Local Jim McCormick writes the songs major country stars sing

McCormick has written for Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, Kelly Clarkson and more.

When Grammy-nominated multi-platinum country music songwriter Jim McCormick was growing up in Lower Aurora, not far from the Navy Base where his dad worked, the Mississippi levee was his backyard playground. 

“I’d be horrified if my boys swam in the river and played on the batture, but we sure did,” he recalled.

High school music & New Orleans roots

Growing up in New Orleans exposed McCormick to much more than the city’s unique below-sea level landscape. With every breath of humid, magnolia scented air, he inhaled the city’s music and culture into his DNA. 

“Riding in the car, I’d hear local groups like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers,” he said. “That sound was my gateway drug to music.”

McCormick, 52, played guitar and sang in a rock band when he was going to Jesuit High School. They were good too, good enough to get a standing gig on Tuesday nights at Jed’s Bar on Oak Street.

 “I cut my blues and rock chops at Jed’s,” he recalled. “I was 15 when we started that gig. As long as we promised not to drink, we had the job. What town does that?”  

From the ’90s music scene to opening for Hootie & The Blowfish

He recalls the New Orleans music scene in the early ‘90s. 

“We didn’t really have that roots-rock scene then, but there was a groundswell of original music informed by our history of Afrocentric jazz,” he said. “Groups like the Radiators, the Subdudes, Tribe Nunzio. I’m so fortunate to have come up here and had that baked into me.” 

Over the years McCormick listened to music nonstop, emptying discount bins at record stores like Tower and Mushroom to discover soul and R&B and artists like Garnet Mimms, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. 

“I remember asking this guy from England, Chris, who worked at Tower, where were all the great white singers? He said besides Mick Jagger, they’re in country music,” he said. “I started with Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich and the sound just blew my mind.”

In college – he went to Georgetown University for a bachelor’s in English and UNO for a master’s in creative writing – McCormick was in a band called The Bingemen. The group earned a measure of success touring the Southeast playing college shows, opening for the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish. McCormick wrote the originals they played. 

“We were an A&R guy’s nightmare, with a rhythm section informed by the funk of New Orleans and a guitarist and singer channeling the Band and Creedence Clearwater,” he said. “The fences between music genres weren’t down then. Sometimes there’s not much of a difference between being ahead of your time and wrong.”

While on the road, the group opened for singer/songwriter Pat McLaughlin, who had found success in Nashville. He became a friend. Although McCormick had landed a secure job editing a trade magazine, he was miserable. McLaughlin encouraged him to try Nashville on for size as a songwriter. He started schooling himself on country music 101. 

“The closest I’d come was Southern rock,” he said. “If you’re going to try to make it in that town and you don’t know who Alan Jackson is, you’re kind of an (expletive).”

It was the late ‘90s and McCormick would hump it every weekend to Nashville and network, hang out, connect with other aspiring songwriters and listen to live music. He got fired from the day job – “I wasn’t cut out for that” – and made money working construction in New Orleans between going back and forth to Nashville.  

It took four years, and four years of sleeping on his buddy’s couch, until he was hired by his first music publishing company. 

Going pro in Nashville

“Your publishing company is in charge of booking your calendar and pitching your songs– you need a busy calendar to write 150 songs a year,” he said. “It’s kind of like, you can’t play major league baseball without playing for a team. It’s impossible. And it takes a while for a writer to develop this craft.”

He imagines it’s like an actor trying to break into Hollywood. “You stay at it until somebody discovers you.” He remembers very clearly being 33 and his mom sitting him down and saying, ‘We’re very concerned about you.’ All I could say was, ‘Multiply that by 1,000 and that’s how concerned I am for myself.’” 

A wordsmith, storyteller and poet at heart, McCormick’s left hook has always been his lyrics. He’d gotten one major label cut but being an unsigned writer, and finally got signed with a publisher for a pittance, but it was a foot in the door. His catalog of recorded songs grew. Then he didn’t have to paint houses anymore.

 

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That was 21 years ago. McCormick has made it big; he’s the guy who gets the meetings now. His songs have been nominated for five Grammys, and in 2012 he had two number one songs on the Billboard Country Charts: Jason Aldean’s “Take A Little Ride,” and Brantley Gilbert’s “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do.” He wrote Gabby Barrett’s “The Good Ones,” Payton Smith’s “Can’t Go Wrong With That” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Minute.” His songs have also been recorded by Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis and many others.

These pandemic days his collaborations are via Zoom and it works just fine.  

“I have to be writing,” he said. “The essence of the job is to do the work.”  

When he’s writing, crafting another big hit isn’t what he focuses on. 

“My job is to bring the heat to the lyrics,” he said. “A song is like your newborn child, so precious, you’re so proud. I don’t trust myself to call a hit. I trust my team, I trust the reaction of my publishing company. And my co-writers. Good news will find you fast if it happens.” 

Splitting time between Nashville and New Orleans, where he lives in Lakeview with his wife and kids, suits McCormick perfectly. His family is here, his roots are here. He’s looking forward to the upcoming release of Bob Said, a new album from a local group he’s in, the Write Brothers, which includes Paul Sanchez, Alex McMurray and the late Spencer Bohren.  

 Writing will always be his passion and country music is the perfect landscape to tell stories of the heart, sometimes even address more societal issues. 

“But songs about whiskey and beer drinking aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Country makes room for the serious along with the whimsical.”

Cover Photo by Scott Saltzman