For his first single, JT Hodges has come out of the gate with a song about hunting. It does not involve bird calls or camouflage, but rather the most universal pursuit known to man. In a rollicking song that recalls a hot night in “Hunt You Down,” catch-and-release never sounded so steamy.
Country fans are wanting to hunt Hodges down too, after getting a listen to this infectious summer single. Besides “Hunt You Down,” there’s plenty more to be pursued in JT Hodges, the Texas newcomer’s alternately tender and raucous Show Dog – Universal Music debut. The singer/songwriter worked with a triumvirate of top producers—Mark Wright, Don Cook, and Mark Collie—who collaborated for the first time to bring their find to the greater public. Those aren’t the only Nashville “names” putting their imprimatur on this freshman effort: Hodges’ co-writers include top veterans like Rivers Rutherford, and Vince Gill even adds harmony and a guitar solo to one key ballad. What these insiders already know, fans are quickly finding out: Behind those baby blue eyes lies the seasoned soul of a country-rock classicist.
Stepping into a Nashville studio to record a major-label bow, most singers would have been a little cowed. Not Hodges, who was to this particular manor born. If anything, he might have experienced a sense of déjà vu, since he was raised in a recording studio… literally.
“My family started Fort Worth’s first multi-track recording studio,” Hodges explains, referring to Buffalo Sound Studios, a facility that played host to artists as disparate as T Bone Burnett and Michael Bolton. Were the kids allowed to hang around? “Oh, it was part of the chores!” he laughs. “On weekends when there were sessions, Pops would make us vacuum up and clean the bathrooms.” (Hey, if Kris Kristofferson got his start as a studio janitor, it’s good enough for anybody else, junior or senior). “Once we were done, me and my brother would be so excited to go into my dad’s audio library and listen to record after record. That was the environment that I grew up in, from crawling around under the console at 8 months old to the day my dad finally had to sell the studio.”
Hodges’ parents weren’t just studio owners: Jim and Marsha had their own band. “My mom had a country record deal offer with MCA Nashville that she ended up turning down. She and my dad did a record and the label loved it, but when they told her to expect 300-plus days a year on the road, she didn’t want to leave us kids, and she ended up choosing motherhood.”
His folks had met under professional musical circumstances. Dad studied concert piano at Juilliard and then went to the University of North Texas to get his masters degree in jazz composition—but all that fine-arts training never caused him to get above his raisin’ when it came to moonlighting. He also had a country covers band to help pay his way through grad school, and when he was 27, a 17-year-old girl auditioned for and got the gig in his band and also got the guy—and they both got a boy who shared their consuming love of all kinds of music.
There is undoubtedly a rock edge to much of the JT Hodges album, as there is to most of contemporary country, steeped as the music is today in the genre-adjacent influence of the Eagles, Don Henley, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, but Hodges says it was no surprise where he’s ended up.
“Country is the first thing I ever remember hearing. My grandmother loved Conway Twitty and we used to listen to him all the damn time. If we were over at the house or in the car with her, literally all she ever listened to was Conway, and we would be like, ‘Turn it off!’—because it was eight hours a day!” His mama loved the early rock of Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Buddy Holly, whose influence can certainly be felt in some of the new album’s original songs, like “Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely.” As a grown-up, “I’ve definitely come back to my roots, because more than anything, country music is character. I was a very fortunate kid in that my mother and father raised me right, with traditional Southern values, Christian values, that yes ma’am, no ma’am philosophy. Whether you want to believe it or not, that is a part of country music. So yes, I am a country artist—regardless of what else I like to listen to. For me, it started with country and that’s where it ends, too.”
Two years ago, Hodges migrated to the Music Row songbelt, and in the spring of 2010, he landed a record deal. “Mark Collie was one of the first people I had met. He took me under his wing, showed me the ropes and I got the opportunity to work with a lot of great songwriters because of him,” says Hodges of Collie, who had a run of hits in the ‘90s before moving more into production. “He introduced me to Don Cook, who obviously was responsible for a lot of those Brooks & Dunn hits. Together they brought me to Mark Wright, and the three of them agreed to co-produce me. Don and Mark Wright had been friends for a long time but I was the first thing they’d ever worked on together, and when I found that out, I was pretty flattered. I’ve learned so much from all of them in the last year that I can’t thank them enough.”
Growing up wanting to be a songwriter had a two-fold impact: it made him hungry to cut his own material, but also left him with the good sense to know when somebody else has just nailed it. “The songwriters are my heroes and the backbone of the town,” he says. “So when I would have creative meetings with Mark Wright, Don Cook and Mark Collie, I would say ‘Look, I’m all about cutting an outside song. Something I wish I’d written!” In the end Hodges co-wrote nine of the album’s 11 songs.
As for his own writing, “It’s really just my own interpretations of those universal themes, emotions that make a song. I want to ignite that feeling inside myself or someone else. That’s when a song is at its best in my opinion.”
Some of the songs on this record were inspired by Hodges’ own comings and goings in relationships as in songs like “Right About Now” and “Out of My Mind.” Others came from outside observations of people and their own lives in songs like “Sleepy Little Town,” and from good-time feelings inspired by a city, back road or even a season like “Hunt You Down,” “Green Eyes and Red Sunglasses” and “Rhythm of the Radio.”
Things take a much more sober turn on “When I Stop Cryin,” the ballad that has Vince Gill as its VIP guest. Given the romantic themes that dominate the rest of the album, this could easily be taken as a lost-love song, but Hodges says “it could be the loss or death of someone or it could be a breakup. Whatever it is, you know that you will move on from it, but right now you’re in the moment of goodbye and you have to experience the pain before you can move on. To augment the melancholia, Hodges enlisted somebody who knows from sad songs. “I wanted to see if Vince would sing backgrounds on it, I never thought he would, much less play the solo. I remember watching the whole thing go down in the studio, and after about his second take on the guitar solo, he looked up at me and said, ‘Hey, JT, what do you think?’ In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Country Music Hall of Famer asking no-name artist what he thinks.’ If I never do anything else, I’ll always have that moment.”
But, of course, there is much, much more to do now that Hodges is deep into promoting his debut. “I just look forward to getting my songs and story to the people’s ears because I’m very proud of the record I’ve made. It’s true to me, and I think any artist would say he or she has no regrets and can hold their head high if that’s the case. I know I’m hitting the road now with mine up.”