Songwriters Circle: Jaren Johnston

Songwriters Circle: Jaren Johnston

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Jaren Johnston on stage with The Cadillac Black.
(Photo: Liv Carter/UCN)

Over the last year, I have heard Jaren Johnston‘s name come up in several discussions about some of the most exciting songwriters in Nashville. With a new project from his own band, The Cadillac Black, freshly released, and having recently celebrated his first #1 hit with Keith Urban‘s ‘You Gonna Fly,’ this was the perfect time to include him in the Songwriters Circle interviews.

We met up in a pleasant Nashville pub to discuss his climb from aspiring drummer to in-demand Music Row songwriter. This is truly proving to be Johnston’s breakthrough year and I very much believe we are seeing only the start of a very impressive string of hits with his name attached to them. The new Cadillac record is currently my favorite release of 2012 (I dare anyone to try to do better) but the first topic of conversation was obvious.

UCN: The first thing we have to talk about is ‘Fly’… Your first #1 song!
Jaren Johnston:
Two weeks, man! *smiles* We were excited. We didn’t know if it was gonna go and then, I think it’s Keith’s fastest moving single, I wanna say ever, like it’s a little ridiculous. *smiles* At some point we were almost like ‘please slow down!’, because it might burn out. And you want your song in the charts as long as possible. It was a very cool moment man! And it did really good in the recurrents too, so it’s exciting!

UCN: Do you remember the write?
Yes! Chris [Lucas] and Preston [Brust] came over to my house. I have a little vibe room in the back, and I had kind of a groove going. I had the chorus pretty much written around the blackbird and the phrase ‘you gonna fly with me’ and all that stuff. So they came in and I played it for them, and at the time I was trying to get a LoCash Cowboys cut. I was trying to get a song on their record so I had this southern rock chorus going, and then Preston started rapping that first verse. He had that as a hook, the ‘1-2-3, baby don’t think twice.’ So I said ‘why don’t we start the song off with a count, it’ll be great.’ We wrote those verses in under an hour. The whole thing was probably about two hours, and I did the demo in the afternoon and sang it. It was just a matter of a couple of hours, it was pretty crazy.

UCN: That’s amazing. And it just fell together that way?
JJ: Well, when I write I try to have something ready before the session, especially if it’s an artist. So I had that ready. I woke up that morning and just started playing in open G, and that’s what came out. I can’t really explain it; it’s kind of weird.

UCN: That’s part of the reason why I do these interviews. Songwriting is such a mysterious process…
JJ: Tom Petty said it best when he said “I try to not understand it, I try not to figure it out, in fear that it might go away.” And I think like that sometimes but it’s a crazy thing. And every session is different. Sometimes I’ll have a complete idea ready and the track done and everything, and then someone will come in and be like ‘I don’t know, let’s try something like this.’ And then they’ll have something cool so we’ll go on their idea. That happens less often than what happened with ‘Fly’ but it does happen. And it can get very awkward in that room… *laughs*

UCN: Yes, it can! *laughs*
JJ: Most of the time, you don’t know the people, you know. I’m trying to not do that as much anymore. I’ve got a few key people whom I write with, where I really enjoy it and you know you’re going to get something good out of it.

UCN: And where there’s no pressure if you have an off-day.
JJ: Exactly! Sony/ATV had me booked, up until like a week ago, to write five days a week, and I’m on the road too. I had to tell them to kind of back down and maybe do three days a week. It was just too much. But I do love doing it; it’s a blast!

UCN: Do you know why you started doing it in the first place?
JJ: I know exactly why I started writing! I grew up in Nashville, born and raised. My dad was a drummer, well, he still is a drummer at the Grand Ole Opry. He played with everybody back in the day, when I was a kid. I started playing drums as soon as I was old enough to hold sticks. There’s pictures of me as a baby with big headphones on, playing my dad’s drumkit. I loved it, I did it all through school and even into college. I went to MTSU for percussion. I started writing when I was around 13. My dad got me a guitar. He got me a classical guitar and an electric guitar, and a little box amp with distortion on it. I was obsessed with Nirvana and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was all mixed. I was 13 years old; you don’t know what you like yet. It’d be like ‘That kid’s got a Dinosaur Jr shirt on. That’s badass. Let me go check out that band!’ So I started playing guitar and trying to figure out the Nirvana songs and Bush songs and all that stuff. I was playing by ear, I wasn’t taking lessons, and my dad noticed it and he said ‘you know, you can make a living playing drums, but if you want to make a fortune, you gotta start writing.’ I think he told me that for ten years, and then I started taking it a little more serious, probably around my early twenties, I guess. I started getting into it and I found it, not easy, but I could tell that I could do things that other people couldn’t do in writing sessions, do you know what I mean? It came a little easier to me than to my roommates at that time. I started playing drums less, and started the first band, American Bang. I got a publishing deal and from then on I was in a room with people every day who were serious writers. It made me realize what I was lacking, but also what I was good at. I was very out-of-the-box, and I still am compared to a lot of these people who are writing on Music Row. I guess here in town I’m the out-of-the-box rock guy. But it works, you know, it’s for me. *laughs*

