happen to have a media job. I'm talking to teachers, I'm talking to people that work in a office, I'm talking to parents. Not to see everybody else's good things that are going on and feel sorry for yourself, you got to suck it up and step in a direction. I think one thing that I even learned about myself from this book was, it reinforced as I started to break it down within me was, it really doesn't matter which direction you're going as long as you're moving. Even if you're moving in the wrong direction, you're learning something. The worst thing we can do is sit still because sitting still, there is absolutely no knowledge gained.
Let's say you are torn about two jobs. Do you move across the city and take this job or do you stay with this job that you're currently at now? You're not as fulfilled but you're going to get a little raise. Let's say you make the wrong decision, that's actually okay because you just learned that was the wrong decision. I'm much more prone now to actually going out and taking chances on things even if I'm not super sure about it. I just don't think we're ever sure about anything because we're still gaining knowledge. So many of my friends will sit and just wonder, "What should I do? I'm torn. Should I try this?" But all that time they've spent wondering, is either time they could have been succeeding or learning. I think those are the two avenues that I try to go down.
Laura: Based on your experience, what traits do you think that all successful people have in common?
Bobby: I think that when it doesn't work out, they get back up. I don't know anyone who is a success by trying it once, I don't know anybody. My friends in my book who are super successful, they've all failed massively on grand stages. I did a TED Talk that actually led to this book, it was called Winning by Losing. To me, that's where it all comes in, that's the separator. It's when it doesn't work out, did you learn from it? Are you going to get back up and use that? You're probably not going to figure it out the next time. As long as you're okay with that, I think that's what separates whatever we define as success. I think sometimes success is money. Really success is just fulfillment. When I say success, that's what that means to me. I think the people that are the most fulfilled are the one that continue chasing that fulfillment, even through the setbacks.
Jan: The subtitle of your book is, Fight Grind Repeat. You say those three simple words have been enough to shift your psychological state from defeat to, if not victory, at least the will to stay in the game. Take us behind those words a little bit, behind fight, grind and repeat.
Bobby: For me it was, I needed to build a road to drive my car down. I needed to get from point A to point B. Words are a big part of my life, I did develop some sort of mantra. I believe those three just came on a random day. I'd been working many, many days in a row and I was just toast, mentally, physically, I was toast. I thought, "What can I do? What are the words that I'm going to use?" Those three words came out. What the fight is, is actually determining what the goal is, that's the fight. You're going to get yourself into the fight. The fight is, let's walk up, let's figure it out.
The grind is, once you start to do it, all the things that you're doing, all the little things that no one knows you're doing. You've developed and you've stated what your goal is, you started the fight, the grind is day 17 at 2pm. No one sees you day 17 at 2pm. Are you willing to hang in and grind it out?
If you are, when it fails, are you willing to start over and do it again? That's where repeat comes in. The repeat's the hardest part. We all feel disappointment. When a setback hits us, we recoil a bit. Can you get back up and do it again? If you can, then that's how you achieve whatever success you're searching for.
That's where Fight Grind Repeat came from. There's no master literature book of wizardry that I follow to make that thing up. I think I just woke up and was like, "What in the world can I say to myself?" I wrote it down and that's kind of the template.
Laura: In the book, you don't just talk about your own stories. Like we mentioned, you talk with famous friends of yours that have made it through their own challenges. What experiences surprised you the most that they went through?
Bobby: I think for me, it was really cool to see other people suck at things. I think that's why I wrote the book, so I wouldn't feel alone and I didn't want other people to feel alone. As I'm reading through them, they're all different, from Chris Stapleton talking about his family, to the governor of Arkansas talking about losing two major races, to Walker Hayes talking about his alcohol abuse. I just didn't feel so alone. It wasn't one of those where I went, "Oh, this person's really moved me," it was all of them together. I go, "Oh, this is so common. We're not sharing it with each other, so it feels so foreign when it happens to us."
