Artists ranging from Willie Nelson and Mel Tillis to Natalie Hemby and Thomas Rhett made the transition from songwriters for big-label acts to country stars in their own right. John King looks to join that rich lineage on his own terms with his debut album, the autobiographical Always Gonna Be You (out Sept 8 via Starstruck Records).
The Habersham County, Ga. native's path to a solo career began during his years at the University of Georgia, where he became part of the bustling Athens music scene that brought us John Berry and Corey Smith.
"Athens was a great launching point," King told Wide Open Country. "I remember seeing Luke Bryan come to play the Georgia Theatre and Zac Brown was getting his start. All these Georgia artists were really taking off that were older than me, and I thought, 'Man, these guys all went up to Nashville and were from Georgia like me. It seems like the town to be in. It seems like this magic city.'"
Tapping into that magic required a lot of hard work. King first approached that daunting task after moving to Nashville by sharpening his songwriting talent.
"I came up to town and started to write a ton because I knew I needed to get better," King said. "I just knew I needed to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it. Kind of have my unique stamp on songs. It took me a while to find a way to do that, and it took writing with some really talented people to kind of rub off on me and help me get there."
"With that first Randy Houser song, that No. 1 we had, that gave me a big boost of confidence," King said. "Not only as a songwriter but as an artist. It was cool to have that, really just to be able to say, 'I can do this. I can be in this competitive country music [business] and do this thing as a songwriter. Now do this as an artist.'"
Long-standing goals made King's shift from Music Row co-writer for others to singer-songwriter a no-brainer.
"I always knew I wanted to make my own songs, and I wanted people to hear them," he explained. "People ask if I like the artist side of it or if I like the songwriter side of it better. For me, I can't really see one without the other. They just kind of go hand-in-hand. I love writing and I love performing and singing. I think even as a kid, I knew they were kind of just one thing. I knew I wanted to write songs, and I knew I loved music. Honestly, it was the only thing I was good at."
Uptempo jam "All I Can Do," introspective slow burner "Better Man" and eight other album tracks trace King and his wife Hannah's journey from high school sweethearts to parents. Each song blends country radio accessibility with the pull-no-punches honesty and unapologetic individuality of one of King's favorite contemporaries, Eric Church.
"I think the hardest thing sometimes as an artist is to figure out what's your thing," King explained. "Be honest. That took me a couple of years to figure out. Come into a genuine way of saying what I wanted to say. I think that's my favorite thing about this record. Any of the music I've put out is exactly me. There's no frill or fluff around it. It's honest stories, and I've been through every one of these songs. It took a while to get there, but it's a good feeling."
It'd be easy to read the liner notes of Always Gonna Be You and think King's a natural at pretty much everything that takes place in the studio. Beyond co-writing all 10 songs, he sat in the producer's chair at times and gets credited as a multi-instrumentalist.
King counters that assumption with the humility and honesty that's flavored his songs dating back to "Tonight Tonight," a solo debut that cracked the Top 40 in 2014 and blared during CBS' NFL recaps.
"Pretty much everything I've done, I've had to do it the hard way," he said. "Looking back, I think it's really helped me become the artist I am, the person I am. I just have to figure out things. Just jump in there and get it done. You know, a sink or swim kind of thing. It's been that way with songwriting. When I came to town, I'd only written by myself in my bedroom. I had no idea how to co-write. I just had to rise to the occasion. I think there's something to be said for that. And when you're surrounded by so many talented folks, heck, you want to get better."
Always Gonna Be You Tracklist
1. "Easy" (John King, Nick Bailey, Ryan Ogden)
2. "For You" (King, Curt Gibbs, Will Nance)
3. "All I Can Do" (John King, Chris Stevens, Justin Wilson)
4. "Til It Changes Your Mind" (King, Jason Gantt, Matt Rogers)
5. "Try Saying Goodbye" (King, Paul DiGiovanni, Jamie Paulin)
6. "Ain't Missing You" (King, Jordan Schmidt, Josh Miller)
7. "Your Man" (King, Jason Massey, Trannie Anderson)
8. "Always Gonna Be You" (King, Leslie Satcher)
9. "Prettiest Girl In The Room" (King, Jason Gantt, Trannie Anderson, Jessica Cayne)
10. "Better Man" (John King, Seth Mosley, Jesse Lee Levin)