Genre-bending country star Colt Ford is back with his third studio album, Every Chance I Get. Melding country and hip-hop, the Georgia native has collected an all-star cast of collaborators, including Tim McGraw, Charlie Daniels, Eric Church, and The Nappy Roots. It’s a far cry from his early work with Jermaine Dupri and Kriss Kross, but the versatility of his songwriting skills has earned him accolades that include an Academy of Country Music Awards nomination. In advance of Every Chance I Get’s release, a philosophical Ford spoke to American Songwriter about his new album, songwriting, and more. “Nobody is bigger than the song,” he says “and never will be.”
You’ve successfully blended country and hip-hop, with some hard rock elements as well. Are we at a point in our culture now that people are accepting of that, or do you find that there are still pockets of resistance to it?
Oh, no. I still get tons of resistance. I honestly feel like I’m a country artist. I truly believe that, insomuch of the fact that nobody said Charlie Daniels was a rapper. Toby Keith did the song “I Want to Talk About Me,” and nobody said he was a country rapper. I just believe that a song is a good song or it’s not a good song. As long as you’re not a musical snob, you can still appreciate that.
I didn’t set out to do something revolutionary, I just set out to make songs that I could make and this is the way I did it. It was the way I could do it. If I could sing like Luke Bryan, I’d be Luke Bryan, probably. But I can’t. Lyrically, that’s where I get frustrated. I hear people say, “I don’t like that.” Then I’m like, “Have you ever really listened to that, what they’re saying lyrically?” To me, that’s what is most important. That’s where it’s all it. Lyrics are the song. It begins and ends there as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve always been impressed with hip hop lyrics, in just how many there are per line, and the creativity involved. Do you feel the same way?
Honestly, hip-hop and old country music is really not all that different. They’re storytellers just talking about a different story. But, hip-hop is important. I’ve done some things in the hip-hop world, written a couple things for a couple people, and I remember talking to Notorious B.I.G., before he died, and him going, “You know, I learned the art of story telling from my mother listening to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard.” His mother is from Jamaica, and in Jamaica they only have a reggae station and a country station. His mom liked that stuff, so she only had those records. He goes, “I would listen to these dudes: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, and they told stories.”
You take some of the guys, lyrically, like Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Eminem and those dudes are un-freaking-believable. Listen to the words they are putting together, lyrically and sonically what they’re doing. It’s phenomenal. I’ve sat there and watched Jay-Z sit down and write 16 bar verses and never write anything down. He’ll have it all in his head, then go into the studio and lay it down. That’s badass. I don’t care who you are. You write songs, and you don’t appreciate that, then you don’t know shit. [laughs] You don’t know anything about writing a song if you can’t appreciate what that’s like while looking at the lyrical content. For me, I’m doing five, six, seven words for their singing one. A lot of my artist friends are like, “How do you remember all that stuff?” I say, “Sometimes I don’t.” That’s what makes real music and live music fun! Sometimes you mess up. That’s okay. That’s music.
Tell us about your background in hip-hop.
I worked with Jermaine Dupri for about six or seven years. We were writing songs, and truthfully I was spending a lot of time trying to be something that I wasn’t. What you see now with Colt Ford is really me being myself talking about what I really know about. Writing a hip-hop song was like writing a movie. The guy who wrote Avatar has probably never been to a planet that has blue people flying around, but he could create that. I was able to write that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t really me. It was something I was able to do. I could put lyrics together.
The very first Kriss Kross album, Jermaine and I wrote that whole album together. We didn’t know we were going to sell 12 or 13 million records. Again, back to making music–which sometimes in this town has been forgotten a little bit–it’s like, “Dude, let’s just write songs.” Can we do that? Not, “So and so has to write it, they need this song, or let’s really think about it ‘ain’t’ should be there.” I’m like, “the word is whatever you wrote it in as!” If that’s how you would say it, then that’s what it is! When Jamey Johnson said he traded all that for cocaine and a whore, how else would you want him to describe that? That’s what it was, that’s how he had to describe it. It was real, and I like stuff like that. I like that real, authentic great song. The fans will tell you whether they like it or not, you don’t need to break it down for them.