UCN: So far, so good!
JJ: Dude, yeah! I’m having a blast with it! *smiles*

UCN: You said you like to have an idea before the co-writer walks in. How do you decide which idea to bring any particular writer?
JJ: It’s weird, man, I don’t. I just try to write a good song idea to get it going. Obviously, if I’m going to write with Keith tomorrow, I’m a huge fan so I know those records backwards and forwards. I know the guitar licks. I can’t play them like he can though, but I know them. *smiles* I like that style of writing, you know, good pop songs and making them so they’ll fit into the country world. So if I’m writing with Keith or Dierks [Bentley], I kind of know what they do, because we’re friends and I’m around them a lot. I also know what they don’t vibe on. Those times are a little different because I want to come in with an idea that I think will work for them, you know. But it’s different every time. Sometimes all I have will be a little drum loop on my computer, just a cool thing to write to, and other times it will be just a guitar lick. When I write with Tom Douglas – I write with him once a week – I’ll go out to his house and it’s no computers but just a piano and my guitar, and him sitting there with a Bible and a big notebook full of ideas, you know. And I’ll usually start just playing off of nothing, and I’ll just start free-styling, build some cool vibe. And then he’ll go ‘let me take it,’ and then he’ll just blow your mind with lyrics. We write really well together in that way. He’s a brilliant dude, even if he’s just sitting with a piano. My approach is a little more rhythmic; I like to set up a vibe.

UCN: Are you more the melody guy or more the lyricist?
JJ: I’m in the middle of all of it. I love it all. I’ve become more…looking at it, not like math, because I absolutely fucking hate math! It’s the worst thing that’s ever been invented, I think. *smiles* But I’ve been looking at thing differently, the more that I do it. Like, if you have a hook, and you go ‘I really like that, let’s work backwards.’ So, you start doing rhymes backwards and it becomes almost like a little puzzle. That’s one way that sometimes happens. But sometimes, like last weekend I was on the bus writing with Dierks and Mike Eli [of Eli Young Band], and stuff just… *snaps fingers repeatedly* You know, sometimes things just fly. If you listen to enough music, and music is your total life, sometimes you can just sit there and go with whatever comes out. Those are fun times to, because people in the room are usually like ‘Dang! Yeah, yeah, that’s great!’ or they’ll go ‘That’s so stupid…but I like it!’ *smiles*

UCN: Yes, I watched a writer do this with a song about a summer vacation. He was just making it up as he went along, and some of it was silly but some lines were really great.
JJ: Yeah, you keep some if it and the rest you forget. Some of it, you’re not even saying real things, you’re just saying things that rhyme until you can put those – that’s what I meant by it being a puzzle – until you can put the right pieces there.

UCN: How technical do you allow yourself to get? Because the stuff on the new record, it’s well put together but it doesn’t sound like you sat there with your rhyming dictionary.
JJ: I don’t do that. I’m never the guy who has the internet on, looking at Rhyme Zone and all that shit. Some people do that and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just a difference in approach. A lot of the Cadillac stuff is just me sitting in a room by myself and I’m just rapping to a loop and then going ‘ok, that sounds badass, I’m gonna keep that,’ because I don’t have to answer to anybody else. There’s no one else in the room, so if I like it, it’s going in! *smiles* And I feel like I’m a pretty good judge of those things.

