Not many people, if anyone, can say they played on the Grand Ole Opry and performed on television with Chet Atkins before they were in high school. But Jimmy Melton can.
He’s not exactly a household name among Music Row writers, but Melton, who was playing banjo at bluegrass festivals throughout the South and performing with the likes of such legends as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs while other kids were smoking their first cigarettes and learning to drive, has a pretty impressive track record. Today Melton is a staff writer with Universal Music Publishing Group, with cuts by Blake Shelton (“When Somebody Knows You That Well”), Trace Adkins (“Marry for Money”), Dierks Bentley, Craig Morgan and other modern country stars, while also being able to boast cuts by such members of the old guard as George Jones, Hank Williams, Jr., and Mark Chesnutt, as well as perennial favorite Reba McEntire. American Songwriter caught up with Melton by phone from his farm in West Tennessee, in the area where he was raised and still calls home today.
You started out as a professional bluegrass musician when you were just a boy, and continued to tour for many years as a teenager. How does that bluegrass background and influence help, or maybe hinder, you when you’re trying to honor a publishing agreement and write hits for Music Row?
I never really thought about it…I have a lot of influences musically that I draw from.
Personally, my tastes run from the traditional hard country and the ‘70s singer/songwriters like Jim Croce and James Taylor. So I guess that’s where I tend to go naturally, musically, as a writer. As far as publishing goes, if I sit down and think “Write a hit today,” I think I’d be better off fishing. Looking back over my catalog and the songs I’ve had success with, they usually came out of something I love, something honest, something that either makes me laugh or cry. If I have to make it up then it probably sounds made up and that has never worked very well for me.
What was it like when you went from the world of bluegrass – which is perhaps more about jamming and instrumental prowess more than it is about songwriting – to the world of songwriting and contracts and producing a product that radio could sell to the masses?
I never tried to write for the bluegrass market, I just enjoyed the pickin’ part. When you’re a banjo player, that’s the music you play. I was always writing country songs though…I was making up songs before I could make my letters. I always had a passion for songs that told a story and made me feel something. I still do. I grew up about two hours from Nashville, so my dad started bringing me up there as often as he could, just trying to help me get started somehow.
As far as placing songs, I just try to write them as well as I can and let them land where they’re gonna land. I do all I can for the song when I write it or co-write it, however long that may take…after that it’s pretty much out of my hands. I personally can’t write and think about radio at the same time. I’ve had songs on the radio, but the radio was not on my mind at the time I was writing them. If you’re not careful, you’ll think about radio until you wind up writing something that’s too close to what’s already been a hit. At least that’s my experience.
You actually wrote for the legendary Harlan Howard, who isn’t generally thought of as someone who would have a publishing company or a staff writer. How long were you with him, and how did that experience help make you the writer you are today?
I wrote for his company for four years. For most of that time I was the only writer there, besides him. He was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. He just flat out “got it.” I respected him so much. He never tried to teach me how to write but he taught me so much about being a writer. Some of my favorite Harlan quotes: “Don’t try to write like me, write like yourself… nobody can write your song better than you can.” “There’s nothing wrong with our business that great songs won’t fix.” And my all time favorite, “Rules rhymes with fools.” It was a wonderful opportunity and I’ll always be grateful for both he and (Howard’s widow) Melanie. It was a great experience.
Your main instrument is the banjo. Do you actually write on the banjo?
Well, I was pretty much a banjo player ‘til I was about 20, then my dad passed away and I just lost interest in it. Overnight I completely put it down and didn’t really care if I ever saw one again. I’d play it on a session or on a show with the band once in a while, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. A lot of people I work with probably didn’t even know I played one for so many years. I’ve been a guitar player for so long now, and I always write on the guitar. A few weeks back I picked the banjo up again and have been playing it a lot…it’s fun again I guess. I wrote one song on it a while back but I have to be careful, it’s easy to set around and pick too much and before you know it you don’t have any words. That’s easy to do on the guitar too. I sometimes write on a cheap guitar so I hopefully won’t be noodling around too much enjoying the sound. It’s all about the words anyway for me…if they are right, the melody will find them.
You’ve been around Nashville in one capacity or another for over 30 years, and have seen a lot of changes and a lot of people come and go. If an aspiring writer were to ask you what he or she should do during their first 90 days in Nashville, what would your advice be?
I would go to hear some of the great writers’ nights we have here, and spend the next day trying to write a song that’s better than the hits you heard the night before. If you are honest with yourself, your songs will improve. Compare your songs to great songs, and again learn to be honest with yourself…seek out opinions that actually matter. Learn to write by yourself! If you co-write, take the song home and try to make it better, you can always go back to the original lyric. Ninety days goes by fast sometimes, so if you came here to write, then get to writin’. If you have something to say someone will notice it and help you along…maybe not in 90 days though.
Who is the one artist you want to get a cut on more than any other?
Whoever is cutting next.