Billboard’s charts are cool, I’d love to have a song at the top of the chart, but at the end of the day it’s not real. What’s real is record sales and ticket sales, where people make a conscious decision to go spend the money they worked for to go buy the record. That’s real. Standing out on stage, and having them sing back to you every word, that’s real. To me, it should be about that more than anything.
Your new album has a ton of guests on it. Was that the idea all along?
That’s always kind of been my M.O., I guess. There are songs on there that would call for me to sing on it. And I could sing it, but I’m smart enough to know what I can do and what I can’t do. If Luke Bryan can sing it, then why don’t I get Luke Bryan to sing it? [Laughs] I think fans dig it. I did a song with DMC of Run DMC, and there’s a guy that changed the musical landscape. He was part of a group that sold 30 million records, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was cool as hell to do a song with that guy. It was great songwriting, and at the end of the day, great songwriters can write about anything if you put them in the right circumstances. I just really believe that. I think there are guys and girls [in Nashville] that could write a hit rap song if they wanted to. Good songwriters are good songwriters, and it doesn’t matter where you put them at. Put them with other people that are creative and they’ll come up with something cool.
Who was the most fun to work with?
Man, everyone on the record is a friend of mine. To have Tim McGraw is about as high up on the country music ladder as you can go, and to have one of my heroes, Mr. Charlie Daniels, is un-freaking-believable. I don’t do stuff that’s made up. If it’s not something that people are into, or if it’s not organic, then I’m not going to do it anyways. You can’t just say, “I’m going to put you in the room with so and so, and they’re going to come sing on the song.” I won’t do that. I’m going to have to really dig what they do, they’re going to have to really dig what I do, and we would do it that way. There are no rules in music. There’s not a test, it’s just making a good song.
Charlie Daniels is one of your heroes. What was working with him like?
About as humbling as it could possibly be. Somebody like that, who is someone I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid, is really a hero. Sometimes there are people in your mind that you would think by meeting them, they wouldn’t turn out to be who you thought they were. He is every single thing you think he is and more. He is unbelievably nice, kind and thoughtful. He’s willing to help, give you advice, and he’s everything I would want people to say about me 20 years from now. That’s what Charlie Daniels is.
Tell us about the song “Country Thang.” What was the inspiration behind that?
That’s a song I wrote with Dallas Davidson, Ben Hayslip, and Rhett Akins, who refer to themselves as the Peach Pickers. Those guys have had a tremendous amount of success the last two or three years. Dallas, songwriter of the year last year and Billboard’s five #1s in 10 months–nobody has ever done that–is great. The greatest thing is that all those guys are buddies of mine. They’re all from Georgia. We call each other up and talk about regular stuff, you know what I mean? “Let’s go turkey hunting.” “What about Georgia football?” It’s normal stuff, and that’s even cooler to be able to write and cut songs with your buddies. That’s really unbelievable to me. I didn’t think that would ever happen. I didn’t know if anybody would write a song with me. You don’t know that. You hope people like what you do.
Right now, I’ve got an opportunity to write with some of the absolute biggest writers in Nashville that people who have been living here 10 years haven’t had the opportunity to write with. I am truly blessed to be able to write with them, because they like what I do. Soon, I’m going to be writing with Craig Wiseman and I’m going, “Really? I’m going to sit down and write a song with Craig Wiseman?!” That’s unbelievable to me. That will be hard for me to do, because I am just going to be looking at him, wondering how many hit songs he’s written.
I felt that way a little bit when we were working with Run DMC. I’ve even become friends with Jonathan Cain from Journey, and sat down and wrote songs with him, and this dude wrote, arguably, the two or three greatest rock ballads of all time! I can’t imagine writing stuff like that. Then, I’ve gotten to write with Jamey Johnson, who I think has put out the greatest piece of music that’s come out of [Nashville] in a long, long time. I think 50 years from now people will listen to that record. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything that people would listen to 50 years from now [laughs]. It would be by accident. I am just unbelievably blessed to have any of those opportunities. I don’t take that for granted.