UCN: Going off the Cadillac record, yeah, I’d say so!
JJ: There’s one song on there called ‘Life.’ It starts out ‘used my one phone call to call my Pop/say I went down to Mexico…’ and it’s literally just me with that 808 beat in a room with a bottle of wine and just going verse after verse, and just rapping it. And once you get the first one, you go ‘I’m writing a story here.’ That’s probably my favorite song on there, for that reason, because it was so much fun writing it. That one and ‘I’m Southern’ were both the same kind of vibe. I called my dad actually when I did ‘I’m Southern.’ My family is from Louisiana, so I called him and said ‘you gotta listen to this chorus!’ So I bumped the music real loud on my phone and I started rapping him the chorus ‘my daddy came from Louisiana like the hot sauce’ and he’s just dying laughing! *laughs*

UCN: He’s still your go-to person?
JJ: Oh dude, yeah! My dad’s my best friend.

UCN: You already mentioned Sony/ATV. How long have you been writing for them?
JJ: I signed to Famous Publishing, which was under Paramount, in 2005. Glenn Middleworth signed me over there; he’s one of my best friends, still is to this day. Sony bought it in 2007, so I’ve been there since then. And I just renegotiated my deal so I’ll be there for at least three more. I love it there! It’s such a great family for me over there; they’ve done wonders for me.

UCN: How does the whole process sit with you, the pressure, the sessions, the quotas…?
JJ: Well, when you get a publishing deal, you gotta expect they want you to write with people, so the songwriting sessions and the quotas have never been a problem for me. I think I probably turned in 150 songs last year.

UCN: That’s insane…! I assume that’s safely over your quota? *smiles*
JJ: I worked my ass off… But there’s a big difference in writers. Tony Lane and Darrell Scott and those guys, I remember having a conversation with one of them, and I think their quota was like ten a year, or something. And Tony turned in ten songs, but eight of them became singles, you know what I mean? So it’s a completely different thing for them. Darrell Scott’s a genius! He sits on a boat in the Caribbean or wherever, you don’t even know where he is, and he just e-mails in these songs.

UCN: But then they’re all fanastic…
JJ: Exactly! So, you try to get to the point where you’re turning in less but their quality’s better. Mine has definitely got drastically better in the last couple of years.

UCN: How do you see that change as you learn from your co-writers?
JJ: Yeah, I learn something from every writing session, whether it’s a cool trick to do word-wise, something not to do, a way not to act if somebody pisses me off, you know… *smiles* You learn something every time. I’ve seen it in the last two years, ever since I started getting some cuts. It’s pretty crazy; my schedule is ridiculous! In a good way! *smiles* I’ve turned into one of those guys they bring in when they want to find a single for an artist. It’s so cool, man, I’ve always wanted to get to that point in my life. I’ve finally got there a little bit, and now it’s just to keep the ball rolling.

UCN: Is that almost harder? Getting there is tough, but staying there is harder?
JJ: For me, it was getting there. It’s so political in certain circles. To get into these circles is extremely hard, but once you’re in… I’m pretty good at keeping friends, and I’m pretty good at writing my ass off. I’m a pretty friendly dude! *smiles* If you’re not nice and you’re an ok writer, you’re not going to make it. If you’re a nice guy and you work your ass off, and you’re a kick-ass writer sometimes, you know, you’ll go far. It’s tough. I think it’s much harder to get into the circles than it is to stay in them, for me at least, lately.

UCN: When it comes to writing hits, like you said someone like Tony Lane can turn in ten songs and eight of them are hits. What makes them hits? His name? Or something specific about those songs?
JJ: It’s funny, a lot of A&R people, and I don’t know this for sure, probably do listen to songs because somebody’s name’s on it. And I probably would to, you know.

UCN: Yeah, I don’t think that’s wrong. Obviously someone can build up a reputation.
JJ: Yeah, exactly. With me, what I hear people are interested in, I hear this through the grapevine or from my publishing people, is that people come to ask ‘have you got any new Jaren songs?’ That’s awesome, because like I said, it’s so hard to get to that point where anybody will listen. The fact that someone is coming in and asking for those songs, that’s the point you want to get to. That’s when people are paying attention and looking for your new stuff. That’s what’s going on now and it’s exciting! *smiles*

UCN: Do you think about that when you write? ‘How do I make it so it will get picked up?’
JJ: I try not to. Every session I just try to write a good song. I try to work in as many genres as possible. I like to write stuff that I would sing. I don’t like writing songs and going ‘well, I’m not gonna sing this but that artist might,’ because that’s not fun. I would have sung the hell out of ‘You Gonna Fly,’ that would have worked for our band. I just try to write a good song. I know that’s a very bland statement… *smiles*

UCN: Well, some people have said the opposite. They can really sit down and think ‘I’m gonna write a song that Rascal Flatts might want to record,’ and they tailor everything to that.
JJ: In the back of my mind I think that sometimes, like, ‘this would work for Gary Allan.’

