Early in his music career, actor-turned-country singer John Corbett had to work hard to prove he belonged onstage.
“When people came to our shows, they had such low expectations that there was nowhere to go but up,” Corbett said, adding that most concertgoers came expecting a train wreck. “They didn’t know the guy who was going to come onstage at 9 o’clock really knew what he was doing. … The truth is he belonged there more than he belonged on the TV.”
Although most audiences might recognize Corbett as a kindhearted heartthrob on “Northern Exposure,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Sex and the City,” he’s also the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of the John Corbett Band, a Southern rock-flavored country quartet that enjoys strong fan followings in Texas, the Midwest and the East Coast. The 52-year-old is currently touring in support of his second album, “Leaving Nothin’ Behind.”
Anyone who doubts Corbett’s country credentials has only to look to his upbringing in Wheeling, W. Va.
Raised in a tenement building “not unlike any six-floor walkup in Hell’s Kitchen, New York,” he said, he spent weekends helping out at his uncle’s nightclub, where his mother worked as a waitress.
At age 16, he worked as a security guard at Wheeling’s Capitol Theatre, a popular destination for country acts.
Although Corbett started playing guitar at age 7, he didn’t have any special inclination to become a musician, he recalled.
“Everybody sings with their hairbrush and … practices their Michael Jackson dance moves and feels like the world is waiting to see them onstage,” said Corbett, who drew inspiration from two of his mom’s favorite performers, Glen Campbell and Elvis Presley. “Everybody has that little fantasy when they’re a little kid.”
But rather than run off to Nashville, Corbett moved to Hollywood in 1987, making his television debut two years later on “The Wonder Years.”
He got his first big break playing disc jockey Chris Stevens on the CBS show “Northern Exposure.”
Corbett went on to charm audiences as schoolteacher Ian Miller in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and furniture designer Aidan Shaw on the HBO show “Sex and the City.” (He reprised the latter role in the 2010 movie “Sex and the City 2.”)
More recently, he co-starred on NBC’s “Parenthood” and Showtime’s “United States of Tara.” Corbett’s other film credits include “Raising Helen,” “Ramona and Beezus,” “Serendipity” and “Street Kings.”
According to Corbett, who lives in Santa Ynez with longtime girlfriend Bo Derek, his introduction to professional music was “a fluke.”
During a 2004 trip to Nashville with friend Tara Novick, Corbett was approached to do a record deal. Instead, he decided to release a self-titled debut album on his own Funbone Records label in 2006.
“John Corbett” eventually climbed to No. 42 on Billboard’s country charts, producing a No. 43 single, “Good to Go.” That first year, Corbett and his band mates — lead guitarist Novick, drummer Steve Gorman and bassist Louis Ruiz — played 230 shows.
“The business part was so much harder than I ever thought, harder than any movie schedule I’ve ever had,” said Corbett, who serves as his band’s driver and tour manager. “You start thinking ‘Man, I don’t want to do this again.’ ”
Rather than quit, Corbett cut back on his touring schedule and expanded his set list, releasing “Leaving Nothin’ Behind” in February 2013.
“I got sick of playing a lot of those same songs over and over,” he explained. “And making records is fun.”
Seven of the 10 tracks on “Leaving Nothin’ Behind” were written by Texas tunesmith Jon Randall Stewart, who co-produced the project. They include the touching anthem “Name on a Stone” and “El Paso,” a haunting ballad about a gunfighter who’s falsely accused of murder.
“I put these songs … on in my living room at nighttime. I shut my eyes and try to make a movie in my head of what’s happening in these songs,” Corbett said. “These are just the 10 movies I wanted to make.”
Corbett has no plans to give up his film and television career just yet.
Still, balancing acting and music has proven a challenge for the performer, who must choose between touring and trying out for television shows. Although an acting opportunity may arise at any moment, he explained, concerts must be scheduled months in advance.
In nine years, Corbett has only canceled three or four shows because of illness or an acting job.
“That’s a big deal,” he said, because he doesn’t want to risk losing fans.
“They might come to see me from TV, but two songs in they’re watching my amazing guitar player, my amazing bass player … my drummer,” Corbett said. “We’re very enthusiastic onstage.”
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Saturday
SLO Brewing Co., 1119 Garden St., San Luis Obispo
$20, $22 at the door
543-1843 or www.slobrewingco.com
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.