The Writers Round with Josh Thompson

Love Jason Aldean's "Drowns The Whiskey?" That's a Josh Thompson tune.

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Josh Thompson
Josh Thompson; Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Music

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, Josh Thompson sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Jason Aldean’s “Drowns the Whiskey” and “Any Ol’ Bar Stool,” and Blake Shelton’s “I’ll Name the Dogs.”

Josh Thompson penned his first song at the age of 21, just six months after he got his first guitar, and he hasn’t been able to stop since. The 40-year-old tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone that he’s always writing something.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of songs and some of my favorite writers, people like Merle Haggard and George Jones, were extremely vulnerable,” Thompson explains. “They could allow themselves to be almost the bad guy and that gave them a redeeming quality. When I started to write songs and was playing them and noticed in small increments that there were some people that were getting moved by some of the things I was writing, I was gearing up more and more at that point to be like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go to Nashville and see what it looks like and try to make a living writing songs.'”

The Wisconsin native visited Nashville for the first time when he was 24. He loved everything about the city and after spending some time downtown on Broadway he admits that he thought Music City was a never ending party. Naturally, he moved there the next year. Seven months after he relocated Thompson had a publishing deal and when looking back on his early career, he realizes things happened rather quickly. He later proved the old adage of Nashville being a 10 year town true as it took him 12 long years to see his first No. 1 hit with Jason Aldean’s “Any Ol’ Bar Stool.”

“It took about seven months, which is fast, to get my first publishing deal. That’s how I started meeting [and writing with] people. Some had publishing deals, some didn’t, some had cuts, some didn’t, some had hits,” he explains. “It was writing with people and learning how to co-write, and then just plugging different people in.”

Becoming a full-time songwriter wasn’t easy though. Thompson had a day job as a concrete finisher, which allowed him to pay his bills and make enough money to get by so he could spend his free time writing songs. He soon garnered a record deal with Columbia Nashville after being recognized for a song he wrote in 2008 that Jason Michael Carroll cut called “Growing Up Is Getting Old.” The song became the title track to Carroll’s sophomore album, released in 2009.

Thompson says “Growing Up Is Getting Old” was an important song that helped to kick start his songwriting career. While it didn’t do anything on the charts, “Growing Up Is Getting Old” marked his professional start as a songwriter as it was his first major cut.

The following year he’d release his debut album, Way Out Here. He co-wrote each of the project’s 10 tracks, including Top 20 singles “Beer On the Table” and “Way Out Here.” The latter hit No. 15 on the country charts and was Thompson’s biggest hit as a solo artist.

Thompson co-wrote “Way Out Here” with David Lee Murphy and Casey Beathard. While he doesn’t recall how the song came to be as he penned it nearly a decade ago, he says he remembers the feeling he had once the song was finished.

“You know when you’ve got something really good and when you’ve got something that’s great, and that was one of those songs,” he recalls. “We were all very content that this was, and could be, something great. That’s a feeling you don’t get a whole lot but when you do, you’re very blessed to have it.”

In 2014, Thompson released his second solo project, Turn It Up, before deciding to focus on songwriting full-time. While he loved performing live, he says he felt his efforts were better put into giving himself room to create.

“I love creating and I love writing songs,” he reflects. “In the last 10 years, I didn’t have any weekends so I [wanted] to get my weekends back. If you’re always go-go-go and run-run-run that kind of stifles the creative side.”

While Thompson has had countless cuts over the years by acts like Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Chris Lane, it wasn’t until 2016 with Aldean’s “Any Ol’ Bar Stool” that he saw his first No. 1 song. He penned the track with Deric Ruttan and it was the first time the two men wrote together.

Pictured L-R: Jason Aldean, Deric Ruttan, Josh Thompson; Photo Credit: Steve Lowry

Thompson recalls having the idea of ‘ask any ol’ bar stool’ and Ruttan loved it. It wasn’t the first time he suggested the idea to a co-writer but as he explains, “it’s going to happen when it happens.”

“[Deric] got it. We were on the same page and he just started playing that melody and that first line came out and I was like, ‘This is going to be awesome.’ We weren’t even thinking about Jason at the time, but it was a very pleasant surprise, and of course my first number one, so it’s a very special song to me,” he adds.

Michael Knox produced the track and Thompson says he “nailed the song,” adding that Knox’s productions skills combined with Aldean’s vocal delivery “knocked it out of the park.”

“There’s a lot of lines in that song that I love but my favorite is, ‘Ask any ol’ bar stool in this town / Ask my newfound party crowd / Sure I take more Jack in my coke now / A little more high in my smoke now.’ I just love that. I love the way it flows,” he explains. “I love lines that say a lot more than the amount of words should dictate.”

One year later, Thompson saw his second No. 1 country song with Shelton’s “I’ll Name the Dogs.” He says it was an idea he had for trying to name a baby and the song came to life in the writing room when he pitched it to co-writers Matt Dragstrem and Ben Hayslip.

“All my ideas, half joking, were like Blood Trail and Arrow, John Wayne and Merle Haggard, Hank, and [they] sounded like dog names,” he recalls with a laugh. “I walked outside and I said that line, ‘You name the babies, I’ll name the dogs.’ It’s one of those things I wrote down real quick and took it to the writing room the next day. I just happened to be writing with a few people that got it immediately and loved it, and we knocked it out. I thought it could be cool when I wrote it down, but it ended up being 10 times better than I thought it could be.”

Thompson’s biggest hit came this year with the three-time CMA nominated song “Drowns the Whiskey.” Aldean’s duet with Miranda Lambert, the song was nominated at the 2018 CMA Awards for Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Musical Event of the Year. Thompson penned the song in 2013 with Brandon Kinney and Jeff Middleton.

“It’s one of those things where it’s going to happen when it happens, and the timing’s got to be right,” he says of the song. “We spent years without even demoing that song. It was just the guitar, vocal, and we put a demo on it, and we were like, ‘We know this feels really special, it just needs the right home.’ Thank God it found it.”

The singer-songwriter penned the song on his bus while on tour in 2013 with his guitar player and Kinney, who they invited out for the weekend to write. Kinney had the idea about whiskey’s supposed to drown a memory but suggested a new concept — what if it’s something stronger that drowns the whiskey out? Thompson and Middleton loved it and the three men began writing it.

While Thompson admits that he and his co-writers never envisioned the song as a duet, he says Lambert’s background vocals are perfect and smoky. “It just pushes it over the edge to me,” he adds.

His three CMA nominations serve as validation for deciding to pursue a career as a songwriter when he was 25. He credits much of his success to being stubborn and sticking it out in Nashville long after many others had given up.

“There’s the ones that go home, then there’s the people that are like, ‘You know what? I ain’t leaving until these people decide that I’m phenomenal,'” he reasons. “They’re just too stubborn to go home. You have to stick it out.”

While Thompson confesses that there were plenty of moments along the journey that were rough, his goal with songwriting has always been to see a reaction from the listener. It’s this hope that kept him going during the bleak times.

“It all goes back to seeing people get moved,” he concedes. “A reaction, whether it was a song I wrote and I sang and people were losing their minds and singing it, raising a beer up, or somebody crying to something I wrote. That reaction, it’s kind of like a drug. If you do it right, you get the reaction you were hoping for.”