Makin' Tracks: Seth Ennis Hits Home With Arista Single 'Call Your Mama'
"I lost my mom three weeks ago. I miss her so much. I took for granted all the small things. Now I just wish I could hear her voice."
A music fan posted that note on Sept. 7 in the comments section of a YouTube audio track for Seth Ennis' "Call Your Mama," and it says much about the internal conversations the song inspires. In the weeks since the performance went live on June 5, Ennis has heard countless stories from people who were led to repair their situations.
"One person just reached out and was like, 'Hey, me and my mom haven't talked in 10 years, and I heard your song and called my mom, and things aren't great but they're better,' " says Ennis. "To create something to bring that kind of healing to people and their relationships is pretty special."
"Call Your Mama" is an oddity for the Arista Nashville singer-songwriter, who also co-wrote Dylan Scott's "Hooked." Ennis and co-writer Michael Hardy ("Simple," "Up Down") banged it out in under 30 minutes, squeezed in on the fly between a morning and an afternoon writing appointment.
"It's honestly kind of a blur, because we wrote it so fast," recalls Ennis. "Sometimes when you're writing a song you'll stop and analyze every line, and sometimes you can get halted doing that. So with this, the first thing that came to our head, we were putting it down."
But there was plenty of setup for that half-hour blur -- years worth, actually. Ennis often butted heads with his mother during high school, and when he moved to Nashville from Valdosta, Ga., most of his phone calls home were made out of obligation.
"Calling my mom was like a chore that I felt like I needed to do every week, which is totally the wrong way of thinking about things," he says. "Then my grandma passed away last year, and I just watched my dad go through that, and it really made me stop and think, like, 'This is a real thing. This happens.' I started calling my mom more and talking to her more, and then we wrote this song."
Appropriately, Ennis' mother had an unintended hand in the process. As he drove to Music Row one day in 2017, she texted him five times in a row: "Call your mama. Call your mama." He got the message to call, but he also saw it as a potential song title and wrote it down. So when he and Hardy went to lunch at Tavern between their two scheduled co-writes a few days later, Ennis suggested "Call Your Mama" as a good title to work on. They both focused on the concept and started assembling a storyline, and they were so excited about the idea that they didn't want to wait for the afternoon writing session. They bolted back to Liz Rose Music and whipped through it with two acoustic guitars, beginning with an opening scene that has a young man setting out on his life's adventure.
"It was me kind of writing to myself as an 18-year-old," remembers Ennis. "That's why the first verse is about taking one last look in the rearview when you're about to leave that stick-around town."
Neither he nor Hardy recalls how they stumbled on the "stick-around town," and even the opening rhyme in the chorus -- "Call your mama/Sit and listen to her small-town drama" -- came without much thought.
"To be honest," says Hardy, "there's not many other rhymes, and it just kind of worked."
The second verse finds the young man proposing to a woman who has many of the same characteristics as his mother, spurring him to call her. All of it leads to the song's bridge, which they had already identified as the destination before they left Tavern. At that point, it's not the son who calls mama; it's the Lord, who calls her home.
"I don't remember who said it," says Hardy, "but that was when we realized it would really touch people."
Within a few weeks, Ennis played a guitar/vocal work tape for co-producer Jordan Reynolds, a writer on the Dan + Shay singles "Tequila" and "Speechless." Ennis at the time was torn between recording "Call Your Mama" himself or pitching it to someone else.
"It could have been like Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney, any of the big guys," says Reynolds.
Reynolds gave positive feedback on the song but chose to let Ennis decide what to do with it. Weeks later, Ennis put the song into his set list when he opened for Little Big Town at the O2 Institute in Birmingham, England, in September 2017, with his mother in the house. Mama cried. And LBT members Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman found Ennis after the show and told him he needed to keep playing "Mama" for the rest of the tour.
With their belief, Ennis decided to record it himself, and he and Reynolds brought Ennis' guitarist, Shane Cole, in to work on the intro in preproduction. A more formal session at Sound Emporium hosted two members of the road band, Cole and drummer Spence Erickson, and two studio veterans, guitarist Derek Wells and bassist Tony Lucido. All of the musicians were noticeably moved by "Call Your Mama."
"Especially with Derek and Tony -- these guys are playing on tons of sessions -- it's easy to get numb to hearing songs," says Reynolds. "So for them to be like, 'Geez, this song is insane,' speaks volumes."
Ennis nailed the final vocal in two passes at Starstruck Studios, though Reynolds had him do a third take, just in case. The first completed version went live online with Ennis and Reynolds doing background vocals.
But when Arista Nashville started looking at "Call Your Mama" as a single, Ennis decided to call his friends in Little Big Town. They had been so key in his decision to keep it that he figured they might want to sing on it, too. Within a week of the first conversation, their harmonies were recorded and mixed into the track, with their road engineer -- Reynolds' brother, Josh Reynolds -- running the board. Their delicate overlay is indicative of the respect they felt for the message in "Call Your Mama."
"Kimberly was singing in that bridge, and you know Kimberly -- in her high voice, her cute voice -- she was like, 'Oh, my word, I just realized what that line said,' " recalls Ennis. "She was getting choked up."
Arista shipped it to country radio through PlayMPE on Aug. 24 with a Sept. 10 add date. It has received good early response, particularly from Radio Disney, where the terrestrial outlet, KRDC-AM Los Angeles, has played it over 480 times. The song has made an impact on both Ennis and Hardy, who now feel even more compelled to stay in touch with their mothers.
"Now that I've written this song, she has a good leveraging point to call your mama," says Hardy with a laugh. "I kind of wrote myself into a corner on that one. I have no excuse now."
"Mama" also is making a difference with fans, like the one who lost her grandmother to liver cancer and has a better understanding of how important it is to enjoy her mother while she's here: "Thank you," she tweeted to Ennis, "for writing such a beautiful song."
Thus, Ennis' mom's 2017 "call your mama" text messages are making people cry -- and making them pick up the phone -- over a year later.
"People are wanting to be a part of this," says Ennis. "It almost feels like a movement."