2006-11-16 / News

'Jesus, Take the Wheel' earns top honors for Hillary Lindsey

By SPARKY NEWSOME, editor

The past few weeks have been full of good news, top awards, and great new opportunities for Hillary Lindsey, whose song-writing career may be at its highest point ever.

Already a successful writer, Lindsey, in collaboration with good friends Brett James and Gordie Sampson, wrote a little song, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," in January of 2005. In November it hit the country music charts as performed by Carrie Underwood and just last month, it was voted "song of the year" by two prestigious organizations. It was also nominated in the same category and featured on the CMA (Country Music Association) Awards show just last week.

The first of the accolades came on October 22 at the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) annual Songwriter Achievement Awards ceremonies. At that event, the members not only named "Jesus, Take the Wheel" song of the year but included it as one of 10 songs informally dubbed "The Songs I Wish I'd Written."

"That's a huge compliment because it's coming from your peers," Lindsey said, adding that it was quite a surprise when the song was named song of the year.

Carrie Underwood (second from right, top photo) flew in just for the awards and is shown with songwriters (from left) Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Gordie Sampson at the Ryman Auditorium where they performed (center photo) their Song of the Year and received a standing ovation. Lindsey also visited (lower left) with John Shanks and rock star Jon Bon Jovi, with whom she has written a song. Carrie Underwood (second from right, top photo) flew in just for the awards and is shown with songwriters (from left) Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Gordie Sampson at the Ryman Auditorium where they performed (center photo) their Song of the Year and received a standing ovation. Lindsey also visited (lower left) with John Shanks and rock star Jon Bon Jovi, with whom she has written a song. "That just blew my mind," she said. "Every writer in town was in this huge room and I was just shocked when they called out our names. The whole room just stood up and it was the coolest thing."

The ride continued the very next evening at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) awards program. Again, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" was named song of the year but an even bigger thrill for Lindsey was getting to perform the song at the famous, historic Ryman Auditorium.

During the program, the top five most-played songs from the year were featured. Since "Jesus, Take the Wheel" spent six weeks as No. 1, the writers were asked to perform. "It was the most amazing thing, standing on that stage and singing," Lindsey said. "I was so nervous but I think it went over really well."

The performance was as big a hit as the song, garnering the loudest and longest standing ovation of the evening. Lindsey said she didn't fully realize the response because she was so awed by it all.

"It was incredible!" she said. "That was the highlight of everything - being able to sing on the stage at the Ryman."

And even beyond all that another surprise was in store. Carrie Underwood, who knew ahead of time that the song was going to win, flew in just to offer her congratulations. "That was so nice," Lindsey said. "She got on stage and made a little speech and thanked us for the song and how much it did for her career." Underwood is the 2005 American Idol and her breakout album, Some Hearts, included "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which spent six weeks at No. 1 on the country music charts this year after debuting as "Song of the Week" early in November 2005.

Lindsey has written literally hundreds of songs and says it is different every time. This one she wrote with her friends, James and Sampson, at her house in Nashville. She remembers because it was the first song she wrote in January of 2005. The fact that it hit the charts later that year was somewhat unusual because, she says, "sometimes it takes forever for a song to come out."

Hillary Lindsey performed with her father, drummer Ricky Lindsey during the Festival of Art & Music here in 2005. Hillary Lindsey performed with her father, drummer Ricky Lindsey during the Festival of Art & Music here in 2005. "They came over and we just started throwing out ideas," she described. "Gordie said he had a title that he had been living with a little bit and it was 'When Jesus Takes the Wheel.' He told us about a friend of his who was in a car wreck and had been thinking that when the wreck happened. We started talking about it and the song just came out.

"Gordie and Brett started playing this groove on the guitar and I don't even know why I said it - it just came out - "She was driving last Friday on the way to Cincinnati." [That's the first line of the song] I've never even thought of Cincinnati before, I've never been to Cincinnati, I don't know why it came out but it did and the melody flew out of me too. Once those two lines came out, we were off and running."

