words: Marla Cantrell images: courtesy Steve Newby
Singer-songwriter Robb McCormick is late to the interview, something he apologizes for with so much sincerity it thwarts any inkling of frustration. He’s driven an hour and fifteen minutes from his home in Russellville to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he will take the stage at the Movie Lounge restaurant and bar in less than two hours. He tried to be on time, he says, but at the last minute, he decided to swing by the coffee shop and pick up a caramel macchiato for his wife, Jeri, just to surprise her. “You should have seen the smile on her face,” Robb says, and then he smiles himself.
Robb is a big guy, soft spoken, polite. His brown hair is long, his beard is neat, his smile is bright the way the chandelier above him is bright. And while he’s here to talk about his music – the 1,500 songs he’s written; his 5,000 performances; his seven CDs; the 2012 Beaux Arts Academy Performer of the Year award – it’s his wife and his faith that keep surfacing.
As he speaks, there’s an undercurrent of sound: the low hum of the nearby diners’ private conversations, the ping of ice against crystal glasses, the piped-in music that fills the room. Robb stops, looks around. These people will be his audience soon. He orders a Coke, he pushes a strand of hair behind his ear, he scans the crowd. There are no pre-show jitters; at forty years of age, he’s been on stage far too many times for that. Robb likes the spotlight; he likes the people who come to hear him sing his brand of music, which is folksy rock, rootsy blues, a touch of the balladeer.
As he talks, he considers his life. It could have turned out a hundred different ways. Growing up in Russellville, what he knew was the daily thrum of living in a college town where students from Arkansas Tech University energized the place, and the ins and outs of helping his parents in the furniture store they owned for decades. The family also had a second house, passed down from Robb’s grandfather, and it was in Colorado, near Telluride. That’s where Robb discovered the world outside Arkansas, with its people from across the globe who vacationed in the snowy mountains, and that’s where his view of the world widened.
But even before that, when he was just a small boy passing through the doors of his kindergarten classroom for the first time, something happened that sealed his destiny. He walked in and spotted a girl named Jeri. “She was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen,” he says. “I waited six years to make my move. In the fifth grade, I sent her a note asking her to check ‘yes’ if she liked me. She did. She circled it twice, so I kind of consider that our engagement,” Robb jokes. “A couple of weeks later I saw her on the swing sets with someone else, so we kind of took a twenty-two-year hiatus. When we got back together, she was still the most beautiful girl I’d seen.”
It was in those early years, both before and after the swing set incident, when Robb found another love. At home, he made up songs. When he hit his teenage years, he discovered that girls would talk to a guy with a guitar, so he learned to play and organized a band called Sympathy. He planned to graduate, study business, but one day during his senior year a representative from Arkansas Tech showed up to talk about choral scholarships, and Robb tried out, singing his signature baritone, and got a full ride.
He stayed in school for only two years; his heart was in performing, and his band was still intact. “Honestly, I was a different person then. I was young and arrogant and full of myself, and really not talented.” Robb shakes his head. “I’m really not being humble. I listen to my old tapes and I was pretty bad, the least important member of the band, with the biggest ego. And the band mates eventually left me one at a time, and it brought me to this really humble place.
“I spent two years living in my parents’ basement when I was probably twenty-two. I bought a piano. I focused on songwriting. When I came back, I started playing music with just me and a guitar. It was frightening for someone who’d always been backed by a band. All at once it was all on me. If anyone was messing things up, it was me.”
One night, while at Kelts, a pub and restaurant in Altus, the bartender picked up the phone. On the other end someone was asking who was slated to perform. He pinched the bridge of his nose, tried to remember, and said, finally, “Some guy named Robb.” The name seemed perfect, and it’s the moniker he now uses.
It’s been sixteen years since Robb, a.k.a. some guy named robb, quit his day job and started earning a living from his music. Since then, he’s heard that some of his songs have been played at weddings and funerals, and during tumultuous times. “I was in Walmart two or three years after I released my first album and this guy came up to me. His name was Roman. He asked me if I remembered a wreck on Highway 7 that had happened the year before. Three people had died. I said I had, and out of nowhere he lifted his shirt and showed me where he’d been cut apart and sewed back together. There were tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Me and your CD are all that survived that wreck, and I just wanted to thank you because it was part of the healing process to listen to it.’ I gave him a hug and I teared up. You don’t realize how many people’s lives you’re touching when you release art. That was my reminder not to put stuff out there that ten years later you wish you hadn’t.”
His music, and his devotion to what he thinks is important shows up in his songs. He strives to be the kind of husband and father – he and his wife have two children – who will bring honor to God and to his family.
To do that he’s studied the world’s religions, he’s examined his own life, he’s spent time contemplating how he should live. “From the time I was fifteen and accepted Christ until I was twenty-three, I felt like I just wasn’t honest enough in my relationships. I felt like at that time, God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Look at the brokenness, at the mess you’ve left behind you. This is what happens when you do things your way.’ Today, my identity is not that I’m a musician or that I play guitar. I know that in a moment those things can and will be gone. My identity is who I will be eternally.”
It was because of this transformation that he got a second chance with Jeri. As Robb describes their courtship, it seems pure and sweet enough to be the plot for a Hallmark Channel movie. When he asked her to marry him, he did it in the kindergarten classroom where they’d first met. When they married twelve years ago this month, it was in a small ceremony. “I wanted it to be about me and her and God,” Robb says.
He is still so abundantly in love that he is releasing a song with the working title “Wife,” on Valentine’s Day. He hopes that the lyrics will help counteract what he sees as Hollywood’s skewed version of romance, particularly the steamy movie Fifty Shades of Grey, which will hit theaters one day before.
“I started thinking about our wedding vows, and what I would say to her today. Ecclesiastes 9:9 says your wife is your treasure; she is mine. When I was writing the song, the words ‘I would fight for her’ kept coming to me. Jeri represents peace to me; her heart is my home. We can sit in a room and be quiet, and it’s perfectly fine. We can laugh and be loud, and it’s great. Men are born with a warrior spirit. The problem is we fight for the wrong things. We need to be fighting for monogamy. Jeri and I saved ourselves for each other. And she saw how badly I wanted to stay with her and be with her. Doing that proved something to her about me and how I loved her. I only have eyes for her.”
The talk turns again to Robb’s music. There have been milestones —not so long ago he played in England and France—and he’s gathered awards that solidify his standing in the music community. But when asked what he wants to accomplish before he dies, he talks about his children, walking his daughter down the aisle, watching his son become a father himself.
He has seen the brevity of life, has been beside the bedsides of the dying, playing his guitar and singing softly. He’s played inside Tucker and Cummins prisons for men who will never take a free step again in this lifetime.
The telling of these stories takes him back to his younger self, back when he thought he’d end up in the world of business. He is happy that he ended up with the life he has. It wouldn’t have happened without the faith that keeps him yearning to be better, that keeps him walking in the light of Christ, even on days that would otherwise be rife with darkness.