At what point did songwriters start to seek you out?
Certainly it was after the Not A Moment Too Soon album [his second, in 1994]. For 20-something weeks it stayed at No. 1. All of a sudden I had a career. And I was friends with some of the songwriters. “Not A Moment Too Soon” was a Wayne Perry song and I was the first one to hear it.
It’s interesting because when I recorded the first album, I didn’t have a lot of say-so in the songs. I tried to pick the best from what I had. “Memory Lane” was one that I fought for, and the George Strait song called “The Only Thing That I Have Left.” [Written by Clay Blaker, the song originally appeared on Strait’s classic 1982 album, Strait From The Heart.] It was like, “Here, kid, you can pick a couple of these songs.” And that’s what I picked.
When I got the chance to record the second album, I was sort of not paid attention to. I was allowed to cut a second album by virtue of not being paid attention to. They forgot about me and that’s why I was able to record. Some of the guys over there probably thought I was already cut from the label so I kind of snuck in and got these songs recorded. Byron and I heard them and that was it. Not even management had heard the songs when I went into the studio.
When did you gain confidence in your ability to hear a great song?
I knew early on that I had to take control of what I recorded. I knew that with the first album but I had never really been in a studio. I think there’s a part of you, when you move to town, that thinks producers and record label heads have all the answers. That all you have to do is let them guide you and everything’s going to be great. That’s really not the case at all. If you look down through history, I think it takes an artist to come in with a mission and a vision of how they want their music to be.
“I Like It, I Love It” is fun and simple and easy for fans to remember. Was anyone concerned that it was too fluffy?
Me! In fact I wasn’t going to record it. It was on the album after “Indian Outlaw.” That song came to me and it didn’t have the bridge on it, so I asked them to write the bridge. I tossed and turned over that song. I knew it was a hit but after having “Indian Outlaw” and “Refried Dreams” on the previous album, I thought, “Is this the right move for me to come back with?” I think of myself as a serious artist. Sometimes you can get in your head too much about that and forget that you have to have fun. I’ve been guilty in my career about that at times. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I didn’t want anybody else to have a hit with it! [laughs]
When you find a song that you can’t wait to share, who’s the first person you play it for?
My wife [Faith Hill], for sure. We don’t always agree and we have different tastes and different ideas about how we want things to sound. She’s one of those artists who definitely knows what her sound is and what she wants to do. I’m the same way. She comes from more of an R&B, gospel, bluesy, Motown sort of thing, and I come from a ‘70s rock/Southern rock attitude. So we have different backgrounds of what we like.
Did soul and R&B ever affect your own musical direction?
There’s a little bit of that. I mean, I love it but I don’t think I do that well. If you ask me, I say, “Give me some Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Beatles.” The Eagles is right up my alley.
Speaking of Faith, your duet “It’s Your Love” was huge. Was that pitched to you as a duet?
No, that was just pitched to me as a song. And instantly I wanted to do it with her. We were dating at the time and we were in the middle of a tour together. I remember I had a place out in Leiper’s Fork [a rural community outside of Nashville] and the bus was sitting there. Missy [Gallimore, a successful song finder and Byron Gallimore’s wife] showed up with that song and we went to the back of the bus to listen. I instantly knew I was going to cut it. I played it for Faith and told her I wanted her to sing on it. We both really felt like we had something.
Do you imagine you’ll do more duets with Faith?
Oh yeah! We’ll certainly do that down the road. We’ll do an album eventually but it’s tough to say when. She’s busy and she’s got her career. We look at it as three different careers – her career, my career and what we do together. We try to keep them separated.