Jameson Rodgers was a late bloomer. A good ole boy from Batesville, Mississippi, a town of some 7,400 people, he didn’t pick up a guitar until his early 20s. He continued playing baseball through junior college and was even recruited to play at Crichton College (now Victory University) in Memphis.
“The second day into the semester, the coach who recruited us called a meeting and said, ‘Man, I got offered a job at Pitt, so I’m leaving tomorrow,’” Rodgers tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “That kind of led to my ending of baseball. I felt like that was God telling me to maybe pursue something else.”
Music had always been the backdrop to his life. He was known to walk around the halls of his high school humming or singing along to the latest country hit; he had just never thought of himself as a full-blown musician. He later transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi, where his roommates enticed him to strum along as best he could.
One weekend trip back home, family friend, musician, and producer Steve McGregors gave Rodgers his first-ever guitar lesson. “Steve is a grade-A musician. His whole family is. I asked him to show a few things,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was just getting on YouTube and learning chords and songs. That first lesson, I was playing a G chord the wrong way. I had my thumb on the top fret. He forced me to play it the right way.”
When he returned to university, another roommate, who wrote spoken word poetry, further inspired him to take to the stage. “He was very talented. He won Southern Miss’s Got Talent,” says Rodgers. “He’d get up on stage with this three-minute poem.”
Rodgers wrote a handful of songs then, and it soon became evident he had a knack for it. “People started requesting these songs at parties and around the campfire. That’s when I knew I was hooked.”
He moved to Nashville exactly 10 years ago this year, and in those early days, he didn’t quite know how to navigate the industry, much less book a studio session. McGregors placed a call to Hilltop Studios, one of his most-frequented haunts, and Rodgers soon cut “three or four demos one day,” he says. “I remember being terrified. The band had me play [songs] acoustic in the room so they could hear them.”
In his current YouTube series, called “Grew Up in the Country,” named after his new song, he documents his hometown and childhood roots. The third segment, called “Music,” premieres today on American Songwriter, and Rodgers invites his fans into his small corner of the world.
Rodgers’ “Grew Up in the Country” was completely funded by CMA following his placement in their Kixstart program last year. “You can’t just go to a small town and put all these cameras in front of people. It’s hard to make them act normal,” he laughs. “That was the trickiest part. It was helping people feel less nervous and be themselves. It was fun for me to see high school friends and family with cameras in their faces.. I’ve gotten fairly used to having a camera in my face.”
The four-part series shifted his perspective on many things, most of all exactly how much work he has put into his career over the last decade. “I didn’t really know how any of this was going to work. Anytime you hear people talking good about you and respect all the hard work you’ve done, it naturally makes you emotional,” he ponders. “Probably, the one that got me the most was one of my buddies who I started playing guitar with.”
“In part four of the series, he talks about how it’s taken 10 years of really hard, patient work to get to this point. I’m here and in it all the time, and it’s hard to see it in the eyes of somebody who hasn’t been doing it for 10 years,” he continues. “I forget how crazy of a thing this was for me to do ─ to pack up my stuff and move to Nashville and try to make it as a country music singer. People don’t get to do that. People don’t get to wake up and write songs with some of the best songwriters in the world.”
“It was good for me to get that perspective,” he adds.
In part three, there is a moment of teary emotion bubbling over in catching up with McGregor. “His studio is one of my first memories of really diving into music. It was sad to see the studio gone, but life goes on,” he says.
Rodgers announced the series last month, tweeting, “I’ve never really given y’all a backstory of where I grew up.” As a die-hard music fan himself, it just made sense to talk about his upbringing now. “I like to know where artists like Eric Church are from. When he first came out, I wanted to know all about him and what it was like growing up,” he explains. “I started thinking back, and some people don’t even know where I’m from or anything about my childhood.”
The second episode hones in on Rodgers’ first love: baseball. Throughout the clip, many of his old buddies talk about the good old days, and his high school baseball coach even describes Rodgers as “unassuming.” Rodgers still sees himself that way. “I don’t live for people’s attention 24/7. I’m naturally shy, to be honest,” he says. “That’s probably why it took me so long to get into music. I was probably so shy of singing and playing guitar in front of people.”
New single “Grew Up in the Country” ─ written with Jake Mitchell, Josh Miller, and Smith Ahnquist ─ was inspired by a writer’s retreat to a secluded cabin he found in Airbnb. “I had this idea of taking those writers up there and writing for three days. I wanted to write songs for me I could possibly cut one day,” he says of writing the song. “We’d all had a beer or two. I picked up a guitar and started playing. I just started singing it. I didn’t have that title in my phone or anything, like it normally happens. It fell out of the sky.”
The homegrown anthem anchors what Rodgers hopes to be a new album, tentatively slated for release this summer or early fall. “I thought the record was done a month ago. I’ve written so many songs in the last six months. I presented these songs to the team, and they said, ‘We gotta cut five more!’ We’re actually going to add five songs to the record. I was supposed to go into the studio a couple weeks ago. But the coronavirus has stalled everything. It’s some of the best writing I’ve done.”
Rodgers basks in the moment. Over the last few years, he has landed cuts with Chris Lane (No. 1 hit “I Don’t Know About You”), Luke Bryan (“Born Here, Live Here, Die Here”), Florida Georgia Line (“Talk You Out of It”), and Jason Aldean (“Camouflage Hat”). With his own work, he has amassed more than 47 million streams on Spotify alone.
They often say Nashville is a 10-year town, and Rodgers is a clear textbook case. “It’s been such a journey, so it’s hard to look at it like I’m breaking out right now. In the last year or two, especially, it’s seemed like things are really going my way. I’m just trying not to mess it up. You hear all the time that it’s a 10-year town, and I wanted to ignore that. If you told me that was actually going to be the case, it would have been hard to stick it out all these years.”