by Jeff Sykes

| | @jeffreysykes

Veteran Triad rocker Clay Howard is known for his booming voice and his years as the front man for bands like stratocruiser and Diggin’ Taters. He’s a regular on the acoustic-cover circuit as well, having earned his stripes over the years, honing his guitar playing and vocal delivery both on the road and in cross-town solo gigs.

Howard, 46, puts every bit of his talent and experience into his first solo album, Who the Hell is Clay Howard, set to hit the streets April 17 at a release party at Ziggy’s Rock House Tavern in Winston-Salem.

Howard said he’s been lucky to always be in bands with great guitar players, songwriting partners who split the writing duties in half on each record. He picked up the guitar somewhere around 1990 in order to flesh out song ideas on his own, but primarily contributed lyrics and melodies to songs for the bands. He left the music writing duties to Mike Nicholson in stratocruiser, Benjy Johnson in Diggin’ Taters and George Wagner in his first band, Society’s Child.

A native of Tupelo, Mississippi, Howard moved to Greensboro with his family when he was in middle school. He first got the notion when he was in fourth grade, telling his brother that he was going to be a rock star someday. It wasn’t until his teenage years that he began taking steps in that direction, penning simple rhyming lyrics while in detention at Southeast Guilford High School, and later recording overdubs to ‘Jesse’s Girl’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ at a vocal booth at Carowinds.

After working with so many quality musicians over the years, Howard said he wanted the challenge of producing an album in which he composed both the music and the lyrics. He was curious what the process would be like.

“This one was just me, the music and the melodies and the lyrics,” Howard said. “After 10 years of doing it the other way, where I didn’t write any music, I didn’t know if I could do it or not. I just didn’t have to. (They) wrote great music and didn’t need me to write anything. This one was a lot of fun and it was all on me.”

Who the Hell is Clay Howard is a 10-song collection of straight rock tunes, the kind of tunes Howard grew up admiring in bands like Cheap Trick, Electric Light Orchestra and others. Howard wrote seven songs on the album and co-wrote three with producer Brynn Arens, a Minneapolis-based rocker who is the lead singer and guitarist for The Oddfathers, and former lead singer of 90’s favorites, Flipp.

Howard reached out to Arens “on a lark,” he says, to see if Arens would play one lead solo on a track. The relationship grew from there, with the two collaborating on one song, and then another, until Arens told him to keep sending stuff “until it wasn’t fun anymore.”

The two collaborate via filesharing and Facetime, with Howard recording tracks at home or in Benjy Johnson’s studio, and sending them up to Arens, who often retracks guitars.

Howard credits Arens and a songwriting group, the Monday Morning 3 a.m. Songwriters Group, with helping him continue to grow as a lyricist and musician.

One of Howard’s favorite tracks on the album began as an acoustic lullaby to his children, which Arens turned into an orchestrated rock anthem.

‘It’s All in Front of You’ is a big, Led Zepplin-esque journey that starts off slow and sparse, building into a wall of layered guitars, complete with tempo shifts and a complex bridge.

The songwriting group forces him to focus on his craft in those hours he can carve away from his job responsibilities at The Nussbaum Center in Greensboro and his duties as a husband and father to four children.

“You have to write a song a week or you are eliminated,” Howard said. “That has really kept me on task. The caliber of those writers is fantastic, so you don’t want to throw crappy songs out there into the mix because they are going to call you on it. It’s not really competitive, but it is in that you don’t want to put out something bad. That really kept me on my game.”

Arens, in turn, was often unforgiving, serving as both a taskmaster and a mentor. Howard admits he’s the worst at writing bridges “” tempo and key shifts that add depth to rock and pop tracks “” but that Arens wouldn’t let him slide, forcing him to rewrite material until the idea became fully fleshed out.

“He put a lot of pressure on me to make that happen on these songs,” Howard said. “It can be kind of freeing for someone to say ‘hey man, you can do better.'” After more than 20 years on the rock and roll stage, Howard retains that early swagger, but with an eye for the future.

“A lot of it now has to do with the challenge,” Howard said. “Can I write another song? Can I write another decent song that impresses me first and then put it in front of people?” Arens said that he enjoys working with Howard, who he described as having a voice that “legends are made of.”

“The effortless delivery and tone in his voice is something only God can make happen,” Arens said. “It reminds me a bit of Billy Squire, or maybe Loy Gramm minus the cheese.”

Fans of rock will delight in what Howard and Arens have produced, with the variety of straight rock, rock ballads, and retro anthems delivering a solid listening experience. !


Clay Howard will debut tracks from Who the Hell is Clay Howard at Ziggy’s Rock House Tavern, 170 W. 9th St. in Winston-Salem, on Friday, April 17. Howard will be backed by The Silver Alerts (Doug Davis, Jerry Chapman, Aaron Burkey, Corkey McClellan). Tickets are $7 and the show starts at 9 p.m.