It’s always a risk to set up a co-write. You never know how it might turn out. You can dream up combinations — you might admire someone’s work and think you’d make good collaborators or at least co-conspirators because of a perceived kindred spirit. But the outcome depends on many uncontrollable factors, not the least of which is the level of magic in the room at the hour you face one another to try to discover the form of something brand new and special.
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Matraca Berg, Hayes Carll, and I sat down in Matraca’s living room one summer afternoon a few years ago. The three of us were writing together for the first time. It ended up working out for us, so maybe there was indeed some fairy dust in the air. After only a few minutes of catching up, we sat down with our guitars and Matraca said, “I’ve been thinking about this title, ‘Jesus and Elvis.’”
Everyone liked it. We started throwing around lyric ideas, talking about where it could go, and how to draw the parallels. I suggested it might be a waltz. We decided it wasn’t. Hayes started finger picking around on a chord progression. Matraca started singing what ended up being the chorus. We had a new song before 6 p.m. and celebrated with a few beers and with Matraca’s husband, the singer-songwriter and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna, on their back porch. I should mention he liked it first.
If you write songs for long enough, you eventually figure out that not every one you finish is exceptional. In fact, most writers will tell you that at least half of what they write falls into that category. The three of us have all spent years learning and honing our crafts, and having our hearts broken over songs we believed in that we ended up either being wrong about or that just couldn’t, for whatever reason, reach the right set of ears to take them farther than a work tape. But by the time evening pulled the curtain on that summer day, we were all texting each other that we thought we’d indeed unearthed an extraordinary one in “Jesus And Elvis,” and that it would find its way. We were right that time. It eventually did.
I don’t recall if Kenny Chesney first heard it from the iPhone recording that Matraca made that day and gave to her publisher, or if it was the demo that Hayes and I did during a session of mine for Warner Chappell the following November. I think he might’ve heard both. I could call everyone to get their version of events, including Holly Gleason, a dear friend to all three of us and also Kenny’s long-time, trusted advisor (she liked and believed in it too). But what matters is that he did hear it, and put it on his latest album, Cosmic Hallelujah.
Though Matraca, Hayes, and I each have careers as performers, our bread and butter has always been our songwriting. Not one of us could be considered mainstream. We’re regarded as edgy or on the fringe, so having a song recorded by an artist like Kenny, who is most definitely mainstream, keeps us relevant in a way that cool factor can’t.
It’s a thrill for any artist to record one of your songs. Not only is it crucial for a writer to get cuts, it’s a mark of credibility that doesn’t ebb and flow the way most indicators of success do. Songwriting credits stay with you like almost nothing else can, and having one as significant as Kenny Chesney, a hit-maker if there ever was one, means we can write songs that translate to a wide audience. That, in short, gives us better standing within the songwriting community and allows us to continue doing what we love for a living.
I take it as a huge compliment that Kenny would record a song I had anything to do with, but the thing is, he didn’t cut “Jesus And Elvis” to pay us a compliment. There are some who may not respect “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” But “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” “El Cerrito Place,” Better As A Memory,” or “You And Tequila,” just to mention a few amazing songs he’s recorded, stand up against anyone’s best, most critically-acclaimed work. Kenny is a shrewd artist. No one sells tens of millions of records accidentally. He is a song connoisseur and has a great ear for what will connect with his audience. Better yet, he knows how to communicate a song to his audience so that they relate to it. Neither Matraca, Hayes, nor I have any idea how to do that on the scale that he does.
Kenny Chesney has his pick of thousands of songs every time he records an album. It says a lot for us that he took a risk on ours. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cool.
Allison Moorer is an Academy and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter originally from Alabama. Moorer and her sister Shelby Lynne recently recorded an album together that is slated for a 2017 release.