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Hearing The Call

His first hit, "Hard Call To Make," is about tough decisions. But for J. Michael Harter, the hardest call to make was whether to come to Nashville at all.

That's because making the move from his native Arizona meant leaving home - and his longtime girlfriend - behind. "That was a hard thing to do, because I'd been with her for close to three years," he says. "I was torn between chasing my dream and staying in Arizona."

Michael made that tough choice, and it's paying off as "Hard Call To Make" hits the radio nationwide - something its singer is still adjusting to. "The weirdest thing is knowing it's playing somewhere nobody knows me," he says. "Someplace I've never even been."

It's the realization of a dream Michael's had since he was a boy in Tempe, Ariz., growing up in a very creative household - three of his siblings write songs, and a fourth is an actress. "My mom used to write romance novels, and my dad had a band," he says. "So we got a good mix there."

By 15, Michael was writing his own songs, and after high school attended Northern Arizona University - but not for long. "I wasn't concentrating," he recalls. "I was spending more time writing songs than I was writing papers. So I told my dad I wanted to move to Nashville, and he said, 'All right, you've got one chance at it.' "

Michael made the 1,700-mile drive to Music City in 1999. "I played all over the place," he says. "Everywhere I could find, I'd go play." But eventually he decided he was better off with the local following he'd built playing Arizona clubs - so in March, he returned to the Tempe area.

"I moved back because I was getting frustrated and wasn't getting a record deal," he explains, "and two weeks later I got one! I was in the studio on April 1."

The resulting debut album, Unexpected Change, is out now - and it even includes a song, "Everything In Arizona," about the girl he left behind three years ago to follow his dream. "I think that song was my way of dealing with it," he says. "It was my therapy."

-- Chris Neal