7 Chattanooga Locals Who Made it Big in Nashville
The bright lights of Nashville have lured in hopefuls of the music industry for decades. Read on to learn how seven Chattanooga-area natives are making their mark in Music City.
By Alexandra Hruz
Kelley Lovelace/ Songwriter / Hixson High School, Class of ‘86
Kelley Lovelace’s (pictured third from left) road to a music career brings to mind legends Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash—he penned his first song while serving in the army. And though that first attempt at songwriting didn’t land him on top of the charts, it did signal the start of an incredible journey.
After his service, Lovelace pursued singing in a band, but mostly because he wasn’t really sure how to make a songwriting hobby into a career. A few years later, he landed at Belmont University, where fate stepped in when he crossed paths with a then-unknown singer named Brad Paisley.
Paisley and Lovelace shared several classes and eventually formed a friendship. Lovelace recalls the first time they decided to write a song together. “I already knew he was a better melody writer and guitar player, so I had to figure out what I could bring to him,” he says. “My thought was: the one thing he doesn’t have is my ideas. I’m an idea generator as well as a songwriter.”
What followed was a number of songwriting credits for a host of country music superstars, including Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Joe Nichols, and more. His many credits now include well-known tunes like “All-American Girl,” “The Impossible,” and “I’m Still a Guy.”
Lovelace says the songs that tend to resonate with people are often inspired by poignant moments in his life. “My first big, big success was ‘He Didn’t Have To Be’ on Brad Paisley’s first album. It was written about my stepson. Anything that you write that is real, that’s about your family—those things always mean the most.”
Liz Morin / Music Publishing Agent and Co-Owner of Showbiz-Ro Music / Notre Dame High School, Class of ‘85; UTC, Class of ‘91
Growing with the industry, adapting to new trends, and watching nobodies become somebodies—after 20 years working in the music industry in Nashville, Liz Morin has seen the ins and outs of the business, and she still can’t get enough.
The Notre Dame alum has spent the last two decades building contacts (“I knew two people when I moved to Nashville, and now I know way too many.”) learning every facet of the music publishing business, and as of 2010, co-running her very own independent song plugging and writer management company, Showbiz-Ro Music, with business partner and longtime friend, Ronna Reeves.
As independent song pluggers, Morin and Reeves spend their days pitching music to artists, producers, record labels, management—anyone who might be willing to make the song into a record. And as you might imagine, it’s a career requiring plenty of networking skills as well as a thorough knowledge of what makes a song great.
“I don’t write songs or play an instrument. I like to go out with friends and artists and sing karaoke, but that’s the extent of my singing career,” Morin says. “My gift is my ears. I know a good song, and I know what needs to be created to make a good song.”
And the long list of hits she has been involved with speaks clearly of that talent. Most recently Morin has worked on cuts from artists including Tim McGraw, Lee Brice, Thompson Square, Randy Houser, and Luke Bryan.
Jimmy Chapin / International Marketing Manager at Big Machine Label Group / McCallie School, Class of ‘06
McCallie grad Jimmy Chapin started from the bottom (in the mailroom, to be exact), and his relatively new career in Nashville has been rewarding, challenging, and more than a little exhilarating.
Before making the move to Nashville, Chapin was an aspiring songwriter who would hand out demos (he describes them as “awful”) to artists playing at Riverbend. But after starting college at Belmont University, he soon became interested in the business side of things. “Volunteering and interning wherever I could helped me learn all areas of the business,” he says. “It’s such a complex industry, so finding your niche can take a while.”
In his current position as an international marketer at a record label, Chapin works with people around the world. “Nashville’s music has the ability to travel anywhere we want it to,” he says. “My goal is to continue to spread our music—which is not only country, by the way—as far as I can.”
For others considering a career in music, Chapin has a few sage words: “Follow your gut, even when it means not taking the easy or quick route. The music industry is definitely more than a job—it is a lifestyle.”
Brittney McKenna / Freelance Music Writer / Girls Preparatory School, Class of ‘07
Contrary to popular belief, a music career in Nashville doesn’t necessarily mean singer, songwriter, producer, or agent. For Brittney McKenna, a love of music and a passion for writing have melded together in a soul-satisfying and creatively stimulating job as a freelance writer in Music City.
