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Songs from a squad car, security officer on the road with Carolina Rain…and back

In his trademark Crayola blue uniform and an unassuming black baseball cap, Marvin Evatt, 36, doesn’t seem much different from the average campus security officer. But as he weaves his way through throngs of aspiring Belmont musicians, he sometimes wishes he could tell them his story.

“Once I realized that I was going to come up here, I started reading books about Nashville and about the music business.  And I thought I had it down. I thought I knew exactly how it was going to work, and got here and it was nothing like I had read.  Nothing,” Evatt said.

It was better.

As part of the breakout country trio Carolina Rain, Evatt reached success Belmont students can only dream about, and it all began the night he applied for a position on Belmont’s security detail in 1998.

He had moved to Nashville to pursue his music career, and his sister, the residence director in Belmont Commons at the time, heard about a job opening in campus security.  She suggested her brother for the position, and Evatt came in for an interview.

Sitting in on that interview was a shaggy-haired man named Rhean Boyer, a campus security supervisor.

“He told me after the interview that he was a writer and singer as well. A few days later, I went out to his house and I heard him sing, and I was like, ‘Man! Yeah!’” said Evatt. “So we started Carolina Rain right here.”

A few months later, Boyer joined his church choir and met Jeremy Baxter, a mandolin-playing tenor who would become the trio’s final member.  The first time they sang together, Evatt knew they had something special.

“I haven’t had anything like that since,” he said.

The band began playing “pretty much anywhere and everywhere” around Music City, hoping for their big break, Evatt said.

Evatt and Boyer got Baxter a job as a Belmont security officer as well, which gave them a perfect, somewhat unusual opportunity to rehearse together.

“We would actually come in early and we’d go up to MBC in the big stairwell where there’s huge, massive acoustics, and we’d sing a capella in there,” Evatt said.

They thought their shot had finally come when they had the chance to sing for a top record company executive in his office.

“I remember it like it was yesterday.  We sang our song ‘Get Outta My Way,’ and he stood up about 30 seconds into it and said, ‘Stop, I’ve had enough.  I want you on my label,’” Evatt said.

Thus began a whirlwind year of paperwork and meetings.  But a nagging feeling kept telling the trio something was off.

“I’m a pretty straight-laced guy,” Evatt said.  “I like doing the right thing, and if something doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to do it.  I’d like to believe that I always make the best decisions—haven’t always, but I try to.”

Just before they were supposed to sign onto the label officially, Evatt, Boyer and Baxter decided to walk away.

“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, to have your dream sitting on the table and you walk away from it,” Evatt said.  “We walked away from that not knowing if we could ever get another deal again, which was devastating.”

In the midst of uncertainty, the band did the one thing they were certain they could do — they wrote songs.

“That’s the thing, I think, that a writing musician has — any time you’re going through pain or not knowing, you write, just like authors write. So we wrote tons of stuff just to keep our head in the game and keep our chops up because you’ve got to keep going.”

It didn’t take long before the band’s manager heard about an exciting new label, Equity Music Group, founded by country legend Clint Black. The band was just about ready to sign on as Equity’s first artist. Now all they needed was a name.

They couldn’t come up with anything on the spot, so they temporarily chose the first song they’d written together—“Carolina Rain.”

“It just stuck,” Evatt said.

Evatt left his job at Belmont and went on the road with Carolina Rain.  They released their first single, an up-tempo country tune called “I Ain’t Scared.”  Of course, their newfound fame did have some scary elements — like flying around the country for the band’s radio tour.

“I had never flown.  I was scared to death,” Evatt said, remembering how his hands shook on his first flight to Tampa, Fla.

Over the next six months, Evatt would take 168 flights, sometimes more than one on the same day.  Meanwhile, “I Ain’t Scared” was flying up the charts, debuting at No. 41 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list.

“For a new artist to debut that high, that puppy was going to go really high up on the charts,” Evatt said.

But back in Nashville, whispers of financial trouble at Equity Music Group loomed like a storm cloud over the new act’s success. The men of Carolina Rain were blissfully unaware until one day as they were driving down Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

“We just sensed that there was a problem, and [the tour’s promotional manager] said, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem.  We may be shutting the doors,’” said Evatt.  “As soon as word got out that they were having financial trouble, we just fell off the map, radio-wise.”

Slowly but surely, Equity got back on its feet, and two years later, Carolina Rain released its hit single “Get Outta My Way,” the same one that had landed them the record deal they turned down. This time, nothing was going to get in the single’s way, and it reached No. 28 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

Carolina Rain was on fire, playing shows around the country.  They knew they had hit it big after what was supposed to be a little acoustic set in Sacramento.

