Young Guns

Songwriters from rural Georgia conquer Nashville

CountrywriterSpread

(L-R) Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Luke Bryan at the State Theatre in Albany, Georgia.

If “Honky Tonk Badonkadon” hadn’t been Dallas Davidson’s first official Nashville cut (a “cut” being a song he wrote and someone else recorded), that distinction would probably have gone to a slightly earlier song called “Kiss My Country Ass.”

As it turned out, Trace Adkins rolled out “Badonkadonk”—a mash-up of hip-hop slang and redneck culture and a novelty tune to be sure, but one that’s good to dance to—on 2005’s Songs About Me. That happened before Rhett Akins brought the latter—a straight-up defiant statement of hillbilly identity—to radio airwaves the following year, albeit in slightly tamer form (i.e. with “ass” bleeped out).

Both songs offer a clue about where Dallas Davidson, an Albany, Ga. native, is coming from as a songwriter. They’re potent country anthems with plenty of swagger—whether barroom or backwoods—splattered with Southern-rock grease. Each is raucous, brazen and memorable—especially “Kiss My Country Ass,” a song full of coon dogs, Marlboro Reds and moonshine that he and Valdosta-born Akins co-wrote with another writer.

“Some girl was making fun of the way I talk and I said, ‘kiss my country ass,’ and Rhett was standing there,” Davidson recalls. “We went that night and bought a case of beer and wrote it—a little redneck poetry.” “Some people took offense to it,” he adds with good-natured amusement. Robert Oermann, the critic, he just bashed it, said it needed to be played at a Klan rally. We were like, ‘Dude, you totally missed it.’ We were just saying, ‘You don’t like where I come from, that I’m country? Then kiss my country ass.’ No different than David Allan Coe’s ‘If That Ain’t Country I’ll Kiss Your Ass.’ A lot of people love [“Kiss My Country Ass”]. A lot of people hate it, more so than they do ‘Badonkadonk.’ “Badonkadonk” aggravates people. They might say they hate it. I don’t know—they might hate it. I don’t really care.”

Davidson and Akins are part of a loose collective of twenty- and thirty-something songwriters who were born and bred in Georgia and have since found quicker-than-expected songwriting success in Nashville, not least because personal and regional connections tend go a long way in the country music business.

Peach State Pride

Stubbornness and Georgian roots helped Davidson land his first publishing deal with fellow Georgia native Brett Jones.

Albany, Ga. native Dallas Davidson. Photo by Travis Hatfifeld

Albany, Ga. native Dallas Davidson. Photo by Travis Hatfifeld

“[Brett] claims that I told him that my dad said I would never make it up here and I told him I was going to prove him wrong,” says Davidson, who’d previously done farm work and sold farmland and timberland. “He claims that was why he signed me as a writer—he knew I meant it. I mean, at the end of the day I had a bunch of crap to give him, really, song-wise. He went out on a limb and took me under his arm. No doubt about it, Brett is a total Georgia boy. He has yet to sign anybody that wasn’t from Georgia, and he’s proud of that fact too. He thinks there’s something in the water down there where I come from. And there is.”

“[Dallas] not only just had a great writing ability, but also he was very personable, very outgoing and was not afraid to stick his hand out and introduce himself to movers and shakers in the music industry,” observes Perry Howard, associate director of writer/publisher relations at BMI Nashville. “And it takes that, especially at the beginning, before you’ve established yourself. I guess after you’re established you can go become a hermit, but you can’t start out being one.”

Davidson may be the newcomer in this bunch, but he’s also something of a connecting thread. He’s been dating Hillary Lindsey, a Washington, Ga. native, for the past few years. Lindsey—known for writing lyrics and melodies with a sweeping emotional quality and for her pure, lilting vocals—co-wrote the heartstring-tugging ballad “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which won a Grammy for Best Country Song and launched Carrie Underwood’s post-American Idol career.

On the advice of Buddy Blackmon—renowned banjo player, Georgia resident and cousin of a friend of Lindsey’s mother’s (“Yeah, one of those stories”)—she arrived in Nashville in the mid-’90s to pursue a music business degree at Belmont University. She’d done all there was for a singer/songwriter to do in Washington: weddings, Kiwanis Club talent shows and the 4-H touring troupe, Clovers and Company. She laughs, recalling her well-laid education plan: “I would learn about the business and basically I wouldn’t get screwed because I’d be so smart and so knowledgeable.”