McKenna was drawn to music long before making career plans. An early memory of dancing with her parents to Earth, Wind & Fire tunes was just one clue to her future focus.
As a senior in high school, she decided to attend Belmont University. That’s where things began to fall into place, she says, although Nashville turned out to be much different than what she imagined. “I didn’t know much about the city and thought it was just a tourist town with a bunch of country music, but I quickly realized there was a lot more than honky-tonks and cowboy hats,” she says. “I’ve been here seven years now and am consistently amazed by this community.”
Before setting out on her own as a freelance music writer, McKenna had several internships in the field. She started out in a digital marketing position at Big Machine Label Group, and then worked for Kenny Chesney’s rum brand, Blue Chair Bay, for about a year.
“I studied English in college and have always wanted to write for a living, so I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to merge that passion with my love for music,” McKenna says.
William Ward, Jr. / Founding Partner of ROAR / Baylor School, Class of ‘89
And he should know. His management and production company, ROAR, has offices in L.A., Nashville, New York, and Atlanta, and represents talent from the likes of the Zac Brown Band to Avengers megastar Chris Hemsworth. But his success wasn’t derived overnight—long hours and constant networking made him a heavy-hitter in one of the most competitive industries around. “It’s a very insular business so you have to prove you’re an asset,” Ward says. “I was always the first person in and the last to leave.”
This energy might have been directed elsewhere if not for the chance reading of a magazine article. Ward was prepping for final interviews on Wall Street when he read about a business mogul who ran a talent agency. “I just thought ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do,’” he says.
Ward spent three years in Nashville working at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and immersing himself in the music industry. “It’s such a pure music town,” he says. “So many people think of it as just country, but it’s such a concentrated force of music with people like the Black Keys, Kings of Leon, and Jack White there.”
After Ward made it to Los Angeles, and, alongside a few partners, started ROAR, he began to be able to do what he does best: curate talent and take it to the next level. “It’s great when clients get to the top for me, but I think the best part is the ride up. That’s the rush and the fun.”
Emily Evans / Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Country Music Association/Cleveland High School, Class of ‘00
But even though music wasn’t her initial impetus for packing her bags, it’s been important to her from an early age. “It’s been a part of my life as far back as my memory goes,” Evans says. “I’ve always loved the fun of it, the emotion, the stories, and especially the lyrics – I’ve always liked how music bonds people.”
With a degree in business management from Carson-Newman in tow, Evans made her way to Nashville with an internship secured with the (now defunct) MAD Booking and Events. And thanks to the experience she gained there, she quickly moved on to develop her career in branding and marketing.
Evans says she’s been fortunate enough to work with many talented people in Nashville, including one certain internationally acclaimed singer and songwriter. “Without a doubt, spending five years with seven-time Grammy winner Taylor Swift was a major highlight of my career,” she says. “Because of her level of talent and success, I gained more professional and life experiences in a five-year span than most people can in an entire career.”
Besides working with one of the most well-known and successful artists in recent history, Evans was also involved with orchestrating a tour sponsorship that went on to win Billboard Magazine’s inaugural Concert Marketing and Promotion Award.
Nathan Chapman/Music Producer/Lee University, Class of 2001
Not many people can say that they sang on a record, and fewer still can say that they sang on their first album at age 3. But Nathan Chapman, a Lee University graduate, grew up touring and recording music with his family, so this unusual occurrence wasn’t such a rarity for him. This unique upbringing helped to develop Chapman’s love for music and would eventually lead him to his future career. “I started making little recordings in my basement in 8th grade on my dad’s studio gear. I was hooked from that moment,” Chapman says.
Chapman’s career as a music producer has been chock-full of tremendous milestones, including two Grammys (for Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year for Taylor Swift’s Fearless), two number one hits with Keith Urban in 2013, and a host of ACM, CMA, and Dove Awards.
And despite his many achievements, he remains humble about his gift. “Every day that I get to make music for a living is a highlight for me,” he says. “It really is a dream job. And I have some amazing people in my life that make the challenges fun and the moments of celebration meaningful.”
For now, Chapman will revel in his success and continue to work on exciting projects (he just finished working on a new album for Lady Antebellum!) in the music world that has been a vital part of his whole life.
Not everyone who journeys to Nashville to seek a career in music makes that dream a reality, but these go-getters have persevered, sacrificing much to live and work in Music City in the industry they love.