January 17, 2014

Actor/musician John Corbett returns to Modesto, where he and band played one of their first – and memorable – shows

“Sex and the City” and “Northern Exposure” star John Corbett is serious about his music, and returns to Modesto for a show at the State Theatre. He spoke with The Bee about music, acting and being the Walgreens guy.

John Corbett has a special nickname for Modesto. One born out of love and affection – and a lot of ladies getting handsy.

“We call it Molesto,” said the former “Sex and the City” and “Northern Exposure” actor. “There were about 500 girls at the Fat Cat, and they were grabbing our a---- all night long.”

The actor and singer played his first show with his then-new band at Modesto’s Fat Cat Music House & Lounge in 2005. He returns with the same band Jan. 24 for a show at the State Theatre.

Since last playing in Modesto, Corbett and his band have played more than 600 shows and just released their second album. The new release has a more stripped-down sound but stays true to Corbett’s West Virginia roots and love of country music.

“The first album had lots of background singers and horns and violins. There was orchestration,” said the 52-year-old. “I wanted this to be a little bit of an Americana record. It’s more of a four-piece thing, like how we are on the road. And so far, the critics have been just so kind to me and said things that I didn’t think I’d hear about my second record. I didn’t set out to please anybody on this record except me and the guys.”

His self-titled 2006 debut release climbed to No. 42 on the Billboard Country charts. His newest, “Leaving Nothin’ Behind,” was released last year on his own Funbone Records label. And everything, including the publicity, is more laid back this time around.

And, yes, ladies, he knows you still might be coming to see him because he was Aidan Shaw on “Sex and the City” or Chris Stevens on “Northern Exposure” or Max Gregson on “The United States of Tara.” But he said the more the band plays, the more fans it makes of the music as well.

“I’ve seen the change go from ‘Sex and the City’ people to people who like country music,” he said. “But the girls will still come out and drink cosmopolitans and come to see Aidan in person. That’s cool, too, I don’t care. I just want to get them there.”

Corbett spoke with The Bee while on the road in San Francisco about being taken seriously as a musician, breaking out of his nice-guy persona and missing the Southern California ranch he shares with his longtime love, Bo Derek.

Q: Do you think this album was greeted with less of that actor-moonlighting-as-musician skepticism as the first? Do people now realize you’re serious about music?

A: The first record we put out, we didn’t know what we were doing, we hadn’t played shows. I just wanted to make a shiny country record. We tried to put 10 No. 1 country singles out on it. But I didn’t go in with that attitude for the second one. And the reception has been surprising. We’ve gotten nothing but good reviews. I think people came out (to shows) at first with really low expectations, but then left there saying, “These guys are kind of fun and they know what they’re doing. I’d probably go and see them again.”

I spent a lot of money on a publicist and radio promotion team that first go-round. We went to every major city, we played 225 (to) 235 shows, which is a lot of shows that first year. But we’ve managed to go back just about every year to a lot of those cities we first went to. So we have a following now. I actually do not like playing at performing-arts centers or places where there are chairs to sit down. I like bars, I like people to be able to dance and be loud and talk. I don’t need silence when playing songs. I like it rowdy.

Q: Well, the State has seats, but there’s also a little space to dance. And they sell beer. How has your live show evolved over the years? Do you tour with the same band? What can people expect?

A: We’re a four-piece band on the road – same band, same guys. The only difference is we’ve probably played 600 shows since that show in Modesto, which I believe was one of our very first shows.

Q: You worked with a longtime Guy Clark collaborator, Jon Randall Stewart, on this new album, how did that come about?

A: We became really good friends touring on that first album. We did a lot of talk shows, and he and his wife came out and played with us. A year before this record came out, I called him and said, “I want to make a record and I want you to produce it and I want to sing all of your songs.”

