Hit songwriter Jonathan Singleton reveals experiences from his career that will have you laughing
By Derek Pastore
American Grammy-nominated country music singer and songwriter Jonathan Singleton is best known for co-writing the hit songs “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” by Tyler Farr, “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” by Tim McGraw, “Why Don’t We Just Dance” by Josh Turner, “Don’t” by Billy Currington, “Red Light” and “Let It Rain” by David Nail and “Watching Airplanes” by Gary Allan. We caught up with Jonathan to discuss the publishing venture 50 Egg Music, and the reason he chose songwriting over having his own band.
Raised Rowdy: You grew up just a hop, skip and a jump from Nashville, near Jackson TN. Living so close to Music City, did you always want to be a songwriter, or did you have other aspirations?
Jonathan Singleton: I actually went to Lexington high school. About 20 miles from Jackson. Me, Jessi Alexander, Ash Bowers, Brandon Ray, and a few others say Jackson, because a lot of people know where that is. I’m pretty sure we all were outside of Jackson. I lived in Cedar Grove TN, which is where The Grove came from. I had no idea people wrote songs for a living until I was about 25. The Grove played about 5 nights a week. Me and William, my drummer, worked at a music retail store that we taught lessons in and it had a studio. We stayed pretty busy. I thought that’s what I would do for the rest of my life until I met a guy that had a publishing deal with Roger Murrah. Roger was one of the first guys I met in town. I started to put together real quick that I might change my plan.
RR: Most starry eyed songwriters come to Nashville to make it as an artist on their own. You started the band Jonathan Singleton and The Grove that was signed to a record deal… but that was not your forte, was it? You have a different story than the typical Nashville visionary. Tell us about the conclusion to give up the band and focus on writing only.
JS: Once I got a few co-writes, and some meetings. It seemed like if I said I just wanted to be a writer, the more they were interested in wanting to give me a record deal. Plus, I got better co-writes. I never really intended to get a record deal. I had been riding in a van for a long time already. But there I was. Dan Huff wants to produce your record. Mark Wright wants to give you a record deal. Eric Church wants you to go on tour with him. John Peets wants to be your manager. I dove into a record deal 100% and made sure I did everything I could do to make it work. I hated all of it. I had always been in a band. Now I was the guy. It was as uncomfortable as I’ve ever been. I also thought the music would launch us ahead of the pack. Not necessarily so. There’s a lot more to being a successful artist than being good at your instruments. I thought radio would appreciate that I didn’t want to talk that much and that I was ready to play songs for them and get out of their way. It doesn’t work that way. They need a narrative with the artist. They need more than a song. I wasn’t prepared to give that to them. Meanwhile songwriting was going great. Towards the end I was sleeping in the floorboard of a van with 4 number ones under my belt. I remember sitting at breakfast one morning with my wife complaining again, when she said “just quit then.” It had never occurred to me that I could. I gave my guys some heads up and started to get ready to settle into writing.
RR: Do your songs come from personal experiences, or do you step outside of your own life and dive into the world of “what could work”?
JS: I feel like all my songs are “some other guy.” Even if they are about me, I wouldn’t want to admit it. I feel like on the first line I start to build a character and try to figure out what this guy would say. You’re always pulling from personal experiences, but we write 5 days a week. I’ve never sat at an airport and watched airplanes. I’ve never been broken up with at a red light. People really hate to hear that. I’m so sorry. But I’m happy to say I’ve never cheated on my wife and let it rain on me though.
RR: Nashville is such a unique community, and you’ve worked with some incredible people. It’s extremely rare these days for someone to write a hit by themselves. Why do you think it works so much better to co-write with one or two others, and who is someone you would love to write with that you haven’t encountered yet?
JS: I’m definitely a co-writer. Just like I’m a band guy. I know guys that write by themselves and love it. Kenton does. It’s impossible for me to keep it moving. I miss the healthy competition of who can come up with the line. Looking at your co-writer and saying “what about this.” That’s the part I love. I love hearing them love it. I love them saying the same to me when they come up with the line. That’s my favorite part. I lose that writing by myself. I’m real lucky to have the writing schedule I have. I’ve been trying to write less for 10 years now, but I look at my schedule and get excited every week. I’ve covered most of my wish list writes. Except one. I clearly remember the first time I heard Chris Knight. It changed my idea of country music, of song subject, of production. I’m such a fan that I have been terrified to write with him. I think I probably won’t do it.
RR: You wrote “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” that was cut by Tyler Farr. But there was some controversy that Blake Shelton essentially had it on hold when Tyler heard it and asked for it. What’s the story behind Blake letting it go to Tyler?
JS: So the story is. Blake had the song on hold. I didn’t know that, I try real hard to not get excited about holds, and that sounds like one I wouldn’t have been able to help being excited about. So a lot of times I don’t pay attention to those emails. I played the song at Loser’s one night. Tyler Farr was in the audience. I knew Tyler and he came over and asked who had that song on hold. I said nobody. A couple of days later all hell broke loose. Apparently Blake loved the song and wanted to cut it, but Tyler was going in first. That’s when I stepped out. The last thing I wanted was for either of these guys to be mad at me. I’d be pitching them both songs for their next records too. The story Tyler told me was this. Tyler and Blake were on the same festival one night. Tyler had already gone in and cut the song. Blake saw Tyler and said “well let’s hear the song.” Tyler played it for him and Blake loved it. Blake just wanted to make sure it went to a good home.
