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.