If Zen is the intuitive illumination of the mind and spirit, then blues-rocker Corey Stevens’ mantra must be “I think I can, I think I can.”
After struggling nearly 20 years in the music business, the former Los Angeles third-grade teacher is finally seeing results from all his hard work, guts and mettle.
While mainstream America was nodding off, Stevens quietly sold more than 70,000 copies of his 1996 debut album “Blue Drops of Rain” (Eureka), and now his just-released follow-up “Road to Zen” (backed by Discovery Records’ distribution power), promises to open even more doors.
Stevens gives credit to where it’s due: rock radio.
“I’ve had real good luck with radio and a hard-core, loyal fan base,” Stevens said during a recent tour stop. “We just haven’t had the major media, like VH1 or Rolling Stone magazine. Which, to me, is kind of okay. It’s sometimes better to be the underdog. Fans will root for you that much more.
“The major media, they’re too busy covering No Doubt and Stone Temple Pilots. I’m not in and out of rehab, so I guess I have a boring life to them.”
Stevens’ working-class hero story, though, is intriguing. The Illinois native took up the guitar at an early age and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in music at Southern Illinois University. He made the big move to Los Angeles in 1980 to pursue his rock dream, but low-paying gigs forced him to fall back on his teaching skills. He taught in the L.A. Unified School District for 10 years.
“It took me 14 years to get a record deal,” he said. “I quit the teaching job once I got signed to Eureka (in 1995). Teaching was always like a side job. My music was always more important to me.”
The critically acclaimed “Blue Drops of Rain” peaked at No. 7 and spent nearly 40 weeks on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart. Stevens also kept a torrid touring pace, logging more than 100,000 miles and 200-plus shows last year.
“I was just one of those guys who wanted it really bad,” he said. “I never really gave up on that dream I had when I was a teenager. I think it’s something in your blood. It’s like, why do surfers jump out into the ocean when it’s 30 degrees? You just love it, I guess. That’s why I stuck with it all those years.”
Stevens has watched his popularity soar before his eyes.
“Take Pittsburgh, for instance,” he said. “Last year, we played there and we had like 25 people at the show. This time, we had over 1,000, because radio is playing me there. Then, the other night, we sold out the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio. That’s 1,700 people. It’s a great feeling, believe me.”
Stevens clearly has an appreciation for the blues, but his major influences are the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton. For “Road to Zen,” he said he got his inspiration from Derek & The Dominos.
“I’ve been touring with a trio,” he said, “but eventually I’d like to have a bigger band, not so much like Derek & The Dominos, but like a harp player, another guitarist and a keyboard player. I love that big sound.”
Fans and critics often compare Stevens’ voice to Clapton’s soulful touch. He doesn’t mind.
“They always say it in a good way,” he said. “When you really dig deep down into your soul and let something out, I think a different voice comes out, and that’s my voice. If you listen to Clapton, he’s got all kinds of voices throughout his career. This just happens to be the way I sound.”
BWF (before we forget): The album’s first single, “One More Time,” reached No. 22 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.