“Just hanging out, holding on,” are the words that Jake Etheridge belts out, his sinuous voice entirely suited to affect the whine of tenuous hope the song requires. Rob Crosby and James Dean Hicks, Etheridge’s writing partners on this afternoon, harmonize as they record the song they began writing just hours earlier.
Etheridge, a Columbia native who performs as CherryCase, moved to Nashville a year ago. He’s formed a tight bond with Crosby, the Sumter native who moved to the country music capital more than 25 years ago.
Nashville has always been a magnet for aspiring performers from South Carolina, but in recent years, songwriters such as Etheridge have relocated there with more frequency. In Crosby, Etheridge and others see a musician who made the right move. Tonight, Crosby, who usually gets his old band together for holiday concerts, is performing at the Irmo Okra Strut Festival.
“Performing is still my favorite thing to do,” Crosby says. “I’m thankful for songwriting. I know how to do it, and I’ve been able to have some success along the way.”
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Crosby’s first No. 1 hit as a songwriter was “Holding the Good Hand,” a 1991 song recorded by Lee Greenwood. Crosby’s songs have been recorded by country music elite such as Lady Antebellum, Brooks & Dunn, Trace Adkins, Lee Brice and Rodney Atkins.
The writing room Crosby rents from Cal IV Entertainment, a publishing company on Music Row, the area of downtown Nashville where most of the country music industry is concentrated, is cramped. Getting to a place to sit is like shuffling to a mid-row seat in a sold-out arena.
Etheridge, a tall, handsome young man with thick black hair, sits on the edge of a couch patterned with doctor’s office stripes, leaning over a yellow legal pad of scribbled notes. Hicks, in an office chair, is on the other end of a coffee table from Crosby who plays his guitar while sitting in an arm chair. A rhyming American dictionary is the coffee table reading of choice in this room.
They play the song – working title, “Hanging Out and Holding On” – back.
“It’s 2:50,” Crosby says. “That’s good time.”
“You can make that bridge a little bit longer,” Hicks adds.
“I like that cello line. It reminds me of Jump, Little Children,” Etheridge says, referring to a former South Carolina band that earned regional popularity.
Hicks thinks the title should be changed.
“I know what you’re saying that ‘Holding On’ has been written,” Crosby says. “I’ve written it myself. But that’s the theme of the song, holding on to that thin thread.”
Crosby writes with Etheridge and Hicks, separately, a few times a month, but this is one of the first times the trio has written together. Writing from scratch is something Nashville’s professional songwriters do daily. Crosby and Etheridge co-wrote “Jackson,” a song that has been played on Lightning 100, Nashville’s independent radio station.
“It’s been slow, but we’ve been working,” Etheridge says.
“To be on Lightning 100 within a year of getting here, I don’t think that’s slow,” Hicks tells him. “But it’s always slow when you’re in the trenches trying to push the rope up the hill.”
Hicks says he once pitched a song to Keith Urban on his iPhone. Hickes has written for Johnny Cash, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Miley Cyrus and Jessica Simpson. As they walk down the wooden stairs of the office building heading for a lunch break, they each hum “Holding On.” Is it going to be in their head for the rest of the day?
“Hopefully, for the rest of our lives,” Hicks says.
‘I got to have a shot’
Noshville is a restaurant on Broadway frequented by songwriters and executives.
“There’s Joe Fisher over there,” Crosby, who is sitting at the counter, says of the Universal Music Group Nashville executive. “I’m going to go over there and shake his hand real quick. I’m going to meet with him in a couple weeks.”
Jim Catino, a Sony Music Nashville executive, is also dining at the hot spot for breakfast and breakfast meetings.
“The only thing wrong with Noshville is that they don’t have grits,” Crosby says a few days after the “Hanging Out and Holding On” writing session.
He moved here in 1984.
“When guys like Dave Olney would come through to play Greenstreets ... and when I’d meet these folks they would inevitably say, ‘Sooner or later, you’re going to move to Nashville because you’re a good songwriter and that’s where you’re gonna go,” says Crosby.
Crosby, who attended USC before dropping out to focus on music, had something most songwriters trying to make a living off music don’t have when they start out: financial backing. Larry King and Bobby Vinson actually offered a few hundred dollars a month to support Crosby and his family, says Crosby, who moved to Nashville with his wife, Pam, and son, Matthew.
“So many people have to come up here and park cars or wait tables, work on a loading dock, whatever it takes, and I was able to come up and sort of walk into Nashville as a professional writer,” Crosby, 58, says. “I was barely making chicken feed, but it was better than nothing. We were always able to go home every couple of weeks and work a long weekend.
“Nashville proved to be intimidating, but at the same time a warm, welcoming community. It was a process of meeting one person and that contact led to another. I got my first $40 for singing a demo and felt like I hit it big.”
