An electric red suburban cuts through Colorado’s wilderness, windows down, blaring a distinct flavor of country music. In the driver’s seat is a young man wearing a camo hat and an American flag hoodie. The world can see him singing along to his own homegrown tunes because he’s snap-chatting the whole scene, holding his iphone out near the dashboard so that his fans get a close-up selfie of the lipsync. “For those of you who don’t know what’s going on right now, I am a creator on Patreon and I have almost 2,000 patrons,” he tells his followers. “One of my promises in return for their support is that I fly two random patrons out once a year to go on an adventure with me.” This year he’s picked the mountain town of Breckenridge and he’s on his way to the airport to pick up two of his Gold members—each of whom have been pledging $100 per month for more than a year.
The weekend—which the rest of his fans follow, jealously, through his snaps—is quite the adventure indeed. The trio go ice-skating, hike mountains, “eat like champions”, have snowball fights, fly drones, take an endless number of selfies, “high-five & smile constantly”, and of course, drive in the red suburban as their Carhartt-bodysuit-sporting country musician serenades his backseat audience. For Ashley and Evelyn, ages 31 and 25 years old respectively, it’s pretty much a dream come true.
It’s also a dream for this ole’ country boy, who has spoken to his fans before but has “never been able to look them in the eye and thank them for the support they have given me.”
Taylor Ray Holbrook is not your typical country musician—and he doesn’t want to be.
He tells this to his seventy thousand some odd fans in a YouTube video. “You all are the reason I started this in the first place, so I’m not just gonna sign it all away to somebody,” Holbrook declares, throwing a folder of papers up into the air. They flutter to the hay-covered ground of the wooden barn Holbrook is standing in as he shoots himself, selfie-style, on a makeshift video camera. “Here’s the deal: I’m not going to work for a record company. I’m going to work for you.” The camera cuts to Holbrook’s outstretched hand—as if shaking that of the audience—welcoming his fans to join him on his journey.
And what a journey it has been.
Just last month, after about a year of producing singles, Holbrook released his very first album as an independent artist. It’s called Backroads, and on it, are five songs about growing up in the country—getting high, drinking, and “lovin’ in the middle of nowhere.” He even sings a passionate sonnet to everyone’s favorite 90s teen, Topanga, of Boy Meets World, who he uses to symbolize his “future wife”.
You might think this is eccentric for a country music star, but it works: Holbrook’s fans are obsessed with him. On iTunes and Google Play, the album totes five stars, with nearly 500 gushing reviews to boot. “His songs come from the heart and when he sings them you can just see he puts his whole soul into it!” raves one fan. “Never fails to put a smile in my heart no matter what kind of day it's been,” says another. But it’s not just the music these emoji-loving groupies are addicted to—it’s him. Holbrook isn’t trying to be anyone but his goofy, 25-year-old, “good’ole boy” self. He takes silly GoPro videos; he makes weird selfies with Snapchat filters and cartoon figures; he even shows off his grisly wounds from the hospital bed. He’s real in ways other manicured musicians aren’t, and that has everything to do with his 500,000+ rabid internet followers.
That—and his fans say he’s pretty easy on the eyes. With short brown hair (often partially covered by a baseball cap), high cheek bones, and a smattering of freckles across his face, Taylor Ray Holbrook is, at least for his teen girl admirers, “the guy you’d love for ya mama to meet.” He’s got a soft southern drawl to match his all-American looks, and he’s just about as wholesome and down-to-earth as a country boy can get. He calls his mother “momma”—emphasis on the “o”—and in every picture you see of him, his pecs cradle a prominent cross necklace. Plus, he’s almost always sporting the American flag in one way or another: a hoodie or a tight tank, a novelty belt buckle, stars n’ stripes suspenders, even his iPhone case flaunts the red, white, and blue. Hence his nickname, “Mr. America.”
Taylor Ray Holbrook sure loves America, but not as much as he loves you. Every chance he gets, Holbrook salutes his audience with the sign gesture for “I love you”—pinkie and index fingers raised, along with the thumb. You’ll see this stance in his snaps, Instagram photos, and YouTube videos—he can’t love or thank his audience enough. “They followed me from nothing to something,” he says. And they are the reason he is where he is today: on the top of the Billboard and country music charts, right next Blake Shelton and Zac Brown.
Holbrook’s humble upbringing played a key role in his success. “I was okay with struggling for a minute or two, because I grew up in poverty,” he says, openly. “I'm a good ole boy. I've got good morals, my Momma taught me right, and I work real hard.”
Born in a tiny South-West Virginia mining town called Dot, Holbrook wasn’t expecting much from life other than coal. That’s what his Daddy did, along with every other man he knew in his small town. “I knew that I liked to sing and I knew that I liked the attention that girls gave me whenever I sang to them,” Holbrook tells me. “But I was never pursuing a career in music.” In high school, his real dream was to become a software engineer. When he went to community college, however, he quickly realized that he didn’t have the math skills to make it in computers. So, with coal jobs dwindling and not many other opportunities in the areas, Holbrook signed up to be a corrections officer.
