Tin Pan South Presents: In The Round w/Jessi Alexander, Andrew Dorff, & Tommy Lee JamesSinger-Songwriter
This round is representative of some of the best songwriters (and artists) in Music City. Tonight Alexander (The Climb, Honeysuckle Sweet, I’ll Always Remember You) is joined by Dorff (Bleed Red, Ride, Super California), James (If You See Him If You See Her, And Still, She’s My Kind Of Rain) and Copperman (Holding On And Letting Go, Fly Away, As I Choke, Found You, Generation Love, Every Day Should End Like This, Glass). If you can only make it to one show tonight, you might want to consider this one.
Nashville TN | Country
Ten years, a handful of cuts, and one major-label minor album release into her career, Jessi Alexander was feeling discouraged. “I was in a very frustrated place at the time,” she recalls. “In all those years, nothing I’d tried in music had been an overwhelming success, and it was really starting to get to me.” It was at the BMI Awards in 2007, however, that Jessi had the revelation that would ultimately catapult her to the level of success she’d been dreaming of. “It finally struck me: I moved to Nashville with the goal of making a living making music, and one way or another, I’d done that. I’d always wanted longevity in my career, and that night, I realized I’d achieved that. It’s not a race. It’s not about how fast you get there…it’s the climb.” That epiphany inspired the lyrics for “The Climb,” which, with the help of co-writer Jon Mabe, in turn became an instant hit single for teen sensation Miley Cyrus in 2009. Yet for Jessi Alexander, there was nothing instant about it. Her climb to Nashville’s top songwriting circles took an unfailing work ethic, a commitment to craftsmanship, and perhaps most of all, persistence.
Growing up in west Tennessee and spending summers with her father in Memphis, Jessi’s musical heritage drew from the sultry mood of the delta mixed with the best renderings of traditional and contemporary country music. She remembers walking along Beale Street before it was sanitized for tourists, stumbling over winos, witnessing fights, and just taking in the scene and the music. One Christmas, an acoustic guitar appeared under the tree. But in a characteristic display of stubbornness, Jessi refused to play it; having heard the bass growl on a B.B. King record, she would settle for nothing less than “that low thing.”
"Other kids were into soccer and all I wanted to do was listen to these records. Having my dad's stack of records was a great starting point," she says. She listened and absorbed. "Growing up, I had such a wide range of influences," she says. "I remember thinking that Linda Rondstadt was country. So were The Band, Little Feat, and Bobbi Gentry. I didn't have the same kind of boundaries you see in music today." Karla Bonoff, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Hank Williams and, always, Patsy Cline shaped the way young Jessi Alexander came to know and love music.
It was at the age of 10 or 11 that Jessi discovered a talent for singing and songwriting, poring over Patsy Cline songbooks, wondering about Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, and Bob Wills, and why their names were on the tops of the pages. Soon enough she discovered they were songwriters, and dreamed of following in their footsteps. Learning to sing, it was Cline's vocals that she tried to channel.
Through songwriting, Jessi truly began to find her own voice. “It was when I began co-writing in Nashville that I found the real joy of songwriting,” Jessi says. She’s of the old school, sitting down to write every day without fail. Whether working with established hitmakers or up-and coming songwriters and artists, Jessi thrives on the collaborative approach to making music. A few years after moving to Nashville after leaving Middle Tennessee State University, where she studied social work by day and played in bands by night, Jessi scored her first songwriting cuts with Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea.
Around that time, some of Jessi’s more mischievous friends submitted one of her tapes to the local Grammy best unsigned artist contest in Nashville. To her surprise, she got a call saying she had made the second round of a contest she didn't even know she had entered. Jessi won the contest, which in turn led to a record deal with Columbia Nashville and the 2005 release of her debut album Honeysuckle Sweet. Featuring 11 tunes that she had written or co-written with Gary Nicholson, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) and Darrell Scott, among others, that album established Jessi as one of Nashville’s most talented new songwriters.
Yet not until Jessi signed with Disney Music Publishing and began to focus strictly on songwriting did she herself join the ranks of Nashville’s top hitmakers. She has written songs for Toby Keith, Trisha Yearwood, Little Big Town, The Lucky Bucks and others. It was “The Climb,” however—resulting, ironically, from the hard knocks and frustrations she endured while forging her own path in the music business—that firmly established Jessi Alexander as one of today’s most sought-after tunesmiths. Miley Cyrus scored not only a Country hit with “The Climb” (her first solo release to the format), she took it to #1 on Billboard’s Hot AC chart as well as to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. She performed the song on American Idol as well as the Academy of Country Music Awards. What’s more, the director of Hannah Montana: The Movie re-wrote the film’s script to incorporate “The Climb,” which was released as the lead single from the movie’s soundtrack and was voted Best Song from a Movie at the 2009 MTV Music Awards.
