Jessi Alexander: 5 Songs That Shaped the Songwriter

by Jim Casey
jessi-alexander-5-songs-that-shaped-the-songwriter

When Jessi Alexander’s name pops up on my radar, I immediately think of Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck,” the touching tune she co-penned with Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yearly. Brice’s No. 1 single earned Jessi both the ACM Award and CMA Award for Song of the Year in 2013.

However, Jessi isn’t a one-song wonder. The Tennessee native has penned a cache of chart-topping tunes, including Blake Shelton’s “Drink On It” and “Mine Would Be You,” as well as Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” If you dig a little deeper, Jessi’s songwriting catalog features Tim McGraw’s “Damn Country Music,” Miranda Lambert’s “Things That Break,” Ashley Monroe’s “If the Devil Don’t Want Me,” and Dierks Bentley’s “How I’m Going Out,” among others.

In addition, the singer/songwriter released her third studio album, Decatur County Red, in March 2020. The eight-song offering is a superbly penned collection, including standout tracks “Mama Drank” and “The Problem Is You.”

Jessi sat down with Outsider to talk about the 5 Songs That Shaped the Songwriter.

1. ‘Chiseled in Stone’ – Vern Gosdin

Jessi Alexander: Country music was always in the backdrop of my childhood. My granddaddy loved Vern. We would listen to “Set ’Em Up Joe” over and over in his truck. When I was 10, he unexpectedly died in a car accident, and I had my first taste of grief. Losing him shattered my grandmother and left an emptiness and sorrow in the little white house in Jackson, Tennessee, that wasn’t really talked about or acknowledged. But “Chiseled in Stone” said it all for us. It became a marker for me in how to make the listener feel by cutting to the bone of the emotion. It definitely played a part later in my life when co-writing “I Drive Your Truck.”

2. ‘Sweet Dreams (Of You)’ – Patsy Cline

Jessi Alexander: I was 11 years old the first time I heard this song, performed by a contestant in the Miss Tennessee pageant in Jackson. The sweeping melody and long held-out notes moved through my body and changed every molecule. I was never the same. I leaned over to my grandmother and said, “What is that song?” When the show was over, we went straight to the Walmart and she bought me Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. That record started my obsession with Nashville songwriters. I would read the credits and wonder, “Who is Harlan Howard? Hank Cochran? Bob Wills?” It also became part of the playbook for me, as far as realizing you have to give singers you are writing for something they can show off with their vocals. Patsy’s range, emotion, the low note, the quiver in her voice, the timeless lyric . . . perfection.

3. ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ – Hank Williams Jr.

Jessi Alexander: When I was little, Hank was writing a lot of songs about what I was living—a rural setting, dive bars, a blue-color way of life, and catchin’ “catfish from dusk till dawn.” Being raised on the Tennessee River, he was the voice for so many people I grew up around that were simple, tough, and sometimes on’ry. It was the first time I realized how a song could be an anthem for a certain group of people and the snapshot to their way of life. This song reminds me to write what you know to who you know. Be the voice for them. Doesn’t have to be flashy or poetic, but unapologetically real.

4. ‘Southern Accents’ – Tom Petty

Jessi Alexander: There are so many songs by Tom Petty that changed my writing, but I feel like “Southern Accents” made the biggest dent. Coming from the rock and roll genre, he showed me how a song can transcend all boundaries and rewrite the definition of what “country” is. I knew he was from Florida, but felt like he was singing my story, with my accent, and describing where I was from. There’s not a lot of lyric there, but the words are so eloquent and picturesque—almost carrying you through a Southern novel in only a few minutes. A masterpiece.

5. ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’ – Bill Withers 

Jessi Alexander: I was about 17 when I went down the deep rabbit hole and catalog of Bill Withers. I remember where I was the first time I listened to his Live at Carnegie Hall record, and the song came on with with this hypnotic story about a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War and being wounded in the shoulder, then asking if someone would please send a letter to his mother . . . because “I cant write left handed.” Holy shit! Bill Withers sucker punched me in the gut, and I probably listened to that song a 100 times studying his craft. That song showed me how a song can be a time machine and transported me instantly to the tension and devastating effects of the War. It wasn’t political or name-calling, just honest. Damn, the truth hurts.

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