Josh Martin left Nashville before buddy and co-writer Cole Sidwell recorded the ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey’ hit. He’s in Key West this week for the Key West Songwriters Festival.
Josh Martin penned ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey’
Josh Martin embodies the songwriter. At the back table of Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West, the South Georgia native speaks casually and sports a worn trucker’s cap. Even before we begin the interview, he legitimizes his country roots by reloading his lower lip with a pinch of snuff and then spitting the tobacco out with effortless precision over the top of a plastic cup … without ever pausing. The bulge beneath his cheek only accentuates his southern vernacular, which makes us both laugh when he explains something his buddy, Cole Swindell, once did was “country’r than cow sh*t.” We both jokingly agree this could be the title of his next big song — because Josh Martin already has a first big song.
Long before “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” sat atop the country charts and prior to country music star Cole Swindell becoing a household name in the industry, Martin and Swindell were like thousands of aspiring musicians who pilgrimage to the holy land of country music. The two buddies settled into Nashville in their mid-20’s and like most, worked side jobs while following a dream. Martin became head of security at Belmont University (famed for dozens of country music alumni) while Swindell scored a merchandising gig on tour with his friend Luke Bryan.
“I was working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a security guard and I would meet Cole after he had ridden back all night on a tour bus with Luke [Bryan],” said Martin. “A lot of times we were tired and didn’t feel like writing, but we pushed each other and we always stuck to it. We did this for years. A lot of people think people just have a few beers, grab a napkin and write a hit song. This might work for some, but for most, you have to be dedicated and commit to writing.”
During this time, Martin was actually recognized as the guy with the voice amongst the small pack of songwriting pals and constantly attended meetings and recorded demos up and down 16th and 17th in Nashville (also known as Music Row). Swindell eventually landed a publishing deal with Sony, while Martin continued to search for suitors. But the ups and downs of Nashville never swayed the young journeymen. The tribulations of Nashville made them practitioners of their trade.
One evening, while meeting at Sony Studios, the friends met for a quick session of writing before Martin had to be at Belmont University for work. Martin had been carrying around a song for a few weeks and saved it specifically for his friend Cole. Little did he know that almost 50 million listeners would be hearing his song just a few years later.
“I had to be at work in three hours and I threw it out there first,” said Martin. “No one said anything so I started throwing out more song ideas and suddenly Cole interrupted me and said, ‘Why are you guys still talking? We need to be writing ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,’” Martin recounted, adding that Cole is a phenomenal lyricist and was able to achieve the song’s positive note. “We focus on what we’re drinking to…not what we’re drinking against.”
They demoed the song and shopped it to various camps; the song was put on hold by Montgomery Gentry and a few others. Martin received countless inquiries and compliments on the song … but no bites. The soon-to-be-30 Martin left Nashville and started a family after five years of weighing whether his career was half full or half empty. Simultaneously, his co-writer, Cole Swindell furiously broke into country music as a performer and immediately launched two No. 1 hits.
“It used to keep me up at night thinking about being on a tour bus,” said Martin. “But when I had a baby with my girlfriend, much of my thinking changed. I had met the right person and I was happy. If the other stuff happened then it was going to happen based on what I had already done in Nashville. I was happy for Cole. We had been in the trenches together and was great to see one of us make it.”
And then it happened. Swindell reached out to Martin to say he wanted to include “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” on an upcoming album. The song became Swindell’s quickest climb to No. 1 and Martin, a young man who was content with a new life, found his dreams beckoning him for one more run.
For Josh Martin, the Songwriter’s Festival in Key West is something different. It is a time for reflection, he said. Back home, his girlfriend and infant daughter are willing to make the move back to Nashville, but Martin isn’t sure what his next step will be.
“I’m just down here to play [in Key West] and get back behind a microphone and sing,” said Martin. We’ll see where we go from here.”
One thing is certain, should Martin return to the country music mecca, he will do so with a published No. 1 song in his pocket, something to catch the eye of publishers and labels in a town where every advantage is needed.
It used to keep me up at night thinking about being on a tour bus. But when I had a baby with my girlfriend, much of my thinking changed.
— Josh Martin