Billy Currington has a way of making things look easy — a decade's worth of hits, the curly-haired surfer image, the Georgia drawl, swinging from a chandelier with Shania Twain in a music video.
So it's hardly a surprise that the opportunity to sing with one of his idols just kind of happened.
Currington's fifth studio album, 2013's "We Are Tonight'' — the same release that includes a cover of Jack Johnson's "Banana Pancakes'' — finds the 40-year-old country music star lamenting how it's "Hard to Be a Hippie'' in a duet with none other than Willie Nelson.
It used to be just walking down the street/Would make the people stop and stare/Now all the cowboys and the preppies/And the rednecks and the yuppies have long hair.
The lyrics are the work of songwriter Scotty Emerick, who happens to be one of Currington's best friends. So when Currington first ran across the song on YouTube, he told his buddy he'd love to record it. Just one problem: Nelson had already told Emerick he had an interest in it.
Fast forward a year later when Currington and Emerick played a gig opening for Nelson. Currington had never met the 81-year-old icon, but Emerick knew him because he wrote the hit song "Beer for My Horses'' with frequent collaborator Toby Keith, who recorded it as a duet with Nelson.
"Scotty says, 'Hey man, Willie wants us to come over and hang out with him on his bus.' So we did,'' Currington said. "Scotty shares the story with Willie. 'Hey, Billy likes that song 'Hard to Be a Hippie' also. You still planning on cutting it?' (Willie): 'Oh yeah, I still love that song.' So Scotty says, 'Maybe you guys should do it together.' Just right then Willie says, 'Yeah, sounds good to me.'
"And it just took shape from there. Of course, if he's gonna say it I'm gonna hold him to it. I held him to it!'' Currrington says, laughing. "I've always wanted to meet him. He's one of my idols. He's a legend. It was just natural the way it happened.''
Things have had a way of falling into place for the 40-year-old Currington since his introduction to country music fans in 2003 with his first hit, "Walk a Little Straighter,'' and, in splashier fashion a year later, as Twain's sexy duet partner on the hit "Party for Two'' and accompanying flirty video. In the 10 years since, he's racked up a dozen singles that include "Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right,'' "Good Directions,'' "People Are Crazy,'' "That's How Country Boys Roll,'' "Pretty Good at Drinkin' Beer'' and "Let Me Down Easy.''
"We Are Tonight'' has added to the collection with "Hey Girl'' and the title track, an amped-up summer anthem with a rock feel that Currington said he knew had big potential when producer Dann Huff sent it his way.
"I was blown away that the first song he brought to the table was such a good one,'' Currington said. "I could imagine the power of this song if you ever got to play it in an arena or a stadium or something like that. ... That's kind of the reaction we're getting out here every time we play it. Everybody seems to love to chant that 'We are, we are, we are tonight.'''
In addition to his own songwriting, Currington also has a talent for finding great songs by other writers, including the two tunes he says he's most identified with: "People Are Crazy,'' a Grammy-nominated classic from Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones, and "Good Directions,'' co-written by Luke Bryan. His song choices lean feel-good — something for which he has his concert-going youth and his niece to thank.
"I remember back in the day going to concerts, and over the years I've seen so many shows, and I always remembered the type of songs that would light me up at the show or either bring me down to where I kind of faded off and didn't pay attention,'' he said. "Also I would play lots of songs that I wrote when I first started writing to my niece, who was a teenager at the time. If I ever played some sad song or something like that, I could never get a good reaction from her. But If I ever played something that was fun with positive energy, it would light her up and she'd want to hear it again and again.
"I always remembered that. That seems to be the right type of songs to go for, for my career, personally. That's what I always kind of look for in a song — a song I know I can have fun playing live and everyone is going to kind of feel the same way about it.''
The "We Are Tonight'' album isn't even a year old yet and Currington is already eight songs deep on the follow-up. It'll be a mix of songs he penned as well as cuts from new writers. He hopes to have it out by year's end.
"It's a lot sooner getting back to work on music than I thought I would be, but it just felt right to get started with Dann Huff again,'' he said. "We're just laying 'em down as they come.''
There he goes with that making-it-look-easy thing again. It's a career path the former personal trainer doesn't ever take for granted.
"If you live in the past and look back at what I dreamed of and what would happen by a certain age, well, it definitely turned out different,'' he said. "But to me, it turned out perfect. Everything fell in place where it was supposed to. Right where I am today, I feel blessed. I feel like I couldn't have had any better songs than I've had. I've been blessed to be a part of the songwriting community both in L.A and also Nashville. I've been able to write with some great writers and get songs from them when I couldn't write. I could go on and on. I've done some great duets with some of the best. I couldn't have drawn it out any better. I'm very thankful.''
Currington is out on the road this summer playing solo shows as well as dates with Lady Antebellum. Touring takes the self-described beach bum away from the water's edge and into the middle of country, including Friday's show at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour and recently Fargo, N.D., where he called from for the interview.
"We were talking about where we were going to run today, so we opened up the windows on the bus when we got here this morning and you could see for miles and miles, as far as you could see, places to run,'' he said.
More than a couple of days from water for Currington, who lives on Tybee Island along the coast of Georgia, and he gets the itch for some shoreline.
"Any time past two days I start having a lot of dreams about spear fishing or cast netting or surfing, you name it. I really start missing it. So it only takes a couple of days before I start finding any way I can to get back toward the ocean, because that's just who I am and more than likely where I'll always be,'' he said. "I live on the ocean. I grew up on the ocean. It just has always been a part of me, so I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.''
What Green Bay lacked in beaches during his last visit in 2011 as part of the Kenny Chesney tour that played to 45,000 at Lambeau Feld, it made up for in good vibrations on land. Currington said that night remains one of his most memorable shows.
"Me and to the rest of the band, still to this day, that was our favorite gig we played that year — by far,'' he said. "Oh man, I mean the energy. If you were there you remember, it wasn't normal to be exposed to that much energy by so many people in one spot. We were in heaven. We won't ever forget that one.''
— email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.
Who: Billy Currington, with Old Dominion
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Outagamie County Fair, Seymour
Tickets: Advance $35 VIP/trackside, $30 reserved grandstand (both include $5 fair admission) at Baylake Bank in Seymour until noon Friday. After noon Friday, tickets at grandstand ticket office and do not include fair admission.
ALSO PLAYING THE FAIR
Thursday: Easton Corbin, 7:30 p.m. Advance $35 VIP/trackside, $30 reserved grandstand (both include $5 fair admission) at Baylake Bank in Seymour until noon today. After noon today, tickets at grandstand ticket office and do not include fair admission.
Saturday: AC/DC tribute band Hells Bells, 7:30 p.m. $5 general admission day of only (does not include admission to fair).
More info: The Outagamie County Fair runs through Sunday. Admission is $3 before 1 p.m. and $5 after, with children 12 and younger free. Daily schedule at outagamiecountyfair.com.