Anthony Hamilton’s gravel-voiced country soul has music writers reaching for their cookbooks instead of their thesauruses. Down-home cooking metaphors — from chicken bones on the table to Coca-Cola warming in the sunlight — abound in descriptions of his sound. These interpretations circle the target, but leave it to Hamilton to hit the bullseye when he says that no one has a voice blacker than his.
The Queen City native drops this declaration over the phone to me as he drives from the airport to his home near Waxhaw, and it’s no boast. It’s just a statement of fact that Hamilton is, above all else, authentic. Though he’s preparing to perform as Thursday’s headliners at the Charlotte SHOUT! Festival with a show at the Atrium Health Main Stage at Romare Bearden Park on May 9, at heart Hamilton is still the former choir boy at New Shiloh Baptist Church in west Charlotte who went on to sing in the choir at South Mecklenburg High School.
Since then, he’s been nominated for 12 Grammys and garnered one, been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and performed for Barack and Michelle Obama. Despite all that success, he’s still sure to give his high school chorale instructor Mark Setzer a shout out when he speaks to Queen City Nerve.
The man who composes and croons timeless tunes about heartbreak, faith and enduring love, and sings them in a smooth yet rugged voice, is the real deal, a humble and down to earth native son.
Queen City Nerve: Did you grow up in a musical family?
Anthony Hamilton: Music played around the house, and there were always groups coming in to church. Back then we called it the Anniversary [Celebration] where all the different churches would send their best quartets, [with] banjos, guitars and drums. These guys would come with their suits on and they would sing the church down for 14 weeks.
I’ve read that Michael Jackson’s “Ben” was a favorite when you were growing up.
Yes. There was something about the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson that drew me in. They were always on point. It was such a well-put-together sound. You could tell there was unity and hard work behind it. It paid off.
Speaking of hard work, you hit a lot of road blocks on your road to success. A couple record labels went belly up on you, records went unreleased or didn’t get much support. What kept you going in the face of disappointment?
I kept going because there were always these pockets of sweet spots that God would allow. Those were always really special, and they came at a time when I wanted to give up. It was almost like a sign to me, more of a spiritual journey.
“Don’t give up because here I am making it work out for you. Your passion and the love that you have for this is far too deep for you to give up anyway so don’t fool yourself. Keep at it.” So I just stayed the course.
Why has the music that called to you — soul, R&B and gospel — endured for so long?
Because it’s not just sonic noise. There’s a skill behind tit. There’s a message. There’s an inner life. There’s a potential in it that you can’t often get today. And it feels so good. It gets in your bones for real and you can’t shake it. That enables [the music] to stay in our lives and our hearts. It’s the soundtrack of some of the most important moments of our lives.
You took a break from singing the national anthem, but returned to it in February for the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. Why the break, and why did you feel the time was right to return to it?
America had let me down and had let some other people down. It had let our communities down. It was just disrespectful, and I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t want anything to do with it — not the song, not the flag, not anything. If I could have renounced myself as an American at that moment I would have.
I was over all the injustice and the unfair treatment of people of color, people that are poor. I felt that we had a right to feel how we feel, and people were supposed to respect [those feelings]. I had no patience for allowing law enforcement to have the power to trample over us and treat us like we’re dogs, worse than dogs. I had none whatsoever.
As time went on I thought, “You know what, you’ve been given a powerful voice. There’s no other voice blacker than yours. I’ll take this song, and I will put black on this song — this song that had been stolen, that didn’t belong to us, that didn’t really represent us, and I put us back in it.” I put community back. I put the soul back in. I put the black experience back on it. Not only is it for white America, it’s for black America today. And now everybody knows what we’ll take and what we won’t take. And it’s still going on.
Have you made your peace with the song?
It depends on who it’s for and what it’s for. I don’t just represent that song. I represent the people who feel like [I do]. If it’s for them, I’ll sing it. But if it’s for those who don’t respect or value us, I won’t. And I’ll do it exactly how I did it, even more black.
If you could time travel, what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
I’d tell him how to learn how to play guitar and piano, to not only be a great vocalist, producer and writer, but to be a great musician as well. That way you’ll never have to depend on anybody to produce anything for you. That way you can interpret yourself so organically, so pure and so matter of fact.
I read that you were thinking of moving from your home near Waxhaw because you wanted to get a basement for a home studio. Is that still your plan?
Yes. I was just rolled through a few neighborhoods, looking around at properties when I left the airport. I definitely need a building with a basement where I could build a studio. And if I don’t have the main studio in my home I’m going to get a standalone studio.
Also, you’ve been helping your two eldest sons launch a music project. What’s the status with that?
Anthony Jr. and Romeiro have a single that they’re trying to put out by June, and they’re trying to get a video done by July. It’s called “Quinii,” and it’s absolutely incredible. I didn’t know that Romeiro could rap. It’s almost like an old-school throwback. It’s so dope, and Anthony did the production for it. I’m very excited. I think the song could be really huge.
What can you tell us about your next album?
It will be my 10th studio album. I want a lot of up-tempo collaborations with some of the big heavy hitters out there. I want to collaborate on this one and give people something special, something new, different and exciting. I look forward to it.