“When I set out in the music business, I had no idea that songwriting was where I would ultimately find the most success,” Jessi says. Heading to a songwriting session with an open heart and a beautiful melody running through her head, Jessi had a gut feeling that it might be a truly special song, but she never dreamed what “The Climb” would become and where it would eventually lead. “The song came from a really special place in a very organic way,” she says. “I’m just thrilled to see where it has gone.” Having met with enormous success outside of Country, “The Climb” has opened many new doors for Jessi. Though she knows better than anyone that it “Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side,” Jessi Alexander is on the brink of crossing over to a new world of opportunities.
Tommy Lee James
Nashville TN | Singer/Songwriter
He graduated from Northside High School then attended Radford University where he studied voice. He moved to Nashville with dreams of becoming an artist, but then became a full-time songwriter.
James is the writer of a number of hit songs including Reba McEntire's "And Still," Brooks & Dunn's "A Man This Lonely," Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn's duet "If You See Him/If You See Her," Martina McBride's "Wrong Again," Cyndi Thomson's "What I Really Meant to Say," and Tim McGraw's "She’s My Kind of Rain." All these songs went to number one on the charts.
James had an additional chart topping success with "I Wish" recorded by Jo Dee Messina and "Let's Be Us Again" recorded by Lonestar which was a top 4 hit. He also co-wrote the critically acclaimed single by Gary Allan entitled "Life Ain't Always Beautiful."
James has had many other cuts with artists such as Cliff Richard, 98 Degrees, Pam Tillis, Blue County, Emerson Drive, Jedd Hughes, Little Big Town, Delta Goodrem, and Pussycat Dolls.
In addition to being a writer, James also produced Capitol Records recording artists Cyndi Thomson, Susan Ashton and Emily West; Big Machine artist Danielle Peck; and former Lonestar vocalist Richie McDonald .
James' success continues in 2012 with Joe Walsh's new album, Analog Man, which was released on June 5th, 2012 (co-produced by Jeff Lynne), and One Direction's new record, "Take Me Home."
Nashville TN | Country
Honesty is a powerful magnet that always draws an eager audience and it has proven to be a potent tool in Eric Paslay’s creative arsenal. Sometimes playful, often poignant and always thoroughly entertaining, the 6’ 4” singer/songwriter with the fiery red hair and easy smile has quickly earned a reputation as an artist that knows how to capture the attention of an audience and hold them in the palm of his hands.
All it takes is seeing Paslay perform once to become hooked, a fact that has become obvious as he’s toured the country, opening for Little Big Town, The Eli Young Band, Jake Owen and others. Prior to the release of his EMI Nashville debut album, fans have been able to purchase a five-song sampler at Paslay’s shows. “The very first night we got to sell them I gave the merch guy two boxes and he sold out,” Paslay says in a tone that exudes a mixture of humility and awe. After Paslay did the math, he realized that one in 12 attendees went home with his CD. “I’m just excited that I made some fans and they got to take me with them. I’m excited that my music is out there.”
When country music fans see Paslay perform, they want to take his music home and make his songs the soundtrack of their lives. Whether he’s performing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry or taking his place this summer on the Country Throwdown Tour sharing his new hit, “If the Fish Don’t Bite,” Paslay always knows how to reel a crowd in.
His music has substance and depth, but his debut album is every bit as entertaining and accessible as it is meaningful, and therein lies Paslay’s charm. “It’s hopeful music,” he says describing his style. “There’s only one sad song on the whole record and that’s ’Amarillo Rain,’ but there’s still a beauty behind it that makes people feel alive somehow.”
Paslay has the ability to paint vivid portraits in his songs and he does just that with his new single, “If The Fish Don’t Bite,” a sly, sexy romp about a guy who has plans for his girl beyond casting a line in the water. “A lot of guys are annoyed by chicks coming to fish when it can be a lot of fun,” he says with a smile. “If the fish aren’t biting, why not cuddle up a little closer?”
Whether he’s serving up a light-hearted up tempo tune like “If The Fish Don’t Bite” or delivering an emotionally riveting song like “Deep As It Is Wide,” Paslay proves to be a compelling storyteller and versatile performer. It’s a gift he comes by honestly. “My granddad was a musician,” says Paslay, a native Texan, who was born in Abilene and raised in Waco and Temple. “Granddad and his brothers had a band called Arnold Schiller and the Moonlight Serenaders. My grandfather was Arnold, and they played at dance halls. I was two and a half when he died. It’s interesting how it rubbed off even though I didn’t really know him very well. He had red hair and it’s kind of funny because I like all the things he liked.”
