When he was 22, Rhode Island native Mickey Lamantia had the good fortune to open a few shows for Willie Nelson. They played a string of summer tent shows around New England after he got noticed singing a karaoke version of the Randy Travis hit “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
Twenty-five years later, Lamantia is just about ready to get that career going.
He’s actually been knocking around the Rhode Island bars for years: “I’ve done more one-man shows than I care to remember, some nights to 10 people,” he says.
Now, however, at 47, he’s looking to bump his unlikely, late-blooming career as an outlaw country singer into high gear. On Friday he’ll play a record release party at Sons of Liberty, a whiskey distillery and brew pub in South Kingstown, R.I.
There’s no question that Lamantia identifies with the outlaw side of country. He’s got the full beard and the craggy voice, the songs about whiskey and the songs about hard-living heroes like Waylon and the Hag.
But in his day job — the one that’s taken priority for nearly 20 years — he comes down firmly on the side of law enforcement. Lamantia, a family man with two kids, works as a corrections officer for the Rhode Island Maximum Security Prison in Cranston.
“The inmates will look up to you if you treat them with respect,” he says, taking a break from a recent performance at the distillery. “They’ll root for you.”
When he returns to the stage, he sings “Folsom Prison Blues” with a little help from his opening act, 21-year-old URI student Nick Casey, who sounds more than a little like Johnny Cash.
First-time listeners often hear plenty of Jamey Johnson, the ex-Marine country singer from Alabama, in Lamantia’s singing voice. It’s not present when he speaks: He’s got the hybrid Boston-New York accent that’s particular to the Cranston area, where he grew up. But the twang comes out when he starts carrying a tune.
He’s not afraid to speak up about the divide in contemporary country music, between the pop production that dominates the commercial airwaves and what he calls “true” country. On the banjo-and-power-chords rallying cry “Take Our Country Back,” Lamantia turns a political slogan into a stand for traditional music.
As an independent country artist based in Rhode Island, Lamantia knows he has his work cut out for him. But he’s figured out how to maximize the benefits of social media — each week he hosts “Whiskey Wednesday” on Facebook Live, sponsored by the Sons of Liberty. Episodes have drawn as many as 20,000 viewers.
For his new album, “Every Bad Habit,” Lamantia traveled to Nashville to record at OmniSound Studio. To produce, he lined up Bill McDermott, who has worked with George Strait, Tim McGraw, and many others.
He’s been invited back for this year’s Tumbleweed Festival, a weekend-long camping and country music throwdown in Kansas, and he’s getting some airplay on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country station. Rolling Stone recently chose Lamantia as one of its new country artists to watch.
“You don’t have to be young and pretty. You can be old and ugly,” he jokes.
Like Lamantia, Joe Doyle is a Rhode Island native. He’s a songwriter who has lived in Nashville for nearly 30 years, with hit songs recorded by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and the group Alabama. “The Voice” contestant Craig Wayne Boyd sang Doyle’s song “In Pictures” during the finals of the show’s seventh season.
Lamantia covered Doyle’s song “23rd Psalm” on an EP he released in late 2016.
“He seems to touch a chord for people,” says Doyle, a Berklee grad, on the phone from Nashville. Doyle’s wife, who worked for years in A&R for Warner Bros. Records, offered country music’s highest praise when she first heard Lamantia’s version of her husband’s song: “That’s believable,” she said.
Despite the kind words, though, Lamantia says he’s not really angling for a big record deal.
“If I have to do two jobs the rest of my life,” he says, “I’m OK with that.”
One on either side of the law.
CD release party, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. At Sons of Liberty Beer & Spirits, 1425 Kingstown Road, South Kingstown, R.I. Free. www.solspirits.comJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.