At age 15, University of New Orleans alumnus Jim McCormick was playing a regular Tuesday night gig at a New Orleans bar called Jed’s on Oak Street. The future multi-Grammy-nominated songwriter was the front man for the “sort of blues/rock” band called Resonance, McCormick said.
“Like resonating music,” McCormick said with a laugh. “We were very, very earnest.”
Years later, the multi-platinum selling songwriter is still bemused that his parents allowed him to play at Jed’s.
“I’m really grateful that my mom and dad gave me that freedom and trust to do that,” said McCormick, who grew up on the west bank of New Orleans in the Lower Aurora neighborhood of Algiers.
“You know, we agreed with the bartender not to try and drink while we were there … I’m not sure if we held true to that promise, but we managed to keep the gig for three years!”
The group disbanded as its members headed off to college. McCormick enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English before returning to New Orleans and starting another band.
“We were called The Bingemen. What were we thinking?” McCormick asked rhetorically. “But we had a great run. We put out two albums, we wrote wonderful songs. For seven years, I was in a band with three childhood friends touring the southeast every weekend.”
During that time, McCormick also earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans.
“That was a wonderful chapter in my life,” he said. “I’m rolling through Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee and reading William Wordsworth for my exam next week. That was my life. That was great.”
McCormick praised the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO, saying it deserves to be applauded and nurtured.
“The UNO creative writing program is very dear to me,” he said. “Humanities get second tier attention compared to business and science, but you don’t get a Jim McCormick without the creative writing program at UNO, let alone a Pulitzer Prize winning poet!”
Discovering “Songwriting” As a Career
It also was during travels with The Bingemen that McCormick met some songwriters in Nashville who encouraged him to pursue the craft.
“They liked what I was writing, the lyrics, the structure and all that,” McCormick said. “I was not a country music kid or fan, the closest I got to it was like ZZ Top and the Band … but it was something in that notion. Like wait, there’s a job called ‘songwriting?’ I was like, I’m getting that job!”
It was the late 1990s and the internet was not this ubiquitous entity where one click could render reams of information on a host of subjects, McCormick said.
“You didn’t have the sort of easy exposure or access to all of the different things going on in the country or in the world,” McCormick said.
In Nashville, where he would later move, McCormick discovered an “ecosystem” of songwriters who wrote songs for artists making records.
“Outside songs, which is what we call it when they are not written by the artist that sings it, are very important to the economy of country music,” McCormick said. “In country, the artists don’t insist on writing their own songs all the time. You don’t find that in pop and hip hop. In country, there’s an opening for songwriters to make a living who are not the artists—or who are not even in the room with the artists.”
Nashville is a songwriter’s town, and by extension, a music publisher’s town, McCormick said. The music publishers act much like a songwriter’s manager in that they pitch songs to artists and book songwriters for collaborations with other writers and artists, said McCormick, who is a staff songwriter at Eclipse Music Group in Nashville.
“They are a close-knit kind of network and they are booking writers in the city with each other across the months,” McCormick said. “I know where I am for the next hundred days or so.”
McCormick has written several songs that have topped No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music Charts, including Brantley Gilbert’s “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do,” Jason Aldean’s “Take A Little Ride” and, most recently, Gabby Barret’s “The Good Ones.”
Barret performed that song on primetime television in April during the Country Music Awards.
“I was reminded watching it how lucky I am to be a part of this wonderful world of country songwriting,” McCormick said. “There’s no greater thrill than hearing a gifted singer singing words you helped write.”
McCormick’s lyrics also have been sung by other popular country music stars, such as Tim McGraw and Trisha Yearwood.
Other releases written by McCormick include Payton Smith's "Can't Go Wrong With That" and "What It Meant to Lose You," Kelly Clarkson’s “Minute,” Luke Bryan’s “All My Dreaming There,” Aldean’s “Lights Go Out,” and Harry Connick Jr.’s “I Do Like We Do.”
“The only control I have over my business is the quality of the work that I create,” McCormick said. “You’ve got to let it go and hope somebody responds to the quality of the work … my job is to create the very best silver bullet that I can create and give it to my publisher and say ‘go find the right artist.’”
Advice: Go See
Prior to making the move to Nashville, McCormick worked as an editor for a New Orleans trade magazine for three years and was “miserable.”
“I was miserable because it wasn’t what I was meant to do with my life and I knew it,” McCormick said about his stint in journalism.
His boss knew it as well. She fired him “in the most friendly way possible,” McCormick recalled with a laugh.
“I took off for Nashville and the next four years of my life was spent writing songs four times a day with anybody and everybody that would write with me,” said McCormick, who supported himself by painting houses and hanging sheetrock. “It was one of the happiest times of my life and I knew in my heart that this was what I should be doing. I just stayed with it.”
It was a difficult journey, said McCormick, who currently divides his time between Nashville and New Orleans where he teaches the craft and business of songwriting as a faculty member at Loyola University. However, he offers this career advice to the purpose seekers.
“Stay tuned for those moments for when the doors open and a new road opens up in front of you,” he said. “Have the nerve to go experiment, walk through that door, go down that road. Go see.”