Nashville isn’t like Los Angeles or New York or even Atlanta, sprawling cities with multiple music enclaves. The publishing industry in Nashville is in a 10-block area. The stars may be huge, but the proving grounds are relatively small.
“Ultimately, it’s about personal contacts,” Crosby says. “It’s that publisher that believes in you that is willing to advance you enough money to live on until you can have some success and he can make his money back. It’s just a matter of survival on some level, finding that publisher that’s going to help you pay your bills.”
The same year Greenwood took “Holding the Good Hand” to No. 1, Crosby was introduced to Tim DuBois, a producer for the country band Restless Heart. When DuBo is partnered with famous record executive Clive Davis to form Arista Nashville, Crosby, along with Brooks & Dunn, Radney Foster and Diamond Rio, among others, were signed.
“I got to have a shot, have a few top 10s and get on the tour bus for a few years,” Crosby says.
He opened for Travis Tritt, Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire.
“That was the most fun I could have with my clothes on,” Crosby says. “And thankfully, we still get to do it. We still get the old band together in Columbia. And we do these corporate shows (in Nashville), two or three a month.”
Don Williams, who weeks ago performed at Township Auditorium, recorded Crosby’s “She’s a Natural” for “And So It Goes,“ an album released in June.
“That’s a top 10 from my own career and to have a living legend record it again and put it on his new CD is special,” Crosby says.
Crosby, who is now his own publisher in the United States (Universal Holland has his publishing abroad), is a pro when it comes to pitching a song.
“Because having a great song is where it all begins, but then you have to have the business contacts to get that song listened to,” he says. “And songwriters like me that have been around awhile are sometimes able to pick up the phone and call someone at a record label and set up a meeting and not depend on a publisher to do that for me.”
This is Nashville, so executives have songwriters pitching songs all the time.
“You kind of expect and hope that somebody is going to listen to a minute, the first verse and then get through the chorus to see what the song’s about,” Crosby says. “It might be that they like the song, but it might be the artist that they’re considering is not looking for that song.
“If you can go in there with one song that you really, really believe in, it’s going to have a bigger impact.”
As Crosby, Hicks and Etheridge walk toward Chuy’s, a Mexican restaurant popular on Music Row, a dark Chevy Silverado stops beside them in the Cal IV parking lot. The driver: Sumter’s Lee Brice, who, along with singers like Jason Aldean and Chris Young, is one of country’s next generation of leading gentleman.
“It was nice to see Lee,” Hicks says before ordering.
“That did my heart good,” Crosby adds.
Brice, who in April released his second CD, “Hard 2 Love,” wasn’t always a sure bet. His earliest Curb Records singles – “She Ain’t Right,” “Happy Endings” and “Upper Middle Class White Trash” – were not embraced by country radio as not one broke the top 25.
“The whole time, he’s been succeeding as a songwriter even though his records weren’t taking off,” Crosby says.
Brice co-wrote “More than a Memory,” Garth Brooks’ 2007 song that debuted at No. 1. It was Brooks’ first chart topper since 1998. Brice co-wrote Tim McGraw’s “Still” and “Crazy Girl,” a song Brice co-wrote for the Eli Young Band won song of the year at the 2012 ACM Awards.
Then in 2009 “Love Like Crazy,” the title track off Brice’s debut album, began the slow climb to the top 10, a ranking it reached 11 months after it was released. It is the longest-charting song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, spending 56 weeks on the chart.
In April, Brice scored his first No. 1 as a performer with “A Woman Like You.” But, like “Love Like Crazy,” he didn’t write it.
“So his two singles that he’s had as an artist, he didn’t write, but I think it shows intelligence. He doesn’t feel like he’s got to write all of his songs,” Crosby says. “He’s going to write plenty of hits for himself. The fact that he didn’t write the first two, that’s fine. I think it’s great. It just says a lot about his savvy.”
“He’ll be around a long time,” Hicks adds. “It’s a song market.”
Crosby later says Hicks is right about the title of “Hanging Out and Holding On.” They’re now going with “Hanging Out.” Will it get to hang out on the charts as a hit?
“If we still feel good about it, which I hope we will, we’ll shoot an mp3 to Lady Antebellum’s producer,” Crosby says, referring to Paul Worley.
He got a song, “Friday Night,” on “Own the Night,” the pop-country trio’s 2011 album the same way. But it was a song, written with Rose Falcon and Eric Paslay, the songwriter who has been lauded for his three No. 1 cuts this year, that Crosby had forgotten.
“I was going through iTunes and bumped into that recording and went, ‘Jeez, this is awesome,’ ” he says.
Not all of his best songs are for Nashville performers. Take “Winter of Love,” a huge single he wrote for Ilse DeLange. Never heard of her? She’s a Dutch country and pop star.
“It’s a smash,” Crosby says. “Wrote it right here in Nashville, in my little room.”