Un-Common summer: Songwriter from Lexington hits European stages with Dutch star

Jake Etheridge would be living his dream, if he had dared to dream something this audacious.

When the 26-year-old singer-songwriter, who grew up in Lexington, played before a couple hundred mostly family and friends at the West Columbia amphitheater in April, he mentioned that a song he helped write was No. 1 in the Netherlands.

Some in the audience probably thought he was joking. It still didn’t seem real to Etheridge either. A few weeks later, he took a flight to the Netherlands, expecting to write more songs with The Common Linnets, a group that shot to fame as the second-place finisher in the popular Eurovision contest this spring with their haunting song “Calm After The Storm.”

When Etheridge got off the plane, he was told to run out and get some new clothes suitable for appearances on European television. Waylon, the Dutch musician who goes by one name and sang alongside fellow Dutch star Ilse DeLange on “Calm After The Storm,” had decided to focus on his own band and didn’t want to tour to promote The Common Linnets.

“Everything was kind of blowing up, and they said ‘Hey, we could use you to sing with us,’” Etheridge recalled recently by phone from Nashville. “It was pretty wild. It was already happening before I knew what was going on. It was very surreal.”

A few days later, he was on stage singing harmony with DeLange on “Calm After The Storm.” They did the equivalent of the major U.S. morning news shows and late-night talk shows in several countries. The TV hosts would talk about the Eurovision contest and The Common Linnets in their native languages and do an interview with DeLange. Then the group would perform a song or two.

“When you don’t understand what people are saying, it doesn’t seem real,” Etheridge said. “I still felt like I was playing dress up.”

The impact finally hit him on a flight back to the Netherlands from Berlin. He looked over at a guy reading a major Dutch newspaper. A photo of Etheridge performing with DeLange was on the front page.

“I come over just to write some songs,” Etheridge said, “and, within a week, I’m on the front page of a newspaper in Holland.”

Standard road takes unusual turn

Etheridge graduated from the University of South Carolina with a marketing degree, but he spent as much focus on music as school during those years. He grew up in a musical family – a grandfather played early rockabilly piano, and his parents, James and Melinda Etheridge, have performed with bands in the Midlands for years. Jake played in a couple bands with friends while at USC, most notably a group called CherryCase.

He took off for Nashville after college, diving into the classic young songwriter routine of waiting tables to pay the bills and collaborating with other aspiring musicians in song-writing sessions. His big break came after his father gave a copy of a CherryCase CD to an old friend – veteran Nashville songwriter Rob Crosby, a Sumter native who returns to the Midlands often to perform.

Crosby liked what he heard and stopped by to hear Etheridge play at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. Something clicked between the two, and they began to write together. Crosby was the ideal mentor for Etheridge. He has built a songwriting legacy through decades of work in Nashville, and his reach stretched even over the Atlantic, where he wrote a song with DeLange for her 1998 debut solo album.

DeLange has a passion for country and Americana music and wanted more of that feel in her next project. She came to Nashville in 2013 along with Waylon and Dutch songwriter Daniel Lohue to write with Etheridge. One song they worked on was Etheridge’s bittersweet “Broken But Home.”

“I started with that idea sitting outside a hotel at 3 a.m. The next week we recorded it. And the next year, it’s on the No. 1 album in Holland,” Etheridge said incredulously.

Etheridge, Crosby and Crosby’s son Matthew, a songwriter who lives in New York, later got together in the Netherlands with the rest of The Common Linnets team, including Dutch musician JB Meijers. The writers each brought in partially formed songs for the group to mold into a finished product. Another song that Etheridge got started was “Give Me A Reason,” which grew out of friend’s comment that he should write a love song for her. That’s going to be the second single of The Common Linnets album.

The Eurovision smash “Calm After The Storm” was the final song the team wrote in the session. Dead tired, they sat down and pumped out a simple song, running with an melody born in Meijers’ head. The stripped-down final product from a long session ended up being the one chosen by The Common Linnets when they earned Netherlands’ entry in Eurovision.

No calm after this ‘Storm’

Etheridge felt good about the 13 songs written for The Common Linnets’ album, but he couldn’t fathom what was to come. Eurovision is a song competition spiced with a rowdy mix of nationalism and played out on live television throughout the continent. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.

Meijers kept the team members back in America up to date with text messages during the event. “Matt and I were texting back and forth saying ‘What’s going on? This is hard to believe,’” Etheridge said. “It wasn’t until I was over there that I realized how big it was. When we’d do the songs, everybody knew the words.”

After Eurovision, “Calm After The Storm” zipped to the top of the iTunes singles charts in several countries. The Common Linnets album later topped charts in several countries. The album is available on iTunes in the U.S., and it can be streamed on Spotify. But despite its American feel, it hasn’t taken off here. “It might be available to buy, but nobody knows about it,” Etheridge said. “We haven’t done any U.S. shows. There’s no U.S. promotion.”