UCN: But then that comes after the idea.
JJ: Well, sometimes if you think about that stuff, you have to stop yourself. Because if you write a song around what you think Gary LeVox would or wouldn’t say, you’re just pigeonholing for one pitch. It’s like ‘dude, just write the damn song, man.’ If it’s a good song, somebody will jump in there. You can’t overthink that, it ruins the process.

UCN: That’s come up a lot, the difference between writing for the radio, and writing exactly what you want and hoping it will get picked up.
JJ: You just gotta write what you write and hope people like it enough to put it on the radio. With our old band, American Bang, I went through that situation of being on a major label and not even being able to go be a band because the label was so like ‘just keep writing, keep finding that hit song!’ It completely ruined the band. You gotta let a band go be a band. So, I’ve been in that situation where you’re sitting around trying to write a smash-hit rock radio single for years. What’s the point in that, man? Just write good songs and put them out. If it’s good, something will happen eventually. You can’t sit around and think ‘I wonder if 103.3 is going to play this.’

UCN: It’s the thinking of ‘would they play that’ and then if you think they might not, decide not to write it. That’s something I find really interesting.
JJ: It’s a bummer to me, honestly. If I’ve got a good vibe, I don’t like people saying ‘yeah, I don’t think he’d say that’, because then I’m like ‘somebody will say it.’

UCN: Well, it’s like you said before about trying to get into that…circus… *smiles*
JJ: That’s exactly what it is. *smiles*

UCN: It’s about building up your catalogue. Maybe today you write a song called, I don’t know, ‘Truck’
JJ: Drunk?

UCN: Truck! *laughs*
JJ: Oh! *laughs*

UCN: No, let’s go with that, so you write a song called ‘Drunk.’ *smiles* Today nobody wants to cut it. But five years from now, a new artist we don’t even know yet, they’re gonna pick it up for their debut album. You know, it’s still worth writing it today.
JJ: Yeah, songs in catalogues, man, that’s a good thing about breaking through, I know I’ve got six years of good shit in my catalogue that people might want to listen to. The Sara Evans song I got, I wrote that five and a half years ago with her brother. It’s ridiculous. That’s why you write as much as you can, with as many people as you can, because you never know where they’re gonna end up.

UCN: I think Jeffrey Steele‘s ‘What Hurts the Most’ was quite a few years old before it was a hit.
JJ: Yeah, I write with him quite a bit and he says that’s the gift that keeps on giving; that song is still on the radio. That huge cross-over pop song that Darrell Brown wrote, you know, that ‘take your cat and leave my sweater’…

UCN: ‘You’ll Think of Me.’
JJ: That was six or seven years old; that was an old EMI song. People pitched that for years, and then finally Keith did it. It’s all about having a catalogue, man.

UCN: You’re investing in yourself.
JJ: You can never have too many songs.

UCN: How do you balance the commercial and artistic integrity?
JJ: You try to meet in the middle.

UCN: Do you ever find yourself surrendering integrity?
JJ: I hope I don’t. I mean, sometimes you’re in a session and it’s just going to happen. Somebody’s got it in their mind that they want it to be a pitch for Zac Brown Band, or something. That’s going to happen. I try not to. I usually do the demos, so if I don’t like a lyric, I change it.

UCN: *laughs* I like that!
JJ: I do! *smiles* I change it to where I know I would be happier with it.

UCN: And when somebody comes in and says ‘let’s write this way because that’s what Nashville wants,’ how does that feel?
JJ: I don’t do that shit, man. *smiles*

UCN: Good! If that doesn’t come up, that’s good!
JJ: I’m sure I did in the earlier sessions where I was just doing anything to get the cut. But everything I turn in now, I try to make sure it’s pretty solid, and written in a way that I would say it. That’s how you keep yourself accountable.

UCN: So you keep holding it up against the writer you want to be?
JJ: Exactly. Nobody wants to turn in cheesy shit.

