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A Tenacious Wordsmith Hits It Big In Nashville

Once a poet and an English teacher, Jim McCormick has become a powerhouse Nashville songwriter. (Courtesy of the artist)

In March, country music star Jason Aldean is playing Madison Square Garden. Tickets sold out in 10 minutes. Fans want to hear his latest No. 1 song, "Take a Little Ride."

The song was written by by Rodney Clawson, Dylan Altman and Jim McCormick — who still chuckles when he hears it. McCormick says a No. 1 song is life-altering.

"I've had all the other numbers, and this is a better number to have than the others," McCormick says. "Doors open. The phone rings. You're in a little club. You now have a sort of three-minute calling card: 'He's the guy that wrote that song.' "

Before he became that guy, McCormick took one of the most unusual paths to country music since Kris Kristofferson finished his Rhodes scholarship and wound up a janitor at a Nashville studio. In 1990, McCormick graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and went home to New Orleans to teach and write poems. The son of a merchant marine turned business owner and a stay-at-home mom, he'd hoped to give his poems a kind of everyday language.

He looked up to poets like Jack Gilbert, James Wright and his friend and mentor Roland Flint — a poet laureate of Maryland and a Georgetown professor. "He taught me how to read poetry, and how to think of poetry, and how to think of myself as a poet — which is not to think of myself as a poet at all," McCormick says.

Sometime around Flint's death in 2001, McCormick committed to music full time. Scott Aiges, who directs cultural programming for the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and has known McCormick for 20 years, says he picked the right genre.

"If you want to make a living as a songwriter, then country is probably your best option," Aiges explains. "In rock music, people are expected to be singer-songwriters who create their own material. There are plenty of singers out there who are singing songs that other people have written. But typically people assume that folks are following the Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen model of artists performing their own compositions. Country music is still very much expected to be a professional craft in the way that the writers of Tin Pan Alley were."

So McCormick began commuting between New Orleans and Nashville — sleeping on sofas — and writing three to four songs a day for anybody who'd take them.

"I've spent the past 12 years in Nashville learning how to smile while I was getting my teeth kicked in," McCormick says. "The nature of what songwriters do is to hear the word 'no' more than anything else. We become accustomed to that and continue to work hard and write like our lives depended on it. And have a great time doing it. Paradise is the road to paradise, right?"

McCormick began writing the Nashville way, in teams. In 2008 he, Kris Bergsnes and Patrick Jason Matthews co-wrote a song that Randy Travis knew exactly what to do with: "You Didn't Have a Good Time."

Nowadays, it's kind of eerie to hear Travis sing the lyrics, given his recent legal troubles in Texas — he's been charged twice with public intoxication. But McCormick was the true inspiration for the song: When the team sat down to write one morning, the others joked he was hungover from drinking the night before. That made McCormick angry.

"It took me 'til lunch probably to come around to really cooperating," he recalls. "But they were going to have that song whether I was going to do it with them cooperatively or not. And I'm so glad they held my feet to the fire. We wrote it in that direction, from the voice of the conscience, from the very beginning. And that was the truth of why I didn't like hearing it."

Hundreds of songs later, McCormick celebrated his first No. 1 country hit, "You Don't Know Her Like I Do," with singer and co-writer Brantley Gilbert. Aiges says McCormick's success is a testament to his talent and tenacity.

"I think it's the greatest thing in the world," Aiges says. "So now, with a couple No. 1 songs, he could be living the dream. He could very well buy a nice house with the royalties from those songs. You probably could have a pretty good beer hall debate about whether he would have had that same level of success had he stuck to poetry on the page."

But the upside of writing poetry is that no one asks you for product placement. When the Coors Brewing Co. signed on to sponsor Aldean's tour, McCormick and his co-writers made the song "Take A Little Ride" more Coors-friendly: They erased the name of competitor Shiner Bock and penciled in "rocky tops."

"From our point of view, the artist came to us and asked us to help him make this transition as fitting as possible for the song. He didn't have to do that. It's certainly understandable. I'm sure it's not a small sponsorship. What little we can do to help is absolutely fine with me," McCormick says. "The detail we're talking about altering is, 'Could you make it a Dodge Charger instead of a Trans Am?' No problem."

That's commercial songwriting. But McCormick has also been working on an album of his own; The Middle of the River was released digitally this week. There are no Charger or Trans Am endorsements to be found, just a guitar and poetry — for now.

Gwen Thompkins hosts the public radio program Music Inside Out, a show about Louisiana music and musicians.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on All Things Considered, from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And it's time now for music.

In the 1990s, Jim McCormick was teaching English at the University of New Orleans, and looking ahead to a future in academia. Nowadays, McCormick is one of the hottest lyricists in Nashville. That's what having your song hit the top of the Billboard country charts can do for a songwriter, and he should know. He's done it twice in the past six months. Gwen Tompkins has his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE RIDE")

GWEN TOMPKINS, BYLINE: Next month, country music star Jason Aldean is playing Madison Square Garden. Tickets sold out in 10 minutes. Fans want to hear his latest number one song, "Take a Little Ride."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE RIDE")

JASON ALDEAN: (Singing) Well I'm just ready to ride this Chevy, ride this Chevy down a little back road. Slide your pretty little self on over get a little closer, turn up the radio.

TOMPKINS: "Take a Little Ride" was written by Rodney Clawson, Dylan Altman and Jim McCormick, who still chuckles when he sings it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE RIDE")

JIM MCCORMICK: (Singing) Put your pretty pink toes on the dash, lean your seat back. Girl, I swear there ain't nothing looks better than that sweet tan, little thing with nothing to do. I wanna take a little ride with you.