While Lindsey was taking a break from college, a year short of finishing, a roommate pilfered a tape of her song demos not intended for anyone else’s ear and brought it to the publishing company where the roommate was interning. Rough or not, the cassette turned heads and Lindsey got a writing deal. “I always feel a little guilty about it, if you want to know the truth,” she says. “It kind of fell in my lap in a weird way. Not to get too weird about it, but it seemed like fate almost, looking back on it.”

Hillary Lindsey

Washington, Ga. native Hillary Lindsey

The difference between Lindsey’s and Davidson’s songwriting styles isn’t lost on her. “One of the funniest things that’s happened as far as Dallas and I was when we went to RCA to listen to our cuts,” she says. “Joe Galante, the president, happened to call Renee Bell, who is the head of A&R (artist and repertoire), while we were both sitting there. She said, ‘Yeah, I’m sitting here with Hillary and Dallas. They came in to listen to their songs—‘Jesus, Take the Wheel’ and ‘Kiss My Country Ass.’ It was too funny.”

The two have only rarely written together, especially early on in their relationship. “Mind you, I’m a new writer in town and she’s a hit songwriter,” Davidson explains. “She’s struggling with ‘Is this guy dating me because I’m a hit songwriter? Is he trying to make it in the business, or does he really like me?’ I was aware of her status in the music business, but I really didn’t care. I actually really liked her. So I would never ask her to write.”

Davidson’s 2004 transition to Nashville was near-painless thanks in part to Luke Bryan, an old college buddy of his from Leesburg, Ga. and a country singer/songwriter who released his tradition-steeped debut, I’ll Stay Me, earlier this year. Bryan had been in town a few years by that time and—on the strength of his nostalgic songwriting and his drawled, catch-in-the-throat tenor—had already progressed from a writing deal with a publisher to a major-label record deal.

Writers in the ‘Doghouse’

These days, Davidson has Wednesdays permanently reserved on his calendar. That’s his day to write with Akins and Ben Hayslip at “the Doghouse,” an office he rents in a house not far from Music Row, the epicenter of the country music business. With his fishing and hunting gear stowed in a back room and walls adorned with a sculpture his brother made from plow points, a black- and-white photo of Ernest Hemingway (frequently mistaken for a portrait of Saddam Hussein) and plaques that celebrate the sales of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” this is a place for writing songs and—if he ever makes a misstep big enough to fall from Lindsey’s good graces—for sleeping.

Valdosta, Ga. native Rhett Akins

Valdosta, Ga. native Rhett Akins

Akins and Hayslip have a good bit of history together, reaching back to their Valdosta boyhood days, where they mainly played football but also made their first youthful attempts at songwriting. When Akins moved to Nashville in 1992, he wasn’t just aiming to be a country singer, but to write his own songs too. “I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but the music that always turned me on, the majority of the artists were the songwriters,” he says. “I just thought that’s what you did. I didn’t know that [songwriter] Craig Wiseman was writing all these songs for everybody. I just looked at the record and it said ‘Hank Williams Jr.,’ ‘Hank Williams Jr.,’ ‘Hank Williams Jr.’—[Wiseman] wrote every single one of them.”

Akins snagged a publishing deal almost immediately and three years later released A Thousand Memories, the first of his five neo-traditional country albums (the most recent, People Like Me, has yet to see a proper release). He caught the right ears quickly, in part because his grandfather’s lawyer was acquainted with some Georgia-bred songwriters who were well-known in Nashville. “I hate to tell my story of making it because people get mad at me because it kind of happened too easily,” Akins says.

Red-clay Songwriting

Hayslip made the Nashville move two years after Akins, and their longstanding friendship eventually gained him not just album cuts (Akins has recorded four songs they co-wrote to date) but a wife—Akins’ first cousin, Melissa (both from Valdosta, they met, thanks to Akins, in Nashville). Hayslip signed his first publishing deal in 1996, and found his niche working with words. “My strong point is definitely lyric and it’s down home—the way I grew up, the way I see things, the way my grandparents talk, the jobs my friends still work in South Georgia,” he says. “I’m real image-driven for sure. That’s probably the biggest thrill I get out of songwriting, is just painting a picture of small-town life.”

