Beach Roots Run Deep

June 2017
Written By: 
Pam Windsor

Singer/songwriter Jesse Rice storms Nashville with his ‘beach country’

Singer/songwriter Jesse Rice lives in Nashville, but has never strayed far from his South Carolina roots. Rice, who grew up in Conway, is perhaps best-known for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s megahit “Cruise,” which ranks as Billboard’s longest-running number one single.

Recently, Rice has garnered attention as an artist in his own right with his self-produced Pirate Sessions III. With songs like “Tank Tops & Flip Flops,” “88 in the Shade” and “Hangout with a Hangover,” it clearly comes from someone who’s spent a lot of time on the water.

“I grew up in Conway, but I could go to the beach every day,” he explains. “And I’ve always liked that kind of music. I’ve always liked the Jimmy Buffett stuff, the beachy Kenny Chesney, even some of that older stuff like “Under the Boardwalk.”

The album can be described as “beach country,” although the chart category that tracks the genre is called “Tropical Rock” or “Trop Rock.”

Growing up, Rice points to his father as his greatest musical influence. His parents, Paul and Nelljean Rice, were English professors at Coastal Carolina University (his mother later became a Dean), but his father was also a musician.

“We were both poets,” notes Nelljean Rice,” but my husband was also a kick-ass rock ’n’ roll guitarist.” Paul Rice did a lot of session work in Atlanta years earlier.

While Rice never learned to play the guitar as a child (that would come later), he spent a lot of time with a father who dabbled in songwriting.

“He would come to Nashville and sort of try to pitch his songs,” he recalls. “And he would take me. I remember a couple of trips when I was 10 and 11 years old. We’d come here and we’d go to the Bluebird Café. There was a magic to this place and I loved it.”

Rice wrote his first song around that time. His mother remembers they’d been on a family trip to Georgia and she and her husband were talking about the Civil War and how, with her from the North and him from the South, their ancestors might have fought each other.

“Jesse said, ‘Dad that’s so interesting, why don’t you write a song about it,’” she recalls. “And Paul said, “No son, why don’t you?’ And Jesse got real quiet and said, ‘We’ll see.’ And so the next morning we got up and there on a dining room table was a five-verse song with a chorus, and a little note that said, “Dad, could you please put this to music?”

Although he never actively pursued music before, when he headed off to college Rice asked his dad to do something for him.

“This was before you could get anything off the internet. I said, ‘can you just draw how to make four or five chords for me and I’ll take one of your old guitars up to Furman?’”

That piece of paper from his father, who would pass away in 2004, was all he’d need to teach himself to play the guitar.

“I still wish I had that piece of paper,” he says, softly. “That would have been cool.”

As Rice progressed with his music, he couldn’t decide whether to go to law school and become a sports agent or head to Nashville for songwriting. He even took a year off to teach school in Indiana to figure things out. In the end, he chose Nashville.

He soon connected with other songwriters. In a few years he got a publishing deal and had several songs recorded as smaller cuts, but “Cruise” was his first big break.

“I remember Sam Hunt came up to me one day. I was at his number one party for a song he wrote for Kenny Chesney and I said, ‘Man I hope to be doing the same thing someday.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re there. This “Cruise” song is going to be number one.’”

Hunt was right. The song led to a long list of major music awards for Rice and his fellow co-writers.

Sometime earlier, Rice and a small group began working on an island-themed album that would later become Pirate Sessions I and II.

“Myself and (the members of) Florida Georgia Line and Chase Rice made that first Pirate Sessions record as something for us to do for ourselves because we liked it and thought it was cool.”

Once a Nashville Sirius XM channel began playing it, people started calling.

“They thought we were a band when actually we were just four songwriting buddies who came together.”

And then, fate intervened.

“Really soon after that came together, we wrote ‘Cruise,’ Florida Georgia Line got their deal, Chase Rice got his deal, and I sort of took over this as my thing.”

Since then, he has been writing and rewriting until he had what he wanted for Pirate Sessions III. He’s collaborated with other songwriters and performers like fellow South Carolinian Patrick Davis. The two co-wrote “Hope Town.”

“We were in the Bahamas. It was a cold day which is not normal,” recalls Davis. “We’d gotten there a day or two earlier and seen a little bit of the island and decided we were going to write a song about that little spot of paradise.”

The song’s so popular it’s become kind of an anthem in that community.

Davis believes Rice has found his sweet spot with songwriting and performing and Pirate Sessions III is a great reflection of that.

“He does really well in this kind of laid-back island-themed music, which I think is natural for him. He’s a South Carolina boy, he’s from the beach, and he’s from that world. I think it’s a good place for Jesse to be.”

Jesse is proud of how the album came together.

“What I pride myself on, at the end of the day, is being able to write a song well,” he says. “It’s all different (the album and the variety of songs). I like that. And it takes you back to the beach.”

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Photographs courtesy of Jesse Rice