Growing up in southeast Ohio, future award-winning songwriter, Jimmy Yeary, wasn’t allowed to listen to country music. In the early years, his was a life of school, family, and church. It was during the worship hours where Yeary would sing gospel. He was raised religiously. His upbringing was strict and hard. For instance, Yeary’s mother was a fan of singer Barbara Mandrell until she heard Mandrell’s 1980 song, “Crackers,” which went: You can eat crackers in my bed anytime, baby. That was it.
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Yeary also says he endured some physical abuse, as a kid. But as he got a little older, he began sneaking music he loved into his house and listening to it surreptitiously. When his mom heard the song, “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” in her house she blew her lid. Still, Yeary was undeterred. Once he heard you could move to Nashville to write, he had a plan. Ever since then, that plan to get where he belonged has worked out and Yeary has become one of the most popular songwriters in Music City.
His latest single, “Angeline,” released in October, showcases his love for his wife (famed singer, Sonya Isaacs,) his knack for storytelling and his natural ability to catch an ear hook, line and sinker.
“I was a very emotional kid,” Yeary tells American Songwriter. “I went through some abuse physically in the family and I remember my dad telling me one time when I was crying in front of him—not unlike an 8th-grade school bully—just like, ‘Oh, you’re crying?’ I remember thinking I wasn’t going to waste anymore tears on him.”
Yeary remembers going into the family bathroom after that moment, sitting on the closed toilet lid and strumming an acoustic guitar. From then, he started pouring his heart out. Doing so made him feel good. Accessing those depths of emotions and then expressing himself was cathartic and that process has since offered him connection to audiences all around the country, and globe.
“The songs I would write from that state of emotion,” Yeary says, “that state of authenticity, I found resonated with other people.”
Music became healing for Yeary. And that healing became his mode of connection to audiences. In music, he says, he could be and feel anything he wanted to. That drove him.
Today, Yeary is a Grammy, ACM and CMA Award-winner. He’s worked with Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, among many others. Yeary is versatile and capable in several genres, including country and bluegrass. Yet, he knows his “lane.” He’s not the guy people go to for a song about a dirt road, a girl by his side and a bonfire. Instead, people come to him for emotional depth. And bluegrass, he says, with all its complexity, is especially freeing.
“You could really go to a heartbreak place,” he says, “even in these fast-tempo songs, with a sadder subject matter. There’s something people love about that… Today’s country is not too traditional. There’s a lot of country that I’m not maybe a complete fan of. But I am a traditionalist. I write country songs and artists can cut them however they want to.”
Growing up in southeast Ohio, Yeary says, there is “nothing but corn fields and guilt.” There was a lot of talk about hell and what to do to avoid going there—seemingly impossible tasks like being nice to his siblings, Yeary jokes. But while he didn’t love growing up there, it’s where he met his future wife, Sonya Isaacs, when he was just 14 years old. He would reconnect with her some years later. When he got to Nashville, he immediately sold a guitar to stay afloat. He began working hard. He studied the greats, realizing he had a lot of ground to make up.
“I didn’t have a huge ego when I got here,” Yeary says. “I wasn’t one of those guys saying, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ I respect the craft, respected the people who had achieved and had enough sense to realize there is a method to how things are done.”
As Yeary began to write for more and more artists, he dove into each back catalog. He needed a plethora of research to know which was the perfect song, the perfect direction to go next. He sought personal moments, signature ideas that would both resonate with the singers and their audiences. It’s a skill set he honed over years and one he now even teaches: the confluence of songwriting and business (i.e. connecting to fans). In recent years, Yeary boasts some of the most played songs in both bluegrass and Southern gospel.
“It’s a matter of going deeper,” Yeary says. “And feeling something. And telling a story, authentically. People connect with that; artists connect with it. You got to sell them before they can sell the audience.”
For his latest single, “Angeline,” Yeary mined some personal stories from his marriage to Isaacs (of the famous bluegrass Southern gospel group, The Isaacs). It began with just the name: Angeline. Then, later a lyric formed: Angeline, you can’t be mean. The idea stemmed from the fact that Isaacs, Yeary says, can’t really get mad at him—and when she tries to, it just tickles him. Indeed, she is such a sweet soul; she’s not made “to get ticked off too easy.” She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, he adds. Thus, the song was born. From the personal comes the ubiquitous.
“I love music that talks about the human experience,” Yeary says. “When that happens authentically by somebody who can represent it in an awesome package, that’s what I love most about it.”
Photo courtesy Wortman Works