Back before the Disney deals, and the smash album and those randy rumors regarding Taylor Swift, Stephen Barker Liles was a scrappy athlete at Oldsmar Christian with a hoops scholarship to the University of South Florida. "I actually wanted to be a head basketball coach," says the 25-year-old Clearwater native, who wound up becoming a student assistant on the Bulls team.
But after college (not to mention a proud need-cash stint at the Sam's Club on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard), Liles took a trip to Nashville, where his intense hoop dreams turned into fervent musical ones.
Last week, Liles' band, the trio Love and Theft, released debut album World Wide Open. The breezy, harmony-fat disc — "the new Eagles" is how Liles describes the sound — is on Carolwood Records, a subsidiary of Disney's Lyric Street. It's already No. 1 on iTunes' country charts, thanks to Runaway, a hit about Liles ditching FLA.
During a massive publicity push, Liles — who grew up singing at Clearwater's Calvary Baptist Church and now croons, writes and plays guitar and piano in his band — chatted with his hometown newspaper. Because I'm classy, I respectfully tossed him a few softballs before asking if he totally macked on Swift.
Your band is named after 2001 Dylan album Love and Theft. I'm a Bob freak, too. Name your top song.
The Times They Are A-Changin'. I listen to that one all the time. That and Hurricane. I love what Hurricane represents. There are so many people in jail who just didn't get a fair trial.
Quick history lesson: In 1966, Boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was accused of a triple murder and spent 20 years in jail before being released. Dylan's eight-minute defense of Carter appeared on the 1976 release Desire.
What does the average Love and Theft groupie look like?
I don't know about the average anymore. We now have grandparents watching us because we remind them of bands they liked. But yeah, we definitely have the young girls, too, because maybe we're, um, okay looking.
Psst: Think of Love and Theft as Rascal Flatts with cuter noses, cooler tattoos and better record collections.
How do the rock star dreams you farmed in Tampa Bay compare with the rock star realities of today?
I believe in dreaming big, but I could never have prepared for how things turned out. It's been amazing. Things are moving very fast. We're No. 1 on iTunes. We toured with Taylor Swift . . .
Okay, you know I have to pounce on that segue, right? Taylor Swift, the pop princess of Nashville, wrote a sweet, crushy song about you, Hey Stephen. Gift or curse?
It was a nice gift, one of the nicest things anyone's given me.
Sample lyric: "Cause I can't help it if you look like an angel / Can't help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain / Come feel this magic I've been feeling since I met you . . ."
So . . . did you guys hook up?
We never really did. We spent a lot of time together on the phone. I met her during a crazy time in her life and our lives. She's a great person.
Do you believe him? Y'know, I think I do.