UCN: *whispers* But they do every day… *smiles*
JJ: Oh, I know! *laughs* Ok, here’s a funny example. A friend of mine, Jim Beavers, wrote that ‘Red Solo Cup’ with the Warren brothers.

UCN: Please don’t get me started on that song… *smiles*
JJ: Well, they wrote it as a joke, right? If you think about it, it’s funny. As a joke song, it’s hilarious. Toby [Keith] then took it and made it into a real single. Jim and I laugh about it all the time. It’s a huge song! And you’ve got kids in probably every college in America drinking out of red solo cups now, because of that song. And I think, dude, if I was a part of something like that, it’s a goofy movement, but it’s something cool, and it sold millions of units of that thing! And I saw Lori McKenna write something on Twitter like ‘next time I see the Warren brothers, I’m gonna punch them in the mouth!’ *laughs* But see, it’s funny! They were probably just sitting around drinking beer and writing a funny song, and Toby just happened to pick it up. That’s the other side of it, and that’s still all right, you know?

UCN: Oh, I know… I can really go after songs like that but my problem is often not with the writers. They sometimes really just want to write a silly song and have some fun, and I’ll never have a problem with that. It’s more with the labels who will then present it as a great song, and that just…don’t. Present it as the fun, off-the-wall joke that it is.
JJ: Yeah, I’m with ya! The first time I heard it, I was like ‘oh no…,’ but then I started listening to the lyrics and some of it is really well-written; it’s hilarious. ‘You’re the fruit to my loom,’ I mean, that’s hilarious! *smiles* And that’s Jim’s line, too. Jim said he’s been trying to get that line in a song for years. He and I write quite a bit and a major artist cut one of our songs. It’s called ‘1972’ and I had this line that said ‘sympathy for the vinyl.’ I was going to name a song that. I wanted that to be in there so bad so we wrote it into the story. He loved the line and I said ‘Man, I’ve been trying to get that line in a song for years!’ And he goes ‘Dude, ‘you’re the fruit to my loom,’ I’ve been trying to get that in for years!’ *laughs* I respect the fact that they probably had a blast. They probably got drunk and wrote the hell out of that song, you know what I mean? About a cup! *laughs*

UCN: Yes, I do get it. And it’s actually the guys from LoCash Cowboys who taught me a big lesson in that respect, without them even knowing it. It was just from listening to their stuff, much of which I don’t like; the older stuff anyway. But I came to respect them a lot and I wanted to understand their process better and now, the newest songs are all as good as each other, and some of them really wonderful. They taught me to listen to these songs in a different way and to appreciate a different type of writing.
JJ: I heard one of theirs recently that I liked that’s really modern country-rock, almost a Keith Urban-type song but I can’t remember the title. And then I heard one that was really goofy, but I get it, ‘C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.’ That might be a great single.

UCN: Yeah, “goofy” is about right… *smiles* And that was about them just having fun writing it. And if you present it as that, I’m not going to start a discussion about integrity. It’s just fine exactly as it is.
JJ: Yes, it’s about having fun too. There’s a couple of Cadillac songs that are, well, maybe not goofy, but it’s on that line of being tongue-in-cheek drinking songs, but they’re still pretty well-written, you know.

UCN: Does it bother you if people then critique those songs? I often wonder when I say ‘this song lacks this’ or ‘this line doesn’t make sense,’ I’ll think ‘who the hell am I to say that?’ *laughs*
JJ: No, man, it’s fine. It can irritate me with older songs. Like the Sara Evans song I mentioned, I wrote that five years ago, and there’s a line I’m not exactly thrilled about.

UCN: And that’s the line someone picked out?
JJ: Yep, that’s the one. And so I’m like ‘Man, you’re picking on a 22-year-old kid.’

UCN: But they wouldn’t have known that though.
JJ: I’ve been doing this a long time, in one way or another, and you’re going to get haters, you know.

UCN: True. I mean, I was telling my friends about The Cadillac Black and telling them ‘go buy this record right now,’ but for some it just might not be their thing.
JJ: Yeah, somebody on Facebook said something about us being like Kid Rock.

UCN: Huh?
JJ: Yeah… Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a cool guy, we’ve known him for years. Clearly they didn’t go very deep into our songs; it’s a little ridiculous.