(LAUGHTER)

TOMPKINS: McCormick says a number one song is life-altering.

MCCORMICK: I've had all the other numbers, and this is a better number to have than the others - doors opened, your phone rings. You do belong to a club. You now have a sort of three-minute calling card. He's the guy that wrote that song.

TOMPKINS: Before becoming the guy that wrote that song, McCormick took one of the most unusual paths to country music since Kris Kristofferson finished his road scholarship and wound up a janitor at a Nashville studio. In 1990, McCormick graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and went home to New Orleans to teach and write poems. The son of a merchant marine turned business owner and a stay-at-home mom, he'd hoped to give his poems a kind of everyday language.

MCCORMICK: My favorite poets, you know, Jack Gilbert, James Wright. And Roland Flint was a great mentor and friend. And I was so blessed to have him as a teacher.

TOMPKINS: Roland Flint was a poet laureate of Maryland. Here's an excerpt of his poem "Pamela" on February 8, 1982.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROLAND FLINT: My daughter is sweet sixteen today. Now, this is not just a thing to say, because she is that dear, sweet miss, steeped in grief for her brother, dead almost 10 years now, twin and darling of her six years heart. And she bears him with her still on her birthday, feeling as I do, how old the boy is, too, this year, wondering hopelessly what would be.

MCCORMICK: He taught me how to read poetry and how to think of poetry, how to think of myself as a poet, which was not to think of myself as a poet at all. His work-a-day attitude towards the craft is something that I have definitely carried with myself through into my life as a songwriter.

TOMPKINS: Sometime around Flint's death in 2001, McCormick committed to music full time.

SCOTT AIGES: If you want to make a living as a songwriter, then country music is probably your best option.

TOMPKINS: Scott Aiges directs cultural programming for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, a non-profit that supports musicians and other artists throughout the city. He's known McCormick for 20 years.

AIGES: In rock music, people are expected to be singer/songwriters who create their own material. People assume that folks are following the Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen model of artists performing their own compositions. Country music is still very much expected to be a professional craft in the way that the writers of Tin Pan Alley were.

TOMPKINS: So McCormick began commuting between New Orleans and Nashville, sleeping on sofas and writing three to four songs a day for anybody who'd take them.

MCCORMICK: I've spent the last 12 years in Nashville learning how to smile while getting my teeth kicked in. And that's just because the nature of what songwriters do is to hear the word no more than anything else. And you become accustomed to that and work hard and wake up every morning and go write like our life depends on it again and have a great time doing it. Paradise is the road to paradise, right?

TOMPKINS: McCormick began writing the Nashville way, in teams. In 2008, he, Kris Bergsnes and Patrick Jason Matthews co-wrote a song that Randy Travis knew exactly what to do with. It's called "You Didn't Have a Good Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DIDN'T HAVE A GOOD TIME")

RANDY TRAVIS: (Singing) Well, I bet you don't remember kneeling in that bathroom stall, praying for salvation and cursing alcohol.

TOMPKINS: Nowadays, it's kind of eerie to hear Travis sing those lyrics, given his recent legal troubles in Texas. He's been charged twice with public intoxication. But McCormick was the true inspiration for the song. When the team sat down to write one morning, the others noted that he was hung over from drinking the night before. Their remarks made McCormick angry.

MCCORMICK: It took me till lunch, probably, to come around to really cooperating. But they were going to have this song whether I was going to do it with them cooperatively or not. And I'm so glad that they held my feet to the fire, and we wrote it in that direction in the voice of the conscience from the very beginning. And that was the truth of why I didn't like hearing it.

TOMPKINS: Hundreds of songs later, McCormick celebrated his first number one hit with singer and cowriter, Brantley Gilbert. Scott Aiges says McCormick's success is a testament to his talent and tenacity.

AIGES: Jim McCormick just really stuck it out. And I think it's the greatest thing in the world. So now, with a couple of number one songs, he could be living the dream. He could very well buy a very nice house off of the royalties that he's generating from those songs. You could probably have a pretty good beer hall debate over whether he would've had that same level of success had he stuck to poetry on the page.

TOMPKINS: But the upside to writing poetry is that no one asks you for product placement. When the Coors Brewing Company signed on to sponsor Jason Aldean's tour, McCormick and his cowriters made the song "Take a Little Ride" more Coors-friendly. They erased the name of competitor Shiner Bock and penciled in Rocky Tops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE RIDE")

ALDEAN: (Singing) Swing by the quick stop, grab a couple Rocky Tops, then ease on out your way to your place around 8 o'clock.

MCCORMICK: From our point of view, the artist came to us and asked us to help him make this transition as fitting as possible for the song. He didn't have to do that at all. I'm sure it's not a small sponsorship, for sure.

TOMPKINS: OK. So you don't feel like artistically raped or, you know...

MCCORMICK: So far from it. The detail that we're talking about altering, OK, well, could you make it a Dodge Charger instead of a Trans-Am? No problem.

TOMPKINS: That's commercial songwriting. But Jim McCormick the artist has just released his own CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCORMICK: (Singing) I go places there, and I see faces there, when for a moment I think yes, but no, it couldn't be. Tell me do you ever turn around and think did you see me.

TOMPKINS: No Dodge Chargers, no Trans-Ams. Just a guitar and a songwriter's poetry for now. For NPR News, I'm Gwen Tompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCORMICK: (Singing) Will I ever get where I can forget about you. Will I ever be who I used to be around you, and if I have the chance to dance a dance without you.

SULLIVAN: And for Sunday, that's all we got. That's WEEKENDS on All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on All Things Considered on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and just scroll on down. We're back with another show next week. Until then, thanks for listening. Enjoy the Super Bowl, and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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