Marcus Hummon shifts effortlessly within his writing worlds. Like a chameleon scribe, he’s penned songs for Tim McGraw, Wynonna Judd, and Alabama. He earned three number one country hits for The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Born to Fly” by Sara Evans, and Rascal Flatts’ “Bless The Broken Road”—which earned him a 2005 Grammy for Best Country Song—and worked on six musicals. In 2005, Hummon even wrote the opera Surrender Road, staged by The Nashville Opera Company and scored two films: Lost Boy Home and The Last Songwriter, a documentary that he co-produced. By 2019, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee was putting the finishing touches on a new musical when the pandemic hit, shuttering theaters.
“I always keep something on the side, so I’m always writing,” says Hummon, who signed an exclusive publishing deal with LBK Entertainment in 2000, expanding his work across all genres. “It’s sort of the way I live.”
Everything revolves around the story for Hummon, whether navigating songwriting, theater, or film. “You’re constantly looking for the human story,” says Hummon, “your own story, a third person thing, which illuminates something that’s deep and passionate in your experience.”
Working with the Nashville Opera, Hummon says there’s very little dichotomy between writing for the various stages, apart from becoming invested in some of non-musical elements of the performance—the set design, lighting, gear, casting.
“That’s one of the great things about opera, aside from the fact that it uses the human voice the way that it does,” says Hummon. “You should be able to look at people moving through a story the whole evening and just play the music, do the underscoring, and it should tell you exactly what went on. That’s the kind of the consciousness around scoring a film—and in playwriting or musical theater. You’re just getting as involved as possible in seeing what is happening to the humanity of the story and you’re trying to write it, so I guess they are all tied together.”
Maintaining a solo writing space is critical to Hummon’s work, whether writing an album or something more theatrical. Co-writing songs isn’t just about walking in as an editor of someone else’s work. It’s about an overlay of artistry. “I have to see myself in other people’s work, even if they’re younger,” says Hummon. “You need to find those places where you can both speak. It’s important to have a balance between collaborative writing, but for me, it’s also very important to always be working on material that you generate yourself.”
Coming to Nashville in the ’80s from a folk rock background and writing everything himself, Hummon admits he never knew the inner workings of co-writing until he met Joe Henry, a longtime collaborator of John Denver. Henry, who collaborated with Denver to write “A Baby Just Like You” for Frank Sinatra in 1975, opened his big book of lyrics to the young musician.
“He agreed to write with a young guy like me, and I had nothing,” shares Hummon. “He would come in and literally bring this massive volume of poems and would open it up and say, ‘Pick a poem,’ and I would sift through them and try to set them to music.”
The first song the duo wrote together was “The Rainmaker,” based on one of Henry’s poems. “I think I’ve tried to write the idea of ‘The Rainmaker’ into about 100 songs in my career,” says Hummon. “That image keeps coming back.”
Waiting for all stages to reopen, Hummon is always writing. He recently co-wrote Tim McGraw’s 2020 single “Not From California” with son Levi, who is also an accomplished singer-songwriter. “It’s a little hard, but it’s like the endless writer retreat,” he says. “That’s basically what we’re on.”
With his theatrical work, Hummon is finishing the scripts of a new play in Ireland, working with dramaturge Jocelyn Clark in Dublin. Rejoining writer and director Charles Randolph-Wright—who worked with Berry Gordy on Motown: The Musical and with Hummon on American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words, which documented the life and legacy of the human rights leader—Hummon recently completed a new piece of music for Douglass Week in Ireland, celebrating the 150 years since he came to the country to lecture in 1845. “I did a piece called ‘Giving Up the Ghost,’ which is sort of about the reoccurrence of racism in America,” says Hummon, “and I performed it with Forest O’Connor and his son Mark O’Connor.”
In the end, it’s all poetry to Hummon. Songwriting, he says, can be poetic and understood as literature.
“One of the great things about songwriting as poetry is the degree to which it’s sort of a living poetry,” says Hummon. “It rests on the page and in an audio file, but you’re constantly getting a reading. You’re constantly playing it, and it’s happening in people’s lives.”
Photo by Robbie Michaels