Welcome to Emerging Country Artist Spotlight, a Billboard series where we highlight an up-and-coming act who is making a splash in the genre. This week’s pick is country singer-songwriter Brandon Ratcliff, who credits early albums by Eric Church and John Mayer for helping to discover his love of songwriting.
Brandon Ratcliff grew up in a musical home in Cotton Valley, Louisiana. The son of Suzanne Cox from legendary bluegrass band The Cox Family, Ratcliff was surrounded by music as a child but wasn’t always keen on following in his family’s footsteps until he began writing songs.
“Songwriting is the thing that fuels my artistry,” he tells Billboard over the phone. “I really feel like I found it on accident and] stumbled into who I am as an artist.”
It took several years of living and co-writing in Nashville before Ratcliff found his tribe of writers, which include Pete Good and AJ Babcock. The three songwriters penned Ratcliff’s debut single, “Rules of Breaking Up,” out now on Monument Records. "Rules of Breaking Up" is a blues-fueled country jam featured on his upcoming debut album, and Ratcliff says many of the songs on the project were inspired by the small town in Louisiana he grew up in.
“I carry a lot of nostalgia in the writing and inspiration from that area,” he says of the project, which includes a duet with Alison Krauss. “It was such as in a cinematic place, honestly.”
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I didn't really know] that I wanted to be an artist. In some ways, I feel like I rebelled against music for a long time because I grew up in a music family. Music was everywhere for me. It felt like the thing that I was supposed to do, but maybe because my family did it I wasn't always sure that I wanted to. My first dream was to play professional basketball, but as I got older I remember always loving music and being drawn to it. From a very early age my mom had me and my brother in drum lessons, piano lessons and guitar lessons.
I think the turning point was songwriting when I was about a junior in high school. I'd always been interested in it because my uncle and my mom have written songs for Alison Krauss and Alan Jackson. My mom just got a cut on the new Reba McEntire] record. It really took artists like John Mayer and Eric Church to strike a chord in me as a songwriter.
When was your first public appearance?
My first public performance was actually at a Veteran’s Day program at my high school. I was probably a freshman in high school, and I remember I sang "If You're Reading This" by Tim McGraw. It was my first big performance, probably in front of a total of 300 people in a hot gymnasium.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I don't know what it was called, but I do remember when I first started writing songs I was really bad at writing from my personal life. The first song I wrote was about another friend of mine, a guy I knew in junior high or high school. Him and his girlfriend had broken up and I wrote a song specifically about that relationship, almost as a project for me because I needed some kind of context or story. I was writing it like a mood board, based off their relationship.
Whose career do you admire most and would like to pattern yours after?
My Mount Rushmore would probably be John Mayer, Eric Church, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac. Those guys, to me, have such a collection and a breadth of songs. I remember from an early age digging into their records and just being like, “Man, there is not a bad song on this entire record.”
Who is your dream collaborator?
Lindsey Buckingham would be up there for me. John Mayer, Eric Church — any of those guys would be a dream to collaborate with. I would almost rather make a relationship with them and write with them and build something that way. I have so much respect for those guys as musicians and they taught me so much about being your own man and your own artist.
What’s the story behind your debut single “Rules of Breaking Up"?
I read into titles and I’m very precious about ideas that I think are really good. When I see something like “Rules of Breaking Up,” I have this instinctual moment where I’m like, “Man, if we don't mess that up, that has the potential to be something really special.” I thought it sounded so themed. John Mayer had albums] like Battle Studies, and Fleetwood Mac had Rumors, these records that were theme-pieced in this feeling through the whole record. “Rules of Breaking Up” had that same connotation. There's so much in that title you can unpack. There's many different stories you can tell that can probably apply to that same theme. I remember instantly feeling it was something special.
It wasn't until we started going down the path to writing the song that I remember having that eureka moment that it's going to be tough to beat a title or a song this good for a debut single. There was something about this song that just felt right for that first introduction into the world and also to bridge the gap for the rest of these songs. “Rules of Breaking Up” summarizes this project more than any other song on the record.
What song of yours best describes you as an artist?
It's a song that’s not out yet called “See Me Like This.” I remember telling Pete and AJ, “If there is one song on my entire record, if I could only show you one song off my record to summarize who I am as an artist it would be ‘See Me Like This’ because the song innately feels and says everything that I love about music.” It is a mega groove. It has a signature guitar part. It has really cool phrasing through the song and the hook really, really lands. It’s checking all the boxes for me and is more of a snapshot of who I am as an artist than any other song.
What’s the most autobiographical song on your upcoming album?
The most personal song I have on my record is about my hometown: “Slow Down Hometown.” I remember missing distinct changes in my hometown, like driving through to see new parking lots open up and these old backroads becoming big areas of land cleared. They signified the town moving on. I personified the town and I thought it was really interesting. Towns are just like people. They hold a special place in your heart and just like people do, they can move on too.
I thought it was so personal that it wouldn't connect. I've found that people actually do really, really connect to it because we all come from somewhere and have roots somewhere. When we see that place grow, change and evolve, sometimes it doesn't always sit well, there's a bittersweetness to it. Alison Krauss has always been a really special part of my life. She's like an aunt to me, and she's actually on this song on my record. It really brings it home for me. Having her on it, a family connection, is really, really special.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your career?
Find your own voice. Find what makes you different, and, sometimes that takes a lot of time. The second thing I would say is find your tribe of people. That to me is the key that unlocked all of the questions that I had about my artistry. Once you find that crew of people, there's nothing more freeing than creating and finding success with those people.