You may not know his name, but in Nashville JT Harding is a rock star.
In a town where songwriters can spend an entire career just trying to get a song on a record JT has five number one hits to his credit. Not bad for a guy from Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
“I’ve been very lucky, been very fortunate.” JT says, “I just work really hard and I don't know how to explain it. I think what’s helped me a lot is I’ve tried to sing about things that are personal to me. So my songs aren’t really country songs at all, but somehow they work here.”
His list of hits tops the playlists of the biggest names in country music: Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You”, Blake Shelton’s “Sangria”, Keith Urban’s “Somewhere In My Car”, Jake Owen’s “Alone With You” and Uncle Kracker’s “Smile”.
“A lot of breakup songs,” JT jokes.
How a guy from Grosse Pointe ended up becoming one of country music’s hottest writers sounds a little like a country song.
“I had these three gorgeous babysitters,” he says, “the Keelan sisters. And they would dance around the kitchen to WRIF. I was thinking to myself ‘I have got to find a way to make music to make these girls dance, so I put together a band. I was only in 7th grade, and as fate would have it, Grosse Pointe had a battle of the bands and when the curtain opened a thousand kids were screaming for us I said 'this is the job for me'.”
After high school JT hit the road to Los Angeles to find fame and stardom as a rock star. He caught the attention of hard rock legend Marilyn Manson who hired JT - but not as a member of his band.
“I was more like whipping boy personal assistant. He would sleep all day so, in the daytime, I'd work on my songs and, as fate would have it, from there I got to work with a band called Linkin Park and they started letting me open up for them, and that’s how I got my writing deal.”
One of his first official writing duties was to work with fellow Michigander Uncle Kracker, and they came up with “Smile”.
“Smile was never meant to be a country song.” JT explains, “We wrote that song and, thankfully, 99.5 in Detroit started playing it, the first country station to play it and then across the United States all the stations added it and it became a country song.”
Smile was followed in 2010 by “Somewhere with You”, which quickly climbed to number 1 and became superstar Kenny Chesney’s first platinum single. That was followed in 2011 by “Alone with You”, recorded by Jake Owen, “Somewhere in My Car” in 2014, which JT wrote with Keith Urban, and “Sangria” in 2015, which became Blake Shelton’s twentieth number one hit and JT’s fifth.
So, now that he’s a hit songwriter, what about that Grosse Pointe 7th grader’s dream of becoming a rock star?
“It was fun,” JT says of his days as front man for the band JTX, “but there’s something about writing songs that is just really incredibly satisfying. When I’m driving down the street and I hear “Smile” on the radio, it just makes your heart skip a beat you know. You think, maybe, teenagers somewhere at a drive-in on Gratiot are having their first kiss to it. I want to write the song that launches a thousand romances.”
Even more interesting than JT’s journey to Nashville is the story of how he left Nashville the first time. He was born there and given up for adoption at birth to a couple from Michigan. He admits to fantasizing that his biological dad was someone famous, maybe a rock star or an actor. It turns out he is.
Jay Thomas is now a DJ on Sirius/XM satellite radio. But he’s also a comedian and actor who starred in sitcoms in the 70s and 80s like Mork and Mindy, Murphy Brown and Cheers.
JT and Thomas reconnected a few years ago when he lived in Los Angeles and they’ve become close. “He like my long-lost fraternity brother,” JT jokes.
The physical similarities are striking. So are the quick wits and frenetic energy shared by biological father and son. But JT insists all his successes are purely the result of his Michigan upbringing.
“If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of hearing Jay sing, you would know it didn't come from there. I can honestly say growing up in Detroit and anything special and talented in me truly come from my parents, the Hardings. My parents encouraged me, the community encouraged me and I can honestly say that’s where I came from.”
The successes for JT Harding are not likely to slow down anytime soon. He just finished writing several songs with rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
“Writing with Jon Bon Jovi felt like I was in a movie all day, “ JT explains, “He wrote the soundtrack of my youth: Bad Medicine, Living on a Prayer, Never Say Goodbye.”
No word yet if any of the songs will make it on a Bon Jovi album, but it’s got JT itching to write with some other big names - like fellow Michiganders Eminem and Kid Rock and pop queen Katy Perry.
Taking a look at his track record of hit songs so far, those stars might want to give JT Harding a call.