By Kurt Wolff
When the songwriting team of Connie Harrington, Jessi Alexander and Jimmy Yeary finished “I Drive Your Truck,” they knew this wasn’t an ordinary song. It wasn’t even an ordinary hit song. It was something truly special. And to pull it off, to make it work, they also knew they needed to find the right type of singer.
They found that singer in Lee Brice.
“It slayed me,” Brice told Radio.com, describing the first time he heard the song. “I immediately fell in love with it.”
Initially released on his 2012 album Hard 2 Love, “I Drive Your Truck” became Brice’s third single in a row from that album to reach No. 1. Now the song is up for Single of the Year, Song of the Year and Video of the Year at the 2014 Academy of Country Music Awards. Brice has also been nominated as Male Vocalist of the Year.
Related: See all 2014 ACM nominations
The story of the song began one Memorial Day weekend a few years back, when writer Connie Harrington was visiting family. She was listening to NPR, and the reporter was interviewing a man whose son was a soldier who had died in Afghanistan. How was he going to commemorate his son during Memorial Day? He answered that he was simply going to drive his truck.
“Connie being the daughter of a POW, this just really hit home,” said another of the song’s writers, Jessi Alexander, during a recent conversation with Radio.com. “So she literally pulled off the side of the road and started to jot down as much as she could remember of what he said.”
During a songwriting session soon after, Harrington and Alexander were tossing around ideas, “and she said, ‘well I have this one.’ And she started to cry. And anybody who writes with Connie knows that when she’s crying, you’re onto something great.”
But even describing the idea was difficult. “She couldn’t even say it — she couldn’t say ‘I drive his truck.’ She was like, ‘no, I don’t want to do it today.’ And I was like, ‘oh yeah we are!’ I pulled it out of her.”
They spent that day “just throwing out images,” Alexander recalled. “The shirt in the back … the dog tags … the Gatorade bottle. I remember me saying the ’89 cents in the ashtray.’ Maybe it was 39 cents when we first started. But just images.”
At the end of that day, Alexander said, she told Harrington that “‘I feel like this song is too powerful for us to let go. If we write this as a female song it’ll never get cut. We have to get a guy in here.'”
At that point as a songwriting team, Alexander explained, she and Harrington had together only written songs from a female point of view, and they’d never had one cut. For this song, though, they felt they needed a male singer for it to work — and to find the audience it deserved.
With that in mind, she said, “I didn’t want to be trusted with the melody. If we were going to write it for a male, I didn’t want to have that burden to write [the music] myself.” So she and Harrington “tossed out ideas,” and eventually Yeary’s name came up as the “perfect” choice.
They gave Yeary what they had so far on the song, and at the next session, Alexander said, when he arrived, “you could tell he had really taken his time and worked on it.” And when they finished it that day, she recalled, “we all looked at each other with amazement.”
“We all cried at some point” during the session, she said. “And when it was over, there was just a communal prayer of, let’s make sure we get this to the right person to sing it.”
And their chief motivation for this wasn’t just that they knew they had a hit on their hands. It was that guy on the NPR report Harrington had heard, the dad who’d talked about driving his son’s truck. “We thought, how cool would it be if he ever heard this song on the radio.”
“Typically every songwriter’s mission is to get a single — but for us, this was more than just a moneymaker. It was, how do we get this out there so that the dad will hear it?”
So, she said, the agreed they didn’t want to give the song to just anyone. “We wanted someone to sing it soulfully and with conviction. And that ruled out a lot of people, even some big names.”
A few weeks later, they heard that Lee Brice loved the song and wanted to cut it. “And we all felt great about it because of his singing ability, and the age group [of his audience]. We felt that people would really respond to him. And he’s such a great storyteller. So we were all for it.”
At the time, Brice was a relatively new artist. Still, Alexander said, she and her songwriting team “had faith in him and his belief in the song.”
Brice, for his part, was simply flabbergasted that he was being offered such a gem.
“I was going to a pitch meeting,” he told Radio.com, “and I was looking for uptempo, fun songs. I liked a couple of them, but then one of the publishers said, ‘can we play you a song if it’s not uptempo? We think it’s a song of the year.’ And I said, ‘well yeah! Play it for me!’ They started playing me this demo, they didn’t tell me anything about it. And I listened, and the very first time it hit that chorus, ‘I drive your truck,’ I lost it. Right there in front of like seven different publishes.”
“So it slayed me, floored me. And I immediately thought about my grandaddy. It wasn’t even about his military side, it was just about him — a dairy farmer, driving his truck around.”
Because it resonated so personally for him on that first listen, Brice knew it would for others, too. “Obviously it wasn’t my story,” he said, “I just felt like it was. And I knew everybody else in the whole world would feel that way. So I was like, ‘look, if you’re serious about pitching me this song, it’s something that I will take very seriously.'”
And, again, he was surprised he was even being offered the song.
“When they played it for me, I was like, ‘So, why are ya’ll playing me that song?’ Don’t play me that song if I can’t cut it! C’mon!'”
As Brice explained, though, the writers told him they felt he could do the song justice. “And I said, ‘absolutely.’ So I was very careful about how I treated it.”
But treating it in a “careful” manner, he said, wasn’t difficult. “It was very natural for me. That’s my kind of singing, that’s my heart.”
The song was released to radio in December of 2012, and it hit No. 1 four months later.
“They wrote it to the wall, man,” Brice said of Harrington, Alexander and Yeary. “They wrote it absolutely perfectly.”
Oh, and that father who inspired the song? His name is Paul Monti, and yes he did hear it. He even flew to Nashville to attend the No. 1 party for the song.
“Your child is your future, and when you’ve lost your child, you’ve lost your future,” Monti told NPR. “And I think one of the reasons so many Gold Star parents drive their children’s trucks is ‘cuz they have to hold on. They just have to hold on.”
The 49th annual ACM Awards air live from Las Vegas on Sunday, April 6 at 8pm ET/PT on CBS.