All the songs have English lyrics, ranging from sad love songs to tunes full of hope on a bright new day. Some sound like country radio, others have a pop feel. If the band tours in the U.S., country fans will feel a connection with DeLange, whose powerful voice and striking good looks bring to mind Carrie Underwood. DeLange is obviously the foundation around which The Common Linnets are built.

In Europe, there was some negative feedback on social media to Etheridge’s first appearances beside DeLange. Fans of the Eurovision version of The Common Linnets longed for Waylon and his strong stage presence opposite DeLange. But that sentiment began to die down when Waylon released a statement explaining his reasons for leaving and praising the musicianship of DeLange, Etheridge, Meijers and the Crosbys.

“The European fans are pretty dedicated,” Etheridge said. “Those people fall in love with the music, and they fall in love with the band and the people in the band. They’ve been really sweet and appreciative of the music.”

After a show in Belgium, a couple of guys came up to Etheridge to talk, and one of them had tears in his eyes. “He just wanted to shake our hands,” Etheridge said. “I’m certainly not getting that in Nashville.”

Waiter jobs put on hold for now

But even in Nashville, things have been going pretty good for Etheridge. After several weeks of promotional appearances across Europe in June and July, Etheridge returned to his more simple life in Tennesseee. He spends time writing and performing with friends such as Mackenzie Porter, Rebecca Roubion and The Saint Johns (Jordan Meredith and Louis Johnson).

With the addition of his work with The Common Linnets this summer, he hasn’t lately had time to wait tables. “I might be at the place where I don’t have to,” he said with a strong note of caution.

Search for Etheridge’s name on YouTube, and you’ll find plenty of examples of his collaborations. His voice is emotive yet determined, and he has a knack for harmonizing with others. Several of the songs on The Common Linnets feature a braiding of special voices similar to The Civil Wars or Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Many of his songs seem to have a phrase and musical hook that stick in your head. They pop up often in The Common Linnets’ album: “The kind of bright you got to be in; the kind of day that hope believes in” from “Sun Song” or “If you want a heartache, give me a reason to run; If you want a love song, give me a reason to write you one” from “Give Me A Reason.”

In late August, Etheridge returned to Europe to film a music video for “Give Me A Reason” and to make a few promotional appearances. After returning home for a few weeks, he and the Crosbys will return to prepare for The Common Linnets’ fall tour of 15 shows in seven countries in 28 days.

Etheridge doesn’t speak Dutch. Each time he’s in the Netherlands he vows to work harder on learning the language, but so far about all he can say is “Hello sweetheart” and “I love kaasvlinders,” which are a popular cheese pastry.

But the language hurdle isn’t really that high, he said, because “the Dutch are the sweetest people. When you try to speak Dutch, they want to speak English with you.”

Etheridge has picked up hundreds of new Twitter followers and Facebook friends, many of whom appear to be young women with extra vowels in their names.

Family enjoying the ride vicariously

Etheridge’s bright smile and distinctive thick, dark eyebrows cut an impressive stage presence. He also has the ideal emotional mix for a songwriter, a mash-up of outgoing and introspective. He’s having a blast taking The Common Linnets ride, while at the same time worrying if he’ll ever write another good song.

“It feels like things are going well, but at the same time there’s this thing in the back of your head saying what are you going to do next,” Etheridge said.

If he’s not enjoying every moment of this incredible summer, his parents certainly are.

“I have 100 percent been living through it and loving every step he takes,” James Etheridge said. “You cannot make this kind of stuff up. It’s been unbelievable for the entire family.”

It was hard on James and Melinda when Jake left for Nashville because he was still such a big part of their lives. He had lived at home while attending USC, and he played with his parents in praise bands at two different churches.

But James and Melinda knew their son needed to get out on his own in a place like Nashville to see how far he could take his talent.

One piece of advice James gave Jake was to treat people right and have a good attitude. “There’s a lot of talent out there in Nashville,” James said he told his son. “Those people don’t have to work with jerks.”

Rather than leading to a big-head attitude, Jake’s recent success puts more of a spotlight on his aw-shucks approach. When his parents picked him up at Myrtle Beach after the big summer trip to Europe, he was excited that he got to keep the new clothes bought for the European tour, James said.

Jake remembers “going insane” about his first trip to Europe. Now it’s old hat.

“I was talking to my mom and almost complaining about flying back and forth,” Jake said.

Melinda replied: “It’s a tough life, isn’t it?”

Jake recognized the sarcasm.

“It’s really a great opportunity,” Jake said. “There’s been a lot of stepping stones, a lot of luck and a lot of good timing.”

When he first moved to Nashville, “there wasn’t much to report on when I called home,” Jake said. “Then things began to pick up. I’d call my dad and say ‘I wrote with this guy’ or ‘I played the Bluebird.’

“Now I’ll play the Bluebird and forget to call about it. It’s hard to believe. I talked to my mom, and I realized this single I wrote went gold in Germany, and I forgot to tell her about it. I never thought that day would come.”