"Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work."
Painter Chuck Close's creative philosophy suggests Josh Thompson and the team around him must be a bunch of pros, because they were able to build a grinding, energetic single, "Wanted Me Gone," despite a series of no-shows.
"It's the feel-good leaving song of 2014," Thompson says with a laugh.
It's a laugh based in real-world disappointment, because the inspiration for "Wanted Me Gone" was a lover who disappeared. Thompson had been in a three-year relationship that his girlfriend brought to an abrupt halt. After time had passed, she reappeared, interested in getting back together. He wanted none of it.
"When it's over," he says, "it's over."
With that in the background, Thompson fell asleep on his couch in 2013 with the TV playing a sports channel. When he awoke, a few words showed up that he couldn't shake.
"They were talking about Dale Earnhardt, and they used the phrase, ‘Put the pedal to the firewall,' " Thompson recalls. "I thought that was just the coolest phrase in the world. It was not, ‘Put the pedal to the metal' or ‘the hammer to the floorboard.' It was ‘pedal to the firewall.' So I wrote it down. And then the next morning I woke up and grabbed the guitar and I just spit out the line, ‘Put the good in front of bye, y'all/Put a hole in the drywall/Put the pedal to the firewall and I was gone.'"
But Thompson couldn't quite figure out where he could make the verse work. So every time he showed up for a writing appointment, he figuratively pulled it out of his hip pocket. Invariably, his co-writers thought it was cool but found no inspiration. That changed when he popped in a couple weeks later to write with Brad and Brett Warren ("Highway Don't Care," "Drink to That All Night") at their office in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood. They loved the verse, and it gnawed at them even after they moved on to other topics.
As the conversation drifted, Brett blurted out a repetitive hook that would become the foundation of the chorus — "You wanted me, wanted me, wanted me, wanted me, wanted me gone" — a pointed, sarcastic kiss-off.
"It's a negative party song," Brad says. "You want to dance and drink to it, but it's not happy-go-lucky. It's pissy. I love those kinds of songs."
Once they had a direction, the results came quickly. The chorus became a series of fast-paced, repeated phrases — "Wanted me, wanted me"/"I'm movin', I'm movin' "/"You cry and you cry" — set against a Southern-fried country-rock atmosphere. "It's somewhere between The Georgia Satellites and Hank [Williams] Jr.," Brad observes.
"The thing gets in your damn craw and doesn't get out," notes Show Dog-Universal (SDU) president Mark Wright.
For the second verse, Thompson and the Warrens took a tack similar to Alan Jackson's "Drive (For Daddy Gene)," offsetting the auto-racing opening with a boating-themed stanza. Thompson ad-libbed a line about an obnoxious engine — "screaming like an Evinrude outboard" — that he thought would be a placeholder until something better came along. But it had character, it made them laugh, and they ultimately kept it.
"We were wondering if everyone would know what an Evinrude outboard is," Brad notes. "And I said, ‘If you don't know what an Evinrude outboard is, you shouldn't be listening to country music.' "
The writing session was finished in a scant two hours, though the musical elements for "Wanted Me Gone" required some diligence. For starters, neither the drummer nor the guitar player showed up at the start of Thompson's demo session, so the Warrens — who were only there to sing background vocals — filled in.
"It was hysterical," Brad says. "I can play a guitar. I've played on a record, but Brett playing drums is kind of funny."
They figured their makeshift lineup would yield a rotten recording, but that gave them the freedom to have a good time with the demo in a "sloppy" way, according to Brad. It ultimately showcased the sarcasm of "Wanted Me Gone" fairly well.
But Thompson had trouble persuading his producers, Wright and SDU senior director A&R Cliff Audretch III, that it belonged on his first album for the label. They recorded four songs apiece over three different tracking dates at Ben Folds' studio, Ben's Place. "Wanted Me Gone" didn't make either of the first two sessions, and it wasn't an easy call for the final one, either.
"I had to jump up and down and scream and beg to get it thrown on that session," says Thompson.
"Josh writes all the time, and he writes at a really high level," counters Audretch. "There's a constant amount of material that Mark and I have to sift through. And it's tough. There's some really, really worthy songs that didn't make it."
Wright was frustrated with the repetition in the chorus and persuaded Thompson to invert the melody in the third line — "You cry and you cry" — to break it up. Bobby Terry added ringing acoustic guitar rhythms that "got it into a more funky, bar band-y kind of feel," says Audretch. And the musicians collectively enhanced the song's bridge with an ascending passage that runs through all 12 notes in the chromatic scale, first in a pounding electric guitar run at the 1:55 mark and again in a quieter, acoustic version at 2:14.
"That's why I love the studio," says Thompson. "Sometimes the strangest things happen that you never thought of, and that takeoff from the last chorus to the bridge — I've never heard anything like it."
When Thompson was out of town, Audretch convened a group of background singers for gang vocals at Blackbird Sound. Again, there were no-shows. Only the Warrens and Audretch made it in, so they sang the "wanted me gone" chorus several times in a studio kitchen and stacked the performances in the closing vamp.
"The song has a bit of a party vibe," observes Audretch. "For that to be the way the gang vocals went down, it was appropriately less than perfect — pretty lo-fi, really."
There were several candidates for singles, though key radio programmers were specifically interested in "Wanted Me Gone." Show Dog released it via Play MPE on April 1, and it's currently at No. 54 on Country Airplay in its third charted week. Early returns for a chain of contributors who were all smart enough to show up for work.