Hit country songwriter Chris Tompkins recently cleaned up with his number one hit “Dirt” for Florida Georgia Line on the Billboard country chart. It was Tompkins 10th trip to the top spot since signing his publishing deal with Big Loud Shirt Music at the age of 22. The tunesmith has had many hit collaborations including “Before He Cheats” for Carrie Underwood (2008 Grammy Country Song of the Year), Chris Young’s “Voices,” Tim McGraw & Kenny Chesney’s duet “Feel Like a Rockstar,” McGraw’s “One of Those Nights,” Luke Bryan’s “Drunk On You,” Underwood’s “Blown Away” (2013 Grammy Country Song of the Year), Blake Shelton’s “Sure Be Cool If You Did,” “Get Your Shine On” and “Round Here” by Florida Georgia Line.
“It’s sometimes hard to stop and enjoy the success,” Tompkins said. “I used to keep up a lot with how the songs are climbing the chart, but I kind of stopped. Not that I don’t care. Now, I’m enjoying it more than I ever have and thinking about where I was and where I am and continuing to try to have more success.”
Tompkins has also had success in the rock genre, co-writing songs on every Plain White T’s album including “Welcome to Mystery.” He’s also had cuts by Nickelback and Jimmy Buffett and co-written songs with Daughtry, Three Days Grace, Uncle Kracker, and Boys Like Girls.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Chris Tompkins. He talks about the stories behind his latest hits, making the crossover to write for other genres, and why he will only write with a collaborator.
BC: How did you come up with the idea for Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” that you wrote with Rodney Clawson?
Tompkins: It’s kind of one of those titles that popped in my head. The only thing I had was the rough sketch of the verse where it says “you get your hands in it, you spin your tires on it,” all the different things that occur on dirt. At the time we were doing renovations at our house, and we were putting a pool in. So, I had all these piles of dirt lying around my house and the kids would go out and climb on it and stuff like that. I’m about two hours away from my hometown. I’ve got a lake house down there, and I drive back and forth. Thinking about where I got that title and what I think about when I think about that song, it does remind me of the landscape between Muscle Shoals, Al. and Tennessee. I think it’s something to do with all that.
I think every artist lives and breathes and experiences good things and bad things, and the one thing that all the country artists and all the country songwriters have in common is we’re very nostalgic and sentimental about our hometown and proud of where we came from. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to take that idea to Rodney, is that whole Texas forever kind of thing.
The whole death thing kept popping up in the co-write, but we never chased it too hard. We were kind of afraid to go too far into that, but wanted it to be in there. I’m glad in the end we used that line (You know you came from it (dirt); And some day you’ll return to it) because it does kind of sum it up. I was hoping when the song was done that the mood was going to be more being proud and the relationship with a young couple to grow up, marry, have kids, all that stuff. The death thing, I wanted it to come across as you lived the good life.
BC: Besides country songwriting, you’ve had success in other genres as well. When you set out to write a song, do you ever think about the genre itself or do you just focus on the content of the song?
Tompkins: I’m more about the song. In rock, pop, punk rock, any genre like that, most of the time it’s a situation where I’m writing with an artist that’s established or at least had something on the radio. I’m kind of cheating and stepping into something that’s already kind of going, but there are other times when I’ve been on brand new stuff or country stuff that’s crossed over, or an artist that’s country that kind of worked in a different format. I’m more about the song rather than the genre. Someone told me a while back that a great song can work in just about any genre. I believe that.
BC: Do you prefer to co-write or write alone?
Tompkins: I’m a 100% co-writer. I tried to write by myself. It’s not only a discipline thing…I’m not disciplined enough. I have Attention Deficit Disorder…I’m pretty sure. It’s hard for me to see it through. That’s what works about Nashville. I’m not your typical wranglers, ropers. I grew up in a very rural setting. But there’s other songwriters like Rodney Clawson who knows how to take a tractor apart and put it back together, put horseshoes on horses, just that kind of stuff. I think it takes two different kinds of people and that’s just subject matter.
I can get pop-y, or rock-y, or whatever. Actually, in mine and Rodney’s case, I’m more of an outside-the-box kind of thinker. I do drum loops, piano, guitar and stuff. Rodney is an amazing singer, and he is really good at getting from Point A to Point B, knowing where the song needs to go or what it needs to do or what it doesn’t need to do. It works really well.
BC: Are you more of a melody person or lyricist?
Tompkins: I think it depends on the day. I do everything. My strongest thing is writing music, melody and topline. They use it (topline) more in pop music. They have a track guy that does music, and then they’ll have a lyric guy and a topliner. A topliner kind of sings the song and comes up with the melody and hooks. I’m pretty good at creating a skeleton. But some days I’m just not feeling any music, and I’ll jump on lyrics and do pretty well with them.
BC: Besides “Dirt,” you were in the Top 40 chart at the same time with Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” that you and he wrote with Josh Kear. How did that song come about?
Tompkins: In Nashville, luckily, you develop these relationships with people and especially in a co-writing situation you have each other’s back. Josh Kear is a good example of that. We’ve been co-writing the longest—he knows me. He and I have written tons of story songs. Josh always brings in stories, titles (to the session). The funny thing about “Drunk on a Plane” is we were writing with Dierks and Dierks had an idea. I don’t remember what the title was. We had a number one party recently and Dierks remembered that title, and he was glad we didn’t write it. But anyway, we’re sitting there, and we get to that point that we figure we’re not writing Dierk’s idea and Josh says “Well, I have this title I’ve been wanting to write, ‘Drunk on a Plane’.” Right after Josh said that, like in a split second, I thought I don’t think Dierks will be into that. Right when I thought that, Dierks said, I like to drink and I love to fly. He is a pilot. Josh already had it kind of mapped out. He knew the whole story line. He didn’t know where it was going to go. I have to throw the gold egg at Josh Kear. We just helped fill in the blanks with the music and melodies and things like that. It was a big hit and good timing for Dierks.
BC: Have you ever thought about pursuing the artist end of the business?
Tompkins: It’s almost like most songwriters come to Nashville with that kind of in their head. The thing is I could make a record. Maybe people would like that and maybe they wouldn’t. At this point in my life I’m happily married with children. I love being at home, and I love getting up, having coffee, and going to work and writing songs. The artist thing is not something I really wanted, but early on I thought about it. I do want to make a record. I just don’t like to tour or anything like that. I’ve had artists tell me, “Man, you guys have the good gig.” I’m not going to disagree with you.
BC: What advice would you offer songwriters?
Tompkins: Write as much as you can and co-write. Early on I didn’t trust co-writers. I was kind of living inside my own head. I would have good ideas, and I would take them in to somebody, and then the song would end up not being anything that was in my head. Looking back on that, they were right. It actually turned out better in the end.
My advice would be to always remember what drives you and the music you love, because that’s going to be your foundation for all your co-writings.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at [email protected].He is also on Google+