Write back to the start: Nashville songwriter about No. 1 hits, Jim Thorpe and the inaugural Oklahoma Songwriter’s Festival

An interview with Marcus Hummon and the Oklahoma Songwriters Festival.  

By Nathan Poppe.  

Marcus Hummon writes hit songs but just not always for himself.

Hummon is based in Nashville, Tenn., and has written commercially successful hits for Rascal Flatts, the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks and a lot more country artists.

This weekend, he'll be workshopping and writing alongside several Okies and other Nashville musicians during the Oklahoma Songwriter's Festival. Also, he'll be performing Saturday evening at the ACM@UCO Performance Lab alongside the same combination of Oklahoma and Nashville talent. 

Hummon has struck a balance between art and commerce. For every hit song he's penned, he's got a musical, opera or any number of diverse projects going on at the same time.

It wasn't always so easy though. He initially couldn't garner much interest for "Bless the Broken Road," which he ended up winning Rascal Flatts a Grammy for Best Country Song in 2005. His big break came in 1992 after he speedily delivered a cassette tape to a Wynonna Judd recording session. That track became his first hit, "Only Love."

He spoke on the phone with The Oklahoman about his road to songwriting and what it's like to make it as a songwriter.

Q: You're fresh from writing a theatrical production based on an adaptation of Frederick Douglass' first autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of an American Slave." I understand you've also tackled a musical about famed Okie native athlete Jim Thorpe. Tell me more about that project.

Marcus Hummon: I'm a huge, huge Jim Thorpe fan, and it was first done many years ago, and back in 2011 here in Nashville at the Ford Theater (at the) Country Music Hall of Fame. We did it at Tennessee Performing Arts Center and then we did it off-Broadway. ... That was one of my biggest connections to Oklahoma, because in working on that piece I got to know Jim's daughter who passed away a few years ago, Grace Thorpe. We sent letters back and forth. I sent her a script, and finally I flew out and met some more of the Thorpe family.

So when Zac (Maloy) would talk to me about this and that we were gonna go out and do a songwriter's festival and that a lot of what it was going to be about was looking at Oklahoma writers and to inspire them — because there's been so many great Oklahoma songwriters in the national community; they have had such a huge impact — I just sort of jumped at the opportunity.

Q: A majority of the hit songs you've written have been made famous by popular country artists. Is this a genre you were intentionally aiming to get into or were you naturally drawn to it?

Hummon: No, I wasn't specifically drawn to country music as a kid. I just grew up in a family that loved music. My parents were very musical. My dad was a state department guy working at economic development overseas, so we grew up in Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Philippines and Saudi Arabia. We basically traveled, mostly overseas, until I was 17. As far as my early connection to Nashville, there was probably Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell records. Those are records that I remembered and love. ... I realized that Nashville, particularly in the late '80s, when it was exploding, it was really song-based. You needed to be able to play and you needed to be able to actually sing. It's not smoke and mirrors. I fit in, but it did take a little while, and then I had ... a couple publishers actually tell me to leave. (Laughs.)

Q: So why didn't you get out of town?

Hummon: I kind of looked into myself and asked, "Why should I stay?" I mean, what is it that I resonate with? And it was the love of songs. The actual musicians. The connection between songwriting, storytelling and what we do with our hands with these wonderful instruments. In that sense, I fit in just fine.

Q: You've had a lot of luck with your songs performing well commercially. Does hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts feel like the end goal? What does that milestone actually mean as a songwriter?

Hummon: I would be a liar if I didn't say that the thrill of a No. 1 record is really extraordinary. I remember the first time it happened and ... it's an extraordinary feeling, but it's definitely larger than that, because it's truly a way of life. I supplement my activities as a songwriter by being a playwright. You know, opera is related to me, I've written a couple of operas, and the nature of living within music, living within lyrics within the structure of a song, expanding a song, an album, thinking of that as a canvas, thinking of writing as a kind of lifelong meditation. Songwriting can be a way to take a prismatic look at the world around you and process your feelings. ... It's a way of life, and it's a way of growing as a person, I hope.

Q: What's the draw to coming to Oklahoma for this festival and working on songwriting sessions with Oklahoma-based artists?

Hummon: I'm always interested in being around young writers these days — I'm 55, so it seems like everyone's young. I sometimes describe writers as professional dreamers, and in that sense they play a really important part in culture, and so I always enjoy meeting new writers. Getting to share the stage with some Oklahoma writers, that's probably the thing I'm gonna look forward to most. Just to hear what they have to say, and hopefully some of what they have to say will have a distinctively Oklahoma taste, like a flavor. I wanna experience that.