Writers always embrace a good metaphor, which is why it was so apropos that the day before Jon Nite left his hometown of Amarillo, Texas, for Nashville, he was literally wading knee-deep in sewage.
"The last day on my job, my boss called me two hours before closing time," Nite tells Rolling Stone Country, seated upstairs at Nashville's Music City Tippler. "On Route 66, there was an old gas station, with a 15-foot hole in the ground. He said, 'Go in there and dig it out" — and it was a burst sewage pipe. I was so pissed. When we were saying our goodbyes back at the shop, he said, 'You know why I did that, right? It's so you never come back here.' And I never did."
It's a few minutes before the Number One Party for the Keith Urban/Miranda Lambert duet "We Were Us," written by Nite, Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins, is set to begin, but Nite still shudders humbly thinking about those early days. Writing songs since his teenage years, Nite honed his chops singing in church and playing his father's guitar — it was a friend who challenged him to compose his first piece for a television contest. "He dared me to do it," Nite says, who would go on to pen hits like Thompson Square's "Glass" with frequent collaborator Ross Copperman and Jake Owen's "Beachin'."
He was 18 when he left his plumbing boots behind and took his infant son and wife with him to Nashville on a scholarship to Belmont University. A publishing deal came fairly easily, but he learned just as quickly that unfortunately that's not all that it takes to crack the charts — and that country music can be a pretty fickle mistress.
"I turned in my first 10 songs, and Blake Shelton cut one of them," he recalls. "I was like, 'Oh gosh, this is easy!' It was a song called 'Don't Lie.' I thought, it will be the single, and I'll ride off into the sunset. Then it never came out." He frowns a little, the memory still heavy. "The rest of that writing deal was incredibly difficult. I was out of money, and they couldn't keep me any longer."
Nite worked day jobs, unsure if he could go to battle any longer. "I had a summer when I didn't know if I could even keep doing music," he says. "But that summer, I wrote 45 songs. I learned how to program tracks and stayed up all night, all summer." Turns out, there was no alternative. Memories of wading around in human waste can do that do a guy. "Glass" and Dierks Bentley's "Tip It on Back" came soon after, and Amarillo started to seem very, very far away.
Like many on Music Row, he has a "hook book" — a little book of song ideas and tricks — but he never uses it. "I write from an emotional place, mostly," he says. "I want to find whatever true feeling is going on in my life and just follow that. " Which is why the stories behind some of his biggest hits that he shares here with Rolling Stone Country are most often pretty surprising — from a bit of family news that inspired "Beachin'" to a glimpse of a terrifying future that prompted "Tip It on Back."
Adds Nite, "A lot of people write from a hook or title. I do none of that. If you write what you are feeling, and what you are trying to get to get across, the hooks always come."
Dierks Bentley, "Tip It on Back"
"Since my father is a pastor, my parents don't drink at all, so I am sure they love this one. This song was before my baby boy was born. My wife called and told me that her doctor said she had tumors. They give you a little information, just, 'You have tumors, but we don't know what it is, and we can't tell you anything until we get the tests back in a couple days.' So I went out on the back deck and just drank and drank. I was trying to get it out of my head as I was preparing for the next day's write, and it ended up being what became 'Tip It on Back.' We eventually found out she did not have cancer, and that the tumors were benign. It's a drinking song, but for me, it was all about how I couldn't cope with this news. It turned out to be a great song overall — Dierks killed it, and it was better than I could have imagined. I told him at the ASCAP Awards why I wrote it, and he was like, 'Oh my gosh, I never would have thought in one hundred years that was the reason.' It means something different to everyone."
Tim McGraw, "Book of John"
"That was my first write with Greg Becker, and when he walked in I literally felt that there was this cloud of sadness around him. You could feel it, and it turned out there was. He told me about his mom, and what happened in the song was his mom's story. He had gone back home and sat around the kitchen table — at the time he wrote it, we found out she had stage four cancer — and they talked about preparing for the inevitable after she passed. The day I got the call that Tim McGraw was cutting it I texted Greg, and he wrote back saying, 'Can you call me?' I called him and he said, 'I'm sitting around, getting ready for my mom's funeral, and I have all these pictures I'd never seen of her life, just living out what we wrote in the song.' He kind of teared up, and I got goose bumps like crazy and I knew we wrote it for that moment. The day we got done with that song I thought it was just a personal song for him, not a song that someone latches on to."
Jake Owen, "Beachin'"
"For Beachin', we just came back from the beach, but it took four or five hours to start writing because we wanted to write everything but a beachy song. But while we were there, my wife called and told me that we had a new baby coming — I was literally there on the beach in paradise, and all I could think about was how my life had come full circle. I had the first two lines of the song written down and I thought, 'What if we rap it?' For me, that song isn’t a party anthem song. It's about how fired up I was about my little boy. I finally got to see it played live the first time, to sit there and watch everybody sing every word to it. And my boy, he turned one just a couple weeks ago."
Keith Urban featuring Miranda Lambert, "We Were Us"
"This was the second write of the day — the first one with Jimmy, Nicolle and I didn't go so well. And I was like, 'We have to write something good today!' So we started the second song. Jimmy and I played the fast melody and sang a little for Nicolle, and she immediately said this was a duet. And then she started singing the first verse about her Kansas life — we decided to talk about the images and let it be whatever you want it to be, with no tying the ends together. It was like taking a bunch of photos that you drop and you see a picture here and a picture there, and by the time you get to the bottom you kind of get the complete picture of where you grew up. For me it was Texas, for Jimmy it was North Carolina and Nicolle, Kansas. I never expected Keith to do this song — I think they were talking about Lauren Alaina at one point. My mind wasn't really even ready for that type of super-stardom. But I heard he was interested, and then Miranda came next and I thought, 'This is insane.' They killed it and the rest is history, I guess."
Thompson Square, "Glass"
"That was the first day Ross [Copperman] and I had ever hung out. And we're not really all that sensitive of guys, but we got in there and he was kind of mumbling words and said 'glass,' and I was instantly like, 'Wow, ok, that's what it's called.' I was just trying to express what the music felt like. When we were done I thought, 'This is an amazing pop-rock song.' I was just excited it was written, never thinking it would be a country song. And then Thompson Square took a chance on it. Even then, I never thought it would be a single. But you never know. That's a big lesson for me."