“So we show up at this place and we pulled into the back of it, and we were like, ‘Man, this looks a lot bigger than an acoustic show.  Somebody messed up somewhere,’” Evatt said.

“We meet the promoter, and he was like, ‘Are you guys ready to go on?  Where’s your band?’  And we were like, ‘Well, no, we’re here acoustically.  We have a banjo, a mando, and a guitar.’ And he said, ‘Um, you guys are opening for Carrie Underwood,’” Evatt remembered.

So Carolina Rain took center stage — just the three of them — for an audience of 45,000 screaming fans, belting out “Get Outta My Way” at the top of their lungs.

Just when Evatt thought things couldn’t get any better, Carolina Rain was invited to play on one of the most iconic stages in country music — the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium.

“My dad — he’s in his 70s now — he grew up just loving country and listening to the Grand Ole Opry since he was a baby on one of those old bzzzt! radios.  I believe it was his 70th birthday, and I asked permission to wish him a happy birthday from stage because he was listening to it at home in South Carolina,” Evatt said.  “He says it was his best birthday gift ever,” a fitting tribute for the man who had introduced Evatt to country music when he was a toddler.

Evatt grew up listening to his father’s massive collection of LPs, and his favorite was always Elvis Presley.

“The first song I remember singing was ‘Love Me Tender.’  And I would sing it for my parents with a little broom guitar,” Evatt said.

He learned to play a real guitar by listening to Garth Brooks’ greatest hits CD when he was in his late teens, picking out the melodies over and over until his fingers bled.  After his high school graduation, he went off to Andrew College on a full-ride scholarship as a vocal major with an opera emphasis.

During his college years, he played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” and Raoul in “Phantom of the Opera.” His vocal teacher was so impressed she offered to pay his way in New York for two years if he would try to make it on Broadway.

But Evatt just couldn’t shake the twangy guitar melodies of country music.  “I broke her heart when I went to her and said, ‘You know what, I appreciate it. I really, really, do. But I think I’m going to move to Nashville.’”

Still, his opera training came in handy years later when he was on the road with Carolina Rain,  “Singing is singing, and one great thing that [opera] did for me was [to teach] me how to sing correctly.  Even if I was singing country, I used the exact same thing that I learned in opera,” Evatt said.

As Carolina Rain started playing shows constantly, “I would never be winded, and the other guys would be huffing and puffing, so I started to show them things that I had learned in college, and then it was easy for everybody.”

Things kept falling into place as the band released their first album, “Weather the Storm,” which included their highest charting single at No. 26 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list, “Isn’t She.”

Evatt couldn’t believe his dream was finally coming true.  When Carolina Rain was nominated for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Duo or Group, “I thought somebody was playing a joke on us at first…I don’t even remember the week — that’s how in a daze I was,” Evatt said.

Though the band lost to Lady Antebellum, Evatt said just being nominated was an unbelievable experience.  Now on high demand by radio stations all across the country, Carolina Rain began working on “American Radio,” the trio’s second album.

“It was recorded.  It’s done. The album’s done.  And it’s way better than the first one,” Evatt said.

But nobody’s ever heard it.

One week before Christmas in 2008, Evatt and his bandmates were called into Equity Music Group for a meeting.

“Here’s the story that I’ve gotten.  Due to financial problems, which [Equity] said was caused by the economy, they closed.  I think that there’s a lot more to it, but I don’t know,” Evatt said.

Just like that, Equity Music Group was gone.

“It had to be like you were going through a divorce and you didn’t want it.  I’m sure that I got clinically depressed and didn’t know it,” Evatt said. “For a long time, I didn’t accept it.  I kept thinking, ‘They’ll open back, or we’ll find something else’… It’s hard to step away from something like that when you know that lifestyle and you’re used to traveling and the fans and everything.”

Evatt couldn’t find the motivation to do anything for the next year or so.  He received several offers to join groups and get back in the music industry, but he just wasn’t as passionate about it any more.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘What do I really like?’ because I wanted to stay away from the music business for a while,” Evatt said. “And every time I would have those thoughts, I would think, ‘Belmont.’”

He called his old friend Terry White, chief of campus security, to schedule an interview. Seven months ago, he stepped back onto Belmont’s campus.

“That is what lifted me out [of depression], just doing something — anything — doing something again,” Evatt said.

He loves the music-driven atmosphere at Belmont, and he tries to pop in to student showcases and recitals when he can.  “I have no problem whatsoever coming back and being an officer again,” he said.  “I love it.”

Working at Belmont has helped Evatt rekindle his old passion for an industry that burned him.  After almost two years without touching an instrument, he’s found the confidence to write songs again, and he plays his trusty guitar every day.

As for his future in the music industry?

“Who knows what’ll happen?” Evatt said, “but I’m happy here for now.”

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