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Songwriter Spotlight: Rivers Rutherford

Music Row powerhouse finds inspiration in everything from church sermons to cigarettes

July 7, 2014 10:34 AM ET
Rivers Rutherford
Rivers Rutherford
Photo courtesy of Rivers Rutherford

Growing up three blocks from Graceland, Rivers Rutherford's early musical ambitions were pretty much a given.

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"On the gates of Graceland, there's (an iron sculpture of) Elvis playing guitar. We'd drive past it every day, and I said, 'Daddy, I want one of those,'" the decorated songwriter remembers. "So he gave me a Sears & Roebuck guitar for Christmas and a big orange Elvis songbook, with the chords drawn out. I figured out where to put my fingers and learned how to play guitar with that songbook."

Driving past King of Rock & Roll's palatial Memphis home every day, Rutherford didn't care for the country music playing on his father's car radio. His tastes — and intentions — were all rock. He started to write songs on both guitar and piano, and scored gigs performing on his hometown's famed Beale Street before he was even old enough to drink.

Rutherford was a junior at Ole Miss when he signed a publishing deal with Chips Moman, who produced the likes of Elvis Presley and Bobby Womack, and wrote for the likes of Waylon Jennings and B.J. Thomas. It was Moman who changed Rutherford's mind about country music — and did so with a challenge: "He said to me, 'I know you don't like country music, but go listen to 'The Highwayman' and write me the sequel,'" Rutherford recalls.

And thus was born "American Remains," his very first cut, recorded by none other than the Highwaymen themselves: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. The country legends were so impressed with Rutherford, in fact, that they invited him on the road.

"It was crazy," he recalls with a laugh. "I thought, 'What have I done with my whole 22 years of life before this? If this is country music, I want to be a part of it.'"

A move to Nashville brought a move in publishing companies, as Rutherford signed with RCA (now Universal Music Publishing) in 1996. Over the next few years, he logged a string of Top 5 hits including Chely Wright's "Shut Up and Drive," Gary Allan's "Smoke Rings in the Dark" and "Unconditional" by Clay Davidson. His first Number One came in 2001 with the infectious Brooks and Dunn country-rocker, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You."

Chart-toppers that followed were Tim McGraw's "Real Good Man," Montgomery Gentry's "If You Ever Stop Loving Me," Trace Adkins' "Ladies Love Country Boys," Kenny Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward" and several more. He explains that his total of Number Ones is anywhere between 8 and 12, "depending on what chart you're looking at." But he's not really concerned with keeping count.

"I can't tell you how many BMI or ASCAP awards I have," he says. "All I'm worried about is what's on the radio tomorrow."

Read below, as Rutherford tells the stories behind five of his most memorable songs.

Brad Paisley featuring Dolly Parton, "When I Get Where I'm Going" (Rutherford, George Teren)
When I was about ten years old, I was sick one Sunday so my dad and I stayed home from church and watched the preacher on TV. And in the middle of his sermon, this guy comes out in a karate outfit and attacks the preacher. Once they got the guy under control, the preacher got back up and said, "I wouldn't worry for a minute. I know where I'm going, and I can't wait to get there. The Bible says that the lion will lay down with the lamb. Can you imagine what it would be like to lay down with a lion and run your fingers through its mane?" Something about that image just stuck in my head, and 25 years later I remembered that sermon when I was writing with George Teren.

Toby Keith, "Bullets in the Gun" (Keith, Rutherford)
Toby is such a creative guy. He had that title, and it just sounded something like Willie (Nelson) would have cut. So we tried to write it like a Highwaymen record. We started writing, and it became this mini-movie, an Outlaw story.

I went to church one morning, and the preacher shook my hand and said, "Rivers, you had anything on the radio lately?" And I said, "Yeah, I have a song out with Toby Keith out right now called 'Bullets in the Gun.'" So the preacher asks me what it's about, and I kinda hesitated and said, "Well, it's about an Outlaw biker who goes to a strip joint, hooks up with a stripper, robs the place, goes to Mexico, has sex and is killed by the federales." So he looked at me and said, "Well, uh… don't forget to tithe, brother!" 

Kenny Chesney, "Living in Fast Forward" (David Lee Murphy, Rutherford)
I called my wife from some city, I can't remember… I was coming back to Nashville and I realized I had to be in another city that day. I didn't have time to go home. So I called her and asked her to meet me at the airport with a suitcase full of clean clothes and take home my suitcase full of dirty clothes. There was this long pause and she said, "One at a time!" When I got back in town, I told that story to David Lee Murphy, and we wrote the song in about an hour. We started that song around 3:50p.m., and I had a meeting with Buddy Cannon (Chesney's producer) at 5:00p.m. I was a little late and told Buddy, "Sorry, I've been writing a big hit." And Buddy says, "For Kenny?" And sure enough, he cut it and it was a big hit for both of us.

Tim McGraw, "Real Good Man" (Rutherford, Teren)
A lady at a party told my wife that about me. She said, "I love Rivers; he's a bad boy but a good man." There was a room full of songwriters there, and I thought, "Man, this thing is going to get written 20 times." I went in to write with George the next day. We were writing this ballad, and it was quitting time. He was putting his guitar away when I thought, "Here's two guys with hits under their belts, supposedly professional songwriters, and they have this money title and can't do anything with it?" I got angry, so I rattled off a few lines, and George pulled his guitar back out. We worked it out in a few hours.

Gary Allan, "Smoke Rings in the Dark" (Houston Robert, Rutherford)
One of my best friends is Houston Robert, a cowboy out of South Louisiana. He's the only guy I ever knew who moved to Nashville to make music so that he could make some money and go back and be a cowboy. He was working in a ranch in south Nashville, probably 90–100 hours a week. So his wife said, "If you're going to keep working like this, let's move back home." And he kept saying to her, "Just two more weeks… just two more weeks." So he came over — it was around 2:00a.m. on a really cold night — and he stepped out on my porch to have a cigarette. He had a cowboy hat and this long duster on, and he flicked the cigarette out into my yard. I saw this long, spiral trail of red sparks behind it, and the line "smoke rings in the dark" popped into my head. I thought it was a great metaphor for their relationship.

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