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At 4:30 p.m. on a warm Monday afternoon, the Port Royal Post Office has closed its counter for the day, but as residents stopping by to pick up mail open the doors of their P.O. boxes, the sounds of country music come floating out from the back room where postmaster Chris Hawkins is finishing up reports for the day.
The snatches of song are a hint at another sphere of life Hawkins has put his stamp on—country music songwriting. Represented by performing rights powerhouse BMI and produced by, among others, Nashville notable Steven Cooper, Hawkins has made a name for himself in the genre, attracting attention from musicians such as Earl Scruggs and winning a host of awards, including second place in an invitation-only songwriting competition at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame judged by Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels (of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame), Randy Moss of the band Alabama, and, unexpectedly, Ernest Borgnine.
In an ironic nod to his day job, his songs have even showed up on RFD-TV, a network devoted to rural life that draws its name from the rural free delivery that brings mail to residents in the country.
Songwriting has been in Hawkins’ veins since his childhood in “the middle of nowhere” in Wolfe County, Kentucky, which at the time lacked a hospital and educated many of its children in a one-room schoolhouse but was home to a thriving musical culture.
“Everybody there could play an instrument or sing,” said Hawkins. “You just took it for granted.”
Although his day job in the postal service has so far prevented Hawkins from pursuing music full time, it has remained a constant thread running through his life. Unlike many musicians, performance isn’t what draws him to the music—it’s the storytelling. Hawkins remembers one publisher once telling him, “Chris, you can write the best three-minute story of anyone I’ve ever met.”
That emphasis on the story makes Hawkins more at home in what’s now seen as a more “old-fashioned” genre of country that over the past decade has been increasingly supplanted by the more rock-like New Country.
“All of the music now is more synthetic music than it is real,” he said. “I can’t understand the story they’re trying to tell.”
In Hawkins’ songs, those stories run the gamut from the tongue-in-cheek tale of a rich man who meets a gold-digging woman in a bar in “I’ve Got Lots of Money” (“Anytime’s a good time, ’cause you’ve got money,” she tells him in the song’s chorus) to the poignant story in “The Letter” of a young soldier writing a letter home to his fiancée the night before his death in the battle to capture Baghdad.
The latter spawned an unexpected story of its own when country music superstar Tim McGraw recorded “I’m Already Home” in 2007 based on the same idea, leading Hawkins’ publisher, Lamp Music, to sue McGraw. Currently, the case is still tied up in the courts.
That incident is only one example of the tough road that many modern country songwriters today face, said Hawkins. In a world where top performers employ stables of up to 100 songwriters to churn out material for them, competition is stiff, and the power lies in the hands of big record labels who don’t hesitate to move onto the next songwriter and the next song as soon as they encounter an obstacle.
“Stuff in Nashville moves so fast, they don’t want to wait,” said Hawkins.
It’s a high-pressure environment that may spawn big hits but doesn’t exert much of a pull on Hawkins, who, having found success while living in Caroline, is content just to jaunt down to Music City when necessary.
“I have no desire to move to Nashville,” he said. “The lifestyle’s just not for me. … I’d just be a face in the crowd.”
Furthermore, in recent years, Hawkins has turned his musical attention closer to home—and now that the U.S. Postal Service has announced its intention to reduce the hours of the Port Royal branch, he may finally have the time to devote to a pet project of his own: starting up a “music café” in the Fredericksburg area.
“There’s a lot of music underground in this area that people don’t know about,” he said. A single search for musicians on the popular site BandMix.com, he said, turned up over 450 people in the area looking to get out and perform, either solo or in groups.
“There’s nowhere to go to (perform around here),” Hawkins said.
If he gets his way, though, there soon will be. In Hawkins’ vision, his music café would be a space where people could come and play music for free. The establishment might offer some kind of refreshments, but the focus would be more on the performers than the food service, he said. An attached recording area would also be a welcome addition to the region for local musicians.
Bringing that passion for music out of the back room of the Port Royal post office to a more public venue in the Caroline area would be a big change. But as any good country songwriter knows, sometimes you’ve just got to get up on that horse.
And for Hawkins, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the music.
“Each song I write,” he said, “I try to do a little better.”