Janesville guitar boy headed to Texaco Country Showdown nationals

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Neil Johnson
Monday, October 28, 2013

JANESVILLE—As he sat in a plastic chair, his acoustic guitar and microphone plugged into a small amplifier, 17-year-old country guitar slinger Zach Molitor led a crowd of 15 people in a sing-along to an old standard by outlaw country singer-songwriter David Allen Coe.  

They sang: “I was drunk the day my maw got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain … but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got runned over by a damned old train…”

Molitor's audience and singing partners: seven homeless men, seven homeless shelter volunteers and one Catholic priest. The venue: the activity center and de-facto GIFTS men's homeless shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church.

Even the priest sang along.

For Janesville native Molitor, it was a Johnny Cash “At Fulsom Prison” moment on a small scale. He'd picked up the gig after prompting by a priest at his church.

It's a good sign that Molitor has the guts to swear while singing a song in front of his own priest. Soon, he's going to have to dig up courage, confidence and southern-fried poise like he's never done before.

On Jan. 16, Milton High School senior Molitor will compete at the Texaco Country Showdown's National Championship at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The Ryman, as country music fans know, is home of the mother church and Mecca of country music—The Grand Ole Opry.

Molitor has only been singing and playing guitar for three years. But the handsome, lean, 6-foot, 4-inch boy from Rock County has an opportunity to vault his country music dreams into reality.  

Molitor, who goes by the stage name Zac “The Mule” Matthews, has beat out over 50,000 competitors in the Texaco Country Showdown, the top national talent competition for up-and-coming country musicians.

In just three months, Molitor won the Texaco showdown's local competition at Janesville's Rock County 4-H Fair. From there, he moved on to the competition's Wisconsin Championship, won that, and breezed through the first of the showdown's five regional competitions at Walker, Minn., earlier this month.   

He did so performing only songs he wrote himself—including "Drink All Night," a ditty about girls, pickup trucks and swigging booze that Molitor said he penned last year while sitting in detention study hall.

Molitor, by the way, says he's never touched a drop of booze, although he's seen plenty of it spilled on the floors while playing shows at Rock and Dane county bowling alleys and honky-tonk bars the last two years. In the last six months, he's been the opening act for country music stars Billy Currington and David Allen Coe.        

Now, Molitor is one of just five national finalists who'll vie for a $100,000 prize, a studio album deal and the Texaco Showdown's national title at the Grand Ole Opry in January.

The Texaco showdown has been a launch pad for the careers of a few country music stars you might know. Try Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride and Toby Keith.

“I don't even think about it. I can't because it just doesn't seem real right now,” Molitor told The Gazette as he sat in a backward baseball cap, a t-shirt, jeans and house slippers in his parents' guitar-strewn living room on a weekday afternoon.   

Molitor was taking a break from his online schoolwork (he's home-schooling this year to focus on his music). He'd just done a photo shoot for an album cover and stills that the Texaco showdown will broadcast on a Jumbotron as Molitor takes the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.  

Molitor's dad, Matt Molitor, had just gotten off the phone with the Texaco Showdown's management. He was working to schedule three shows in Nashville. Zach's planning to head there a couple of times in the next few months.  

“It was unreal. The (Texaco) showdown's management answered the phone and said, 'Oh, you're Zach's dad. Yeah, just let us know when you're coming to Nashville. We'll get shows or anything lined up for Zach. Whatever you need.' It's like, three months ago, nobody knew who this freakin' kid was. Now all this. Wow,” Matt Molitor said.

The Molitors want to get Zach acclimated to the country glitz and grime of the Music City before he hits the stage at the nationally televised Texaco Showdown finals. That way, he won't be jolted or freeze up or be star-struck at his big Nashville moment in January.

Meanwhile, Molitor continues to play shows solo and with his band, local country music crew The Buck Neck-ed Band. Over the weekend, the band played at a bowling alley in Milton in front of a local crowd.

At Molitor's shows, he often plays three hours. But at the Texaco Showdown nationals, he'll have just seven minutes onstage to show the judges everything he's got.   

“It's like a chess game. Seven minutes to show your chops, your talent, your music, everything. It's a short time to lay it all out there,” Molitor said.       

At the Minnesota Texaco Showdown regionals, the second-highest scorer behind Molitor was 15-year-old Maddie Poppe. During her performance, Poppe had the misfortune of a shorted-out guitar cord, which caused a distracting crackle during her performance of “Me and Bobby McGee,” according to a report in the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper.

In a time of drastic change in the music industry—music albums aren't the cash cows they once were, and recording contracts don't guarantee a financial free ride—performing and touring is the only viable way to ride the bucking mustang of country music. 

When Molitor opened up for David Allen Coe at an Illinois tavern earlier this year, he learned that lesson.

The 74-year-old country music legend performed on a stool, wearing a back brace. Coe had recently been in a car accident, and he had to be helped on and offstage, Molitor said. 

Unlike Coe, Molitor's got youth on his side, and now, no matter how he fares in the Texaco Showdown finals, he'll be considered by forces in the music industry as one of the top five young performers in country music.

Matt Molitor hopes Zach has kicked Nashville's door wide open—or, at the very least, that the powers that be can hear his Fender Telecaster guitar twanging outside the door.

“He's 17. He's still a kid. Nothing's guaranteed, and you can't sit back on your heels, but this knocks down like 10 years of walls,” he said.

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