'City' Man Goes Country

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

Eighteen months into a role he felt destined to play, John Corbett is having the time of his life. And that leaves no time for any regrets about putting a two-decade acting career on hold for two years to chase a new one in country music.

"It's incredible, man," Corbett says enthusiastically from the Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., ranch he shares with his girlfriend, actress and animal activist Bo Derek. Corbett has been enjoying a break in an ambitious tour that brings him to the Birchmere on Thursday in support of his eponymous self-financed album, recorded in late 2004 in Nashville and released in November.

And he's chomping at the bit.

"It's like making a movie," says Corbett, 45. "You make the movie, but by the time the movie comes out, the creative part's over and now you're just telling people about it. We're just out there spreading the gospel, which we've been doing basically for the last year.

"But I tell you, I'm ready to go make another album and be creative again, and things are just getting better and better every month. If this were the end of the two years, we'd have to keep on going. We're booked up -- if you see our schedule, it's pretty daunting -- and maybe in seven or eight months, there won't be time to do movies."

Corbett, who grew up in Wheeling, W.Va., has music in his bones -- he was 7 when he acquired his first guitar at the Big Wheel variety store -- and the country strand is understandable. Corbett's family lived five blocks from the Capitol Music Hall, Saturday night home of "Jamboree USA," the second longest-running live radio broadcast after Nashville's "Grand Ole Opry." An uncle owned the 150-seat Club Madrid (his mother was a waitress there), where musicians stopped by and jammed with the house band after Capitol Music Hall shows. The dominant radio station in Wheeling was country giant WWVA.

Corbett, however, was into rock. "In the mid-'70s, I was a teenager -- 14, 15 years old -- and I was listening to Kiss, Queen, Styx and Kansas, and they all played the Capitol Music Hall. I worked there when I was 16 as a security guard -- I think they thought I was much older because I was always tall -- I was probably 6-4 when I was 16." (He would top off one inch taller.)

"I actually worked for bands like Kansas," Corbett recalls. "I'd be with those guys all day making sure they had everything they needed within a few minutes of when they wanted it -- it was a weird first job!"

Naturally, Corbett fantasized about playing Capitol Music Hall; he hasn't done so yet, though he has played the Opry. And he'll perform July 15 at the Jamboree in the Hills country music festival in nearby Morristown, Ohio, billed just below Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd, Carrie Underwood and headliner Keith Urban. Wheeling's best-known country star, Brad Paisley, headlines at Nissan on Saturday.

A quarter-century ago, Corbett had just graduated from Wheeling Central (he was the first in his family to finish high school, albeit 92nd out of 94 seniors) and moved to California. Not to act -- he'd never had such ambitions -- but to work in the steel industry, Wheeling's steel mills having pretty much shut down. It wasn't until six years later, when a back injury forced him to look elsewhere, that Corbett sat in on a friend's improv class at a community college and got the acting bug.

Corbett got into the business through a familiar back door -- television commercials, doing about 50 before landing his first guest spot in 1988 as the hippie boyfriend of Karen Arnold in the first season of "The Wonder Years." A 1990 Jack in the Box commercial earned him an audition on "Northern Exposure," where he spent five years portraying philosophy-spouting DJ Chris Stevens and briefly toyed with the notion of making something a DJ would play.

"Once I got on 'Northern Exposure' and I got some fame and was on the cover of TV Guide and in magazines and had been nominated for a Golden Globe and Emmy, I thought maybe I'm going to use this fame to capitalize on it, see if I can put a record out," Corbett says. "I was never a great guitar player, but I thought, 'I can sing well enough, and I know I can be sort of interesting to watch onstage because I've seen enough.' I owned a live music venue for a decade in Seattle and performed three or four times just as a goof with bands that were there."

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