Billy Currington Looks to Score With 'Football Problem'

Joseph Llanes
Billy Currington photographed in 2015.

During his high-school years in Georgia, Billy Currington thought he'd use football as a launching pad into adulthood. He played running back on offense for the Effingham County Rebels and split his time between cornerback and defensive end on defense. He was good enough that he had conversations during his junior year with several college recruiters. But non-athletic issues thwarted that game plan.

"I didn't end up getting to play my senior year," he says, "because I let my grades slide, thinking that I didn't need those certain classes for college because they were just a waste of my time."

His playing days may have ended, but Currington's passion for the sport did not. The topic is central in his new single, "Drinkin' Town With a Football Problem," which Mercury released to radio stations via Play MPE on June 1.

Currington's not alone in his zeal for the gridiron. Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, Chase Rice, Sam Hunt and Kenny Chesney all have well-documented football histories, and the latter artist channeled the team-building nature of the game into his 2010 hit "The Boys of Fall." And Tim McGraw took part in two movies, Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side, that hinge on high-school football in Texas and Tennessee.

But it's football in central Illinois that played a role in the evolution of "Drinkin' Town." The Henningsens hail from Atwood, a town of about 1,300 that boasts one of only two U.S. high schools whose team is known as the Rajahs. (The mascot is a sword-wielding fighter in Bollywood-style clothes.) Brian Henningsen played the defensive line for the Rajahs in the late 1970s. In 1981, two years after he graduated, the school claimed the Illinois state football championship in its division, and the town's reaction made a lasting impression.

"It was the biggest thing that ever happened," he says.

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That's what he channelled when the Henningsens, including daughter Clara and son Aaron, sat down to write last summer with Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez, who form the duo Granville Automatic. Elkins threw out the title "Drinkin' Town With a Football Problem," and it struck a nerve.

"I about had a cow," says Brian. "It's the greatest title I think I've ever heard."

They approached it similarly to "American Beautiful," the Henningsens' debut single. Instead of creating an obvious storyline, they built the lyrics with a series of snapshots that are familiar in every U.S. community, including cheerleaders, old men in bleachers and national-anthem performances.

"We had to edit it because you could put in so much small-town imagery," notes Clara. "There's so many awesome pictures you could paint for a football town."

The final two games of the Rajahs' 1981 championship season were squeakers -- one was a 35-34 overtime win; the other a 17-16 victory -- and they led to a "barn burners, nail-biters" line in "Football Problem."

The song also needed some late heroics before it became a winner. They gathered several times before they decided the song was finished, and a "hey, y'all" harmony hook -- the first vocal in the song -- was a late addition. Likewise, the bridge wasn't fully realized until just before they recorded the demo. The original lyric for that section played off the final score: "When we win, we celebrate/And when we lose, we commiserate/When we tie, we tie one on." During the drive to the demo session, Brian changed that last line to "Win or lose, we tie one on."

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"I remember him showing up, saying, 'I have the bridge. I have it,' " recalls Clara. "We were all pretty impressed."

Ilya Toshinsky introduced a signature guitar lick on that demo session, and when it was done, everyone decided Currington was the perfect artist to run with it. "Billy's known for doing those cool, down-to-earth, American, classic-country songs," says Clara. "That's what that song came out like."

The Henningsens' manager, Dennis Entertainment founder John Dennis, also manages Currington, which made the pitch pretty easy. Dennis told Currington to check his email to hear a new song, which definitely caught the singer's attention.

"Here's the thing: My manager never sends me songs," says Currington. "That's just not really what he does. So that's the first thing I did."

Currington needed an uptempo song, and this one had a great melody and a message that he could relate to.

The artist and producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett) conducted the session at John and Martina McBride's Blackbird Studios, taking care not to overshadow all those high-school images.

"The lyric and the hook on that thing are just deadly," says Huff. "So the main thing on that one was not to get too tricky. And I don't think we did."

Huff instructed the musicians to play it like a rock band, and guitarist Kenny Greenberg used a B-bender Telecaster to stamp it with a few greasy fills and to effect a 15-second solo that ends with a choppy stagger into the bridge.

"He said he was doing his best Brad Paisley that day," notes Huff with a laugh.

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Currington nailed his final vocal in just a few takes. He actually spent more time working on the "hey, y'all" section, where he stacked his voice about six times. It was a new technique for Currington, who hadn't done his own harmonies prior to working on his Summer Forever album.

"I really enjoyed singing the 'hey, y'all' part and just listening to it get bigger and bigger," he says. "All of a sudden, it sounds like a big ol' choir. The 'hey, y'alls' were the highlight for me."

Studio singer Russell Terrell filled out the "hey, y'all" sections with even more background voices as the track wound up at four minutes, 14 seconds. The label asked for an edit, and Huff obliged by removing Greenberg's solo. But the whole thing felt so good that Mercury shipped the original version to radio. It wouldn't have been Currington's choice for the next single, though the timing is pretty much perfect: The tempo is built for summer radio listening, and if the single develops similarly to Currington's previous title, "Don't It" (No. 1, Country Airplay), it would reach the top 10 in November, the height of football season. 

"Football Problem" debuted at No. 41 on Country Airplay, though it slipped to No. 54 in its second week. Assuming a resurgence, it's not hard to envision Currington making some ESPN appearances or playing college halftime shows this fall to support the song.

"We played quite a few football after-shows or before-the-football-game shows in the past that I really connected with and really loved," says Currington. "Hopefully during football season this song will lend itself to getting some of those type of gigs."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.