Travis Blankenship was an adjunct English professor when a friend asked if he could pick up the country musician Colter Wall and drive him around eastern Kentucky for a couple of shows. At the time, back in 2016, Blankenship was working part-time at Lowe’s to cover his bills and he was sick of being stretched thin. “Hell yeah,” he said. “It sounds good to me.”
The trip led to a friendship and later a job. These days, Blankenship manages a small roster of top-notch songwriters, including Wall and Vincent Neil Emerson, and with his partner, Connie Collingsworth, runs La Honda Records, the label they co-founded together. In a handful of years, he’s gone from scraping by at the bottom of the academic ladder to perched atop his own small musical empire, working with his friends to share music he loves.
After constantly being told we’ll only get what we want out of life by gritting our teeth through bad jobs and shitty bosses, a lot of us end up wincing too hard to see our chance to try something else. But Blankenship, who describes himself as “a no-bullshit kind of person,” knew that moonlighting at Lowe’s, teaching classes, and trying to find time to write wasn’t working. When opportunity landed, Blankenship drove to the airport and picked it up.
Before I interviewed him, I thought we’d spend a lot of time talking about the differences between music and academia. But as we spoke, I realized managing artists for Blankenship is a lot like teaching. “I think that, really, the best manager is a good coach,” he said. He supports, encourages, and collaborates with his artists. He remains a storyteller, framing his artists’ characters and music in ways that make them more accessible to their fans and remind the artists of the importance of what they do.
I sat down with Blankenship, who also goes by Rural Sultan, at the Union Club in Missoula, Montana last month. He recently moved to Montana after years of being on the road, and his truck hadn’t quite made the adjustment—he walked in a little late after it refused to start in the cold weather. He talked about meeting artists, working to make ends meet as a professor, and the long road to convincing his mom that he’s gainfully employed.
VICE: What does the job of a manager entail?
Oh, man. If I went through every job title that a manager does, you know, that’d be pretty boring.
One thing you don’t recognize when you first get into it is that your job is really to be an advocate. Sometimes being someone’s advocate means that you’re not only telling the world about their music but you’re telling that person why the world needs more of their music.
We talk a lot about emotions, we talk a lot about hopes and dreams, but we also talk about why you’re not posting enough on Instagram or why you need to get people to follow you on Spotify.
How did you become a manager?
My foray into the music business starts with my introduction with Colter Wall and being Colter’s friend, and really just hanging out with him for a while. And then, when I would go to shows with him, I would just try to be helpful. And one day he and I were hanging out, and he was like, “You know all that stuff you do when you go to shows with me? That’s a job.” I said, “OK,” and he said, “Do you want it?” So I became his tour manager, and I’d go out there with him and listen to music in the van and make sure he got his money.
“He was like, ‘You know all that stuff you do when you go to shows with me? That’s a job.’”
When was that?
I think it was the beginning of March 2016, because at that time I was an adjunct professor at Indiana University Southeast, and I also taught at this community college at Louisville, and it just lined up such that I was on spring break when he was coming to do these shows.
How long was it before you ended up leaving those jobs?
I met him on spring break, I did those shows, and then I went back to my teaching job and doing my teacher stuff. And then I was at this point in my life where I was so tired of being a teacher, I just needed to take a break from that.
What was it about teaching that you were exhausted by?
Well, as a teacher, I was also still what was called a ‘Code 50’ at Lowe’s, which is like, you bust your ass, load shit in people’s car, straighten piles. When I was an adjunct professor I was still hustling in the summertime, I was still working a part-time job at Lowe’s.
What’s a Code 50?
Code 50—that’s at Lowe’s, and that means, we need a loader to come up here and help somebody get something in the car. And I honestly don’t mean to downplay that job, because I liked working at Lowe’s. Before I went to my graduate program, I worked at Lowe’s, and I was like, ‘This is it, I’m gonna be the manager of the store, like, what a job.’
Even as an adjunct professor, I still worked at Lowe’s, because you know, you’re not guaranteed work. You might get a summer class, you might not get a summer class. You might have two classes in the fall and six classes in the winter.
There wasn’t a guaranteed paycheck, so I had to do all these other jobs. I worked in a liquor store at the same time I was an adjunct professor. I worked at another liquor store in Mississippi when I was a graduate student, and in southern Indiana, at a place-that-would-get-robbed kind of liquor store.
