Hit songwriter Neil Medley introduces himself as an artist with his debut album, South End Kid. The 12-track project, available now, has Medley stepping out from writing for other artists to share his personal journey with listeners.
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The Kentucky-born singer, whose songs have been recorded by Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Cody Johnson, launched his solo career with “Tucson.” The track is one of 11 songs on South End Kid that Medley wrote.
“It weaves together both who I am as a songwriter and who I want to be as an artist, feeling like a natural first foot forward,” Medley tells American Songwriter of “Tucson.”
Medley has had more than 70 cuts as a songwriter throughout his career. One of those songs is Jake Owen’s two-week No. 1 “Made for You.” On South End Kid, the songwriter introduces himself as a captivating singer and engaging storyteller. Highlights include the autobiographical title track “South End Kid” and “Closer All the Time,” a collaboration with the late Keith Gattis that offers important life advice on loss alongside stirring music accompaniment.
Some days are easier than others
Some hills just don’t like being climbed.
Putting one foot in front of the other don’t always mean you’re moving on,
But I’m moving so I must be getting closer all the time.
South End Kid is available on Medley’s Son of A Carl label in partnership with River House Artists. Find the stories behind Medley’s songs in his track-by-track on South End Kid below.
“Two Bar Town”
(Neil Medley, Randy Montana, Dave Kennedy)
I couldn’t imagine a better beginning to South End Kid than with Dave Dorn’s cello underneath Kris Donegan’s electric guitar and Fred Eltringham counting off “One, Two, Three, Four.” Everything about “Two Bar Town” immediately sets the tone for SEK lyrically and sonically. Its imagery-heavy lyrics and warm production pulls you toward the speakers instead and immediately lets the listener know they’re in for a different kind of country record.
“Two Bar Town” was written with one of my favorite co-writers, Randy Montana along with the great Dave Kennedy. It’s probably my favorite start-to-finish lyric on the entire album. My producer, Aaron Eshuis, had the idea of adding strings to a few songs and it really elevated “Two Bar Town” from just a song about a small-town breakup to a three-minute movie. It’s damned if I don’t, damned if I do. It’s heads you win and tails I lose. How am I supposed to drown you out in a two bar town?
“Us That I Miss” (featuring Ryan Beaver)
(Neil Medley, Aaron Eshuis, Ryan Beaver, Brinley Addington)
I have loved “Us That I Miss” since the day we wrote it. The night before the write, I started playing that groove on guitar and singing the melody without any idea what the song was about. I stumbled on a title as the words “Us That I Miss” as I was recording the melody so I wouldn’t forget. The next day, I brought in my rough worktape to a write with my good buddies, Ryan Beaver, Aaron Eshuis and Brinley Addington. They were immediately on board and the song poured out. I love that my brother’s ’68 Mustang that he drove in high school leads off the chorus and there are many images of my hometown throughout the verses.
In the studio, I thought it would be special to have Ryan Beaver, who sang the original demo version, join me on my version. “Us That I Miss,” for me, feels like the windows-down, radio-loud, two-lane driving song the characters in the song would be listening to. There’s no doubt, my brother and I would have this one turned up in that old Mustang.
“South End Kid”
(Neil Medley, Caroline Watkins)
“South End Kid” is one of the most autobiographical songs I’ve ever written. I grew up on the South Side of Louisville, Kentucky, in a working-class neighborhood of Valley Station. I always felt South End Kids were a little underestimated and overlooked. We were seen as being rougher around the edges than kids from other areas. I carried the idea, “South End Kid” around with me for a while before I brought it into a write with Caroline Watkins. I wanted to tell the story, not in a “how do you like me now” way, but more of a proud of where I’m from way. I hope it comes off that way.
After we first recorded it, we really didn’t feel SEK had a musical identity it needed. It was Eshuis who put his production stamp on this one by creating a more electric and grittier sound that matched the grit of where I grew up. When it came to naming my debut album, South End Kid felt right. No matter what I do in life, what I accomplish or where I live, I will always be a South End Kid.
