Songs co-written by Jessi Alexander have been cut over the years by everyone from Miley Cyrus ("The Climb" from The Hannah Montana Movie) to Celine Dion ("Didn't Know Love"), yet as "Mama Drank" and other songs off new album Decatur County Red reveal, she shines just as bright when writing and performing tradition-honoring country music.
Tell-tale signs of a singer-songwriter were there all along, dating back to at least the runaway success of Alexander's greatest co-write, Lee Brice's "I Drive Your Truck."
"The idea came from an NPR special that Connie Harrington, my co-writer, was listening to on Memorial Day," Alexander says. "She caught the middle of an interview. She heard a father talking about a son who he'd lost in Afghanistan. The interviewer at the end of the interview said, 'What are you going to do today to honor your son?' He just said, 'I'm going to go and drive his truck.' Connie really felt the weight of those words, and I was so blessed to be the girl that she had booked the next day."
As luck would have it, Alexander talked herself out of skipping the golden opportunity that forever changed her professional reputation and her approach to songwriting.
"I almost cancelled that write because I was pregnant, and at that time I had quit writing female songs," she says. "So I was thinking, 'Why are me and Connie writing? I'm going to end up singing,' you know.
"That was day one of a big shift in my career where it dawned on me through the write of 'I Drive Your Truck' that, wow, we're getting this lyric going. This really isn't a girl song. We both hear this for a guy," she continues. "We need to get a guy in this co-write. So it wound up being a two-day write where we pulled in the amazing Jimmy Yeary. That kind of became me and Connie's thing. We went on to bring in another guy the next time, Deric Ruttan, and we wrote 'Mine Would Be You.' We kind of found our missing ingredient."
"Mine Would Be You," "Drink On It" and "Turnin' Me On" are among the Alexander co-writes recorded by her close friend Blake Shelton. Professionally speaking, they go together like Dean Dillon and George Strait (or, if you prefer, Dean Dillon and Toby Keith).
"Blake and I kind of latched onto each other six records ago, seven records ago for him," Alexander says. "For whatever reason, (he records) the songs I write... Even when he doesn't know I wrote them. I've had several songs that he'd recorded that he didn't even know I wrote. Usually I'm not singing the demo because they're male songs. We speak the same language, I reckon."
"We both grew up on the same kind of music," she adds about her kinship with Shelton. "We're diehard traditional country fans. When we get together, we're singing covers together. If there's any dead time and we've got our guitars in our hand, we're playing old Don Williams songs or old Merle Haggard songs."
As for Alexander's own music, the success online of "Mama Drank" elevated her to the same discussion as Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, Erin Enderlin and other talented women skilled at writing hits for others and telling their own stories as performers.
At risk of wrongly painting Decatur County Red as a one-song album, "Mama Drank's" quality cannot be overstated. In fact, there's little reason to doubt that someone like Carrie Underwood or frequent Alexander collaborator Ashley Monroe could've made waves if they'd gotten to it first.
"It's so, so personal that who's going to sing this?," Alexander says. "Once I recorded it and decided to put it out, the train was on the tracks. I couldn't turn back. But I'd be honored for any female to sing that, or male. It's still fair game. Someone could still cut it!"
Even the jet set responded rowdily upon hearing the latest benchmark in Alexander's career.
"I played 'Mama Drank' for the first time in Austin at a fundraiser called MJM: Mack, Jack & McConaughey.," she says. "It's a big fundraiser they do: Jack Ingram, Mack Brown and Matthew McConaughey. I played 'Mama Drank,' and the reaction was so crazy. I had never felt that as a solo artist."
"Mama Drank" is one of several outstanding , tradition-bound story-songs that Alexander felt compelled to tell as a solo artist.
"I wanted to tip my hat to songwriters like Loretta Lynn that wrote everything she was seeing as a mom, and I wanted to tip my hat to the legendary songwriters in Nashville like Bobby Braddock, Bob McDill, Kris Kristofferson and Dean Dillon with songs like 'Damn Country Music' and 'How I'm Going Out'," she adds.
Plus, by cutting honest to goodness country songs herself, Alexander got to feel even closer to the country star she's named after, outlaw legend Jessi Colter.
"We both performed at the Kris Kristofferson tribute at the Bridgestone Arena a couple of years ago," Alexander explained when asked about a favorite Colter memory. "They put us in the same dressing room, so on the door it said 'Jessi Alexander/Jessi Colter.' That's something I would have ever dreamed was ever possible."