Evans, Ga. native Ben Hayslip

Evans, Ga. native Ben Hayslip

However big a networking role Georgia has played, in some ways it’s shaped the songwriting itself even more. Plenty of the songs Davidson writes have the feel of country blended with Southern rock and soul, all visceral features of his home state’s musical heritage. “I love Otis Redding,” he says. “I could play that all day long. I can’t sing like Otis—I wish I could. But I can hear that phrasing and that cool stuff he does. I remember the first time I heard the Allman Brothers—I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

“Modern Day Country Boy” and “My Kind of Country” are cases in point—in the tradition of Southern rock, the former has a driving, guitar bite and the latter a swampy, lead-footed stomp. Both songs—especially “My Kind of Country”—have vocal phrasing that hints at an R&B influence, delivering a laid-back, behind-the-beat punch.

Davidson, Akins, Bryan and Hayslip favor thoroughly literal and rural images in their song lyrics. But they’re far from the first to mine that vein. Their songs sometimes take on a general good-ol’-boy bravado a la Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels, as displayed in Akins’ “Friday Night in Dixie” (written with Daniels) and Akins and Davidson’s “I Love Women (My Mama Can’t Stand).” Or, in the case of Bryan’s heartfelt country-pop anthem “We Rode In Trucks,” the images are drawn straight from the “red Georgia dirt.”

The lyrics evoke the earthiness of farm life, something Bryan—whose family has a peanut farm—doesn’t just write about, but is intimately acquainted with. “I see so many people in town that talk about how country they are and they kind of fabricate it a little bit,” he says. “I mean, when I say I’ve shot an alligator [or wrestled one, as he boasts in ‘Country Man’], I have. Any time I go to the well, I go back to the rural life that I grew up living.”

Leesburg, Ga. native Luke Bryan

Leesburg, Ga. native Luke Bryan

As much as the songs may romanticize the simpler life, the point isn’t to stay bogged down in the past. “We weren’t the Clampetts by any means,” quips Davidson. Bryan namedrops iPods and the rock band Hoobastank during “Country Man,” and Davidson, Akins and Hayslip’s song “Modern Day Country Boy” revolves around juxtaposing older and newer things, like “Skoal rings” (a back-pocket dipping tobacco can imprint) and designer Diesel jeans, cornfields and reality shows.

Since Davidson, Akins and Hayslip are drawing from similar storehouses of images and experiences, writing together every week is an intuitive process for them. They don’t need translation to get on the same page. “There’s no doubt that when you’re from the same area like we are, we get each other,” says Hayslip. “When I say something that maybe somebody from Texas wouldn’t understand, Dallas and Rhett understand what I mean by it.”

“The other day we wrote a song called ‘Home Sweet Home’ and we were trying to think of the next verse,” relates Akins. “We were going to write something about fishing. I said, ‘Let’s take them down to the bridge and park down in the ditch. Most people would be like, ‘Why would you park in the ditch?’ I didn’t even have to explain it to Dallas.”

From Country to Pop

In theme and style, Lindsey covers a wider range of territory with her songwriting than Davidson, Akins, Hayslip and Bryan, but she’d like to widen it more still. “Most of [my cuts] have been [with] women and that’s sort of been one of my missions—I’ve got to get on these dudes’ records,” she says, only half-jokingly. Lindsey’s small-town Georgia upbringing makes a difference, only in subtler ways. “I think a lot of people get up here [Nashville] and they get ahead of themselves—I don’t know how to say this in a nice way—egotistical and big-headed and whatnot,” she says. “I think that the roots of how I was raised keep me grounded.”

In recent years, Lindsey’s fluid pop melodies have worked equally well outside country too, not that such a genre distinction is all that clean cut anyway. Lindsey had “Seat Next To You” on Bon Jovi’s Lost Highway—a so-called country album that’s really not very different from all other post-’80s Bon Jovi albums—and “Very Last Moment In Time” on Lindsey Lohan’s album Speak, to name two examples. As Lindsey’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” Grammy win attests, her writing has mass appeal. And, as sales figures testify, so does “Honk Tonk Bandonkadonk.” Still, as Davidson rightly points out, “You can’t expect to win the song of the year with a title like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.’”

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