Working at a super maximum prison for 12 hours a day wasn’t the life for Holbrook. Just like the prisoners he “babysat,” he too felt as though he was locked up for half his life. After about a year working in the hole, he’d had enough—and turned back to his old high school logging haunt instead.
Holbrook joined a three-man crew as the knuckle-boom runner. “They would bring the big trees to me and I would cut them to scale and put them on the trucks,” Holbrook recalls of his 10-hour shifts. It wasn’t long before he had an accident. “Basically, I got in a hurry,” he tells me. “My chainsaw kicked up through my pant leg, cutting my calf muscle and missing my bone by 1/8 inch. I had to get 130-something stitches. Hell of scar though!”
During Holbrook’s five-week recovery, he had a lot of down time. Without much to do, Holbrook downloaded Vine and started uploading videos of himself. He didn’t think much of it—social media was fairly new to the country boy and the app was just a way to pass the time. One day, he took a video of himself singing a cover of a Luke Bryan song. “That was just a popular song on the radio at the time and I knew people liked it, so I just put it up not thinking anything about it,” he remembers. He woke up the next morning to his phone buzzing nonstop. “I had gained 13,000 followers overnight.”
Up until that point, Holbrook had mostly just sung for his friends at bonfires or home-town gatherings. He’d never written a song before, nor had he ever sung professionally. But when his Luke Bryan cover, “Do I”, went viral, he gave a musical career a second thought.
Holbrook’s inbox was full: “I was getting thousands of emails from people saying ‘OMG, I love you so much, you should do this song, I want your music, I want to buy your music.’” That got him thinking. He’d seen other artists sell their music for 99 cents—what if he sold one of his songs for a dollar and all of his 30,000 followers bought it?
He tried it. And within 24 hours, he’d made $13,000—and his song was #4 on the Country Music charts. “I was up by Blake Shelton and Zack Brown and suddenly I saw the light,” he tells me. “I had enough confidence at that point to think that I could do this for a living.”
For every fan that reached out to Holbrook to profess their love, there was also someone from the industry who was promising fame and fortune. At that point, Holbrook was young and naïve: “I thought that was everything I wanted at the time,” he recalls. So, when a guy offered him a ticket to Georgia, telling Holbrook he would make him rich and famous, Holbrook didn’t even blink—the next morning he took his first-ever plane ride.
Unfortunately, this Georgian turned out to be, in Holbrook’s words, “a business man.” He was playing at little run down bar that “didn’t even like country music”—he could see the fella was just out to make money off him. “That was a big mistake,” Holbrook says. He cut ties and headed straight to Nashville to hone his craft—learn the basics of writing and producing songs on his own. “I was trying to figure out how to sustain what I was doing, without management or record labels,” Holbrook tells me. “Then I was introduced to Patreon and that’s when my life was forever changed.”
Holbrook had the followers and the music and the social media channels to connect the two—he just needed to find a way to make a living off of doing what he loved. And Patreon gave him a platform to do just that. With his fans behind him, he could go it alone in the music biz. “Once I saw success coming from Patreon, that's when I knew I was okay,” says Holbrook. “That’s when I decided to do this full on, independent, and say no to all the industry folks contacting me.”
From day one, Holbrook put his fans above all else and it’s rewarded him in the long run. He never goes a day without sending them emojis, selfies, snippets of new songs, or words of encouragement. “I think there’s a lot of sad people that follow me,” he says. “And I think I make a big difference in their day with my positivity.” It’s true: Holbrook’s fans are the first to tell him that his music has saved them—from heartbreak, or suicide, or even just their small country towns. They connect with him in a way they couldn’t with other big country stars—perhaps because they see Holbrook as one of them. “I'm no better than they are,” he says. “I may be considered famous but I am still your average Joe.”
When Holbrook went viral, his follower count grew exponentially, making it even harder to communicate with his hardcore fans. But Patreon helps Holbrook bridge this gap: “It puts me on their level,” he says. Holbrook invites them into his recording studio with behind-the-scenes footage; he lets them hear songs as he’s writing them and seeks advice on what to do next; he even rewards two lucky supporters each year with a Holbrook-sponsored adventure.
In return, his fans fund his life in Nashville. Since 2015, he’s signed his first apartment release, paid for his first truck, and released fifteen singles, along with his new album. He’s also established his own corporation—and he’s done all of this without a manager. He contracts out producers, videographers, and accountants when he needs the help, and his mom helps him distribute merchandise. Holbrook really owes it all to his supporters—and of course, the platform that connects them: “Patreon has funded everything: my entire musical process and then some.”
It’s also allowed him to find true happiness. “All I need now,” he says, “is a dog and a wife.”
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