Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Hillary Lindsey sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of her many hits including Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Kelsea Ballerini’s “Hole In the Bottle,” and Mickey Guyton’s “Heaven Down Here.”
Hillary Lindsey was born into a musical family in Washington, Georgia. Her father was a drummer and some of Lindsey’s earliest memories include her grandfather playing an old pump organ while she helped by pushing the pedals as he played. Around the age of 10 she wrote her first song about a friend’s parents getting divorced.
“One of my best friends, I found out that her parents were getting a divorce, and she didn’t know about it,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “I overheard my mom and dad talking about it. It really devastated me thinking about what that was going to do to her. I wish I remembered the song, but I wrote a song about that. As I got older, it turned into me having a crush on a boy that didn’t like me. Then I would write songs for my girlfriends who also had crushes on boys that didn’t like them. That’s how the writing started.”
From a young age, Lindsey entered the town’s singing competition. One year she debuted a song she wrote on piano, and a family friend urged Nashville session player Buddy Blackmon to take a trip to Georgia to listen to her songs. Loving what he heard, Blackmon suggested Lindsey attend Belmont University once she graduated high school. Belmont was the only school she applied to and after getting in, Lindsey majored in music business with the goal to be an artist.
Lindsey admits that it wasn’t until attending Belmont in 1994 that she realized a career as a songwriter was possible. She began writing songs in her dorm room and playing writers nights at local venues like the now defunct Jack’s Guitar Bar on Nolensville Road that frequently boasted appearances from Patty Griffin and Keith Urban’s former band The Ranch.
“I would sit on my bedroom floor with one of those old cassette tape recorders and just record my ideas,” she says. “I would hide [the tapes] in my panty drawer because I didn’t want anybody listening to them. One of my roommates snuck one out without me knowing [when] she was interning at MCA. She came home one day [and said], ‘Hey, don’t be mad at me. I took one of your tapes out of your underwear drawer and played it for some people. They liked it.’”
Unbeknownst to Lindsey, her tape was passed around in the industry and Pat Finch at Famous Music Publishing loved what he heard and invited her to lunch. During their lunch meeting he offered her a publishing deal. She accepted and never returned to Belmont. Her first year signed to Famous Music was a learning experience in itself as she began co-writing every day, which at first was foreign to her. Pretty soon she found her tribe of writers and mentors that included Tia Sillers, Tony Lane, Brett James, Troy Verges, Angelo and Gordie Sampson. Shannon Brown recorded her song “I Won’t Lie” and released it as a single in 1998, and Lindsey also garnered countless album cuts that year. “It happened fairly fast,” she says of getting her songs placed with country acts. “Mainly a lot of album cuts, but back then that was amazing because records were selling.”
Around the same time, Lindsey continued to pursue an artist career. She recalls a well-attended showcase at South By Southwest where she met Los Angeles-based lawyer Seth Lichtenstein who offered to represent her. Lindsey started to travel to L.A. to shop for labels and was offered two record deals. She ultimately signed with John Polk at Epic Records out of Los Angeles, but the deal lasted just three months. When Polk transitioned to a job promotion in New York he decided to leave the label, which resulted in Lindsey and two other artists being dropped.
Lindsey returned to Nashville after several months of co-writing in Los Angeles and had lost the will to create. After a month, she slowly began writing again and when Martina McBride recorded and released “Blessed” as a single in 2001, Lindsey’s luck started to change. “Blessed” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in March 2002 and Lindsay began to focus on her songwriting more while still toying with the idea of an artist career.
“The writing thing started taking off. Once I started writing more and meeting artists and understanding what that [artist] life meant, I realized I really was not cut out for that,” she says of the decision to pursue songwriting full-time. “The writing life is definitely the life for me.”
Lindsey has seen much success writing for Carrie Underwood, having penned 11 No. 1 songs for the American Idol alum. Underwood’s 2005 debut single “Jesus Take the Wheel” marked a turning point in Lindsey’s career as she had decided to leave Famous Music after being signed as a staff writer there for six years. She wanted to own her publishing and went independent. With enough money saved up for one year of expenses, Lindsey was determined to make things work on her own as she had already developed great relationships with the writers, artists and A&R staff in Nashville.
