Jesse Rice wanted to make sure it was perfect. The 12-year-old stayed up late into the night, making sure each detail was just right. He left the results of his labor, scrawled on a slightly rumpled legal pad, on the kitchen counter and went to bed.
The Civil War ballad titled, “The Other Side of Chattanooga,” was a gift for his father, Paul, who the next morning declared it “pretty dad gum good.”
That was the first inkling Rice had that songwriting could be part of his future.
Two decades later, Rice ’01 is one of the writers of the longest-running number one song in country music history, “Cruise,” a song recorded by duo Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line.
Since the song was first released in August 2012, he’s watched the song climb the charts. The original version of “Cruise” and the remix version with rapper Nelly has had more than 51,000,000 views on YouTube, and counting.
“It’s been a wild journey that’s exceeded our expectations in every way,” said Rice, who appears in the music video driving Roy Orbison’s Cadillac, the same Cadillac driven by Joaquin Phoenix in “Walk the Line.”
The journey started long ago with jam sessions with his dad at their Conway home and trips to visit one of his dad’s friends, Pat Alger, a hit songwriter who worked with artists including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Dolly Parton.
“I got a first-hand look at the industry early on… and I fell in love with the magic of Nashville,” Rice said.
But he didn’t think he’d be able to make it a career. His plan when starting Furman was to teach history and go onto law school.
The summer before Rice left for Furman, Rice’s dad gave his son one of his guitars. Music continued to be an important part of college life. He played the guitar with everyone from his resident assistant, Tyler Thigpen, to one of his football buddies, Bear Rinehart, who started the band Needtobreathe.
During his senior year, Rice realized he wanted to give professional songwriting a shot. At that point, he’d written about 100 songs. With the help of the Furman alumni network, he was offered an internship at EMI Music Publishing through Greg Hill (’91), who was then vice president of writer artist development.
His work got the attention of Sam Brooker, who in 2007 offered Rice a job as a staff songwriter for Artist Revolution Publishing.
Rice’s relationship with Florida Georgia Line came about entirely by chance. One day, he pulled into the parking lot of his Nashville townhome. Two of his neighbors, Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, then students at Belmont University, were playing guitars on the back of their pick-up truck.
That’s all it took.
“We became like brothers,” said Rice.
He went onto write more than 200 songs with Florida Georgia Line. Fittingly, “Cruise” was written with four friends in Rice’s living room using one of his late father’s guitars. It was one of those songs that just came together, in a mere 35 minutes, Rice said.
Rice and Florida Georgia Line left home in fall 2011 for a college tour, playing “Cruise” along the way. Everyone loved it in Clarksville, Miss. It was a hit in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Two years later, it’s one of the best-selling country songs of all time, with more than 5.4 million downloads, according to Billboard. Florida Georgia Line will also be performing Nov. 9 at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville.
“Surreal is a pretty good way to describe all of it,” Rice said. “It was meant to be. It had to be.”
Despite the song’s extraordinary success, Rice remains grounded and humble. “I think the key is never let your highs get too high or let your lows get too low,” he said.
He’s continuing to write music for friends as well as work on projects of his own. “The Pirate Sessions I,” a collection of country, beach and island rock tunes, was released in 2012, and Rice has begun work on his second album, “The Pirate Sessions II.”
“Ten number ones is my goal,” said Rice. “Cruise ought to count for three or four of them.”
(photo courtesy of Stephen Garrett)