It’d be easy to assume things about Jimmy Robbins. With seven number one songs under his belt in just three years in Nashville, it’d be easy to assume he hasn’t paid his dues. With an artist career that’s included Warped Tour, a solo album with Motown Records, and writing pop toplines for Disney, it’d be easy to assume his heart isn’t in country. With production chops and hits like Jake Owen’s summer anthem “Beachin,” it’d be easy to assume his days are filled with drum loops and sunny but substanceless scope.
They are dynamics Robbins is well aware of. “I’m gonna go make beats,” he jokes as I step off the porch of his office. But the 25-year old, a soft-spoken, blue-eyed sandy-blonde with a love for strong country hooks, isn’t bent on setting the record straight, he’s just here to make records, rooted in a genre he loves and built on skills that draw from his diverse background and mesh nicely with current trends.
For the North Carolina native, moving to Nashville from Los Angeles was a bit of a homecoming, both bringing him closer to his family for the first time since leaving home to tour at age 14, and returning him to his musical roots, having grown up with country.
“Starting in a place where I grew up listening to country and then being in a rock band and then working in pop music kind of made it the perfect storm for when I came to Nashville, where I sort of had a tool kit that was designed for what was happening,” Robbins says. It’s working out – Robbins has seven number one songs to his name, and was honored last year with the ASCAP Country Music Song of the Year Award, for co-writing Thomas Rhett’s “It Goes Like This,” and the CMA Triple Play Award.
It’s no secret that country radio has sounded increasingly pop as of late, both in subject matter and melodic structure. There has been more than one raised eyebrow at the lengths to which music has departed, with the success of artists like Sam Hunt – whom Robbins respects (and considers country) for his hooks and well-crafted songs – at the top of that list. And with many songwriters feeling pressure to replicate what’s working at radio, music has started to homogenize towards those trends.
“I didn’t expect to be the one in the room fighting for things to stay a little bit country, because originally when I came to town I was like the pop dude that shouldn’t be here,” Robbins tells me.
“I didn’t even really know what was going on in country [when I moved to Nashville] because I’d been doing the pop thing. But I got here and was amazed that what was happening in country music wasn’t all that different from what I’d been doing as an artist anyway, that poppier side of things but that still has a story to it, so it was just the right place at the right time I think.”
“But to me what still makes it country – I love when the language is still rural, the language still sounds like the people that the songs are for – but the biggest thing to me that makes a country song is just the hook. Like having a well-written and well-constructed hook that lands that’s not just a phrase at the end of the chorus. Like that’s less important in pop music because there’s not usually that story there, but that’s the one thing I always try to fight for is having a hook that feels like a hook.”
With what defines ‘country’ becoming increasingly nebulous, how does Robbins decide what to write?
“If you had three options, just make sure one of them’s checked, like either sonically, lyrically, or the vocal, one of those three things should check off our market,” he tells me. “So that’s when I feel like it goes to far is when somebody doesn’t sound country, there’s no country to the lyric, and then the music sounds like a pop song. That’s when I feel like you lose your genre a little bit too much.”
As a writer that also produces, both to create demos and for other artists, he has more control over the final product than most.
“There’s two different schools of thought,” Robbins says of building a track. “Like I know some guys that do try and make it like records. But I don’t really do that, I think leaving room for the producer, whatever cuts the song to go make it their own, to me has a benefit. Like a lot of times the cool things from the track will find a way to make it on the record, like on “Sure Be Cool” that’s our beat from the demo, like our kicks and little things like that.”
Robbins recently co-produced The Voice breakout RaeLynn’s debut album with Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Nickelback, Jake Owen), but doesn’t plan to dive too heavily into producing anything aside from projects he’s close to. “I sort of like being a little scientist and piecing it together myself,” he says. “Guys like me, like track guys or whatever, we’re not necessarily making our demos sound like records, we just want to capture the feeling.” While ‘track guy’ can carry a negative connotation, implying that the creator doesn’t write, Robbins doesn’t say it self-deprecatingly, discussing its applications to his career with the same tone as labels like ‘pop guy’ and ‘bro-country:’ aware and unaffected. At times they apply, but they neither define nor encase the scope of his work, and he discusses them freely without the stigma they may carry.
Robbins’ first break in country was with “Whatever She’s Got,” a Jon Nite co-write that earned Robbins his publishing deal with Keith Urban’s Extraordinary Alien Publishing (Urban wanted to cut it) and his first #1, which went Platinum for David Nail in 2014.
“When I first came to Nashville one of the very first songs I wrote was with my friend Jon Nite, who has since become like my best friend, but we wrote a song called “Whatever She’s Got” that David Nail sang,” Robbins says. “At the time that was such a good example of what I do, like I could’ve written 45 songs that sounded like that just ‘cuz it was sort of who I was as an artist.”
“Since then, I’ve gotten into some of the phrasey stuff, especially since I’ve written so much with Shane [McAnally] and Josh Osborne, those guys are so good at that, and it totally seeps into your brain and it becomes a part of you. I don’t know what my perfect thing would be [now]. I love when there’s country in the lyric though, like I love when you can get some of those images and the color in there. Nicolle Galyon is really really good at that.”
“I’m good at writing girl songs,” he continues. “It’s easier for me to connect to the girl in this market than the guy ‘cuz I’m so not the macho tough guy. I would write a break up song every time, and guys just won’t sing that stuff, they have trouble being vulnerable. And then when they are vulnerable, it’s huge, it’s always huge. So I don’t know why they don’t do more of it.”
“It’s always been really easy for me to tap into the female perspective just ‘cuz they’re more willing to go emotional. And people will tell you, if there’s one thing I am, it’s emotional. Like, I don’t know why, but I have always felt things a lot. But I remember talking about that, people were complaining about the girl thing, and it was at a time I had like, five female singles at the same time or something.” While the lack of a female presence at radio has been much-discussed of late, Robbins’ simultaneous singles included Leah Turner’s “Pull Me Back,” Jana Kramer’s “Love,” Sara Evans’ “Slow Me Down,” Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban’s duet “We Were Us,” and his three cuts on Miranda Lambert’s then upcoming album Platinum.
With as much success as Robbins has, you’d think it might eventually lose its shine, but for the writer it’s anything but lost its luster. “I still get excited about holds,” he says. “I sort of just always choose to believe everything’s gonna happen too, like every hold I’m like, well that’s definitely gonna get cut, and that’s definitely gonna be the single. They tell you with this business the trick is to not get too high on the highs or too low on the lows and stay in the middle, and there’s a lot of truth to that.”
“I get in trouble with my team all the time because I do the opposite. But my thought is like, I would rather be excited now and disappointed later than not excited. So I get excited about every hold and every cut and everything still. And so I get bummed out a lot too. Every song I write, I feel like I could be out of songs every day, I feel like I could be done and so it also, ever hold could be the last hold, every cut could be the last cut. You never know.”
He acknowledges it’s a little fatalistic. “But I think it keeps your grounded too, ‘cuz in the height of it you can feel like this is gonna keep going forever.”
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