October 17, 2020
“It has been a complicated year,” says Nashville-based songwriter and producer Jimmy Robbins. “But, having some stuff going on with radio songs was a saving grace for me.”
By “some stuff,” he means four country radio hits and his first pop radio crossover successes, as well as countless production credits on new records. Robbins’ high-level involvement allows him to play an integral role in commercial country music’s direction at the moment.
Maren Morris’ highly celebrated, “The Bones,” was among the beaming highlights this year. The single landed at no. 1 on Country Airplay, Hot AC, Adult Contemporary charts. After a 19-week run as no. 1 on Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart and no. 11 on Top 40 in the US, “The Bones” was nominated for CMA Song Of The Year and won both NSAI 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written Award and AIMP Song Of The Year.
“This song was such a joy through all the dark times because it kept breaking records and charted on all these different charts,” says Robbins. “We knew it was something special when we wrote it, but none of us expected this. I think some of that ties into this year. The message is oddly appropriate for a year where we’re all facing uncertainty.”
Robbins points its commercial success to Greg Kurstin’s dynamic genre-less production that allows the song to resonate with a broad audience. Unlike many crossover tracks, “The Bones” climbed both charts with the same version, rather than releasing a pop-edit suited to a new listener. Though the song is inherently country in its storytelling nature, Morris released it in a moment when pop is leaning more into storytelling and further from hook-driven dance music.
Keeping up the momentum, Robbins is proud of another recent success in their partnership with Morris’ latest, “Better Than We Found It.” The emotive ballad is a stark call for social change while there is more silence than opinion coming out of Nashville.
In August, Robbins attended one of the first few non-Zoom sessions in months, joining Jessie Jo Dillon and Laura Veltz on Morris’ back porch with masks. The song captured a moment between friends, engaging in a conversation about the current state of things.
“Everyone has a lot of feelings about what’s going on,” he explains. “Maren wanted to say something about it, about what’s important to her. Not a lot of artists will take that swing. I was very proud that she had something she wanted to say, even if some folks might not like it. I thought that was very cool.”
The protest song is an internal debate from the perspective of a white woman and a mother. Weighing her options, Morris ultimately aligns with a side of history she feels is headed in the right direction. Acknowledging the inevitable outrage from some fans, the country star condemns complacency, citing her child’s future as reason enough to speak up.
Much of the final product is composed of demos from that porch session. Backed by a choir of cicadas, the vocals track is what Morris sang that day. The harmony of insects marks a place in time, a comforting lullaby of a sweltering Southeastern summer, likely to overstay its welcome.
“On the demo, cicadas sing the background vocal, going crazy. Maybe that’s a low-key, a nice thing about this one. You don’t know that you’re hearing them, but they’re in there,” Robbins adds.
His co-writing relationship with Morris exemplifies the importance of collaborating with friends.
“There’s a term in Nashville called ‘writing up’—the idea that you’ve got to write with somebody more successful than you,” says Robbins. “There’s definitely value to that, but I think the ticket is to write with your friends, and then you all start having success together. The people I used to write with, we wrote with each other because other people wouldn’t write with us.”
He points to members of his earliest crew, like Nicolle Galyon, whom he wrote with weekly, named BMI Songwriter of the Year in 2019. Joh Nite is another cohort who came up through the ranks and now holds countless number one credits.
While “The Bones” was climbing pop and country charts, “This City,” a song he co-wrote and produced for Sam Fischer from a few ago past re-emerged via TikTok. The song was his second pop radio placement of the year, spending six weeks at the top of Australia’s Top 40 and various appearances across the UK and US Hot AC and Top 40 charts.
“It came out of nowhere,” Robbins says about the song he wrote in Los Angeles over three years ago with Fischer and Jackson Morgan. They cut the vocals from the kitchen table of an Airbnb in Hollywood. The version that wound up on the radio is the exact version we made that day.”