Your buddy's not coming up to you going on, "Man, you know, I really suck today." Mostly we're just posting things on Instagram when we're sucking in our gut looking in the mirror. That's when I wrote the book, what I wanted to come away with was not feeling so alone. I know if I read this, and I did, I read all these stories they sent me. Andy Roddick is a close friend of mine, he really opened up about losing that massive match and what it's done to this life. I went, "Man, okay. I'm not the only one who sucks at things. And who sucks a lot." For me, I think that was a big takeaway. I hope that that's what people who read the book feel, just not so alone because we're all doing it, we're just not talking about it
Jan: Right, and you go on social media and everybody has a new house or a vacation in Hawaii or a fabulous tan or whatever. It's all about success and nobody wants to talk about failure.
Bobby: I look at Instagram and I want all that stuff too, I feel like everyone else feels. I think that I'm hopefully able to take a step behind it and go, "This is what's really back here. Look behind the curtain." If I can go back, I don't know, when was the Wizard of Oz? 1700? Back in the 1700's when the Wizard of Oz became a movie, you look behind the curtain and there's actually the man behind Oz. That's kind of what I wanted to do with this book.
Laura: I love this quote. You were quoted in an article recently about the new book saying that you wrote it to be the opposite of Instagram. "On Instagram, you look and see all the beautiful things people are doing all of the time. I wrote this book to show the opposite, that most of life is not about the wins. Actually most of life is the rough spots and the failures that get us to the wins."
Bobby: I think the 1% is actually the cool part. What we see, 99%, is actually everybody. Our successes are just a tiny bit. We get to hold them up and celebrate them, so it looks like it's a bigger part of us than it really is. That's not real life. Our real life is not 1% of our life, it's not the cool things that we get to do. Our real life is all the little things it takes to buy the refrigerator, or car tires, or you've got to buy an oven. It's not that glamorous, that what being an adult is. That's most of our life, having to pick our kids up, figure out how to get them to practice.
It's not Instagram. I love Instagram, I try to be cool on Instagram, I'm not very good at being cool on Instagram yet. But, I get it. I'm also involved in that circle too. If anything, I wanted to show people that it's a game, it all is a game. You're only tricking yourself if you believe it.
Jan: What is success to you at the end of the day?
Bobby: Being fulfilled by what I do. I have struggled with this concept a lot, especially early in my career. Success to me at first was being able to get out of my area. Then it was being the first person to graduate college in my family. Then it was to buy my mom a house and a couple acres of land. It was always those things at first because it was things I didn't have. But now what I found I don't have a lot of the time that I'm chasing, is just fulfillment. I think I've found it in doing what I love. I've been able to create a platform with my listeners to be able to give back. As a kid, if it weren't for a lot of groups, church groups, PTA groups, helping me even eat or your Christmas presents I wouldn't be here. For me, I think a lot of that fulfillment is being able to give back. Just something we did last week was, we were able to buy six service dogs for members of the military. Each dog cost $20,000 each.
Jan and Laura: Oh my gosh.
Bobby: Who knew? I had the same reaction. I have dogs, they cost like $13. Service dogs who are trained to help with our servicemembers who come back with PTSD, or brain injuries, or physical injuries, they cost $20,000. Who can afford that? What we did on the show is, we have a T shirt, we didn't keep any money from it, we have this brand called PimpinJoy. We said, "Hey, we're going to put these PimpinJoy shirts up." We made $120,000 and bought six service dogs. For me, that's been where the fulfillment is, when I can actually help others. I feel like I have a debt to pay back because I was helped. I wouldn't be walking around right now in my cool living room with my TV mounted on the wall unless it was for people actually showing up on Thanksgiving going, "Here's some food for you to actually eat." That's what it is for me.
Laura: You've also really helped a lot of young stars cultivate their talents. You were recently a mentor on American Idol. Talk to us about that whole experience and how that even came about because that's one of the coolest things I could think a person could do. You must have felt like you really made it at that point.
Bobby: I don't know that I'll ever feel like I've made it, but for me it was...
Laura: In so many spots in your life you have. Your resume is just so long of so many different things.