Honestly, I was just trying to make money so I could have more free time to write. I went to school for that, so I thought that’s what I needed to do, make free time to write and I realized it was kind of impossible when you’ve got to work at Lowe’s and work at a liquor store and teach classes, you know?
When you decided to be Colter Wall’s tour manager, was there a measure of fear involved? Did it feel like a leap?
Yeah, it was terrifying for me to go, ‘Oh, this thing I was doing to make money, I might not do it anymore so I can do this other thing that doesn’t make money.’
“Honestly, I was just trying to make money so I could have more free time to write. I realized it was kind of impossible when you’ve got to work at Lowe’s and work at a liquor store and teach classes, you know?”
And that was terrifying, because at that point in time I didn’t know what was gonna happen, and I had colleagues tell me that I was making a mistake. When I told folks at the university that I was not gonna teach anymore, there were people that were—well, someone actually said that I was being fucking stupid. But there were also people that said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea.’
What was most challenging when you were getting used to working in the music business?
Other people telling you what they know is best, that’s really challenging. I don’t think there’s a secret, and I don’t think there’s a veil, and coming into the business I was always told that there’s this curtain and if I wanted to look behind this curtain to see how everything works, then I had to kiss some ass to get somebody to pull it back for me. And I don’t think that’s true. I think that with what the internet has done for artists to be able to promote themselves and the major successes that people have had outside of record labels, it tells us that that curtain has always just been somebody trying to maintain control, to tell you what to do or what’s best for you, and for me. I think that is one of the hardest things I had to learn. I thought there was gonna be this curtain, and the more I worked, the more I learned there wasn’t a curtain.
And people think you gotta go to Nashville to make it. I mean, if you want to be a songwriter, it might be helpful to go to Nashville so you can write songs with other people. If you want to create little pieces of candy in a factory, you’re gonna have to get a job working at a candy factory, you know? Do you want to work at a song factory? That’s what people really should ask themselves. I don’t work with a single artist that lives in Nashville, by the way.
Where are you from, and what did your parents do?
I’m from Davis County, Kentucky. My dad has always been a factory worker. When I was growing up, he worked in a factory that made ‘shit pots,’ as he would say. Commodes. Toilets. That factory shut down, and then he spent an equal number of years working at a bakery, and then that bakery shut down, and now he works at a slaughterhouse. My mom works at a kitchen that serves the children of migrant workers in their community.
Do you feel like your parents guided what you thought you wanted to do?
Absolutely not. And no offense to them, at all. It’s hard to imagine that certain things are a job. I don’t think that my parents thought I had an actual job for the past four or five years.
My mom helped me start the record label, because she gave me the money to help master Vincent’s record [Fried Chicken And Evil Women], and I think she knew I believed in what I was doing at that point in time. But for me, the moment that I’m always gonna remember, where my mom’s like, ‘Oh, you have a real job?’ was when she came and saw Colter play at the Ryman [Auditorium, in Nashville], which was two months ago, you know? But that was one of the first times when I think she was like, “Holy shit—my kid does this.”
Have you always liked country music?
Yeah. As a kid, hanging out in the garage with my grandpa, he was listening to country music—Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty sometimes. He loved Crystal Gayle. So country music was always there for me. My parents were heavy metal folks, but I spent a lot of time with my grandpa, so I spent a lot of time with country music.
You’ve got La Honda, you’ve got an awesome roster of artists—how are you feeling personally about the future?
If I got to spend more time here [in Montana], great—that’s awesome, I want to do that. Or if I got to start another business that made me feel awesome, and it wasn’t in music? Cool, I’m down for it. I’m down for doing things that make me feel good, and I’m down for doing things that support the people around me, and feeling a sense of community that’s not only on the internet or with people that buy records from La Honda, but coming to this place (gestures to the bar). I like that, I like being able to come here and know people sitting up there having a drink and I like knowing who’s serving that drink and I like eating a cheeseburger made by someone whose name I know. I’m like, “Hey, how you doing?” Not just, “Hey, I want a double cheeseburger.”
Because I think that as a touring music business person, you never have that grounded feeling, and it’s really good to feel that way. And I think the fact that the industry shut down because of the pandemic really gave people the opportunity to be like, ‘Oh shit, that does feel good. I was missing that. And that was the original thing that inspired the album I wrote that got me to where I am.’ I want more of that, man. I want more of that.