It takes a special set of skills to successfully imagine a marriage of country music and the symphony. But for Charles Dixon, a classically trained violinist, combining the two worlds was a natural choice.
“I think it chose me more than I chose it,” Dixon says. With classical training including studying with some of the finest, a degree from Oberlin College, and a master’s from Northwestern, the violinist and businessman has made a career out of the pursuit – he even spent several years selling the instrument in Chicago.
And while his proficiency as a musician has paired him with symphonies and earned him a spot recording on records by artists like Lee Brice, Martina McBride, and Ashley Monroe, it wasn’t a straight path to Nashville.
“Sting was my musical idol,” Dixon says. “And everything he’d ever written I thought would work so well with the symphony. I didn’t understand why the symphony wouldn’t get Sting. My ultimate thing was like, I’ve got to find somebody who knows Sting, and tell Sting he’s got to make a record with the symphony.” Dixon felt it would not only be a cool record but a way for symphonies to re-energize their target audience. “He stole my idea without consulting me!” Dixon jokes, referring to Sting’s Symphonicities album and symphony tour.
A cousin of hit songwriter Brett James, Dixon made his way to Nashville and quickly became enamored of the songwriting and culture. “I fell in love with the song,” he says. Not only did he feel that those songs would sound incredible when paired with the symphony, he felt, like with Sting, that the symphony could benefit from appealing to a new audience.
“Ultimately, it boiled down to “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Dixon says. “That was sort of the centerpiece of the whole thing, and really what inspired me to do it.”
Though some recordings already have strings featured on the track, Dixon wanted to take it a step further. Songwriters strip their songs back to the worktape, featuring just a guitar and vocal, and the renowned Charlie Judge composes around it, sometimes sounding similar to the record and sometimes drastically differing from the producer’s choices. It creates a new texture for the song, and adds a level of dynamism to the already strong work.
The Hit-Makers’ first event featured James, Hillary Lindsey, and Gordie Sampson – “Jesus, Take The Wheel’s” writers. The Hit-Makers family has grown to include Troy Verges, Jessi Alexander, Kyle Jacobs, and most recently Chris DeStefano, who joined James and Lindsey at Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Gardens for their Songwriters Under The Stars series in April. Billy Montana (“Hard To Love,” “More Than A Memory”) will also join the writing talents to grace the Hit-Makers stage this week at the Franklin Theatre.
And while there’s an astonishing number of hits between the writers MCHM features – James alone has 21 #1 songs to his name – Dixon seeks to include songs that didn’t get that label push as well.
“The thing that inspires me more than anything else is to create a vehicle to go through the back catalogs,” Dixon says. “There’s so many amazing songs. If the average person knew how many damn songs they’re not ever privy to, I’d be pissed off as a consumer!”
It’s not only cool conceptually, but translates fantastically live – their sold-out show at Cheekwood last month was exceptionally engaging, functioning as a writers’ round (replete with the incredible stories behind the songs) with a fantastic accompaniment. Because the songs are all re-imagined compositionally by Judge, the result is often much more moving, with dynamic bursts or sighing strings that lend new emotional context to the song. It’s a must-see live, whether you’re a casual country fan or a long-time lover of the songs.