"The Middle of the River" shows the New Orleans-based country songwriter on his down time.

photo of Jim McCormick

"This is me taking off my work boots," Jim McCormick says. "You want to see what I do for a job, musically, go to a Jason Aldean show. You want to see what I do on a Saturday, see me with Paul Sanchez."

McCormick writes songs on Nashville's famed Music Row, and last summer he had back-to-back number one hits with Brantley Gilbert's "You Don't Know Her Like I Do" and Jason Aldean's "Take a Little Ride." Writing songs for stars feeds the family, but recently he released The Middle of the River, touching base with his own performing past, something he now revisits for love not money. Friday night will illustrate that point as he performs a CD-release show not by doing something big and star time, but by joining Paul Sanchez's Chickie Wah Wah show. He'll have a few musical friends join him, but the vibe for the show and project is of someone making music for the fun of it. "It's my slouch record. It's me not having to make an income."

For more than a decade, McCormick has been writing commercial country, one of the least respected genres, particularly for those who hold Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and the greats from the past in high esteem. That contrast may not be entirely fair as albums' worth of shaky, chart-focused songs by the legends are overshadowed by the brilliance of their best work, but things have changed. Country today is closer to rock 'n' roll, and its driving impulses are less rural and less class conscious as America is more urban and listeners show an aversion to class-related distinctions. In that context, McCormick's very clear on his role. Just as pop and rock music are first and foremost about the artist's persona, "Your job is to write scripts for their public careers," he says, constructing four-minute narratives that help fill out the public's understanding of the singer's personality, whether the story ever happened or not. 

Increasingly, McCormick works with the artists, so the job rarely calls for him to tap into his inner truth. But he has now written more than 1,000 songs in Nashville, and he's found ways to make songwriting in that context satisfying. He has an academic background in poetry, so "the confines of a form are interesting to me," he says. "As long as it's a form and the challenge is there, part of me is game because I respond to that challenge."

The Middle of the River includes songs that he wrote in Nashville that never found homes with the exception of "You Didn't Have a Good Time," which was recorded by Randy Travis. McCormick returned to New Orleans to cut the tracks at Fudge Studios with Shane Theriot, Doug Belote and Calvin Turner to put some Louisiana on the tracks. For listeners who only casually hear contemporary country, the differences between the songs' treatment by the New Orleans band and how it would be handled in Nashville might not be obvious, nor is it clear why these were passed over when other songs were cut and released as singles. The differences are often subtle, ones that only those knee-deep in the industry recognize. 

"Davis Rogan said to me once, 'If you immerse yourself in it long enough, it makes itself apparent to you,'" McCormick says. "That little structural model never left me, and it's so true of Nashville and commercial songwriting."

He believes that his experience as a solo artist and with his late '90s rock band The Bingemen helps him understand what audiences like and what the artists he works with go through, but he has no desire to return to regular performing. "I like to play with my friends," McCormick says. "I like to play every now and then. I don't like to rely on it for an income. It's very, very, very hard work. If you're a live musician, 23 hours a day are spent waiting and driving, eating and sleeping. There's a whole lot to tolerate to get to the good stuff, and the minute you're over tolerating the bad stuff, you probably will be able to let the good stuff go."