If you’ve been writing successful songs for years, what makes you want to co-write with other people as opposed to thinking, “I can crank this out myself”?
Well, the first record I very much wrote by myself. And in the hip-hop world, either you can write it or you can’t. That’s kind of the rite of passage. There are not many guys in the hip-hop world that are cutting songs that are written by somebody else. So, I didn’t know what it would have been like to write with somebody else. The first song I wrote was a weird combination. It was me, Jeremy Papa from Lit, and Jamey Johnson. That was the first song I wrote when I came to Nashville. It’s different. You feel like you’re the new guy in the room, or you’re afraid to say something that would make you look stupid, but it can be fun. It can be very rewarding to do that kind of stuff, and I’m just smart enough to know that I think I can write hit songs. If you’re a songwriter, and you think that too, then you can’t be naïve enough to think you are the only guy that can write hit songs.
Being able to sit down and write with some other guys is always an interesting experience. To hear an idea said in a different way than how you would have said it is really cool. You could even throw out an idea, like a title, and they would be like, ‘Yeah!’ And it evolves into something totally different than what you were thinking. That’s pretty neat. It may not have been what you were thinking, but it’s still really cool.
Tell us about the song “Titty’s Beer.”
Craig Wiseman wrote that. Funny song, man! For me, if I hear of someone who’s cut an album with ten singles or twelve singles, it makes me sad a little bit. That means you didn’t take chances, you played it ultra safe. You should have some songs on the record that are not made to be singles, not made to be anything, but they can still be great songs. You being a songwriter, I guarantee you could name off some artists or songs that was never even close to being a hit or being on the radio. There are songs that are just important, you know? I wish more people in town would do that, because they dig it and it’s important to them. It doesn’t have to be on the radio. It’s okay. It’s fine. You’re not going to have ten singles on a record anyway, so who cares.
“Titty’s Beer” is just hysterical. Initially, you think it’s about something else, but it’s about this guy who want to start a beer company. He finds out that it’s not the taste that will make it successful, but the name: Titty’s Beer. He sells them two at a time. He calls them a rack. “Whether you’re from the country or the big ole city/ One thing’s for sure, everybody loves titties.” It’s just fun, man! It’s a song that will put a smile on your face. It’s a play on words, and I just like stuff like that. I can’t wait to write something with Craig on my own, but that’s something he wrote with Troy Gentry from Montgomery Gentry and Tim Nichols. It’s a fun song!
What was your first break as far as professional songwriting?
Golly, I don’t know. I’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s kind of been in two different worlds, you know? The country world was one thing, and then the hip-hop world was another big break. I don’t know! To me, just writing a song in general is kind of a break. To be able to do that, period, is such a blessing. If anybody like it at all, whether it’s one person or a million people, it’s just really cool. I’ve got a song now, “Dirt Road Anthem,” that was on my first record that Jason Aldean cut, and is his new single coming out. That’s pretty cool. That’s a big artist, and about the hottest thing out right now. It’s putting out a song that I wrote that people are saying is going to be the biggest song of his career. That’s a song, quite honestly, that Brantley Gilbert and I wrote in 25 minutes. Sometimes that happens. Some songs take hours, days, months, but this song will probable be a big ‘ole hit and it took 25 minutes [laughs].
Anything else you’d like to say about Every Chance I Get?
I’m just excited. It’s a combination of everything I do all in one, one extreme to the next. I think there are some songs on there that I don’t know if they’re great songs, but they’re important songs. I kind of go from way over here to way over there, but I think that’s fun for the listener. This is probably the best I’ve done so far. It’s funny, with this album coming out I’m already thinking about starting to write for the next record. But, we’ll see what happens. I hope people dig it as much as I do.