Rivers Rutherford, All the Way from Memphis
By Gary Voorhies
© 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
The childhood home of Rivers Rutherford was four blocks from Graceland, Elvis Presley's estate. Naturally, "The King" became one of his strongest childhood influences, as did Memphis' renowned Beale Street musicians.
But Rutherford's greatest influence is his father, who encouraged him from a young age.
"One night when I was 9, my dad and I were singing and playing guitar in the kitchen while my mother was cooking and after a while my dad asked her what she wanted to hear," Rutherford recalled. "We didn't know it, but she was going deaf and loud noises hurt her ears, so she answered with an emphatic 'Nothing!' Being the smart aleck that I was, I went back to my room and wrote my first song and called it 'Nothing.' My dad thought it was pretty good and encouraged me to write another. So I've been writing ever since."
By the time he was 15, Rutherford was performing on the Memphis Queen Riverboat and learning R&B classics from Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Booker T. Before long, he graduated to the clubs on Beale Street. He attended the University of Mississippi on a music scholarship and studied piano and English.
Rutherford's next move was a big jump — over the fence surrounding the Memphis home of producer Chips Moman, who was working with The Highwaymen on their second album.
"Chips was not too happy about waking up to barking guard dogs and squad cars," Rutherford laughed, "but he listened ... and when I had finished playing, he just sat there silently smoking a cigarette. I thought he didn't like the song, so I started packing up my guitar."
But Moman did like it and eventually signed Rutherford to a writing deal, which led to his first cut.
"He told me he was working on a project in Nashville and wanted me to come up and play a song I had just written for 'the guys.' I walked into the control room and it was Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. ... The Highwaymen," Rutherford remembered. "Chips asked me to play my song 'American Remains' and 30 minutes later I was singing the scratch vocal while the band recorded it. Later that day I stood in a 3 feet by 3 feet vocal booth with Johnny Cash, teaching him the melody to my song. I got to play a little guitar and sing some backups too. I'm pretty sure that was my favorite day ever in a studio."
After a brief stint in law school in 1991 and moving to Nashville in 1993, Rutherford began to make a name for himself as an entertainer, studio guitar player and songwriter.
When he and his wife began a family, Rutherford took on more and more studio work. He played guitar on albums by Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt, Amy Grant, Point of Grace and Ringo Starr among others. But when a producer called to book him just one day before a session, Rutherford reached a turning point.
"It hit me that I must have been his last call at such a late date and I realized that I was never going to be the best guitar player in Nashville, so I called him back and told him 'I don't do sessions anymore,'" Rutherford said.
He signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group in 1996 and remains with the company today. In 2002, he earned honors for the ASCAP Song of the Year, Brooks & Dunn's six weeks at No. 1 hit, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You."
Rutherford has racked up cuts by acts including Gary Allan ("Smoke Rings In The Dark"); Josh Gracin ("I Want To Live"); Andy Griggs ("Tonight I Wanna Be Your Man"); Faith Hill ("When The Lights Go Down"); Tim McGraw ("Real Good Man"); Montgomery Gentry ("If You Ever Stop Loving Me"); Randy Travis ("Raise Him Up"); and Chely Wright ("Shut Up And Drive").
Rutherford says his intention in songwriting is two-fold. "First, I want my songs to be entertaining. People listen to music to escape. Secondly, I hope my songs connect with people and affirm what they feel but don't or can't necessarily articulate."
He has earned the respect of many in the Nashville's creative community.
"... Rivers is that unique writer that combines Mississippi Delta blues with Country and rock in every song he writes," noted Brad Paisley. "He's got more soul in his music than almost anyone I've ever heard. I always get the feeling that he really means what he is saying in any song he writes. Getting to know him has only strengthened that notion. With such talent and heart, we are lucky to have him in Nashville."
Honesty is evident in Rutherford's live performances as well. In November, he played a sold out show with several other writers in New York at Joe's Pub as part of the "Country Takes NYC" campaign that promoted "The 39th Annual CMA Awards."
"I think New York City is starving for real songs," Rutherford said. "The crowds up there ate up what we were doing."
For Rutherford, performing is an integral part of his identity. He said it gives him the fulfillment of knowing he has someone else's complete attention. He spent time on the road in 2005 opening for Gracin, Pat Green and Keith Urban and released his own album, Just Another Coaster, that is marketed from his Web site.
Nashville Underground Record Collective, a coalition of professional songwriters that operates their own record and distribution company, includes two of Rutherford's cuts on their recent compilation album, Nashville Underground Rocks IV. Rutherford joins Al Anderson, Marshall Chapman, Danny Flowers, Darrell Scott and Jeffrey Steele as they present their renditions of songs they penned for other artists and share the more personal, undiscovered songs they have written.
He also strives to help others find their creative voice. He teaches a continuing education songwriting course in Nashville at Vanderbilt University each fall and produces several acts, including Montgomery Gentry, Jamie O'Neal and Cole Degges. Rutherford wrote and produced the song, "She Don't Tell Me To," featured on Montgomery Gentry's new greatest hits album.
"My job as a producer is to bring out the best and the most of the artist's talent, to make the artist feel comfortable enough to stretch a little outside of his or her comfort zone and to present that artist's talent to the public in a fresh but accessible manner," he said.
All in all, Nashville has been good to Rutherford and his appreciation shows.
"Nashville is, in my mind, home to the best players, the best business people, the best writers and the best singers on the planet," Rutherford said. "At one time or another, everyone comes to Nashville. Not everyone goes to other creative centers like New York or Stockholm, but everyone ends up here. People are amazed at the talent here."
Rutherford stays active and possesses abundant creative energy. He works with NSAI to help spread the word about illegal downloading. He recently celebrated his fourth consecutive chart-topping single, "Homewecker," recorded by Gretchen Wilson.
Still, he indicates he's just getting started and admits to a lofty goal.
"I want to be like (songwriters) Tom Shapiro, Bill Anderson or Bob DiPiero. Those guys never run out of things to say.
"Nashville is a 10-year town," he explained. "It takes 10 years to get really plugged in. I have a lot more to write about and I don't ever want to do anything else."
On the Web: www.riversrutherford.com