Jim McBride: One Of The Lucky Ones
Jim McBride is one of those songwriters who puts his heart and soul into the songs he writes. He’s also one of the lucky ones in this world who is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have to struggle with the decision to write songs full time, nor does it mean that he had any easy road once that decision was made. It just means that he made the commitment to work at being a professional songwriter on a full-time basis and he worked to make it all come together for him.
Born in Huntsville, AL, Jim wrote his first song at the age of 12, but it was six years later before he would write another one.
“The songs just started coming in my head and after a while I decided to try it,” he says. “I just thought I’d write some songs and bring them to Nashville and see what happened.”
Simple enough, right? But it’s sometimes those things we do when we don’t have a clue that work out best for us.
“I had always read the label copy on records, and I found out that little bitty name beneath the song was the person who wrote the song,” Jim explains how he started learning about the songwriting business. “I had always been drawn to anything about music and I especially like Country Song Roundup. I used to devour anything in print about songs and songwriting. I learned a lot from reading those song lyrics. I told Waylon Holyfield when I met him, ‘I learned from you before we met,’ and the other great writers too, by reading their lyrics and listening to their songs.”
Jim began bringing songs to Nashville in the 1970s to the one man he knew here, Curly Putman. “He was from back home and he had just started his own publishing company,” Jim explains. “The first song I played him he said, ‘this song would have been a hit 30 years ago.’ And I thought ‘Oh no, I have 30 years to catch up on.’
“Curly gave me good advice and he was always very honest. He told me, ‘Unless I’m honest I can’t help you.’ I’d play him a song and he’d tell me what was wrong with it and he was always right. But if there was something there, he would be sure and let me know that I had done something right. And he always encouraged me to get another opinion, but I never did; his opinion was always good enough for me.”
In 1972 a recording studio opened in Huntsville and Jim met Roger Murrah, Nelson Larkin, and Earl Thomas Conley. Larkin started bringing songs to Nashville and made a connection with Andy Williams’ company, Barnaby records. McBride started getting cuts on The Hagers.
“I had half of a Hager album and I never heard those songs on the radio but they were doing them on Hee Haw every Saturday. The first night they did one of my songs on Hee Haw I just though my heart would jump out of my chest, I really did.”
Jim continued to receive encouragement, both from Murrah and also Bobby Bare, but in the mid-70s he got discouraged.
“I put my guitar in the closet and left it there for three and a half years. Then a mutual friend told me Curly had said he thought I could have made it if I’d moved to Nashville. And Roger called me and told me he was back in Nashville writing for Jerry Foster and Bill Rice. So I’d come to Nashville and write with Roger, or he’d come down to Huntsville. And I started getting some things cut but I didn’t have that big lick. Then we got a cut on Conway in 1980, “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn.” I told Bill Rice and Roger if we got the single on Conway I would quit my job at the post office and move to Nashville.
“Roger called me one night and said ‘I guess you need to pack your bags, we’ve got Conway’s next single.’ I quit the post office the day after Christmas, 1980 and then started work the first of January with Bill Rice and Jerry Foster. The only other writer they had was Roger Murrah.”
Despite his promise, the actual decision to move was hard for Jim. “In October of 1980 I found out my mom had cancer, and I went to her and said I can’t leave you and she encouraged me to come on. So 1981 was like the best and the worst, I was finally doing what I wanted to do for a long time, but I had watched the one person who influenced me the most slip away little by little, all year long. She did get to go see Conway sing “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn,” but she never heard Johnny Lee sing “Bet Your Heart On Me.”
“She just loved music, her and my dad both. She had a younger sister who married my daddy’s first cousin. They used to sing and play guitar; they taught me to play guitar. They used to sing Chuck Wagon Gang songs; their harmony was so good. And mama had her radio on all day long. I remember when Hank Williams died; I was five, almost six. I remember her crying, and it made me cry too.
“The day we buried her, the BMI awards were that night in Nashville and I was supposed to get my first award ever, for “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn.” After the funeral, daddy looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you go on to the awards?’ I said ‘I can’t do that,’ but he insisted that that’s what she would have wanted.”
After the Conway Twitty single and Johnny Lee’s “Bet Your Heart On Me,” his first number one, the bottom dropped out.
“I didn’t have another hit for six years,” Jim says. “After Urban Cowboy, music turned away from traditional country. I would have album cuts but couldn’t get the single. My songs have always been pretty traditional. The only good thing was I got a cut on an Alabama album that sold three million, but other than that not many people were selling albums.”
In 1987, Waylon Jennings cut “Rose In Paradise,” a song Jim wrote with Stuart Harris. “I don’t know where that one came from but I sure am thankful for it,” says Jim of the folk ballad that sounded like it came straight out of the 1800s. Wherever it came from, it became the turning point for him. Publisher Charlie Monk and CBS Songs bought his contract from Jerry Foster and he started to get hit singles again.
Although Jim had read as much as he could about songwriting, and had been bringing songs to Nashville for many years, it wasn’t until he actually moved to town that he really began to dig in and fine tune his writing skills.
“I don’t think I’d ever had a bridge in a song until I moved here,” he says. “Another thing I had to unlearn was that I wasn’t Kristofferson. I cut back on the poetic stuff. I was writing a lot of stuff where every line had to be brilliant. Through the years I learned to write conversational lines.
“I’m still learning. I’ve learned to write songs in the moment, not the great American novel in the song.”
When he was asked to explain that, Jim continued, “It’s like something that might be taking place between two people over a period of an hour or one day or one meal or whatever, a vignette out of life. I love songs that are a conversation between two people that might last five minutes.”
And where does he get those vignettes?
Jim McBride talks about “those vignettes” when we print the second half of Vernell Hackett’s interview in our Jan/Feb 1998 issue.