Nashville Song Hall Honoree Jim McBride on Co-Writing Alan Jackson's Hit 'Chattahoochee'

Courtesy of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
Jim McBride

The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on Oct. 23 will induct Jim McBride as part of its 2017 class of honorees, alongside Walt Aldridge, Dewayne Blackwell, Tim Nichols and the late Vern Gosdin. The Hall of Fame, operated by the Nashville Songwriters Foundation, is dedicated to honoring Nashville’s songwriting legacy through preservation, education and celebration.

McBride described to Billboard the writing of “Chattahoochee,” the song which gave Alan Jackson at No. 1 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1993 -- and the vintage hit that he wishes he had written.

When did you get the word you had been chosen this year for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame?

Pat [Alger, chair of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame] had always told me that if I got in, he wanted to be the first to call me. I’d forgotten about the veteran category, and I wasn’t on the ballot this time, and so I had just put it out of my mind. I was totally in shock, and got a little misty-eyed, if you want to know the truth. If you’re a songwriter in Nashville, that’s it -- you don’t have anything to prove after that.

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Tell us about the writing of “Chattahoochee.”

I was living in Green Hills [the neighborhood in southwest Nashville] and I had a home office upstairs. I would spend the morning up in the office trying to get songs started, or writing or looking at ideas. Then I’d go into town in the afternoon sometimes and try to get some pitching done.

But I was in my office one day, and this magazine [was lying around with] this story on the Chattahoochee River. I knew where the Chattahoochee River was -- it forms a good bit of the border between Alabama and Georgia, and there’s a song called ‘Song of the Chattahoochee.’ I read that story, and I got to thinking about it, and I started playing the guitar and I came up with the first couple of lines.

At that time I had two notebooks -- one I kept ideas in [for myself], and another one that I kept ideas for Alan Jackson. Alan and I been writing for a while, and if I had an idea that I thought Alan would like, I would put it in the other notebook. So I had the first couple of lines, and I got the map out, and I saw how close Newnan, GA [Alan’s hometown] was to the Chattahoochee River. I thought, "Alan might like this."

It got to the point where Alan and I couldn’t write together in town anymore. He was gone all the time [on tour], so that was my first opportunity to go on the road. If we were going to write, that’s how we were going to do it for a while. So, I went on the road and showed the song to him in Tallahassee, Florida. I sang him the first couple of lines, and he came right back with the next two, and we worked on it some. I think we may have worked on it the next night a little bit, because it was Pensacola -- but then we played Thibodeaux, Louisiana and we finished it right before sound check.

He even showed it to the band, and did a little bit of it right before sound check. And he comes back into town and he cuts it the next week. We were just happy to have an upbeat song. Alan is a big Vern Gosdin fan, and we love [his kind of] sad ballads. But we were just happy to have an upbeat song, and had no idea what was going to happen with the song. It just exploded when it got out there.

What do you think it is about that song that connected with people the way it did?

I think that there’s a Chattahoochee River in almost everybody’s history, where they used to go fishing or the family went for picnics or stuff. I really think that had a lot to do with it.

I bet you are tickled about Alan going into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year.

Oh yeah, I’ve got to tell you, the first time we sat down together, I sang him “Dixie Boy” -- a song of mine that Alabama had recorded which wasn’t a single -- and he sang me “Home,” that he had written for his mom and dad. And I knew two things immediately -- one, he was a great singer and, two, he was a really good songwriter. I would [give music publishers] these [early] songs that Alan and I wrote, and they’d say, "Don’t you want to demo these?" And I’d say, "No, I don’t... This guy is going to get a record deal, and I want him to cut them, so don’t even pitch them [elsewhere]." I believed in him that much.

What country hit do you wish you had written?

I would like to have written “(I’d Be) A Legend In My Time.” [Songwriter] Don Gibson was a huge influence on me, and that song of his is one of my favorites. That song is so simple and so strong. For one thing, it was fresh. It’s like, "I’ve never heard that before." You talk about people being a legend in their own time and in their own mind, but to take it to that dark side is really something.

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“A Legend in My Time” has been cut several times. Was it Ronnie Milsap that had the biggest hit with it?

Yeah, Don of course cut it way back, but Milsap had a huge hit on it. [The song was a No. 1 hit for Milsap on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1974.]

Did you like his version or Don’s better?

Don Gibson was just so soulful. I love Ronnie’s version, but I would pick Don Gibson’s. I don’t know if this is true because I wasn’t there, but I had heard that some musicians would play on Don Gibson’s records for free just to be in the room.

Anything else you’d like to add about entering the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame?

When you come to Nashville to be a songwriter, I don’t think you are thinking about being in the Hall of Fame. You are living song to song.  After you’ve been there for 20-25-30 years, then you can look over your body of work, and then maybe you could start thinking about it. But you know how tough it is, you don’t really think about it -- at least I never did.  You go from being a new kid in town to a grizzled veteran, it seems like a very short time.