He said, “Dude, there’s no way I’m going to make a record with you singing all of my songs. I’d look like an egomaniac.” But there are still seven to eight Jon Randall songs on there. You listen to (his songs) and you can paint your own picture. He doesn’t have any slick production.

Q: Are you interested in writing and recording your own songs someday?

A: There are no songs of mine on the record – I don’t share that gift. I can write, but I can’t write a song as good as Jon Randall. This has never been a vanity project for me. I wanted to sing songs that it felt like I’d lived and can relate to. Some people have certain gifts and some people don’t, and songwriter is not my strong point. I’m not a very good joke teller, either. So do I want to put seven great songs on the record and three on there just because I have my name on them? Then I’m leaving three great songs on the side.

Q: Now, you’re serious about your music, but you’re obviously still serious about acting, too. You’ve got a movie coming out with Jennifer Lopez next. You’ve actually worked with a string of great leading ladies, from Sarah Jessica Parker to Toni Collette. Do you like projects with a strong female lead? Or do you just make a good romantic foil?

A: Not really. When you’re in my position as an actor, which is a working actor, it’s a good position to be in. A small percentage of people can say they make a living doing this. My niche has been the romantic leading boyfriend and good-guy role, which is an OK thing to do. But it’s not where I have the most fun. I got to make a movie recently – who knows if anyone will ever see it? – called “The Lookalike,” where I was a bad guy. We shot it in New Orleans and that reinvigorated my desire to go do this. It’s like anything anybody does for 25 years, it gets a little boring if you don’t change it up.

But something like “The Lookalike” is where I have more fun. Someone called me up to go to, of all places, Alaska, where I’ve never been even though I did “Northern Exposure,” which we shot in Seattle. They asked me to play a nice-guy cop in a movie. If I’m going to go to Seward, Alaska, and leave my beautiful home in Southern California, I have to really want to go. And not for another nice-guy role. Maybe the bad guy, but not the nice guy.

Q: So would you consider returning to television and series work again?

A: Did an embedded pilot for an “NCIS” spinoff last year. They introduce your characters into an existing show already. I signed up for that, thinking, “OK, it’ll probably be picked up and I’ll be part of that machine again,” which is a good thing. But there’s a trade-off for being on a hit TV show, and that trade-off is all of your time. They’ll give you a nice chunk of change, and in return you’ll give them all of your time.

I live (on a ranch) about two and a half hours from L.A. If I did the show, I’d be living in a hotel every night away from Bo at home, my doggies at home, my horses at home. We have a place here and it’s where we live; when I have to go someplace else, I get really homesick. Going on the road with the band is fun because there is a beginning, middle and end. I go out for two weeks and come back. But a TV show is like six or seven years.

That’s a long way to answer the question, but I’ve taken myself out of that (TV) equation for this year, anyway. When the spinoff wasn’t picked up, at first I was old-fashioned disappointed because of the rejection. But after four months went by, I realized I would have started up in May and then been gone for 11 months to shoot. Add I realized I was not ready to do this. Now I’m completely through the roof that I don’t have to do that every single day.

Q: And you do a lot of side projects, particularly voiceover work. You were really trying to get me to shop at Walgreens this holiday season and have been the Applebee’s guy. How did you get into voiceover work?

A: I’ve been doing voiceovers since I guess about 1990. Since I got my first big campaign, I’ve done General Electric, Isuzu, Ford, Budweiser. I was the voice and face of Ford from 1997-2001. In fact, the reason I got “Sex and the City” was Sarah Jessica Parker saw me on a Ford commercial and said, “I remember him from ‘Northern Exposure.’ Let’s bring him in for ‘Sex and the City.’ ”

Q: I guess you just have the kind of voice that gets people to want to buy things?

A: Well, I don’t know if it gets people to buy things. On Twitter, a lot of people hate my voice. They want to punch me in the face.

Q: So, no more Mr. Nice Guy indeed. John Corbett, looking for serial killer roles and ready to be punched in the face.

A: Yeah, exactly.

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