Interview: The Journey to Jeff Hyde’s ‘Norman Rockwell World’

Jeff Hyde’s first tease of Norman Rockwell World is a gem of a song. Lyrically, it takes a road rarely traveled, focusing on an interviewer and an artist and the concept that all you need to know about the artist is right there in the music.

“I’m a big fan of Don Williams, he was a big influence on me, and in an interview he was asked a question, ‘Why do you kind of shy away from the spotlight a little, other than when you’re on the stage,'” Hyde says. “He said, ‘I always kind of felt like you don’t have to know Henry Ford to drive one.’ Basically what he meant was you can listen to my music without me getting out there and running with my own banner too much.”

20 years later, the line was still rolling around in Hyde’s mind. “Henry Ford” echoes over rich picked notes, notching a rarely achieved songwriting feat: writing the rarely (or never) written. In many ways, it’s a perfect song, but to apply its advice to Hyde would be a shame.

Much like Don Williams, perhaps, Hyde himself is soft-spoken and affable. He’s from Marshall, Texas, evident immediately when he says words like ‘writing.’ At times, he’s also incredibly funny, in an understated and offhand way that makes one wonder if he knows he’s doing it. He has no sense of bravado, and seems not to have adopted any of the swagger that could come with, say, playing massive stages every night as a member of Eric Church’s band or co-writing mega-hit “Springsteen.” Driving to our conversation on Music Row, he probably passed, as I did, a banner congratulating him on his recent #1 with Church, “Round Here Buzz.”

“I believe whatever talent I had was a gift – I think God gives us different gifts,” he says, taking a sip of black coffee, “so I just felt like he would open the right door for me if I was meant to do this, and if not, I could go back home and mow grass. I’m pretty good at pushing a lawnmower.”

Though through a certain lens, any success story in the music industry can look like an overnight one, Hyde’s was many years in the making. As a kid, he’d write songs, putting his own lyrics to existing melodies. In high school, he found a man to teach him banjo in the pages of the Thrifty Nickel. His teacher was also a songwriter, which inspired Hyde’s continued songwriting as well.

“I thought, well, there’s really nothing else I wanna do, and so I need to figure out how to make a living at it,” he recalls.

He went to South Plains College in west Texas for four years, where he delved deeper into music in their commercial music program. Through a conversation with a man who’d heard some of Hyde and his brother’s demos, he learned that his best shot at having his songs recorded by a major country artist was in Nashville. With two Associate’s Degrees under his belt, he made the move to Music City, where he attended MTSU and simultaneously worked in the mail room at BMI and at the concession stand at the Opry.

In Nashville, he met a publisher named Jody Williams, who took a liking to his songs. “He gave me an open door policy and said, ‘I like some of your songs, some of them need work, but as you write things you’re proud of, you can bring ’em over,'” Hyde recalls. Over the next few years, Hyde continued to play songs for Williams, who would occasionally help him demo them. Williams eventually signed Hyde to a publishing deal; when Williams left a year later for BMI, his son Driver became involved.

“Driver had been rehearsing, getting a band ready for Eric Church,” Hyde recalls. At the time, Church had just signed a record deal, and was promoting his first single, “How ‘Bout You,” which featured a lot of banjo. Driver knew Hyde played, and when their guy got sick for a show and needed a sub, he asked if Hyde would step in.

“That wasn’t even on my radar,” Hyde recalls. “But I thought, oh, I could sub a couple shows.” Church was opening for Brad Paisley at the time, while for Hyde, being onstage like that was, well, new.

“Not that big, on that scale,” he says of his stage experience. “The band leader at the time was Ed Smoke, and he told me, ‘Man, if you just wanna take that guitar and act like you’re playing it on these other songs, we don’t care, all you need to do is nail that banjo part on ‘How ‘Bout You.” I was over in the corner all night before we went onstage practicing that part over and over. There were probably 15,000 people there that night. It made me nervous as heck.” He remembers watching the set list thinking, “Oh crap, here it comes in a minute.” Thankfully, he made it through without a hitch. “I was sweating bullets,” he says.

When their banjo player eventually left the tour, they gave Hyde a call and asked if he’d like to play some more shows with them.

“They were a good group of guys and I liked Eric and I liked the songs they were doing, and they liked what I did,” Hyde says. “Eric said, ‘Stay as long as you want.’ That was almost 13 years ago.”

Though at first, he seemed faced with a decision (Sony suggested Hyde could only either be a songwriter or a touring musician, something Church called “a bunch of bullcrap”), Hyde continued to write on the road. He and Church eventually began to write together. The first recorded by the Carolinan was “Smoke A Little Smoke”; subsequent songs include “Cold One,” “Record Year,” and “Springsteen.”

“I’ve written a lot of songs with a lot of people,” Church told attendees at the celebration for “Record Year” hitting #1 at radio, “but it’s rare when you get something unique. He’s one of those rare guys in this town.”

Hyde discusses “Springsteen,” which was his first song to go #1. “We didn’t have that name ’till we got to the end, we were just writing a stream of consciousness ’till we got there and let the story unfold a line at a time,” he recalls. “Then we got to the end, and Eric said ‘Springsteen.'” For Hyde, he jokes, the memory would probably have been a bluegrass festival. For many fans now, “Springsteen” itself paints that memory.

“That’s pretty crazy to think,” Hyde muses. “It’s crazy to see how it’s grown. When we started out we played every dive bar club that you could play, and went back and played them again.”

Now, it connects all over the world. “We went to Germany; it was cool to see people over there singing along to “Springsteen” and some songs that we wrote on the bus, you know, in a few hours of writing together and then to see that it’s become this big thing that makes people feel something, that’s pretty cool,” he says.

Though Church famously has a rigorous tour schedule – part of the reason for his massive fan base – Hyde found time to write not only his Church hits, but a collection of really impressive songs. While some found outside homes with the likes of Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan, and Charlie Worsham, some have been lying in wait. Until now.

“You have songs that are unheard, undiscovered, but you’re proud of ’em,” Hyde says. “That’s how this album came [to be.] I had a pile of songs that had never seen that other side of the publisher’s desk and I just felt like it was a shame that they didn’t have a life out there.”

He, Arturo Buenahora Jr., and Ryan Tyndell took a list of 20 and narrowed down to 10, which appear on Norman Rockwell World, released this past Friday. “‘Norman Rockwell World’ was kind of a common theme,” he says. “There’s ‘Old Hat’ and a couple songs on there that kind of say how I feel about the state of the world a little bit, like it’s pretty complicated, life is hard, and sometimes you think it’d be nice if it didn’t have to be that crazy. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was a Norman Rockwell world? So that’s kind of how it came to be.”

The result is incredibly dynamic. Norman Rockwell World is the mind of Hyde at work, injecting perspective and imagery into every corner. Hyde’s voice echoes with truth and imagination across the 34-minute release, from the nod to tradition on “Old Hat” to the romance-laced “Baby By Tonight.” With each, Hyde presents a depth of character, style, and thought that serves easily as the soundtrack to a long drive or provokes thoughtful conversation.

Delve into Norman Rockwell World here.