(Neil Medley, Tony Lane, John Pierce)
I know I’m not alone in saying this, but Tony Lane is a huge songwriting influence for me. One day, Tony, John Pierce and I sat down to write and I threw out the idea for “Hello, Goodbye.” It’s a story of “Goodbye” showing up at your door the way an old friend would, but letting you know that the relationship you’re in is over. Honestly, it’s probably equal parts the song, equal parts Tony’s voice on the worktape, but I’ve loved this song from day one. In the studio, we found this perfect, windows-down groove that almost makes you miss the heartbreak lyric. We felt immediately it would be one of the songs to introduce the album and me as an artist. I am so excited for folks to hear “Hello, Goodbye”…my best attempt to sound as cool as Tony Lane.
“Just a Simple Man”
(Neil Medley, Steve Moakler, Andrew DeRoberts)
“Just A Simple Man” was written with Steve Moakler and Andrew DeRoberts. I believe Steve walked in with the idea and I remember it being a pretty fast song to write. Staying true to the title, we wanted a simple lyric and worked hard to make it as universal as we could. This song really does capture who I am these days. I try to focus on simple things in life and not get distracted by all the BS this world can present. I’m not always successful, but I do try.
We wanted to keep the production simple as the title states. In doing so, we kick off the song with only the vocal and acoustic guitar, keeping the band on the sidelines until the second verse. And when Fred Eldringham (drummer), Mike Rinne (bass) and the band settle into their groove, it’s as good as it gets to me.
(Neil Medley, Jesse Jo Dillon, Aaron Eshuis)
“Maliblue” was written a couple of years ago with two of my favorite co-writers, Jessie Jo Dillon and Aaron Eshuis. I believe JJ walked in the room that day with the title, an idea about someone heartbroken in a beautiful place. I have always loved the California setting, the language and the vibe of this song. After we wrote the song, Eshuis played every instrument top to bottom on the demo and absolutely nailed the production.
“Maliblue” became our North Star, so to speak when we started considering songs and sound for South End Kid. It had the acoustic foundation, tasteful electric parts and it was honestly a sweet spot for me vocally. It didn’t have this slick-sounding, over-produced sound. It had only what the song needed and nothing more…nothing less. We both loved the demo of “Maliblue” so much that Eshuis and I agreed we probably couldn’t beat it in the studio. What you hear on SEK is pretty much everything Eshuis played, and I sang, the day we wrote it.
“Hangovers & Broken Hearts”
(Neil Medley, Randy Montana, Josh Thompson)
If it goes down smooth or runs I’ll be all in
For a midnight whiskey or a goodbye kiss
Don’t know why I gotta love the things that end
In hangovers and broken hearts
We’ve all known that person or have been that person. Someone who can’t help but see poor choices as the big red button that absolutely has to be pushed, leaving a long trail of “Hangovers and Broken Hearts” in their wake. Written with two of the best country writers around, Randy Montana and Josh Thompson, it has a good ol’ country storyline and lyric set to rocking drums and electric guitars. Eshuis and I felt “Hangovers and Broken Hearts” was our opportunity to bring more energy and more of a rock element to the album and it definitely does. I love how it turned out and it is a standout track on the album.
“It’s Been Real” (featuring Jessie Jo Dillon)
(Neil Medley, Jessie Jo Dillon, Aaron Eshuis)
When I first talked about making this album, many of my close friends and co-writers suggested I record “It’s Been Real.” It had also become a favorite of mine as I closed most shows with it. It was the second song on the project that I wrote with Eshuis and Jessie Jo Dillon. It’s a low-key sad song with a happy, sing-along melody. The three of us love the cowboy character in George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” A guy who takes the news of his breakup with an, “It’s alright baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.” He never leads on that he’s devastated even though he probably is. As I like to say, it’s how I imagine Matthew McConaughey would handle a breakup. No hard feelings. It’s been real.
It means a lot to me that Jessie Jo agreed to sing on “It’s Been Real.” The two songs we wrote together for this album (this and “Maliblue”), were instrumental to the album’s direction and sound. Having Jessie Jo featured on this song, makes the whole project even more special.
