Instead, Jimmy draws from his own experiences for the fictional 'Paper Angels,' a novel named after his hit 2004 song about recipients of the Salvation Army Angel Tree. Along with co-writer Travis Thrasher, the musician-turned-author has crafted a tale of two very different families: one financially comfortable, the other dirt poor. The two collide thanks to the annual program that recruits shoppers to "adopt" needy kids for the holidays.
The Boot sat down with Jimmy in Nashville to talk about the newly-released 'Paper Angels,' along with his upcoming album inspired solely by his 1,700-mile walk across America to raise awareness and money for teens who age out of the foster-care system. He also opens up about his harrowing days as a foster kid and his anger at our nation's lack of angels to help youth in need.
Why fiction and not a book based on your own life story?
It was another way to share the story about 'Paper Angels' ... not the same way I've been sharing the story for the last 14 years in this business. I wrote a song, 'Paper Angels,' inspired by my experience of being a recipient of the Angel Tree. Fiction allowed me to spread out a little bit more. When you read the book, you will see things in there that are nonfiction from my personal story.
Are the characters based on people you know?
Thomas and Sarah are brother and sister. It's switched in real life. My sister is really Thomas. She's the one who took care of me. She was the one who set the alarm clock, the one who ran into the room and was like, "Get up now! The bus is coming!" She's the one that did what Thomas does in this book.
There's some other characters that are people I know. There's a chapter called 'Doug's Bicycle Shop' -- that's actually Brad Paisley's father, Doug. When I was on the American Saturday Night tour in 2009, Doug bought me a bike for the last night of the tour. He saw an old bike I rode around on the tour ... He didn't feel sorry for me. He just thought I needed a new bike.
Kevin was based on my co-writer, Travis. He and his wife were pregnant with twins through the entire process of writing this book. So it was more of a nonfiction for him. He was really writing his story out -- things they were struggling with as far as the pregnancy, with Baby B not being as healthy as Baby A. I can't imagine struggling with all that and trying to write this book.
The timing of this book's release is perfect, as the Angel Tree program starts the same week.
I just got word this morning that a lady who had signed up for the program has six children and lost their house this weekend. It's hard for everyone, but these kids aren't used to getting much, so they don't ask for much. I hope people read this book and just be inspired. If they aren't financially able, go down to the Salvation Army and donate their time. Box up these items for these recipients.
Here at home, do you think Nashville does enough to help foster kids?
I don't want to be diplomatic. I want to be honest. The day I did my walk across America, I said, "If you want to walk the first mile with me, meet me at Monroe Harding [a Nashville home for youth in or at risk of being in foster care], and we'll walk together." Ninety-eight percent of the people didn't know where that was ... and it's been here since the 1800's. So that was the first test that proved to me that people aren't aware. People here have the heart to help, but people aren't aware.
Congressman [Jim] Cooper, the day I left Nashville, he was talking about how there are so many churches in Tennessee. If every congregation would adopt one kid, we could solve the problem. If there are 160 million Christians in America and 500,000 foster kids, why are there 500,000 foster kids? As Americans, we're not doing our job. It's a homeland security risk if there ever was. It's happening right here. Our next generations will continue to suffer. The kids are the future.
For a service man or woman who is going overseas to risk their lives for this country ... how do you think they would feel if you told them that 30,000 kids a year age out of the foster program and become homeless? They are fighting for our country, and we're not doing our job. They are doing their job, but we are taking advantage of them. We are sitting on our asses and not doing anything at home. What if they said they weren't going to do this anymore until you straighten your asses out and start taking care of your kids?
A lot of this book was written during your Meet Me Halfway walk across America. You were also writing a lot of songs on your journey. When will we be able to hear those?
I will predict right now, someone is going to say to me, "This is a different you." No, it's not! This is who I am. This is me when I moved to Nashville. Somewhere in the mix, things changed. I had no control over that. I was made to record that song ... or a record was put together I had no control over. I was in Nashville one day, and someone handed me my record and said, "This is your new record ... we pieced it together from songs that weren't used on the last two records." But I wrote and paid every single penny for this new record. Songs on this album were inspired by crazy stories from the walk ... they can't be written on Music Row. You have to experience it.
Musically, how is this album different than your previous projects?
I wrote this album with one of my favorite songwriters, Pat Alger. He's one of the greatest writers I've ever met. Typically on Music Row, we meet at 10:00 AM, drink coffee until 11 ... We sit for an hour and throw around song ideas until we go to lunch. We don't even start writing until 2:00 PM, maybe. It's the same song, same beat, same old dirt road, tailgate, stars hanging over your head, beer cans, preacher's daughters, cornfields and the damn boots. It's just recycled material over and over. I brought a stockpile of new, inspiring information back with me. Pictures and videos ... melodies I recorded as I was looking at the sun coming up over this vast desert. When I sat down with Pat, I didn't try to do it the typical way; we stared at the pictures and videos from my trip and shared stories. The emotions came out. This was a unique process for me. I can guarantee nobody else has done this on Music Row.
Will you include any of those pictures on the CD jacket?
I absolutely will. That's half of why it took me so long on this walk -- I would stop and take a picture. I'd spend 20 minutes taking a picture of a barn or a feather. Seriously! Or a piece of rusted barbwire that was so beautiful, or rolls of hay that are snowcapped. You don't see these kinda places driving down the interstate.
You're a free agent right now. Will you shop this new music around to record labels or release it on your own?
I'm gonna talk to a few people, but they have to be on the same page I'm on. I can't see me giving up this project to someone who will take it and if the single doesn't work, they'll shelve it. This kinda record, since I paid for it, I made sure it was a manual that would last me the rest of my life. I could go out and do a speaking engagement, or I could give it to a kid and say, "Hey, this will help you." Music is a universal language. Escape through music is the way a lot of us in the [foster-care system] use.
You are becoming nearly as well known for your tireless charitable efforts as you are for your music. Was that the plan all along?
When I was taken in by a family when I was 16, it wasn't my mission then to talk about it or give back ... I never wanted to re-live that life again, because it was so hard. A person can't imagine how hard it is until you literally live outside, with no place to go. You're a kid and you can't get a job. You are struggling and ask people for food. I went into convenience stores and asked for food. It wasn't until I was in college that I visited a detention center that I was once in for running away from a group home. This officer said, "Good morning, welcome to the Dallas Detention Center. Here is where we have all the trash." That was the turning point, because I remembered this guy. This is the guy that checked me in on my 15th birthday -- the day I got arrested.
My mission from that day forward was, not only will I write songs to be entertaining, but somewhere in my show, I will incorporate this story to make sure people know there are kids out there who need help. They aren't trash. How are you going to look a little girl whose parents died in a car crash and call her "trash"? When I was standing onstage at Madison Square Garden, I had 25 minutes to play, and I took some time to talk about what I believe in. I do it at every single show -- thank the families out there taking care of kids in America who need a home. I'm on a mission.