The singer-songwriter returned to Texas earlier this week to celebrate today's (Aug. 21) release of his self-titled debut album with the hometown crowd, and will finish off the week with a performance at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. In the midst of a busy release schedule, The Boot sat down with JT to chat about how hangovers sometimes give birth to great songs and how small town secrets can provide big sizzle when it comes to song material.
Your dad ran a studio and was a concert pianist who studied at Juilliard. Did that make music a certain path for you, or did you ever think of doing something else?
You hear a lot of artists who say, "I knew from day one I wanted to be a star." But my folks never pushed it on me. I almost felt like music was a tougher environment to grow up into, and when I finally decided to do music it was almost tougher, because my parents knew the business and what was good and what wasn't. They were so supportive of me, but it was never one of these things like, "Oh, I've always wanted to be a musician." Maybe I took it for granted being around it my whole life, but my parents encouraged me to try everything. What was interesting was there was always this line, and that was music, and maybe I'd go outside the line, but I'd always come back and cross it back and forth.
Football is practically a religion in Texas. Was that a big part of your life growing up in Fort Worth?
I was a good player. I almost played college football. I had some offers, but I turned them down and that was right around the time I had finally made a commitment to do music. I was a tailback in high school. My grandfather played college ball at Texas A&M, and dad was pretty athletic. I loved playing football, but there was a realization of, "I'm good, but I'm not that good." Music comes more naturally to me. They always said, "If you're gonna do this, do it because you love it," so I finally realized music is what I wanted to do.
You're not the first in your family to have a record deal.
No, Dad wrote a lot of songs, and he raised a bunch of money to do a record on my mom. Her first single was going to be "The Bed You Made for Me" -- she got an option from MCA Nashville, but she turned that down because she didn't want to go out on the road. That song went on to be a Top 5 hit for Highway 101. It was all about music for them. Dad had a cover band, and they started up Buffalo Sound Studios in Fort Worth.
What childhood memories from the recording studio have influenced your own career?
I saw Michael Bolton there when I was about six, singing a commercial, and Delbert McClinton ... there was music from all across the board happening there that influenced me. I was writing songs before I even picked up a guitar, when I was 8 years old. Don Henley is one of my favorite vocalists. I love the Heartland rock thing that John Mellencamp does, and Bob Seger, Steve Miller -- all in that vein. I love a lot of classic rock, Tom Petty, the Stones, the Beatles. Those are my influences I'm bringing into this genre, because that's where I am. If Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert can bring the AC/DC flavor to country music, then there should be no reason why somebody can't bring in the Mellencamp/Petty kind of flavor.
I've been constantly trying to find my voice because I've been so influenced by all genres of music, especially country. I try to incorporate my love of the Simon and Garfunkel folk vibe to the Buddy Holly oldies thing, to the blues aspect of what Elvis was doing, but then also the lyrics and beautiful melodies of what George Strait was doing in the '90s with "This Is Where the Cowboy Rides Away," with my desire to be up on stage and be energetic and edgy. The key is it takes time to really get to a place where it's real. The more music I exposed myself to, and the more bands I checked out, it really helped me along my journey. This debut is everything I've been influenced by, all tied in.
Texas has always produced a lot of great country music. Do you find some of those influences seeping into the music you're making now too?
I used to love to listen to Jack Ingram and Robert Earl Keen in high school, and the scene has definitely evolved into a dirt road, classic rock kind of thing. I've always loved Texas country. I've got that dirt road feel in my head. I don't know if it comes out on my record or anything that I do, but that raw sensibility, almost the imperfections, are what makes it great. Eighty percent of my vocals on my record were live -- and that was really cool.
You went to college right in your hometown at TCU, but then headed out West for a few years. What was that experience like?
I knew I was ready to get out and see some things, so I went out to L.A. because a bunch of my buddies were moving out there. Being in new surroundings changed everything for me ... I started listening to a broader scope of music. Every part of your life, you're meant to be at a certain place and going out to California was good for me to soak all that up and realize a different side that's polar opposite of how I grew up. It definitely influenced the music I was making. It opened me up. I was out there for about five years, and it led me to my wife. She was the one who was very encouraging about us moving to Nashville. I learned a lot out there: you fall on your face, and you get back up.
You made another key contact out there that led you to Nashville, as well.
I met Mark Collie in LA when I had been doing some demo stuff and acting ... The other thing I love besides football is theater. I love the creative high of theater. When I met Mark, he was interested in writing together and introduced me to some people in Nashville. Everybody here embraced me; it just felt like a homecoming being here. The best songwriters, best musicians in the world live here. I feel way more at home here than I have anywhere else. And I've become such a better writer for being here.
Your first single, "Hunt You Down," was the product of a night out on the town in Memphis. Who came up with that great line, "Look you up, I'm gonna hunt you down!"?
Rivers Rutherford and I wrote that in like 25 minutes the morning after being out in Memphis. I had an opportunity to go to Graceland and go out on Beale Street and had a blast. It was a spontaneous night -- I wasn't expecting to go out that long! I came back the next day to write with Rivers, and we wrote this fun little ditty and suddenly that song was what everybody was pumped up about. I love the feel of it, it's got a groove thing. Rivers mentioned the idea of, 'look you up, hell I'm gonna hunt you down,' and I started playing this groove with sort of like a Lou Reed "Walk On the Wild Side" thing to it. And then the whistle thing came about because it was early in the morning, and I was feeling a little under the weather and was whistling, and that ended up working too. The stars aligned that day for writing!
Chris Stapleton is a co-writer on your latest single, "Sleepy Little Town." A lot of country artists are huge fans of his. What was it about that song that attracted you to it?
I love Chris! He's another guy who does so many styles of music -- bluegrass, Southern rock, country. When I first heard the song, it gave me this visual of driving down I-35 in Texas and looking to the right and about two to three miles away you could see the high school football lights. The population's not more than 4500 people, but small towns are what makes America. But like any city, small towns have secrets and when the secrets are exposed and the lights come on, everybody knows. I loved that idea. It's a six o'clock news story in all three verses. I mean, the third verse could be the No. 1 TV show right now, "16 and Pregnant"! I had heard the story about the preacher's wife's husband abusing her and she fought back -- good for her -- and then the football coach story ... I just thought the whole song was great!
Along with your album, you've got another major arrival coming here in about a month or two. Are you anxious about being a father for the second time?
We'll have two girls less than two years apart, so the man upstairs must be paying me back! [laughs] I will take pride in being the biggest hypocrite known to man when it comes to my daughters! We'll have a full house, with two dogs and two kids. And I'm outnumbered ... the only other guy in my house is my dog, Dax. The baby is due Oct. 3, and I'm sure it's gonna be a struggle juggling a couple of little girls. But if I get to a level where I can bring them out on the road with me, I'd love to!
Watch JT Hodges' 'Hunt You Down' Video