“I would just pitch my own songs. Within that first year it was something crazy like I had five Faith Hill cuts, a LeAnn Rimes cut, a Tim McGraw cut, a Keith Urban cut,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, are you kidding me? Why did I not do this sooner?’ Well, then the record came out. None of my Faith Hill songs made the record. I lost the Tim cut. I lost the Keith cut and they were cuts, not holds.”
The only song that did stick was a song called “Painless” that Lee Ann Womack recorded and featured on her 2005 critically acclaimed album There’s More Where That Came From. It never was released as a single and while earlier in the year Lindsey thought she hit the jackpot going independent, she was wrong and money was running out.
“American Idol was around then. I don’t remember this conversation, but my dad very vividly does. He said that I called and said, ‘I think this girl’s gonna win American Idol and if she does, if I could just have one song with her maybe this would change things.’ Then she won and ‘Jesus Take the Wheel’ was her first single and the dry spell stopped.”
Lindsey calls penning the 2007 Grammy Award-winning Best Country Song “one of those strange writes” where the song happened fast. “You hear this a lot from writers that a lot of the big hits that happened, you don’t really know where they came from at the time. They literally come from God and they happen really fast. You’re the channel somehow, but it didn’t come from you,” she says. “Gordie [Sampson], his aunt, always used to say, ‘When Jesus takes the wheel life is a lot better.’ It was that sort of a statement. And then Brett [James] was like, ‘Why don’t we change it to ‘Jesus Take the Wheel.’”
The three friends and longtime co-writers were talking the song out and playing music when Lindsey began singing the song’s first verse. “She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati.” “Then it all unfolded,” she says. “We were all throwing in lines and it happened so fast. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just in the moment of writing it. Pretty wild, really, when that happens. I wish that had happened every day, but it doesn’t. It happens about once in a blue moon but it sure is nice when it does. It’s a pretty powerful thing.”
Lindsey currently has Kelsea Ballerini and Mickey Guyton’s latest singles at country radio. The feel-good “Hole in the Bottle” was written with Ballerini over wine as a writing camp in Florida was winding down. “We were just being silly and having fun,” she says of the co-write with Ballerini, Ashley Gorley, Jesse Frasure and Steph Jones.
Guyton’s poignant ballad “Heaven Down Here,” meanwhile, was written under much different circumstances. Penned over Zoom in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the co-write was scheduled the day after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Her fifth Zoom co-write since the pandemic began, Lindsey said she joined five minutes late and when she signed on, she witnessed Guyton crying over what had happened.
“It was so intense and she was talking about how could this happen? How does this happen?” Lindsey says. “I started crying and we were talking about all of it. She was like, ‘I do love that other song that we started that we were going to finish today, but my heart is just not in it. Can we write something else?’ We were talking about life and the way the world is, all that stuff. I’m not exactly sure how that title even happened, it just fell out of conversation and then we wrote it. It was a pretty amazing day. I’m so thankful for her honesty and not trying to pretend like nothing was wrong in the world when everything was wrong. She’s speaking the truth for sure. She’s got a very powerful voice.”
While Lindsey is known for her country hits, having amassed over 20 No. 1 songs within the genre, she has also become a frequent co-writer for Lady Gaga. Lindsey teamed up with Gaga for the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, including the film’s epic finale track “I’ll Never Love Again,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media. Lindsey penned the song with Gaga, Natalie Hemby and Aaron Ratiere, and admits they weren’t quite sure if the song would make it into the film.
“When you write with artists, what you try to do is get into their mind or bring out whatever it is that they’re wanting to say, whether it’s a fun song, a serious song. This was not that, but [Lady Gaga] had taken on the role of Ally so much that while she was writing it with us, it felt like we were writing with Ally, not Lady Gaga,” Lindsey says. “It felt like we were still writing with an artist in the strangest way, because she had taken on that character. When we’re writing it, I forget what line it was, but she just started crying as if she were really Ally and she had lost Jack. It was pretty cool to be a part of. When I saw the movie, I was sobbing like a baby.”
2020 marks a new venture for Lindsey. She recently announced her co-publishing agreement and creative partnership with Concord Music Publishing, who have also acquired her entire back catalog. The new partnership will include a joint venture which will allow Concord and Lindsey to sign and develop a new generation of songwriter talent. Lindsey is also a nominee for Songwriter of the Year at the upcoming 55th ACM Awards airing Sept. 16.