Odie Blackmon brings country music’s roots to Mass Comm

Odie Blackmon

Odie Blackmon

Odie Blackmon writes timeless, classic country songs.

His hit for Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” won the 2005 Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year. He helped give mega-country star George Strait his 50th No. 1 single with “She’ll Leave You with a Smile.” In all, the GRAMMY-nominated songwriter’s compositions have graced albums that have sold more than 20 million copies.

Yet Blackmon is about as down to earth as anyone you’ll ever meet. At Halloween, for example, he was sitting in the dean’s office at MTSU’s College of Mass Communication, his face painted green and a witch’s hat perched on his head, proudly declaring himself a “Man-witch.”

He’s the newest faculty member in the Department of Recording Industry but is no stranger to MTSU. He graduated from the music business program in 1995 and now teaches the department’s two songwriting courses – Commercial Songwriting: RIM 3020 and Advanced Commercial Songwriting: RIM 4020.

Plus, he’s had a huge hand in creating the widely anticipated The Life and Music of George Jones class, RIM 4810. He’s also found time to publish a textbook; “Music Theory and the Nashville Number System: For Songwriters & Performers” was available in paperback on Oct. 1. He’s also developed an Advanced Songwriting Contest for his students. (The writer or co-writers of the Best Song of the Semester will win a co-write with a hit songwriter on Music Row.)

Blackmon took time to discuss his career, his inspiration and his desire to return to MTSU.

Growing up in Arkansas, what led you to pursue a career in music?

Well, I wasn’t from a musical family. So my first attempt to be in the music business was that I was interested in radio. When I was a kid, all I did was listen to music. The local DJs were like stars to me. So when I was 16, I got the shift [at the local AM radio station] that none of the regular DJs wanted – the Sunday 8 a.m. to noon slot – and I spun gospel records.

Odie pickin' a song.

Odie pickin’ a song.

As a country-music songwriter, your first stop would typically be Nashville – but you chose to head west. What was your reason for moving to Los Angeles after high school?

Gettin’ out of Arkansas (laughs). I was just following my heart — I didn’t have a plan. Nashville being the South, it seemed more exciting to me as a young person to go to California. I was very much attracted to the country music that came out of California. I knew that Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, The Desert Rose Band and Gram Parsons all came from out there.

I got out there, and it’s a hard place to live when you’re a broke musician. I met a lady out there who had written hit songs in country, and she encouraged me to go to Nashville. She said, you’re not going to get any traction as a songwriter out here. So I was thinking about that and playing in bands and living in Hollywood, and the Rodney King riots happened, and that was a very traumatic experience. I moved away a month after that happened. We were under quarantine, and nobody could leave. … Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard were shut down. It was chaos. So I packed up, moved across country in my Geo Metro, and I came to MTSU.

Were you pursuing your songwriting while at MTSU?

I had my first cut on MCA Records when I was still in school here. And I was negotiating my first publishing deal while I was in summer school having to take algebra again. It was my last class! So I left MTSU and had a writing deal.

What was your inspiration for “I May Hate Myself In the Morning”?

So that song’s a true story. It was about a relationship I was in at the time. We were in the middle of that — instead of making a clean break, sawing it off with a rusty knife. I wrote it one morning in about half an hour. I sat down, and the song just poured out of me. I was so inspired. I’d been working on my craft all those years, and I’d written all those bad songs on all those other days … so I knew [this song] was really good. But the other thing is that I wrote that for her and me — I didn’t have it in mind for anyone. So that’s probably why it’s special.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

It’s hard to answer, but you can’t have a conversation about songwriting without mentioning a few people. For me that would be Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Prince, heavies like that – you gotta mention the Stones, their writing. I’m a big blues fan, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters. But even in today’s world, there’s just so much stuff out there. I mean, today, I think probably Eminem is one of the best writers out there.

You mention Eminem, which is surprising considering you’re a country-music songwriter.

That’s my wheelhouse. [Country’s] where I found my voice as a writer. But I listen to all sorts of music and love all sorts of music, and we study all sorts of music in my classes. … I found my voice in traditional country and roots music. But I like some Eminem.

How did you go about developing the George Jones class?

When I was interviewing for this [Recording Industry faculty] job, I started researching online about the school, and I saw a press clip where [MTSU] President [Sidney] McPhee and [Recording Industry Department Chair] Beverly Keel were at the gravesite of George Jones, because [widow] Nancy Jones had donated money to the college. I thought that was so cool.

She said that George would have wanted it to go to the working-class kids who needed it and hoped some day to have a class on George Jones at MTSU. I thought, that would be a dream come true to teach that. I’m sort of a music history buff — to be a songwriter, you almost have to be. So when I came to my interview, I had about a third of the class planned and said if you haven’t assigned it to anyone, I’d love to do it.

I started doing my research, and the first thing that bummed me out a little bit was that all the books about George almost glorified his addictions. How come when talking about the greatest singer in country music ever, [we] choose to focus on his demons? I wanted to hear more about his music and his journey. My challenge was — first off — it’s a class on one person. My goal was to not have a class that was just a bunch of funny stories about a drunk guy. George had problems with melancholy and depression. He came up in the time when they didn’t have Prozac, when they didn’t know [alcoholism] was a disease. I just wanted to focus on the music.

I was a huge George Jones fan, but there’s a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know his experimentation musically. He tried rock ‘n’ roll. He did a protest-type song. He recorded under different names. He didn’t start off being the greatest country-music singer of all times. Seeing how he pulled from different influences and found his voice – it’s fascinating. I’m fascinated with how to try to make somebody like him come alive for students … most of them probably never saw him.

Music Theory and the Nashville Number SystemTell me about your new textbook that just came out this past October called “Music Theory and the Nashville Music Number System for Songwriters and Performers.”

It’s based on my class at Vanderbilt. (Blackmon also is a lecturer at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music.) It’s designed for people who play guitar or piano and learn patterns, but they don’t really know how music works, don’t know music theory. It helps them to communicate with musicians playing live or in the studio and understanding common patterns and song progression. Once they have the number system down, it opens up their world a lot.

How did you come up with the MTSU Advanced Songwriting Class Competition?

I want to connect the real world of songwriting to that academic world of songwriting. I was thinking how to get students to write for more than just a grade, because I put parameters on the song assignments to get them outside of their box. ‘Cause as songwriters, we think whatever comes out of us is like gold (laughs). But that’s not true. So I thought, how can I get them to start thinking of this as a career? I just thought if they had the opportunity to write with a real pro, they would put more effort into their songs. The hit songwriter is Erin Enderlin (Recording Industry, ’04), a friend of mine. She was thrilled when I told her I was doing this, and she wanted to help.

What makes a hit song for you?

Well, a hit song is a moving target, and that’s constantly changing. Sometimes a hit song doesn’t make a great song, and a great song doesn’t always mean a hit song. When your passion and your love become your job, it’s not always about what you like. And you have to be able to serve others, so there’s a fine balance, because too much of that will mess up your creative soul. It’s a real fine dance. Even on those days I don’t feel like writing, you must be present to win. And sometimes you show up and even if you don’t feel good or creative, something magical happens.

To read more about Odie Blackmon, click here.

For more information about the MTSU George Jones class offered in Spring 2015, click here.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Alumni, Faculty

%d bloggers like this: