When Alan Jackson and Jim McBride started writing “Chattahoochee” in Tallahassee, Fla., during a concert tour in 1992, they discovered at the hotel that they were extremely well-matched.
“We both had on an ASCAP jacket. We both had on black T-shirts and blue jeans and white tennis shoes,” recalls McBride. “It was like, ‘Maybe one of us needs to go change his shirt or something.’ Then we went down to eat breakfast, and I noticed that he asked for a small spoon. I said, ‘Would you make that two?,’ because I can’t eat with a big spoon. It was just weird.”
Jackson and McBride will match up again later this month in back-to-back Hall of Fame inductions. Jackson will join the Country Music Hall of Fame during a ceremony on Oct. 22, while McBride will officially enter the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on Oct. 23.
The two may not have been an exclusive writing team in the vein of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or George and Ira Gershwin, but Jackson and McBride were still a dynamic duo. They co-wrote two of Jackson’s signature songs, “Chattahoochee” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” collected five top 20 country singles as co-writers and shared composer credits on 14 titles among Jackson’s first five studio albums. Released between 1990-1996, each of those projects went multiplatinum, with RIAA certifications representing 19 million total units sold.
“That simple lyric, that’s what I like, and that’s what Jim always brought,” says Jackson. “I think that’s why we connected well. If it’s the right words that mean something, they don’t have to be anything extraordinary. It’s a more natural feeling, and that’s what I’ve always liked about some of the great songwriters that I’ve loved. I can’t compare myself to any of them, but Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson — a lot of their lyrics are just common language.”
There are other similarities between Jackson and McBride. Their hometowns — Newnan, Ga. (Jackson), and Huntsville, Ala. (McBride) — are a mere 180 miles apart in neighboring Southern states, and they both moved to Nashville during holiday breaks: McBride between Christmas and New Year’s Day at the end of 1980, Jackson over Labor Day weekend in 1985.
Arriving in Nashville a few years ahead of Jackson, McBride was already an established songwriter when they met, having penned Conway Twitty‘s “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn” (No. 3, 1980), Johnny Lee‘s “Bet Your Heart On Me” (No. 1, 1981) and Waylon Jennings‘ “Rose in Paradise” (No. 1, 1987).
“Jim already had him a career going good before I came along, so it wasn’t like I helped him out,” says Jackson.
But McBride thought highly of Jackson from the first time he bumped into him at SBK Music, a publishing company established in 1986 and subsequently purchased by EMI in 1989.
“I can still see him sitting in the lobby,” recalls McBride. “He had on a pair of cheap-looking cowboy boots and a big ol’ white hat, and I thought, ‘This guy looks like a star.'”
Jackson, of course, did his homework on the writers in town, and he had seen McBride’s name in the credits of albums by Keith Whitley, Vern Gosdin and George Jones, the kind of classic honky-tonk singers that Jackson treasured most. So there was a good chance that they would match up stylistically.
“He perceived that I was a like-minded hillbilly,” says McBride, “and I think that’s why he called me.”
Though McBride had a longer résumé, he didn’t act like a “prima donna songwriter,” says Jackson, and they connected easily in those early writing sessions. “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” was among their first collaborations. It was built around a real-life moment from Jackson’s past, laid out in the first line: “Daddy won a radio/And tuned it to a country show.” They were so compatible that McBride kept two different binders with song ideas in them: one that he took to most of his writing appointments and another that was marked “A.J.”
Their connection showed again in “Chattahoochee,” an idea Jackson feared was too specific to his own life to mean much to anyone else. But the Chattahoochee served the same function in a Georgia boy’s world that the Flint River provided to an Alabaman.
“Even though it was geared toward my personal details, Jim had lived some of those same lines,” says Jackson. “Everybody’s got a Chattahoochee somewhere, just about. That’s what surprised me about that song.”
While their joint creations were built on conversational lyrics, they usually contained some phrase that was unusual for a song — the business-like “This overhead is killin’ me” in “Neon Rainbow,” the poetic “a fool’s Taj Mahal” in “(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All” or the picturesque “pyramid of cans” in “Chattahoochee.” The latter song also included the quirky “It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie,” a line that proved to be a stumbling block as they worked on it in Tallahassee; in Pensacola, Fla.; and again in Thibodeaux, La.
“We were like, ‘I don’t know about that,’ ” recalls Jackson. “I don’t remember where it came from — if it was Jim’s line or mine, I think it was Jim’s — anyway, that probably was part of [why it took three days].”
Artists didn’t bring writers out on the road for songwriting trips as often at the time as they do now, and while the arrangement was obviously fruitful, Jackson’s tour schedule is what eventually brought an end to the Jackson/McBride partnership.
“We wrote a few things out there, but I just kept running — gone, gone, gone, gone,” says Jackson. “That’s about when I quit writing with anybody. I just never was home, and when I came home, I didn’t want to sit down and write with somebody.”
Jackson entered the Nashville Songwriters Hall in 2011, and he plans to attend on Oct. 23 when McBride joins him in that elite group. They may not write together anymore, but each is still key to the other’s career. McBride was a bit of a mentor at the start, but Jackson could be a wild card in the writing room, introducing a bridge or an extra verse into a song in a way that broke with convention.
“He says he learned from me a little bit?” says McBride. “Well, I learned from him, too.”