Bobby: I am a super fan of music. I was not brought here to be the music guy. There are people that work in radio companies, or work in streaming services that are supposed to be the music programmers. That is not me. I create content, I try to be compelling, I talk about things that I think my listeners will want to hear me talk about, try to be funny.
But inside of that, I love music so much that I'm always looking for these new artists who I don't think are getting a fair shot. A lot of that comes, for me, it's over the last five years, there's been a big female movement as well. I'm trying, as much as I can, to change the culture with new female artists. For me it was, I'm putting these artists on my show, with one or two plays these songs become a top stream song or top downloaded song. Never the plan was it for me to be this guy who breaks artists. About three or four artists in, or a few songs, it started to be a thing. I enjoyed it, I just never chased it. After a while I was branded with 'the guy who breaks all the new artists,' which is a curse and is also awesome at the same time.
American Idol was looking for a mentor and I had this resume of breaking artists, not on purpose, I just loved what they were doing and I wanted to get their talent or their message out, and they had asked me to come and be a mentor. I thought it was going to be, maybe to mentor like three kids or a mentor to the Top 50 and just wave at them and be like, "Hey kids!" But they brought me in for two episodes to mentor the entire Top 24 and they brought me back for the season finale. That was so fluid that I'm just now getting to appreciate what I was able to do. It was just so much like, "We're going to do it, we're going to do it. Okay, we're doing it. Great, now we're bringing you back." That was a really amazing experience. It was such a gift from American Idol, hopefully I'm going to get to do it a lot more with them in the future. I just now am able to reflect on it and see how awesome it was.
Laura: What's your best advice for somebody who wants to have a career in music, now that you've seen so many different artists break into the industry?
Bobby: I would say, "Don't do it." I tell anyone that wants to get in anything creative, "Don't do it, run away." If they don't run away, that's how you know they want to do it. If someone has a podcast, they tell me, "How do I get into podcasting?" Like, "Oh, you don't want to do that because no one's going to listen. You're going to spend 1,000 episodes." If they still want to do it, that's how I know that they're in it, if they're on episode 60 and they're still grinding it out with a passion.
First, I try to give them the worst-case scenario, because for most people that's really what it turns into. Everybody wants to do a creative job, because it's fun. But there's a lot of time and hours and effort of nothing happening. Everywhere you go, people are better than you. Everywhere I go, people are better than me at what I do. I say, "You don't want to do it." Once they do want to do it, it's just 'get in it and get going.'
Especially with something like music it's, go play shows, go find open mics. If it's a podcast, start your podcast. Get in on message board groups that have similar interests. It's just 'get in it,' whatever it is that you're going to do. Don't think about it too much, about where to start, it's just, get started. One, you're going to learn about the process as you're doing it. Two, no one's ever right anyway to begin with. I don't know anyone that just jumped in anything creative and it just worked. It's a learning process. The faster you get started, the more you'll learn.
Jan: Bobby, who do you most admire? If you were to come up with somebody that you would say, "Hey, I would advise a young person to maybe study the life of this person," who would that be?
Bobby: For me, I'm a huge David Letterman fan. As far as radio goes, Howard Stern was a big part of me going, "Oh, I don't have to be a guy with a cool voice. I can just have things to say and opinions." Those two, for me, have been my biggest influences, David Letterman and Howard Stern. I think, in music, find someone that speaks to you. Sometimes you can hear lyrics from someone and go, "That's exactly how I feel."
I think having a mentor that's been in a place that you would like to be, that's a hard thing to find. If you can find them, really cultivate that relationship. The mentor thing is weird. Now, oddly, I'm mentoring people on TV, when I probably could use the most mentorship of all. That, to me, that's who I look to.
Laura: What's going to be next for you? You have so many irons in the fire right now and everything is really successful. Maybe you can't see that from your perspective, but from an outsider's perspective, you've accomplished so much. It'll be interesting to see what comes next for you.