Lindsey is the daughter of Ricky and Kathy Lindsey of Washington and began her career in music singing at the First United Methodist Church and at the Washington Little Theater even before she was ten years old. At 10, she started writing songs. She continued performing and was selected to be a member of the Georgia 4-H touring group, "Clovers and Company." She was the local winner of the Kiwanis Talent Showcase and went on to win the statewide competition in that event.

After moving to Nashville, attending Belmont University, and quickly being offered a publishing deal, she had eight cuts in her first year as a songwriter. Today, artists such as Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack, Jessica Andrews, and Lindsey Lohan perform her songs.

In 2002 Lindsey enjoyed her first No. 1 single, "Blessed," which was recorded by Martina McBride and spent two weeks at number one. Other hit songs for Lindsey include Sara Evans' "Backseat of a Greyhound Bus" (top 15), Martina McBride's "This One's For the Girls" (top 5), and EMI Belgium recording artist Sarah's "Very Last Moment" (No.1 on Pop Charts).

Now it looks like Lindsey may add another branch to her career. A few weeks ago, rock star Jon Bon Jovi and band member Richie Sambora were in Nashville to make a record with well-known producer Dan Huff. Huff produced part of the Carrie Underwood record and also produces for Rascal Flatts, Keith Irvin, LeAnn Rimes, and others. Probably through some of those connections, Bon Jovi's manager ended up calling Lindsey and asking if she would like to write with Bon Jovi.

"It totally took me back to riding around in mini vans with Amy Lannae, Catherine Fievet, Katie Sisson, and whichever mom was driving while we sang to Bon Jovi songs," Lindsey remembered. Naturally, she said yes and wrote Bon Jovi in her appointment book.

"Then, for the next few weeks as I would check my book," she said, "just to see his name written there was so insane! Anyway, I went and we wrote down at the hotel where he was staying. It was a trip and a half!"

Lindsey said she was incredibly nervous to meet and possibly write with Bon Jovi. In an effort to psyche herself up to not be nervous and to ease the mood, she took her shoes off. Sambora jumped up and walked out of the room, she said.

"I thought, Oh No! What have I done? Then he walked back in wearing the ugliest bedroom slippers I have ever seen and said, 'I am so glad you took your shoes off 'cause I just had to get out of those boots - they were just killing me!'"

Lindsey had developed about four ideas in preparation for the meeting and she said Bon Jovi and Sambora folded their arms and leaned back on the couch waiting to hear what she had come up with. She wondered what she had gotten herself into but in spite of the intimidation, played the first of her ideas.

"Richie was like, 'Oh my gosh, you're really good!' Then I played the second one and they both liked it. As I played the third one, Jon stopped me in the middle of it, started pointing at me and said, 'That's it. That's the one, That's the one.' So we wrote it and as far as I know they cut (recorded) it."

At the ASCAP program, Bon Jovi told Lindsey's mother that he wanted Hillary to sing with him. "Who knows if that's going to happen," she said. The rock star also spent the better part of an hour talking with Lindsey's father about his involvement with Habitat for Humanity.

For now, Lindsey is still enjoying the acclaim of her peers and the Country Music Association over the success of her song.

"'Jesus Take the Wheel' is really special to me for a lot of reasons but I guess No. 1 is that it broke a brand new artist. That is hard to do," she said. "Martina was already established [when she did "Blessed" and "This One's for the Girls"] and I'm not taking anything away from her or those songs, but it's just really hard to break a new artist."

She also says the song is one that she looks back on and wonders, "Did I really write that? It's like it came from somewhere else, you know, a higher place.

"The way that it has touched people has been amazing," she continued. "People have told me how it has helped them through ordeals. Even people that are close to me. That makes it a little more real.

"When I went backstage at the Ryman to prepare to sing, a man who works on production came up, crying, and said he had just lost his sister and that the song had helped him get through her death. That's very powerful."

That is at least part of what made "Jesus, Take the Wheel" rise to popularity so fast and then remain at No. 1 for six weeks. Lindsey's talent and success continue to grow.

"It has been a good ride and it has been fun," she says. "I'm not planning on getting off anytime soon."

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