JT Harding is a Detroit-to-Hollywood-to-Nashville transplant who has carved out a spot for himself as a top songwriter in Music City over the last decade. His songwriting credits include a cache of chart-toppers, including Keith Urban’s “Somewhere in My Car,” Blake Shelton’s “Sangria,” Dierks Bentley’s “Different for Girls,” Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You,” and more.
Signed to Sony Music Publishing, JT scored his most recent No. 1 hit with Darius Rucker’s “Beers and Sunshine.” Earlier this year in February, JT penned and released his first book, Party Like a Rockstar. Available via Twelve Book, the memoir is a story of “youth, rebellion, determination, and an invaluable how-to guide for anyone who wants to learn how to write a hit song.”
While JT can crank out a country hit with the best of them, we found out he’s got rockin’ roots (much like his book title) in our 5 Songs That Shaped the Songwriter.
1. ‘Detroit Rock City’ – KISS (written by Paul Stanley, Bob Ezrin)
JT Harding: In second grade, somewhere between the jungle gym and kickball games, an older student strutted up to me with a double album, Alive II. I already loved music, but seeing four makeup-wearing beings, seemingly from outer space and holding guitars, my world went from black and white to technicolor. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I ran home from school to hear what it sounded like. Unbelievably, the first song on the record, “Detroit Rock City,” was about my hometown.
The guitars chugged like a turbo-charged train. The drums popped like a machine gun as the “Starchild” Paul Stanley screamed above the music: “You gotta lose your mind in Detroit rock city!” I did lose my mind, but I found my calling. That day I started air-guitaring and using a black Sharpie to draw a star around my right eye. I’ve never stopped.
2. ‘Unchained’ – Van Halen (written by Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth
JT Harding: When MTV beamed into my living room, it poured gasoline on the raging fire I already had for music. The video I longed to see was “Unchained” by Van Halen. The Tarzan howls of lead singer David Lee Roth slamming against the acrobatic guitar sounds of Eddie Van Halen sealed my fate. No more air guitar. I decided to put a band together. I would be the singer. The first song my sixth-grade band learned was “Unchained.”
To this day, every strum, every pose, every stage I take over goes right back to me studying David Lee Roth. While other kids studied algebra, I studied David Lee. It also helped me recently get a co-write with Rhett Akins. When he found out I had Van Halen stripes on my acoustic guitar, he was in.
3. ‘I’m Your Man’ – Wham! (written by George Michael)
JT Harding: Wham! songs were on more girls lips than cherry-vanilla ChapStick every summer growing up. George Michael singing “If you’re gonna do it, do it right” was stuck in my head like a bill I couldn’t pay. I wanted to write songs, and I thought this was a real hit. After getting the cassette, I took a pencil and paper from my Trapper Keeper and listened to “I’m Your Man.” I paused the tape to write down the sections of the song. I scribbled “Catchy part comes three times,” then “A new part comes near the end that feels like the roof of a car coming off.” While I didn’t know the musical terms “chorus” or “bridge,” I learned how to arrange songs listening to “I’m Your Man” and deciphering it like the Ovaltine code in A Christmas Story.
Wham! is quite a departure from the hard rock I loved. But like a lot of songwriters, I was trying to get the attention of girls.
4. ‘Murder of One’ – Counting Crows (Steve Bowman, David Bryson, Adam Duritz, Charlie Gillingham, Matt Malley)
JT Harding: My rock star dreams led me to Los Angeles. I couldn’t play guitar like Van Halen. And I wasn’t as angry as the grunge bands that were huge at the time. I felt a little lost. While working at Tower Records in Hollywood, the Counting Crows album, August and Everything After, fell into my life like rose petals on a muddy driveway.
The simple jangling guitar under Adam Duritz’s voice-cracking and whispering lyrics made me feel like he was singing to me from the edge of my bed. “Murder of One” unlocked something in me, and I began writing my story-style songs on acoustic guitar. The line “You don’t wanna waste your life” shook me to the core. It made me feel like I could be myself and still make it in the music business.
5. ‘Seven Days’ – Kenny Chesney (written by Lee Brice, Billy Montana, Jon Stone)
JT Harding: I wrote “Somewhere With You” with Shane McAnally. When Kenny Chesney released it on his 2010 album, Hemingway’s Whiskey, I was so excited that my hand shook when I opened the CD. Our song sounded epic, but there was an unexpected treasure on that album. “Seven Days.” It was written by Lee Brice, Billy Montana, and Jon Stone. When Kenny sang, “That old pier ran out clear into the mist,’ I got chills as if a spider ran across my arm.”
The lyrics about a week-long beach romance you thought would last forever, I thought it was truly a song about me! Hearing it, I thought to myself, “Wow, Nashville is filled with incredible songwriters.” It inspired me to keep writing the best songs I could. And to never phone it in. Even though I co-wrote a number one hit off that album, “Seven Days” is the one I go back to. It breaks my heart in the best way every time.