On a hot July day, Nashville songwriter Jim McCormick said that he might take a ride from Metairie to LaPlace to run some errands. A friend joked that he should buy himself a new pair of aviator sunglasses and black leather jacket, then rent a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the day.
The UNO alumnus had woken up to discover that he had helped to write the number one country song in America — and the day called for driving Louisiana back roads, radio blaring.
“I’ve got about two more weeks of not being scared — and then I’m back to fear and trembling. That’s the truth,” said McCormick, when the laughter subsided. “I mean, that’s the life of a songwriter. You really are just trying to make it from one success to another,” he said. “And I don’t think that that is much different than careers in the arts or other disciplines — whether you’re an actor or a filmmaker or an artist. There’s no ‘Once you’re in, you’re in.’ You have to continue to perform at a level of excellence.
“Hopefully, you start to hit your stride and a level of exposure and quality, and hopefully, they start ramping up at the same time, so that when your moment comes, so to speak, you have the goods to back it up.” McCormick did not have to wait two weeks for a breather. Nor does he need to prove that he has the goods.
The same week that McCormick saw his song — “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do,” co-written and recorded by Brantley Gilbert — top country music charts, country rock megastar Jason Aldean released another of his songs as a single. “Take a Little Ride,” written by McCormick, Dylan Altman and Rodney Clawson, was among the first new recordings that Aldean had released in three years. The song was destined for Aldean’s new album, Night Train, to be released in October and to celebrate, New Orleans radio station WNOE and Clear Channel sister stations across America played the song every hour, on the hour.
Within a week, the song topped iTunes’ all-genre singles chart, outpacing songs by pop stars including Katy Perry. Within two weeks, the song had broken the entertainment industry’s record for the highest number of single downloads, surpassing record-holder Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup.” By late September, the song topped Billboard’s country music chart and then another chart carefully watched in the industry. Two weeks before Aldean released his highly anticipated album, McCormick racked up his second number one single.
McCormick believes that a high degree of luck is involved in attaining a number one single — or in getting a song released at all. Yet, the New Orleans native has written top hits performed by Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, Luke Bryan, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, Rodney Atkins, Jamey Johnson, Anders Osborne, Amanda Shaw and many others. He’s seen one of his songs hit the Top 40 and had a song on a Grammy-nominated album. This year, McCormick’s had three of his songs released as country radio singles — a phenomenal achievement in today’s high-dollar entertainment industry.
Ask him how he got where he is and McCormick, now a staff songwriter at BMG Chrysalis Music Group in Nashville, Tenn., will tell you first that he was blessed with a voice — a deep rich baritone that once won him a college scholarship, then allowed him to make a living for nearly 10 years as lead singer for his 1990s band, The Bingemen.
Showing his humorous side, he may tell you of early attempts to woo a fourth-grade neighbor in Algiers, playing songs on a red guitar purchased at Sears by his childhood pal Diego Martinez. Or he may tell you about his father’s extensive reel-to-reel recording collection and sing an excerpt of an early favorite album, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Grit, determination, character — even foolhardiness, he tells young songwriters.
McCormick writes more than 150 songs per year, working from a notebook of thoughts, titles and ideas extending more than 600 pages. He cuts major publishing deals for his songs about six or seven times a year. To get the chance to try, he spent years writing songs and poems while playing in a band, painting houses and hanging sheetrock in New Orleans, then driving once or twice a month to Nashville in a beat-up Toyota Camry that had no air-conditioning.
“Music moves people,” McCormick says. “I like beautiful things.”
McCormick graduated in 1986 from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, where he wrote for the school’s literary magazine, Calliope. He received his undergraduate degree in 1990 from Georgetown University, where he says he first fell in love with poetry, a discovery that launched him to graduate school. McCormick received a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry in 1994 from UNO and matriculated from the University of New Orleans’ first Creative Writing Workshop.
“I really think that having gotten the exposure to the great poems and the great writers and the reading skills and the critical abilities that I did at UNO certainly gives me an enormous left hook when it comes to writing songs,” McCormick says. “Because of that program, I feel that I have, you know, a very fortunate grasp on a lot of things literary, that most songwriters might not have. It allows me to bring to the table in my collaborations this sort of skill set and this tool box that I try to make use of.”
While he does not apply the tone or content of American poetry directly to country music songs, McCormick says, the collaboration, creative writing and critical reading skills that he gained during his graduate studies and days as a teaching assistant at UNO have served him well in his songwriting career, as have years of practice writing within strict forms, such as the sonnet or villanelle.
“It’s a muscle. Your ability to create and understand metaphor and other poetic and rhetorical devices is a muscle, and I think that you’re either going to keep that muscle in shape or you’re going to let it atrophy,” he says.
“I think I’ve been very fortunate to have studied like I did at UNO and had that introduction to a lifelong study and companionship of poetry that continues to this day — and forms my ability to write, I think, on a daily basis, the songs that I do.”
His apartment in Nashville is filled with tomes collected during his graduate studies. In a moment of grief, joy or fear, he knows where to turn. To each writing appointment in a recording studio and each collaboration over a cup of coffee, he brings hard-earned skills gleaned through grueling writing workshops designed to help writers attack a piece of work critically, yet remain friendly. Years spent reading, writing and studying in solitude also prepared him for the arduous work of churning out quality songs on a daily basis, he says.
Studying with professional writers taught him that writing is not solely a creative act, says McCormick. He learned through the Creative Writing Workshop that he could be an introverted artist as well as an outgoing businessman and developed skills to do both.
Top-line country music stars regularly seek McCormick as a collaborator, due to his lyric-writing abilities and the high volume of successful work that he has produced. He serves on the board of governors for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, a U.S. organization of musicians, producers, recording engineers and other recording professionals dedicated to improving the quality of life and cultural condition for music and its makers. He is a member of Leadership Music’s class of 2013 and this fall teaches a course on the business of songwriting at Loyola University New Orleans.
“I think that if you can identify what you love doing in this life and you are fortunate to find some way to synchronize a way to make money with that thing that you love: Glory, hallelujah,” McCormick says. “Because you’ll probably be awesome at it, eventually. Not that it’s not going to take an awful lot of hard work to get good, but you’ll probably be awesome at it one day.
“And at least, along the way, during all the days that it takes grit to keep going, because you’re getting your teeth kicked in and you have to keep smiling, at least during those years, you’ll still be able to get up out of bed and try to go to work again,” he says. “To try it again.”