Paslay says his family never pushed him to play music, but supported his interest when he began playing guitar at 15. “I love melodies,” he says. “My dad always had oldies on, and listening to that music growing up influenced me. There’s so many cool melodies and it was great ear candy. It still resonates with every teenager, every grown up, every grandmother because it’s human. That type of music really stays with you.”
By the time he began performing around Texas, Paslay had studied some of the great singer/songwriters and learned how to make a song memorable. “I was influenced by Rich Mullins,” Paslay says. “He was one of those guys I really listened to because he was real. He was a Christian artist, but it was cool to hear someone mix their beliefs with real life. He was honest and it was almost scary honest. I’d listen to his songs and think, ’Did you really mean to say that?’ It was cool. Then there was Rodney Crowell. I love Rodney Crowell. Johnny Cash has influenced me from his storytelling. He was such a cool storyteller and you really believed him.”
He also studied what made an artist command a crowd’s attention while they were on stage. “I watched Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry,” he says. “I was into everything from country artists to rock artists to Southern rock artists to jazz players. In high school I definitely went and saw quite a few Dave Matthews Band shows and that was always an experience.”
Though most aspiring artists playing clubs routinely perform cover tunes, Paslay learned to lead with his strengths and played his original songs. Even though he was building a reputation for his live show, like most artists, he briefly flirted with a more stable career and during his early days in college, he planned on becoming a pediatric endocrinologist. “I had diabetes and I thought I could help kids with diabetes because I could relate to them and talk to them,” he says.
However, music was too strong a passion to be ignored and following a friend’s advice, he moved to Nashville. Paslay attended Middle Tennessee State University. He also volunteered for anything just to get his foot in a door on Nashville’s famed Music Row. He did everything from help out at a charity golf tournament to change light bulbs in the NARAS office, a feat made easier because of his height. “I’d just go help anywhere I could because I thought if you have a job to do and you do it well, then if they let you be creative and make a record, at least they know you’re going to do it well,” Paslay says. “They’ll know you are going to put all your mind, strength and skill into doing whatever job they give you.”
Paslay landed a deal at Cal IV Publishing. His songwriting credits include Jake Owen’s hit “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” as well as the title track for Donny and Marie Osmond’s country set “The Good Life” and cuts by Lady Antebellum and the Eli Young Band. Though appreciative of the songs that others have recorded, Paslay will be the first to admit he didn’t move to Nashville to be a songwriter, but to be an artist.
He has a passion for using his voice to connect with an audience, and there’s a warm, earnest quality that commands attention, particularly on potent anthems such as “Deep As It is Wide.” “It’s about the hope that there is something bigger and better than us,” he says. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and there’s something out there. When I finished this song I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a disconnect between each verse, so I went down the street to play it for a friend. The way I was sitting, I couldn’t see her while I was playing. When I was finished singing, I turned around and she was crying, so I figured I was done.”
“Less Than Whole” is a thoughtful treatise on grace and forgiveness Paslay co-wrote with Big Kenny that Kenny included on his 2010 solo album. “Sweet By and By” is an infectious number Paslay penned with his friend Sarah Buxton. “That was the first song we ever wrote together,” he says. “I saw her the other night and she didn’t even know it was on the record. She started crying and saying, ’I’m so happy it made the record!’”
Though Paslay enjoyed recording the album and has an affinity for the studio, his true love is the stage. “I turn it on when I get on stage. I love to entertain,” says Paslay, who has opened for Dierks Bentley, Clint Black, Eric Church, Blake Shelton and Little Big Town, among others. “The songs on this record are the ones that really connect when I played them live. When I write, I’d rather there be a little bit of hope in every song, even in the sad songs. There’s still hope in there. With all the negativity everywhere these days, I’d like the positive to come out. A song can give you a little boost in confidence or make you fall in love deeper or dream higher. I’m not writing and singing this stuff to be cool. I was never the cool kid. I was the kid standing in the back of the room watching.”
Off stage, Paslay has a gentle, everyman quality that endears him to all who meet him. He loves performing, but is just as comfortable remodeling a bathroom or getting in the kitchen with his mom, Donna, and making kolaches, a pastry that is a favorite among Texans. Most of all, Eric Paslay loves forging that special connection with people that can only be made with a song. “I just love making music. I love how much you can say to someone in a song,” he says. “I want to be a part of the soundtrack of people’s lives.”