Bobby: I've spent the last 10 years or so just begging people to put me on TV, just begging. I've had three shows go to major pilot all not make it, I've had scripts get decently far. It always takes just a spark for that fire. I've never stopped, and I don't think I'll ever stop. But for me, one of the cool things is the American Idol project this year has really opened up doors to some people seeing me and going, "Oh, there's something about him, we don't know what it is. He's kind of goofy looking, but there's something endearing about him." For me, the television projects are very exciting.
My favorite, and what I'll be doing forever, is the radio show, the spoken word, the audio. I can do it in long form, I can build a passionate audience, I can show my passions to my audience. That part of it will never be lost on me. My favorite part is, whatever radio is to you, some people radio comes through the car, but for me radio comes through the phone, it can be a podcast or an actual radio show.
Radio first, I have a lot of television projects. I can't believe I have a second book that's actually out. I think that's going to be exciting next year to see what happens there, we'll see. Right now, I'm going on book tour again for a week. I'm just trying to get through it, get enough sleep each night.
Jan: Bobby, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" What is it that you've learned about in life, in your career, whatever it might be that nobody told you about that maybe you kind of wish you had been warned about? What's your nobody told me lesson?
Bobby: Nobody told me that if I just took a sound, a clip off YouTube and played it on the radio, it would result in a $1 million fine, that's what happened to me. I've been in a lot of these areas in radio because I go out and try things. I think it's much broader than just getting a million-dollar fine because I got hit with that pretty hard. I think for me it was nobody told me what I could do. No one said, "Hey, you actually can go and take a format that is sitting and is doing well, but you can actually take it to a new place. No one had done it before." No one told me I could, no one told me I couldn't. Nobody told me that it was able to be done. In my book, I even talk about talking with John Mayer, and he said, "Hey man, I learned the world is bendable." I think he'd got to be like 19 years old.
I also have experienced that feeling of, I didn't have the word bendable, but I can actually move things around in my life. You can actually manipulate, not in a negative way, but you can actually make your life really turn into what you want your focus to be, if it's family, if it's your career. Nobody told me that. I don't think it can be told; I think you actually have to just experience it to learn it. That's where all the book comes in. It's like, experience it and keep experiencing it. Not being successful at it until you finally understand what it is. You decide if you really want to go forward with it. Sometimes you don't, but a lot of times you do.
Laura: Bobby, this has been such an amazing interview. We're so appreciative of your time coming on to talk about the book and your story. The book is called, Fail Until You Don't: Fight Grind Repeat, it is well worth your time. It's also gotten all these wonderful reviews in different publications. Bobby is also the host of the wildly popular, Bobby Bones Show. You can reach him, a lot of different ways, talk to him online. What's your Instagram handle and your website that people can reach out to you at?
Bobby: @mrBobbyBones is all the handles. I'm on Bumble, I'm looking for a date. All of that, swipe right.
Jan: So is Laura, Laura is too.
Bobby: Hit me up.
Laura: I feel the pain with Bumble.
Bobby: Yeah. That's where I am. I hope people, even if they don't want to check out the book, if they don't want to check out the show, I think that just knowing that what we're seeing what we're fed, that's not real life, that's the greatest hits. As long as we know that, the greatest hits are fun, they are fun. Greatest hits are the best as long as we know those are just the greatest hits. That's not all of it, all of the songs. That's my metaphor for life. I love the Greatest Hits album, but I realized that's not the normal record. As long as we know what's real, we can enjoy the great stuff. My goal is just to let people know, here's the real stuff, that makes the awesome stuff even more awesome. I hope people take that from me, or the book, or hopefully I inspire someone to do the same. Thank you guys for talking to me, I really appreciate it too.
Jan: Bobby, thank you so much. This has really been fun to talk with you. Best of luck with the latest book, although I'm sure you don't need it.
Bobby: I do need it all the time and thank you very much. You guys have a great night, see you later.
Jan: Okay, you too. That again has been Bobby Bones. His latest book is called, Fail Until You Don't: Fight Grind Repeat. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.