UCN: Are you pulling a single off the record?
JJ: Yes, we’re working on that now. But we’re trying to keep the majors, or any label really, out of it as much as we can. It’s more fun that way. I don’t like people telling me what to do when it comes to my art and my work. I love this band, I’ve known these guys since we were kids, so when you bring in another element, like “the machine”, it gets kind of tough when you really have something different. It gets messed up immediately.

UCN: How is it different writing Cadillac stuff compared to Music Row stuff, or is it the same writer that goes into both sessions?
JJ: Dude, it’s the same. Like the new cut me and Jim Beavers wrote, we were going to do that until the artist picked it up. Like I said, I just try to write good songs. Granted, in the vein of the Cadillac stuff, it doesn’t happen as often but I have so much more fun because it’s no holds barred, and I know that I’m going to be singing it. Dierks keeps telling me, ‘let me know when you’re done with ‘Get Your Buzz On,’ because I’m going to take it.’ *smiles*

UCN: He would do a great job with that song!
JJ: Oh, dude, it’d be huge! He’s excited about it. But it’s funny because that’s how similar it is to the stuff I write every day.

UCN: Where did ‘Down to the River’ come from? That and ‘Whiskey Soaked Redemption’ are standouts.
JJ: That was me and Matt and Ryan Fleener from The Dirt Drifters. We were writing for their record and I was confused why they didn’t cut it, so we ended up cutting it ourselves. But then I heard their record and I thought ‘oh that’s why they didn’t cut it, because every song there is fucking great!’ *smiles* That record is amazing! It’s real, they said everything they wanted to say, they did not hold back. They’ll probably be penalized for that a little bit, as far as radio goes. But we wrote that song about three years ago, before we even started Cadillac. And then ‘Whiskey Soaked,’ I wrote by myself for American Bang, trying to find another song, five years ago. I always liked it and so we put it on there.

UCN: It’s a great closer for the record.
JJ: I think so. I like it. People really react to it at live shows too. We’ve been playing a lot of Skynyrd shows, and whenever we play their crowd, we play that song. It’s pretty cool, man.

UCN: The first time I hear a record I let it wash over me, but then after that, with really listening, I found a lot of phrases in pretty much every song that are just perfect imagery.
JJ: Oh, thanks!

UCN: One of my favorites is ‘Tennessee Mojo’, that starts out ‘I’ve got my boots laced up with my guitar string/every step I take a mocking bird sings.’ I’m listening to that going ‘Are you kidding me?! That’s brilliant!!’
JJ: Thank you. *smiles*

UCN: Phrases like that, do they also just happen or is that stuff you have to chase a little bit?
JJ: The first line of a song is important, I want to grab them immediately, you know. It was the same with ‘Southern’‘I’m the first one to say ‘ladies first’.’ The guitar string line, I think I just spouted it out free-style, and everyone went ‘yeah!.’

UCN: And when you play with words, like in ‘The Sticks’ – ‘you can keep your stones, just give us the sticks’ – obviously a play on words with the phrase ‘sticks and stones’, how does that happen?
JJ: I wrote that by myself. I was listening to a lot of Eric Church records at the time. I’m a huge fan and he’s a good friend. The riff, I remember hearing one of his songs and I thought ‘he must be tuned down to a low C or something,’ so I tuned down my guitar and then just started playing that riff. The title was originally something else, but then we went out with Brantley Gilbert and Eric Church, and I realized Brantley had a song called ‘Kickin’ it in the Sticks,’ and I thought ‘oh shit!’ *laughs* That’s the worst feeling, man, when you write a song and you love it and then you’re like ‘oh no, somebody else already has this’. *smiles* So, I tweaked it to where it was playing off the sticks and stones thing.

