Singer/Songwriter Adam Rutledge on Finding Success, Making Music with Phil Vassar: “I’m Living a Dream”

Aspiring artists are always hoping the right person will hear their music and open doors to a bigger audience. Sometimes all the pieces line up just right, lightning strikes, friendship and business partnerships blossom and a new star is born. That’s the kind of story rapidly taking shape for Adam Rutledge. His debut EP, Runway, released Friday, June 22, and the Virginia native is opening shows this summer for country veteran Phil Vassar, who is also co-managing Rutledge with Amy Millslagle, his partner in ieightyone Entertainment.

“I pinch myself every day,” Rutledge tells Sounds Like Nashville, still amazed at how his career is progressing. He credits Vassar’s friend and collaborator Jeff Smith for introducing Vassar to his music. “Jeff is definitely the reason for all of this and has been the engine behind this all the time. My guitar player was with me the first time I went to Phil’s house. I remember Jeff texting me Phil’s gate code and I said, ‘He’s got a gate code!’ I pulled into his house and I’m shaking and trying to punch in the gate code. We pull up and there’s this beautiful house and me and my buddy were like, ‘God, what are we doing?’ We get in the house and Phil’s riding around on a Segway and stuff. It was surreal and so much fun.”

A native of Salem, VA, Rutledge had already developed a loyal following of fans drawn to his insightful songs and edgy guitar-driven sound. “It feels great, I’m not going to lie,” Rutledge says with a big smile. “If you had told my 13-year-old self that I’d be here with a new record coming out, and I’d have Phil Vassar’s number in my phone, I would have just died. I’m living a dream, literally living a dream right now. I’ve out-kicked my coverage and I’m doing more than I probably ever deserve to do. I’m really thankful for the opportunity.”

Sooo much fun playing with @philvassar last night in Lynchburg,VA! Thanks for having me!!

A post shared by Adam Rutledge (@iamadamrutledge) on

Like many country artists, Rutledge first began singing in church and then joined a Southern rock band in high school. “I played basketball in high school and my first paid gig only happened because my basketball team lost in the state quarterfinals. The next night we didn’t have a game so I got to do this gig. I remember getting paid for that gig at a Moose Lodge for a bowling league trophy ceremony. I remember getting $150 and bought a car stereo for my car the next day at WalMart. It was awesome!”

That fueled Rutledge’s desire to pursue a music career, and he began writing songs and playing gigs throughout the region, performing 200 shows a year, opening for the likes of Chris Janson, Tyler Farr, Montgomery Gentry, Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne and others. “Getting in front of that many people is priceless,” he says. “I take those opportunities to see how they sound check. I watch how they do their shows. I see how they use production and lighting. I take those opportunities to take that in and learn from that so I can implement that into how we do things.”

His big break came when Smith heard his music. “Jeff and my mom went to high school together, Amherst County High School,” Rutledge says of Smith, who serves as executive producer of his album. “My dad and Jeff played in bands together after my mom and dad met, so I started to send Jeff songs to sing background vocals on and Jeff was doing that work at Phil’s home studio. As the story goes, Jeff called Phil to listen to something and he goes, ‘Man that doesn’t suck.’ Then the next thing I know I’m in Phil’s kitchen with Jeff and we’re having a conversation.”

That conversation led to Rutledge’s debut EP. The newcomer wrote four of the seven songs on the project, including “Curls,” a sultry number inspired by his wife Kelly. “That’s a true story,” he shares. “I was sitting on the couch, waiting to take my wife out on a date. She’s got really beautiful straight black hair, naturally and this particular night she had curled her hair a little bit and when she walked into the living room, I just died. She is beautiful, but she looked great that night, so I decided I had to write a song to commend how beautiful she looked that night and that’s how it happened.”

Another song inspired by his life is “Rub a Little Dirt on It.” “That’s one of my favorites and has sentimental value,” he says. “I met my wife in high school and the song talks a little bit about that, I wore Lynyrd Skynyrd shirts every day in high school. Once I heard ‘Free Bird,’ I went out and bought every Skynyrd shirt I could find, and the song talks about a guy wearing a Skynyrd shirt. I sat behind her in German class. That’s how we met, so the song talks about that. That’s a special song for me. It’s kind of written about my experience with her and meeting her and then also my dad used to tell me when I fell down as a kid, ‘Just rub some dirt on it. Get back out there. You’ll be fine.’ So I kind of twisted that and made it about a broken heart and that’s how it happened.”

“Love Kickin’ In” is already garnering attention. Produced by Abbey and Ben Boutwell, the video for the song was filmed at Nashville’s Cornelia Fort Airpark. “Amy, my manager, sent that song to me and instantly I thought it was awesome,” he says. “The demo was in a really high key so we dropped it down a bit and rocked it up a little bit. It’s just a fun song about how good it feels to fall in love. It’s just a roll your windows down, turn up your speakers and have fun song.”

Rutledge is looking forward to hitting the road this summer and sharing the songs on Runway. He’s happy with the way his career is taking off and he has a message for his longtime supporters. “I’m doing it for them,” he says. “I think what drives me is to prove to everyone who has ever believed in me that they were right. It’s why I do it. It’s really to connect with them or anybody who has ever come to see me, spent $5 on cover charge or bought a record for $10 or spent $30 on a t-shirt. I want to prove to them that that money spent was worth it and that they were right for doing that and supporting me. That’s what I want everybody to know is, ‘Thank you for supporting me. I’m going to prove you right.’”