“Dancing In the Dark”
I have loved Bruce Springsteen since my older brother played me his records growing up. His music was always been a soundtrack to life for us. On our second day in the studio, I was discussing with the band a few outside songs to potentially record. I think it was after they shot down my first two suggestions, that I started playing “Dancing In The Dark” the way I play it on an acoustic guitar. Fred Eltringham immediately jumped in on drums with a train groove and we were off and running. We kept everything chill but driving. We also let Kris Donegan’s electric guitar take the place of heavy synthesizer parts on Bruce’s version. It was almost as if our “Dancing” would have fit better on Bruce’s Tunnel of Love or Tom Joad.
For me, our version really showcases how brilliant the lyrics are. I didn’t realize it in the moment, but the lyrics hit straight to the heart of why I even made this record. At the time, I felt stuck creatively and needed to find that excitement, that joy, that inspiration, and that fire again in a town that can “carve you up.” I don’t think South End Kid would have felt complete without Bruce’s words and this song. I hope he doesn’t mind me taking a swing at his masterpiece.
(Neil Medley, Joey Hyde)
“Tucson” lyrically has everything I want in a song…truth, vivid imagery, hints of heartbreak and nostalgia. Sonically, It was another one I felt that played like a three-minute movie. In the studio, my producer, Aaron Eshuis, added strings throughout the song which really brought our cinematic vision to life. After hearing his arrangement, I knew “Tucson” was the song to officially introduce me as an artist and be the first single. It weaves together both who I am as a songwriter and who I want to be as an artist, feeling like a natural first foot forward.
The story of “Tucson” is best explained by what it’s not rather than what it is. Yes, it is a story about a couple who spend two memorable nights together in the Arizona desert town. And yes, they both still think about that weekend from time to time. However, what makes the story unique is that the characters are not regretting a thing. They are not wanting to re-write a second. They are not making it out to be more than it was. Some things are just better left as a memory. I know she ain’t the one that got away. I’m not the one for her and that’s ok. But those Arizona stars burn bright and never fade out in Tucson.
“Closer All the Time” featuring Keith Gattis
(Neil Medley, Keith Gattis)
For me, this song will always make me think of Keith Gattis. I’ve been a fan of Gattis’ ever since I heard his album Big City Blues, which featured “El Cerrito Place.” In my opinion, it’s one of the all-time great songs and albums. I was lucky enough to write with him on my birthday in 2022. We had known each other causally but had never sat down to write until the day. The write started with us sharing our similar influences and Gattis asking a simple question, “Do you ever miss someone?” I said, “Yes. I lost my mom a few years ago and I think of her every day.” We then went on this lyrical journey through the California countryside to outdrive a memory. Stopping through towns like Santa Barbara and Paradise. After a couple of hours of writing, “Closer All The Time” was born.
We had so much fun recording this song. We had Fred Eltringham playing a train beat and Dave Cohen playing accordion. Hell, we even added an accordion solo…because why not? Later, I asked Gattis if he would sing on the song and he graciously agreed. It wasn’t long after we finished mixing and mastering the record, I got the call the Gattis had passed. This song has a much different meaning to me than it did when we recorded it. It’s not just about my mom anymore. It’s also about missing Gattis. Some days are easier than others. Some hills just don’t like being climbed. Putting one foot in front of the other don’t always mean you’re moving on, but I’m moving so I must be getting closer all the time. Thank you, Keith, for all the amazing music. RIP my friend.
“Like Him These Days”
(Neil Medley, Neal Carpenter)
I wrote and recorded “Like Him These Days” for my dad. I started it one morning at my kitchen table and brought it to my good friend, Neal Carpenter, to help me tell this story. It’s an apology letter to my dad, basically saying “Hey, you were right the whole time. I’m sorry it took so long to get it.” Not that he needed that apology, but they are words I think about every day as I try to raise two kids of my own.
“Like Him These Days” is a story song that really didn’t need a lot of production. We wanted to make sure the listener heard every word, so Eshuis and I tracked this one last time without the band. Eshuis played the acoustic guitar and I sang only a few feet away from him. I believe we got the final take after only a couple of passes. The song really completes South End Kid and is the perfect song to end on. Thank you, Carl for trying to teach me the lessons that only life could teach. You’re one hell of a Dad.
(Photo Credit: Jason Myers)