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Interview:
Grosse Pointe songwriter J.T. Harding is Nashville's new go-to
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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J.T. Harding loved growing up with his adoptive family in Grosse Pointe.

But there was no question he stood out a bit from the pack.

"You look at family photos, and I'm with these big, giant people," Harding says with a laugh. "I have a brother named Lance; he's a gigantic, blond-haired dude who played football at Michigan State. And there I am with fake Duran Duran bad, bleached hair."

Fortunately, Harding's parents "wanted to be myself, as kooky as that might be sometimes." His father, an executive with ESPN and the Discovery Channel, even took him to see Motley Crue when he was 10 years old. And the support paid off; Harding is one of the hottest songwriters now in Nashville, where he resides part-time, co-writing hits for fellow Detroiter Uncle Kracker ("Smile"), Keith Urban ("Somewhere In My Car"), Kenny Chesney ("Somewhere With You"), Blake Shelton ("Sangria"), Jake Owen ("Alone With You") and others.

"J.T. is such a breath of fresh air. He's awesome," says Uncle Kracker, who brought in Harding to co-write seven of the songs on his latest album, 2012's "Midnight Special." "He's full of ideas, full of life, full of s*** -- full of all of it. Whenever you want him collaborating, he's always there, always winging and hitting one out of the park for you. He's just a nice kid with a good head on his shoulders."

For his part, Harding (the J.T. stands for John Thomas), says he's been "lucky" but is also happy to have settled into a pursuit as a songwriter rather than an artist in his own right. "Most kids grow up these days, I think, wanting to be a rock star," Harding says by phone from "the shadow of the Waffle House" in Nashville. "But when you write a song that someone else puts out and you hear it on the radio, it's so exciting. That kind of took the rock star bug out of me. I just love writing and can't wait for the next one to come."

Harding caught the music, and the writing bug, early. Watching plenty of MTV and spending lots of time "jumping around my room with a tennis racket as a guitar," he was an avid listener and had "this funny instinct growing up that I'd have to write my own songs to make it. I'd see bands playing around Detroit doing cover songs, then the famous bands would come in and they had their own songs.

"So I thought, 'I have to figure out how to write my own songs somehow.' And of course, that's not easy."

Harding co-wrote his first song, "Lockjaw," "about this girl with braces," when he was in middle school. "It got better from there," he reports. College wasn't in the cards after graduating from Grosse Pointe South High School, however; after noticing that "on the backs of all my CDs it said 'Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, California,'" he went west immediately and tried to work his way into the music business. A win on VH1's "Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy" put $5,000 in his pocket, which he used to make his first demo tapes. He also did some writing with the Goo Goo Dolls` Johnny Rzeznik, Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik and Matt Nathanson, and he was working as an assistant to the band Linkin Park when a song publisher heard Harding's music and said, "He has an acoustic guitar -- let's send him to Nashville."

"I was all for it," Harding says. "I just wanted to get out of L.A. I had a few record deals that didn't work out. I was tired of working at record stores. I needed a change of scenery."

Harding acknowledges he was apprehensive about fitting in with the Nashville world. "My songs don't really sound country to me at all. I'm more about 80s hair bands and Bob Seger," he says. And, he quickly discovered, "every single great songwriter from every small town is here. Growing up I thought the only people who wrote songs were Kiss and myself. But down here songwriting is a full-contact sport. I just dug my heels in and said 'Let's go for it.'"

"I just got lucky these people like my music."

What helped, Harding says, is that he was outside the country norm at a time the genre was expanding from its traditional themes.

"My songs aren't about tailgates and Mason jars 'cause I didn't grow up with that stuff, and a lot of people (in Nashville) seem to like that." Harding explains. "I write what's true to me -- a lot of breakup songs!" he adds with a laugh. He also learned quickly to play nice with others and fall into a network of other writers with whom he could collaborate.

"It's incredibly competitive, but people really help each other out and are for the most part supportive," he says. "When I get a No. 1 song my phone blows up. And when a buddy gets one, I make sure to tell him congratulations. I've learned if you share information and you share good energy with other people, it comes back to you."

A case in point was "Sangria," which appears on Shelton`s latest album, "Brining Back the Sunshine." The title came from one of Harding's songwriting friends, Josh Osborne, and the song was initially optioned by Chesney, who "changed his mind at the last minute." But it didn't take long to find a new home. "Blake Shelton snatched it up as soon as it was available," Harding said. "I guess Blake's producer Scott Hendricks heard it and apparently Blake loved it, too, and the next thing you know it's on the radio. It happened unusually fast.

"It's so great when that happens. It's really nice when you walk in a room and you can feel it from everyone -- 'Hey, here's the guy who wrote 'Sangria.' It's a blast."

In the wake of his success, Harding -- who keeps a resident near Partridge Creek Mall in Clinton Township and still likes to spend time during the summer at his family's vacation home near Lewiston -- has a full plate of writing requests now. He's been doing some work with Train singer Pat Monahan, Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump and Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flats -- both in person and via email -- and Rzeznik has called him to do some more collaborating as well. Harding is also hopeful the likes of Urban, Owens and others will approach him for some "repeat business" after their success with his songs.

"Once you get a few down the pipeline people are more apt to call you," Harding says. "It never gets easier, though. I'm just trying to write the best songs I can and find people to put them out."

Five Big Hits by J.T. Harding

"Smile" by Uncle Kracker, 2009. Platinum. No.6 Hot Country Songs, No. 2 Adult Top 40, No. 3 Adult Contemporary.

"Somewhere With You" by Kenny Chesney. Platinum, No. 2 Hot Country Songs.

"Alone With You" by Jake Owen, 2011. Platinum. No. 1 Hot Country Songs.

"Somewhere in My Car by Keith Urban, 2014. No. 1 Country Airplay, No. 3 Hot Country Songs.

"Sangria" by Blake Shelton, 2015. No. 2 Country Airplay, No. 1 Hot Country Songs. -- Gary Graff

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