When any artist or band needs stone-cold, hardcore country music for any project, they can always rely on Erin Enderlin.
The Nashville songwriter and Arkansas native would be the first to admit that nothing in her life is normal. She could easily charge an admission just to hear her share the stories behind the music that shaped her life without performing a single note.
She was on spring break during her senior year at Middle Tennessee State University when she got the call that Alan Jackson recorded her mournful ballad “Monday Morning Church” — the first major cut of her career. Jackson released it as a single for 2004’s What I Do and Patty Loveless sang harmony vocals on the track. Two months later after the Jackson call, Randy Travis cut another one of her songs.
“I got letters in the mail from people saying, ‘I lost my husband, and I’m so angry and upset. And people say it’s going to be OK and it’s not … But I listened to your song, and it made me feel like it was OK to feel that way.'” Enderlin tells CMT.com of one fan’s reaction to “Monday Morning Church.” “That’s crazy to me that someone would track me down because it meant that much to them.”
After college graduation, Enderlin became a full-time songwriter on Music Row. One of her first places in Nashville was a house she rented with another songwriter and a rising Chris Stapleton, who lived in the basement apartment.
“Every night, I could hear him singing through the air conditioning vent,” she recalls. “I don’t know how it perfectly sent all that noise up to my room. Usually people would be pissed — ‘Damn it, why do I have to listen to my room mates?’ But in my case, it was amazing. I could just hear him down there writing or singing. I remember thinking, ‘People are not going to believe this someday.'”
Her next major cut was Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call” for 2008’s Call Me Crazy. Three years later, she toured with Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour, which featured an all-star cast that included Lee Brice, Craig Campbell Brantley Gilbert, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Drake White, Brent Cobb, Caitlyn Smith and others.
“I got to go on the bus with Willie Nelson and we watched Gunsmoke and told me how much he loved a song of mine and he was quoting lyrics from it,” Enderlin says.
After Luke Bryan recorded Enderlin’s “You Don’t Know Jack” for 2011’s Tailgates and Tanlines, Merle Haggard called. “I got to meet Merle,” she said, “He called me on the phone and he was singing, ‘You Don’t Know Jack.’ That doesn’t happen.”
This is Enderlin’s life, and all she has ever wanted was to be part of country music.
“I’ve never had a full-time job outside of country music,” she says. “That’s insane, and I don’t take it for granted.”
But these stories pale in comparison to the storytelling that plays out on her album Whiskeytown Crier. Produced by Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown, the 14-song collection showcases Enderlin as the William Faulkner of her time in country music, and the lyrics keep the audience hanging on her every word. Getting its name from a fictional small town newspaper, the concept album is full of drama and colorful characters that reflect the harsher experiences that occur in everyday life.
Stapleton howls on “Caroline,” the first of back-to-back murder songs. He later appears on “His Memory Walks on Water” about a daughter who wills herself to overlook her late father’s addiction. Randy Houser appears on “The Coldest In Town,” which compares a beer joint marquee to a relationship gone cold, and love is a drag in “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” Jessi Alexander sings harmony on an emotive version of Tammy Wynette’s “Til I Can Make It On My Own” and they’re joined by Jon Randall on The Byrds’ “Hickory Wind.”
Her latest single, the ballad, “Ain’t it Just Like a Cowboy,” exposes the painful reality of falling for a cheating rodeo star. The video stars rising artist Kimberly Kelly as the woman who gets cheated on by a two-timing cowboy. But he eventually gets what’s coming to him at the end of the piece.
“I love story songs and I love characters — not just in music, but in life,” Enderlin says. “I’m intrigued by a life that’s not perfect, and emotions that aren’t perfect — just the real, raw story. To me, that’s more interesting.”
When asked whether some of her stories are inspired by events that have happened in her life versus the experiences of others, she said it was a mixture.
“One of my favorite things about songwriting is that I can hide my real life in the songs that I write,” she says. “I don’t have to paint a picture of exactly what happened so the guilty and the innocent are protected. But there’s definitely real emotions and real connection in each of these songs for me. Definitely a couple of stories were inspired by real people I know because their story really touched me.
“Sometimes it’s just insane to me that I even get to follow my dreams in the first place,” she adds. “A lot of people don’t even have that opportunity for whatever reason. And maybe I’ve just been lucky. But having people like Alan Jackson, Lee Ann, Terri Clark, Joey + Rory and Luke cut my songs, I mean, I feel really honored that I get to be part of that. Even if tomorrow I had to quit, I’ve been part of country music. And I got to play the Grand Ole Opry.”
Enderlin’s tour to support Whiskeytown Crier picks up Sept. 20 in Little Rock.