The names Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson, and Troy Verges may not immediately jump out to country music fans. But if they have enjoyed songs by Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Hunter Hayes, Lady Antebellum, and many other current acts, they’re more familiar with the four Nashville-based songwriters than they realize.
Separately, together, and in combination with other songwriters, James, Lindsey, Sampson, and Verges have penned dozens of award-winning hit songs, from Chesney’s “When the Sun Goes Down” to Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” to Hayes’s “Wanted.” Over the last few years, the quartet, who are all performers as well, have banded together, dubbed themselves the “Music City Hit-Makers” and done spot dates with orchestras all over the country.
Next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday they’ll perform with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall as part of “A Country Salute to Our Troops.”
“Nashville is a funny little town in that it really is a songwriter town,” says James. “So in our little 3 square miles of the world, we get to be a little famous. But not anywhere outside of that. So when we come to a town like Boston, most of the time they haven’t heard of us, but usually within three or four songs it’s like: Wow I don’t know these guys but I know their songs. You see the light go on.”
Dennis Alves, artistic planning director for the Pops, says a few of his colleagues saw James and Lindsey perform at last summer’s CMA Songwriters Series show at Royale with Carrie Underwood and “flipped” for the format, which has the songwriters performing and sharing the stories behind their songs in a round-robin format. (James says he’ll return with the series later this summer.) When the “Hit-Makers” management reached out to the Pops, Alves was quick to say yes.
“Not only are they great songwriters but they have a guy [Charlie Judge] who does the arrangements for the orchestra who is also very good. So it seemed like a great match for us especially now that Boston is a big city for country music,” he says.
Alves also took it one step further, asking the songwriters to pen a new tune in honor of the US armed forces to premiere at the shows, which fall on and around Flag Day. “I just thought, what an opportunity to have these great songwriters here, and I figured, what the heck, all they had to do is say no,” he says with a laugh.
‘Part of it is the story of the soldiers who are away fighting and their families who are waiting at home. We tried to cover a little bit of both of those perspectives in the song.’
They happily said yes and got to work.
“We knew it was a salute to the troops, so we talked about what that meant to us and the imagery and the feeling and the emotion we wanted to evoke with the song,” says Lindsey. “It was like all writing appointments: Brett started playing guitar, Charlie started playing piano, and Brett and I just started singing random melodies over the top and we’d say, ‘Yay, I like that one!’ Or somebody would say, ‘Eh, I’m not really into it.’ And we’d stop and [tinker]. I call it going fishing. So we fished around until we landed on something and then the words started coming out. And then a few hours later it was written.”
The song, a poignant ballad called “Free,” will have its world premiere next week.
“Part of it is the story of the soldiers who are away fighting and their families who are waiting at home,” says Verges. “We tried to cover a little bit of both of those perspectives in the song.”
Some of the inspiration for “Free” came from a trip that Verges and Lindsey took to Afghanistan at the end of 2012.
“It’s kind of hard to explain because it was pretty much every emotion that you can feel,” says Lindsey of the journey to military bases, one of which came under fire, to perform for the troops. “It was happy, it was extremely sad, it was scary, so frightening at times, and just exhilarating. I always have supported the troops, but I came home with a stronger sense of that than I ever imagined I could have. It was pretty powerful.”
“We all already honor the troops and are very thankful for them but to go see what they’re doing, really firsthand, brought our level of appreciation for what they do to such a higher level,” says Verges. “It really informed the song for sure because it just deepens your emotion for the whole subject.”
Since the song will be making its debut next week, Verges says it’s unknown if a major country artist will record it at some point in the future.
“That wasn’t our intention when we wrote it, but it’s certainly possible, and if the right artist were in line, we could certainly be happy with that,” says Verges.
(Underwood, for whom all three have written songs, would be crazy not to claim this as her own, as it is likely to become a perennial favorite at patriotic celebrations.)
“The thing that I found most intriguing about listening to the demo is that they wrote it collaboratively with Charlie Judge, so the orchestra is an integral part of the song,” says Alves. “It’s not just laying a bed of feathers underneath the singing. It’s actually a part of the drama of the song.”
Alves says the Pops hopes to do more collaborations with country musicians in the future. “Country music is a genre that’s old-fashioned in a way; it has lyrics that people can relate to and understand and it has melody. I’m not trying to put down pop music, but it kind of harks back to the American Songbook, and it’s a testament to country music that it’s doing so well, and to do well in a city like Boston is, I think, remarkable.”