Travelin’ Man: John Corbett Talks Life on the Road

The actor, who plays Hill Country with his band March 21, tells us why music is his first love.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Photograph of Corbett by Bo Derek.

Never accuse John Corbett of settling for an easy life. The actor, known for his roles on TV (Sex and the City, Northern Exposure) and film (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Raising Helen) released his second album, Leaving Nothin’ Behind, in February and is currently touring with his band across the US. The glamour of filming isn’t behind him, exactly—he just signed on for a lead role in CBS’s NCIS spinoff—but it’s fair to say it’s on hiatus while he’s on the road.

“It’s tough, I’m not going to kid you,” says Corbett. “We’re generally in a Chevy; I do all the driving, I book the hotels on Priceline. I can see how it’s easier for artists who have big buses, but doing it this way, like teenagers, when you’re 50 years old takes its toll on you.”

Compared with the rigors of touring, acting is “kind of easy to do,” says the West Virginia native, 51. He fell into it with a 1989 guest spot on The Wonder Years but grew up making music and had his first band at the age of ten, playing with friends on plastic keyboards and a $40 drum set from the supermarket. “We had little cheap instruments,” Corbett says, “but we learned how to play, and we learned how to make beautiful noise, and I’ve been goofing around like that ever since.”

Corbett belongs to a generation of actors who moonlight as musicians—from Kevin Costner to Hugh Laurie to Jeff Daniels, each of whom has passed through Washington with their bands during the past few years. The Bacon Brothers, a country-rock duo made up of Kevin Bacon and his brother Michael, play the Birchmere March 1 through 3, and actress/singer Megan Mullally (Will and Grace) plays the same venue March 8 as half of country act Nancy & Beth, with Stephanie Hunt (Friday Night Lights, Californication).

“It takes some balls to get out there and sing and express yourself like that,” says Corbett of actors who turn to music. “Nobody likes to sing in front of people—we all have that kind of shyness about us. But if you get over that, it’s a fun thing to do. We play a three-hour show to 400-person crowds and by midnight there are still 350 people there. So they like it.”

Corbett recorded his self-titled debut album in 2005, after a chance meeting with country star Joe Nichols at the CMT Music Awards. The two had some drinks and started playing together. “He said, ‘You’re not bad, you ought to come back and make a record,’” says Corbett. “Within a month we’d taken a trip or two and made some demos, and the thing took on a life of its own.”

“What makes this a winning debut,” read an Allmusic review of that album, “is that it feels natural and genuine, as if Corbett isn’t trying to parlay his fame into a music career; he’s simply making the music he wants to make. . . . That’s a very tricky thing for an actor launching a singing career to pull off.”

If the first record was rock-country, Corbett describes Leaving Nothin’ Behind as Americana, with a more laid-back sound. His distinctive vocals will always remind fans of his most famous characters, but his rootsy music stands on its own merits.

“It’s easy, when you’re acting, to have somebody do your hair, and to put on a nice suit that somebody picked out for you and had tailored,” he says. “Somebody gets you coffee, and if you mess the lines up they just say, ‘Oh, take two, do it again.’ This is tough. But when you walk onstage and there are 500 people there to see you, that’s where the glamour is.”

John Corbett and his band play Hill Country Live March 21.* Tickets ($20 to $25) are available at Hill Country’s website.

An edited version of this story appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

*Since this story was published, the date of the concert was changed to March 21.