UCN: The last few years, it seems Nashville has had a check list of things you need to mention, like trucks…
JJ: Tailgates! Dirt roads! *smiles*

UCN: And cat fish, and any number of things… *smiles* Has that been weird to see happen?
JJ: It’s definitely become an on-going joke with the whole tailgate on a dirt road in the backwoods and all that shit. But I mean, I used the word ‘tailgate’ in a song a few days ago, but it made sense, it was actually part of the hook. So, then I kind of like it. But if you’re just throwing it in…

UCN: Just writing off a check list.
JJ: Yeah! Actually Matt Fleener sent me a song a couple of weeks back that was a joke song, but in the e-mail he made it seem all serious, and he was going ‘this is going to be huge, man, we’re really excited about it.’ And literally, it was him and it comes on, and it’s just him and an acoustic guitar and it goes *sings* ‘dirt road, dirt road, tailgate, mom/dirt road, dirt road, a river and mom/bonfire, tailgate…’ and, you know, he’s just listing it. *smiles*

UCN: *laughs* That’s awesome, dude!
JJ: And then they come in with a harmony too, I can’t remember it all – ‘Mississippi clay, red dirt, dirt road, tires in the mud.’ It was awesome! *smiles*

UCN: I’ve said it before that someone should push something like that to radio and just be sarcastic as heck. *smiles*
JJ: Yes, but you can’t, because if you listen to radio today, half the songs on there are already like that! *smiles*

UCN: Well, the song at #1 right now is Kip Moore‘s ‘Somethin’ ’bout a Truck’
JJ: Dude… Awesome.

UCN: Indeed! When I was first sent it, they thought I wouldn’t like it because “it’s about a truck,” but then I listened to it and thought ‘No, no, this isn’t just another one of those songs. This is really great, and the truck is in there because it needs to be in there; it’s part of the narrative.’
JJ: He’s great. We write together quite a bit. We were just listening to his record the other day, and I said to my girl ‘Isn’t it great to hear one of our friends make it through?’ He was telling me the other day ‘they’re saying the song might go #1 next week’, and I’m like ‘Dude, that’s badass!’ It’s pretty tough to break through as a new artist, you know. I’m glad he made it, man, he’s a good dude.

UCN: What’s next for you?
JJ: This week I’m going to demo all the Dierks Bentley and Eli Young Band songs we wrote this week. I’ll be writing with other artists. I’ve got a bunch of stuff with Keith coming up. I’m really excited about June 19 when Kenny Chesney‘s record comes out. Tom Douglas and I have a song on there called ‘Sing ’em Good My Friend.’ We’re all pretty excited; the people in my camp. My dad’s freaking out. *smiles*

UCN: Well, yeah, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney…that’s pretty cool!
JJ: And Jake Owen.

UCN: Great!
JJ: Yeah! There’s a lot of cool stuff right now, man! *laughs* I should go get a check list.

UCN: Do you have a wish list still?
JJ: Man, pretty much everyone in the country world that I’d want, I’ve gotten a cut with or have one coming up with. I’ve worked a lot with Skynyrd for the new records, and it looks like I’ll have one on there.

UCN: Oh, wow…
JJ: That was my favorite band when I was a kid, and a Lynyrd Skynyrd cut is pretty rare, you know. I’m just loving life right now! *smiles* It’s funny when we play with them, we’ll get out of the van, and then there’s their fifteen buses standing there. *smiles*

UCN: Well, this is what you were working for all those years when you were churning out 150 songs a year.
JJ: Dude, yeah… You’re trying to get to a place where you can work with people like that, and people like Keith and Tim. It’s really weird to say it but there’s not too many more I’d still have on a wish list.

UCN: But that’s great!
JJ: Yes , it is…but don’t make me sound arrogant! *laughs*

UCN: No, you’re so excited, this is really great! *laughs* I was thinking who I’d like to see you write with, and I know you like the Texas scene, so I’m gonna say Jack Ingram. He’s one of my favorite writers; I think he’s phenomenal.
JJ: Oh, he’s great! I love his ‘Wherever You Are.’ And that other one, ‘Barefoot and Crazy,’ when I heard that I was like ‘Damn it, why didn’t I write that?’ *smiles*

UCN: That’s a Peach Pickers song.
JJ: Yeah? Well…those guys have done well. *laughs*

UCN: *laughs* Yeah, ya think?
JJ: Man, they’re killer.

UCN: You seem to be doing pretty well too. *smiles*
JJ: Yeah… *smiles* I’m perfectly happy with what’s going on now.

UCN: If your life is moving forward, then you are on the right path.
JJ: Yes, and we just bought a house so we’re excited. I’m making a living, got a good band, don’t have to answer to the man, I’ve got a good girl, got a house, got dogs, just had my first #1… I’m a happy dude! *smiles*

UCN: Well, this was really great! I enjoyed this conversation a lot. Thank you!
JJ: Me too! Thank you!


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