By Brittney Burns • SMN Intern
Sylva native Matt Stillwell spent the last week of September as the opening act for country recording artist Luke Bryan’s 2010 Farm Tour.
In fact, the 35-year-old Stillwell has spent the past year touring all over the Southeast, playing shows with other well-known country acts such as Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Alan Jackson and Darius Rucker.
Even with his growing success as a Nashville recording artist, Stillwell never forgets his roots and family in Jackson County.
“I don’t think I have changed, just grown,” he said.
Stillwell is a graduate of Western Carolina University, where he played baseball and made it to the SoCon Championship game. Before becoming a Catamount, Stillwell played baseball for the Mustangs at Smoky Mountain High, and before that he was proud to call himself an Eagle at Fairview Elementary.
Although his first professional music experience was in gospel, Stillwell soon began the transition to country so that he would have a broader audience and greater appeal. He admits that music appealed to him most because the hit it made him with the ladies, and Stillwell continues to flash his trademark smile at his performances, which he calls “really big parties.”
Stillwell’s early musical influences were the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Today, Stillwell combines those outlaw country/southern rock roots with modern country to create his own unique voice. That sound is showcased on his newest album, Shine Deluxe.
It is because of the love and support of his family and friends that Stillwell believes he has done so well in his career. Several members of Stillwell’s family still live in Sylva including Madge and George Stillwell, his parents, brothers Jeff and Luke, and Polly Wilson, his grandmother. Stillwell lives in Nashville, but returns home as often as possible to visit.
“I get home whenever I can. For the last couple of years that has been about every two months or so. If I’m close, I’ll always try and stop through town even if it’s just to eat, sometimes just a hug,” said Stillwell.
Coming back to his hometown keeps him grounded, said Stillwell.
“It is important for me to come home because that’s where I love to be, not just because of my family but because of friends and because that has shaped who I am is in Sylva and Western North Carolina.”
Stillwell often references Sylva and his family in his music; in one song he sings about meeting his brothers at the Coffee Shop, and in his “Dirt Road Dancing” music video he features his brothers’ dance moves.
Stillwell thanks his family for giving him the values and motivation to work hard for what he wants; his entire family has always worked hard for what they have, and that has taught him how important that is.
“Both mom and dad completely sacrificed everything for me and my brothers, and that has meant the world to us. They gave us the confidence to do whatever we dream of, and I will never be able to repay them for that,” Stillwell said.
Both Stillwell’s brothers and his father have construction companies, and have always been up before dawn and come home after dark in order to be successful. His mother was a school teacher and got three boys out of bed, to school, and to ball practice every day.
When Stillwell began focusing on his musical career, the Sylva community welcomed him and supported his efforts.
“Sylva has always given me support and a place to come and play and build a following and momentum in my career. Even when I was just learning to sing, write and play, the entire town has always been good to me and that gave me confidence and something to build a career on,” Stillwell said.
On a wider spectrum, WNC has also welcomed Stillwell and has given him the small town morals and close-knit values that has helped shape who he is as an artist.
“It has given me a region, not just a town, that I am proud to say I am from and promote. There are great venues in WNC to play and there is a great history and beauty in the region. It’s great to be able to say I am from there and all that goes with it: the people, the landscape, and the pride of the area,” he said.
Sttillwell started singing in his church choir, and the Southern soulfulness and bluegrass influence is very apparent in all of his music. Stillwell hosts an annual event, Shinefest, in Fontana each summer. Shinefest highlights local artist as well as advertises various types of moonshine.
Stillwell chose the beautiful mountains around Fontana for reasons which can’t be found anywhere else.
“I did pick it [Fontana] to keep it local; there is something about these mountains that is completely unique. Moonshine is a part of the culture and Fontana embodies that; the Smoky Mountain, the cabins, the lake, the location all plays a part in the setting of Shinefest. It would be really hard to recreate the atmosphere in another area. I think you could recreate the music and party side of Shinefest, but not the atmosphere. Having everyone in one place and there for one common reason is incredible and I think it would be tough to have that somewhere else.”
Stillwell is visiting Sylva to perform at the new bar, Bottoms Up, on Friday, Oct. 22. He chose this date to return to his hometown to perform the day before the WCU/Appalachian State game, a day important to his alma matar and the community that helped raise him.
Stillwell’s continuing success has certainly not changed him. He is still thankful for the small town where he was born, and where he will always call home.
Stillwell said because of his career opportunity, “I’m more confident in who I am and I’m completely happy with what I do for a living; I’ve been able to understand that I am truly blessed to have that in my life, I don’t take that for granted at all and hope that it shows in what I do and who I am.”
See him live
Matt Stillwell will perform on Oct. 22 at Bottoms Up in Sylva.