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‘Straight and Narrow’ Singer Sam Barber on His Breakthrough Song: ‘I Think It Has Found Its Own Kind of Purpose’

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On Sept. 23, “Straight and Narrow” singer Sam Barber stepped into the six-foot circle of hardwood positioned at the heart of the Grand Ole Opry stage, a circle salvaged from the Opry’s former Ryman Auditorium home, to make his debut performance at the historic institution.

“I was definitely nervous for that show,” Missouri native Barber, 20, told Billboard over Zoom. “But as soon as I stepped in the circle and everything, it kind of all hit me and it was a pretty crazy feeling.”

Making an Opry debut — and thus, entering into a nearly century-long lineage of Opry performers — is a vaunted milestone for any artist, but perhaps even more so for Barber, given that his first official headlining concert came a scant three months earlier. That’s when he played a sold-out show at Nashville venue The Basement, bolstered by the breakthrough success of his solo-penned “Straight and Narrow,” an acoustic guitar-based song layered with lyrics about soldiering on despite several setbacks.

Barber earned his first Billboard chart entry when “Straight and Narrow” debuted at No. 24 on the Hot Rock Songs chart and No. 38 on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart in April. The song currently sits at No. 41 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

Barber was studying civil engineering at State Technical College in Linn, Missouri, when he began releasing music, including 2021’s “Run Away High,” “As Time Passes” and “Drowning.” Notably, Barber had written “Straight and Narrow” long before it became a breakthrough: It was the first song Barber wrote when he was 16 years old.

“I was just trying to write something that sounded good to me, but I think it’s found its own kind of purpose and people have their own takes on it,” Barber says. “It’s a song about whatever you’re going through, to keep going pretty well in the end.”

Though he says his earliest releases were slap-dash affairs — “just audio from my phone, using voice memos” — he sought a higher-quality, still direct approach to recording “Straight and Narrow.” “It wasn’t a studio; I just recorded it with a mic in a bedroom,” he explains. “It was still a simple recording — there were no changes made or anything, but I wanted people to hear it.”

He estimates he had 200,000 total monthly Spotify listeners by the time he released “Straight and Narrow” in late 2022 — though that number has quickly improved, with Barber (who is managed by Outlaw Foundry’s Jerrin Uecker and Colton Kramer) now boasting over 4 million monthly Spotify listeners.

Last month, Barber followed “Straight and Narrow” with his eight-song debut EP, Million Eyes, released through Lockeland Springs with Atlantic Records. He’s booked by Wasserman Music, and is in talks with music publishers. Barber has a slate of club shows through the end of the year, as well as shows supporting 49 Winchester. In 2024, he will perform at the Stagecoach Festival.

“I just want to play live as much as I can,” Barber says. “I love playing live. It’s the best part of it, just meeting fans and taking music as far as I can.”

Billboard caught up with Barber, our October Rookie of the Month, to discuss songwriting, his influences, and his Million Eyes EP.

When did you become interested in music?

I was into sports growing up. My dad is a mechanic, and my mom is a nurse, but they don’t do music. My great-grandfather had a guitar, and it was in my parents’ room. When I was 15 or 16, I just thought it’d be cool to learn it. I never actually met him, but from stories I heard and pictures I’ve seen, he used to play in bars and stuff. I started watching YouTube videos, learning to play, and went from there. I did a lot of Zach Bryan covers, and then mostly just started trying to write my own music.

On your Million Eyes project, you worked with producer Eddie Spear, who has worked with Zach and Brandi Carlile. How did the two of you connect?

I knew of him, and he ended up messaging me on Instagram and asked if I would want to work with him. He’s one of my favorite people ever. He’s helped drive a lot of my ideas and make them something more than I could have made it, personally.

“All That I Have” is another standout on Million Eyes. When did you write that?

I wrote that one quite a while back. I was just picking around on my guitar and I had that intro part. It was a pretty quick write. In the song, the guy doesn’t have a lot — his guitar is pretty much all he has. He’s in love with this girl and their love is enough for each other.

What’s your favorite song on Million Eyes?

Definitely “Save Me.” I started writing it in high school and kind of forgot about it for a long time. I ended up looking through my songbook and found it again. It was half-done, so a month or two before we released the EP, I finished it. I kept the first half pretty much the same. I just try to write things that connect with more people than myself.

Who are some of the artists and writers you look up to?

Tyler Childers is huge. When he was 18, he put out Bottles and Bibles, and that’s my favorite album ever. I’ve definitely tried to be kind of in that lane. But of course, I listen to a lot of Zach Bryan and Chris Stapleton — those are probably my main three. But I also listen to a lot of indie artists. I’m a big fan of Richy Mitch and the Coal Miners; they are just good dudes. But then, I’m also a big fan of Kings of Leon.

You’ve written most of these songs yourself. Do you prefer writing by yourself to co-writing?

I really enjoy writing by myself. I think the songs come out much better. I think it’s hard to make a really emotional song when it’s two or three brains going into one song. I think it creates more of a bland song; it’s hard to be on the same emotional page as someone at the same time like that. But also, I have to be in a certain headspace to write. I can’t just say, “Tomorrow, I’m going to sit down and write a song.” I can’t really do that — I have to be like, “Okay, I’m feeling like this, like I need to write about it.”

On Million Eyes, you include a cover of U.K. duo Dani and Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Sky.” What do you think of other artists covering your songs?

I love hearing people’s renditions of anything. I like when people twist things around and make it their own.

You said that performing is your favorite part of pursuing this career. Do you have a favorite story of a fan interaction?

One guy drove 17 hours to meet me. I ended up talking to him for a while and he got my signature tattooed on his arm. That was pretty awesome.

Who was the first artist you saw in concert?

Chris Stapleton. My parents took me when I was a kid.

You’ve mentioned Zach and Tyler, and, of course, more roots-oriented music has had a big moment this year on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. What are your thoughts on releasing music at this time?

I think I’m in the most perfect time I could be for what I’m doing. People are just going to all these streaming apps and listening to whatever they want. It’s becoming a thing, just acoustic guitars and voices. I think a lot more kids are picking up guitars and finding out, “I’m not that bad at this,” and it’s bringing a whole new aspect to music in general. I think it’s only for the better, and we’re just finding so many young and great artists out of this whole time period.

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