From the Abilene Reporter News (see the article here)
Rivers Rutherford liked what he heard the first time a symphony brought a new dimension to one of his songs.
He had to hear to believe it, though.
“Not once did I imagine an orchestra playing along with me,” he said.
Now, he looks forward to these concert hall collaborations, as does fellow Nashville songwriter Brett James.
“It’s an overwhelming experience to hear your songs, something you wrote in a little room, accompanied by an orchestra. Like hearing it for the first time on the radio,” James said. “You wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s real, real fun to do.”
On Saturday, the Abilene Philharmonic welcomes award-winning songsmiths Rutherford and James to the Abilene Convention Center stage for a duo version of “Music City Hit-Makers.”
This is not a first for the Abilene Philharmonic.
In the 1990s, the orchestra provided a sweeping background to country-cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey’s songs. Dressed in his best western duds, with a guitar or banjo in his hands, Murphey presented classics such as “Wildfire,” “Riders in the Sky” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac” more dramatically than possible on radio or compact disc.
Why not country and classical?
There are eight to 10 songwriters who participate in these Hit-Maker shows across the country. They’ve compiled a list of songs they will draw from depending on the lineup, Rutherford said.
Charles Dixon, a classical violinist, came up with the idea for The Hit-Maker shows about six-seven years ago, James said. He saw the opportunity to marry country and classical.
“I think it chose me more than I chose it,” Dixon told theshotgunseat.com.
Orchestral scores are by keyboardist and arranger Charles Judge, who conducted Carrie Underwood’s performances with the Hollywood Bowl and Ravinia Festival Orchestras, as well as Blake Shelton’s “Not-So-Family Christmas” special.
“It’s real fun and very casual,” Rutherford said. “Depending on who it is determines the songs we’ll pick for that particular show.”
He said these shows are a mix of ballads and up-tempo songs.
“It won’t be sleepy at all,” he said, laughing.
Said James, “It’s always a good time.”
These guys enjoy getting on stage with the attention on them.
Rutherford said that in most cases, songwriters harbored ambitions of being the one in the spotlight. Just because they earn their keep writing songs doesn’t mean he cannot sing, pick or otherwise carry on a show. In these performances, there is interaction between performers as they tell the stories behind the songs.
“We banter back and forth. Totally unscripted,” Rutherford said.
What do orchestra musicians think as they take a night off from Mozart or Brahms or Shostakovich?
“Music is music,” Rutherford said. “It doesn’t matter what genre.”
A Rivers runs through it
He listens to all kinds of music, so he would expect symphony musicians to do the same on their own time.
“It’s just that my success has been in country music,” he said. “They are highly trained but when I say we need it to be ‘a little greasier,’ they know what I mean. More fiddle than violin.”
Rutherford said he does about 50-60 shows a years, mostly him and his guitar. But he does about 10 with symphonies.
“I like ’em all,” he said.
He admitted he came to Nashville with stars in his eyes but songwriting became his forte. And probably the life he needed to live.
Rutherford was married and the couple recently had a fourth child when the opportunity with MCA came along. But as he was leaving the house one morning and looking back toward his family, he realized, “I’d be kissing that goodbye for seven-eight years.”
And so he’s content with the more stable life of writing music and occasionally performing.
It’s fun, though, to sing his songs the way he first heard them in his head. No offense to those recording his work but he has his “different inflections and emphasis in my phrasing.”
That said, country stars are country stars for two reasons, he said. First, they have talent. Secondly, they are “pretty darn smart.”
One hit does not a star make, he said, but if that streak continues, “It’s not an accident.”
Rutherford’s first songs were recorded by The Highwaymen (Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson). That led to eight No. 1s and many awards, including songwriter of the year.
In 2001, he collaborated with Tom Shapiro on “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You,” which Brooks & Dunn took to No. 1 and held there six weeks. It was the year’s biggest hit and even got to No. 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Another big hit is the Brad Paisley-Dolly Parton duet “When I Get Where I’m Going.”
Hit after hit after hit …
James is the man behind now 25 No. 1 hits.
In 2009, he got three No. 1s on the charts. That’s called a “Triple Play” in Nashville. Thing is, he did that twice to earn ASCAP Songwriter of the Year again in 2010.
The songs were: “It’s America,” Rodney Atkins; “Out Last Night,” Kenny Chesney; “Cowboy Cassanova,” Carrie Underwood; “Summer Nights,” Rascal Flatts, “The Truth,” Jason Aldean; and “The Man I Want To Be,” Chris Young.
James knows that not everyone in the audience will know his songs or Rutherford’s songs. But that’s OK, because they’ll tell a few stories and hear the songs “the way we do them.”
“I enjoy doing them all. It’s a show for people haven’t heard the song,” he said. “They’ll love it just as much.”
And they may recognize the song. For example, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which James wrote with Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson. It was a huge hit on Underwood’s debut album in 2005. It was No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts, No. 4 on its Christian charts and made the Top 20 on the Hot 100 chart. It would win two Grammy awards and Academy of Country Music Awards’ single of the year.
Currently, James is getting mileage (and paychecks) from Cody Johnson’s “On My Way to You” and Underwood’s “Love Wins.”
And the Backstreet Boys’ comeback wouldn’t be complete without James “No Place,” which offers a hip beat but a country sound to the group’s “DNA” album.
James is working on his own album, all songs written by him. It’s his first one in more than 20 years.
Maybe he’ll do one in Abilene, he said. You’ll just have to be there to know.
If You Go
What: “Music City Hit-Makers,” Abilene Philharmonic 2018-19 season finale
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Abilene Convention Center, 1100 N. Sixth St.
Tickets: Range in price from $5 for students to $50, depending on location. Go to www.abilenephilharmonic.com.