South Orange native’s song hits No. 1 in Billboard charts

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Middleton
Though a South Orange native, Jeff Middleton has lived in Nashville for a couple of decades, where he works on his music. ‘Drowns the Whiskey,’ a country song he co-wrote, has hit the top of the Billboard charts, validating his choice to move south of the Mason-Dixon line and pursue music.

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Upon release of the Billboard charts displaying the top music for the week of Sept. 1, “Drowns the Whiskey” was at the top of the Country Airplay chart and ranked at No. 3 on the Country chart. The song, performed by Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, was co-written by South Orange native Jeff Middleton in the middle of the night while he was on tour four and a half years ago. The same week it reached No. 1 on the charts, “Drowns the Whiskey” was nominated for three Country Music Association Awards in the Single of the Year, Song of the Year and Musical Event of the Year categories.

“It was a middle of the night, on the tour bus kind of thing,” Middleton said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 30. “That was about four and a half years ago. It was put on hold for Tyler Farr, who was being produced by Jason Aldean.”

Middleton wrote the song with Brandon Kinney and Josh Thompson, another country performer for whom he played guitar. Farr never recorded the song and Aldean eventually decided to sing it himself.

“Over the next year he cut the song, and over the course of three or four months we were getting updates,” Middleton said. “As a songwriter that’s what you’re shooting for, is a song that’s released as a single. The last week has been a little bit crazy.”

Songwriters never want to get too excited about their music being recorded, Middleton said. Plans could fall through at any time.

“I got a text from one of my co-writers; he found out about it,” Middleton said. “You never really know what song is going to get cut. If you’re working on four songs and only three get recorded, one group of songwriters gets crushed. So you don’t want to get too excited until you see it’s on the track listing. This was a good one to be on.”

Middleton has lived in Nashville for 20 years and has been writing and playing country music for longer, but his musical interests didn’t start out that way. Growing up in New Jersey, the home of crooner Frank Sinatra and rocker Bruce Springsteen, he listened to other genres.

“I was a big Iron Maiden fan, and when I was in a band in high school I listened to the Cure and U2 and we would play those songs,” Middleton said. “It was mostly rock and pop. Then I got into Tom Petty and Springsteen, the songwriter-oriented and rock mainstream. I still like Iron Maiden every once in a while, though.”

While in college in Philadelphia, Middleton wrote songs and played his own music. Then he saw Garth Brooks perform on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and decided he needed to learn everything he could about country music.

“I thought, ‘I need to go where they do that,’” Middleton said. “I bought every record I could and then I moved to Nashville a couple of years later.”

Middleton spent time writing songs and trying to get artists to record them while working on his MBA at Vanderbilt University. Eventually he started playing guitar in the band the Dirt Drifters, and began writing and performing with Thompson.

A year ago Middleton went back to work full time, and is now working at a music-management company in Nashville in the finance and accounting department. Since he moved to Nashville to be a songwriter, it is satisfying that “Drowns the Whiskey” is finally being recorded successfully.

“It’s kind of full-circle; I get to do both. It’s two sides of your brain. You don’t want your accountant to be too creative,” Middleton joked.

Now, he’s going to see where the success of this song takes him.

“I never moved to Nashville for a record deal or to tour — it was for songwriting,” Middleton said. “I was never big on being on stage. This is a way to perform with no one looking at you. It definitely didn’t go the way I thought it would, but I’ll enjoy this and figure out what my next move is as a songwriter.”