There was a time when Justin Biltonen assumed he would always just be another side man playing in a band. He would continue to quietly write in Nashville and he would take his place as the bassist for 3 Doors Down and he would be content with all of it.
But then, in 2016, he and his creative soul got a reality check.
“We were leaving for a month-long tour, and as soon as I stepped on the bus, I could tell something wasn’t right,” remembers the North Carolina native of the night back in 2016 when he found out that former 3 Doors Down lead guitarist Matt Roberts had died at the age of 37 from a prescription drug overdose. “It was tragic, and it was heavy and yeah, it was one of those moments that changed things. It reminded me that life is precious, and when it comes to your career, you can never miss any opportunity to grow.”
In the very same year, 3 Doors Down released their sixth studio album Us and the Night, which was collectively written by the members of the band and ended up propelling three singles up the charts in the form of “In the Dark,” “Still Alive” and “The Broken.” The album also reached #2 on the Billboard US Top Rock Albums chart.
“It was a pivotal moment for me in terms of the confidence I had in my songwriting,” Biltonen remembers. “I wrote quite a bit on that record and it was a very proud moment to see songs that I actually had a hand in writing end up doing very well. I wasn’t just playing 3 Doors Down stuff anymore. I had truly brought something to the table.”
And yes, in just the course of one single year, Biltonen’s life changed. Tragedy had humbled him, and songwriting had inspired him and soon, he would find himself finding the confidence to pursue a country music solo career that he once doubted could ever come to fruition. And on Thursday (Nov. 19,) this dreamer with the rich voice premieres his new single “Wild Mustangs” on American Songwriter.
Funny how life works, isn’t it?
Granted, songwriting was always something that Biltonen would dabble in. As an angsty teenager, he would occasionally find himself writing down words that turned into songs about girlfriends he was mad at and a cruel world he still was learning to understand.
Later, during his stint in a punk rock band, Biltonen would find himself playing in dark basements during the night and writing songs rooted in traditional country during the day. Serving as the backdrop of it all was the sounds of classic country artists singing about things he could identify with. Eventually, it would lead Biltonen to Nashville, where he began writing under the protective wing of songwriter and artist James House.
“Whenever I sat down with (House,) I would start homing in on what I loved about writing about,” Biltonen reflects. “He taught me about structure and melody and composition and how to tell a story that other people would want to listen to. Songwriting was no longer about just writing down some rambling thoughts. It was about telling a story.”
Soon, Nashville turned into a place that Biltonen felt like he permanently needed to be. He ended up moving there and became open to all that Music City might have in store for him.
But then he got a call that 3 Doors Down needed a new bassist.
And the rest is history.
But the need to tell a good story never wavered, and he tells that good story within his new single “Wild Mustangs,” a song that takes listeners through a lyrical storm, only to bring them back down to a calmness delicately described by Biltonen and co-writer Richard Mitchell.
“He’s an older cat in town,” he chuckles of Mitchell. “They have a different way when it comes to melodies coming together and guitar parts and ideas. It’s a little more of the stuff I enjoy writing, story songs that come to life through words and music and truth.”