RR: How did you decide to start the publishing venture, 50 Egg Music?
JS: 50 egg is a Cool Hand Luke reference. Luke is in jail in the movie and decides to eat 50 eggs. It almost kills him but he does it. When they asked him in the movie why he did it, he said “something to do.” We take it a little more serious, but still it’s kind of true. We’ve built some really special artist and writer relationships over the years. Ones I’m really proud of. It just felt like the obvious next step. Also, if you don’t like the direction things are going, put some skin in the game or shut up about it. I got tired of hearing myself complain and not do anything about it.
RR: So now you’re working with Luke Combs and Kenton Bryant, among others. When did you first meet Luke, and how did this joint venture come to be?
JS: Let me say this first. There aren’t guys that work as hard as Luke and Kenton. That’s what we are about. Both of these guys eat, sleep, and breathe country music. I like to assume everybody in Nashville is at the same talent level. We’ve got to outwork everybody.
I met Luke and Rob at The Tin Roof Revival. I was unaware of this til later, but I remembered meeting them after they brought it up later. I saw Luke on a later date at Revival again. I was standing by the bar talking to Randy Montana. Luke started to sing and we both kind of got quiet for a second. Then made our way to the back as fast as we could. It was crazy being one of the only guys in the room that didn’t know every song he was singing. People went crazy. I had never seen anything like it in town. I told Channing Wilson, who was helping run The Tin Roof Revival at the time, that I had to meet this guy. Me and Luke talked on the phone after that a bit. I think we had a few drinks. I’m positive we went hunting some, and wrote a few songs. He was trying to figure out where his career was headed, and I was more than happy to share my experience of what not to do as an artist. I probably shouldn’t tell this part, but I text Luke one day and said if I started a co-venture with Big Machine, if he would be interested in signing. I think the text back just said “hell yeah!” Not my most professional moment, but it worked. This was before Luke’s record deal, and I’ve watched him make decisions like this the whole way. As great of a singer, songwriter, performer, and a guy as he is, his gut at making business decisions is just as strong. He knows what he knows, and he goes.
RR: And what can you tell us about the experience writing with Kenton? Can you share anything about his project and when can we expect to hear something?
JS: Kenton is the best. We put him with better and better co-writes, and he surprised us, and them, every time. He also writes songs by himself that are great. He’s a great singer and guitar player. With guys like these you can’t miss. We cut 6 songs and we are getting ready to digitally release them so he has something to build his fan base with. We played all the parts on the record. I’m so proud of it I can’t stand myself. The first song Kenton and I ever wrote “Since You’re Gone” is on it. About a guy telling an ex where he’s been going since she’s gone. My favorite line is “right where you told me to go, didn’t need any help on that.”
RR: We’ve only mentioned a few, but you’ve been a part of some mammoth hits. A lot of songwriters write hundreds of songs before having anything big get cut. What is the waiting process like for you after sending out a number of songs, but not hearing anything back for months?
JS: It always feels like the same game. It never gets easier. You’re always gonna hear no. You just gotta keep writing the songs you write, and it’ll swing back around. It comes in waves for sure. I’m never gonna be the guy that has 10 singles in a year and I’m ok with that. I can say I’m proud of every single I’ve had. I’m terrified of having one I’m not proud of. I never take it personally though when someone doesn’t cut a song of mine. I can’t afford to.
RR: After you wrote the hit “Why Don’t We Just Dance” by Josh Turner, which was number 1 for four weeks, I heard you mention that you weren’t really referring to “dancing” at all… Do you think Josh ever figured that out?
JS: Hahahaha! That’s the story we tell. I wrote that with Darrel Brown and Jim Beavers. Jim is a really really funny guy. I told that story one night at a round about Josh not knowing what the song was really about and Jim ran with it. His version is a lot funnier than mine.
On josh’s last record he did a bidder shoot of all his new songs. I had a song on that record too, but at the end he did “Why Don’t We Just Dance”. I told the story with Josh there about how we would tell the crowd if they saw Josh not to tell him the song wasn’t about dancing or he’d quit playing it. I said I was proud of myself for getting the nicest guy in country music to do a song about “doing it.” Josh came back like we planned it with, “well Jonathan, nice guys like to do it too.”
RR: Let’s hear your interests. On your own playlist, what comes through your headphones the most?
JS: I love old country and old songwriters, but I think people would be surprised at my iTunes. I love anything that sets a mood. Chris Knight, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Hal Ketchum, Darrel Scott, the band, Van Morrison, Lori Mckenna, I secretly love the band Everclear. I went crazy over Adele’s record. Then I love new country. I’m a huge Eric Church fan. I loved Devin Dawson’s new record, maybe just anything Jay Joyce does. I loved John Pardi’s record. But I still love rock music. I still love punk music. I still love Reggae. I love pop music. I’ve got music ADD.
Thank you Jonathan for taking time to share these stories. Cheers to many more successful years. Y’all keep up with Raised Rowdy for info on new Luke Combs and Kenton Bryant music, and everything else Jonathan is involved in. Jonathan’s most recent release (2013) is one of our founder Nick’s absolute favorite albums. Check it out below.