“This City” originally appeared on Fischer’s self-released 2018 EP, Not A Hobby. It gained traction after RCA Records re-released the song in late 2019. The label then reissued Not A Hobby in early 2020. ‘This City’s popularity grew significantly through TikTok.
Further, in the pop world, Robbins co-produced eight and co-wrote five of Kelsea Ballerini’s 13-track album kelsea, including the hit single “Homecoming Queen.”
The record hit the week that Nashville was placed under stay-at-home orders. The ensuing chaos enveloped the hearts and minds of her global listener base, and despite her devastation, the artist no longer felt it was her time.
“Some people might not have thought about it,” Robbins offers. “But Kelsea’s a very thoughtful person, so her first thought was if this was the right time to be promoting something.”
The artist’s cognisant refusal to take up space in the media during that moment inhibited the anticipated scale of her release plans. The album’s dynamic production elevates Ballerini’s usual approach to country music, delivering a refreshing sonic departure. Yet, Robbins felt her raw talent as a singer-songwriter deserved a second approach.
“I accidentally talked her into remaking her entire album in a stripped-down fashion,” he laughs. “It’s not exactly acoustic versions, but reimagined versions where there’s less production.”
The product was a reworked version of kelsea, her second record of 2020, ballerini.
“I love both records, but I love this reimagined version so much,” Robbins says. “It was so much fun and such an interesting challenge to re-do songs. Normally, when you’re producing stuff, whatever you think of is on the table—if you like a sound, you can use that sound. But with this one, we tried not to reuse any sounds of the original versions. It was a cool exercise.”
Yet another win for Robbins as Maddie & Tae’s no. 1 country radio single, “Die From A Broken Heart.” The emotive track comes from their latest record, The Way It Feels, which Robbins co-produced with Derek Wells. Robbins recalls the experience working with them, both old friends of his, as a highlight of 2020.
“I know the girls had to fight for that song to happen because radio, for whatever reason, hasn’t been an easy road for them,” says Robbins hinting toward the struggle female artists face with country radio. “Now that song is one of the biggest songs of the year; it won’t go away now that it’s peaked.”
Somewhere between the milestones, Robbins managed to forge the forward path. He has upcoming releases with Maren Morris, JP Saxe, Maddie & Tae, Brett Young, Walker Hayes, Luke Bryan, Emily Weisband, Chris Lane, Gabby Barrett, Scotty McCreery, Chrissy Metz, Tori Kelly, The Band Camino, Ivory Lane, Kyd The Band, Derek Austin, and others.
Acknowledging the strife this year brought so many, the songwriter considered that 2020 played out in favor of songwriters and producers. He believes he’s written more songs this year than previously and has grown accustomed to new creative vessels.
“I haven’t really found it to be a negative,” he says about Zoom writing, beyond the general latency of it. “I’ve actually found that the songs we’re getting are as good, and in some cases better.”
He finds video sessions less distracting. The goal after setting up is to write the song and log off. Whereas, in the writer’s room, friends and colleagues may gather for extended amounts of time, something he is eager to return to when viable.
Robbins offers sage wisdom to aspiring writers, suggesting that 90 percent of the battle is showing up.
“It sounds simple, but just don’t stop,” the songwriter says. “This is an industry that is dying to tell you no, but you have to keep showing up. You never know what’s in that room.”
In his humble opinion, positivity is crucial to collaboration, more so than lyrical expertise or melodic mastery. When writing for and with others, he tries to contribute those qualities which he seeks in others.
“I’ve always felt I’m good at making people comfortable,” he admits. “The writing space is important for that reason. I always try to make it fun. I don’t care if you’re super successful. If the day is bad, I’m not likely to do it again. Most of the songs I’ve had success with are from good days.”
Looking ahead, Robbins desires to hold onto these 2020 moments, pushing forward into new territory. He hopes to focus more attention on artist development and to help build his wife’s publishing business.
“I have a feeling, based on history, and how hard I’ve worked in years versus this year, next year is going to be even better.”
– Madeline Crone, American Songwriter