Written by Jackie Kennedy
Maybe it’s something in their water, maybe it’s genetics. Whatever it is, Newnan’s Wright family plays, lives and breathes music.
When 13-year-old Carlisle Wright takes the stage, she represents the fourth generation of Newnan’s music-making Wright family.
Her grandparents, Lamar and Cathy Wright, never imagined when they were raising Carlisle’s dad, Brian, and his brother, Adam, that their family members would one day be recognized across the globe for their music.
But here they are. Adam, 42, has been nominated for two Grammy awards for songwriting and has had his songs performed by country music legends Garth Brooks and Leeann Womack, among others. His catalog features thousands of songs, including several that have garnered critical acclaim. He’s played rock and country but now leans toward Americana.
Brian, 44, released his debut album, “Honkytonkitis,” through his own label, Big City Records.
It reached millions of listeners through terrestrial and digital radio and made a big splash in the South of France, where it was Album of the Week upon release and has spawned several country line dances to its songs.
“Their careers are totally different,” says Lamar. “Adam’s career is his life and his livelihood. His is serious lyrical stuff. Brian has a good job flying airplanes, and his music is more like Merle Haggard, beer drinking and bar hopping.”
Their uncle, Cathy’s brother Alan Jackson, is a household name in traditional country music and can be credited with influencing the brothers’ musical tendencies to a degree. But the odds are great that music would have become a way of life for Brian and Adam regardless. They could hardly help it. It’s in their DNA.
Lamar’s father, W.L. Wright of Newnan, studied music and piano tuning at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, in Macon, and made his living making music.
“He and my mother, Dot, were in a professional band for years, a Glen Miller-type big band,” says Lamar. “They wrote songs and recorded a radio show that originated in our house. He played and she sang. My father was a school choral and church choir director who taught piano and guitar at home and led the East Newnan Mill Orchestra. When he tuned pianos, my mother handed him the tuning tools, like a nurse handing tools to a surgeon.”
Lamar admits that as a youngster he was surprised when he went to school and met children who couldn’t play piano.
“That’s how it was with us singing,” says Cathy. “We didn’t realize there were people who didn’t sing.”
Cathy grew up singing with her mother, “Mama” Ruth Jackson, and three sisters, Carol, Connie and Diane. Alan, the youngest of the five siblings, sang in the church choir and school chorus but never sang a solo or played guitar until he was in high school, according to Cathy, who says her own life always revolved around music.
“Everything we care about involves music,” she says. “We sing in a choir, play in a band, teach children’s choir, and do music therapy with the elderly in nursing homes.”
Lamar and Cathy, her twin sister Carol, and Carol’s husband Banks also play and sing with the family’s bluegrass band, The Straynotes, which performs locally.
“Some families are bound by loving to fish or hunt, but music has been the bonding ingredient in our family,” says Lamar. “We get together to eat and play music.”
“It’s funny,” says Brian. “Most people assume it’s because of my uncle I do music, but the Wright side of the family was even more into music. Of course, Mama Ruth sang, and all her daughters sang, and Alan ended up singing. And I remember Mama Ruth rocking us in her lap on the front porch singing to us. But on the Wright side, it was all music all the time over there.”
Adam pursues music career
Although he’s the younger son, Adam was first to model his parents’ passion for music.
“Adam watched his daddy and his granddaddy play piano, and when he was 5, he asked to take lessons,” Cathy recalls. “He took piano until he was 12, and in high school he took guitar from Doug Kees (of Musicology in Newnan). Some people think Adam was following in his Uncle Alan’s footsteps, but Adam started taking lessons in 1981. His interest in music predated Alan’s success, by far.”
Adam and his wife, Shannon, met in 1997 at a gig at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. It was music at first sight, and then love.
“We worked from the get-go,” says Adam. “We played all over the Southeast and moved in 2002 to Nashville. We did our first record in 2005.”
That album, “Down This Road,” was critically acclaimed, and its title single was named a Rolling Stone Magazine Top 10 country single for 2005. The Wrights produced three more studio albums and toured with Alan, Loretta Lynn, Little Big Town and on their own for several years.
“We had a ball,” says Adam.
In 2009, the couple came home to Tennessee and hunkered down in Nashville where they got publishing deals and started writing full time.
“We had some cuts, had some success and did shows now and then, but our bread and butter has been writing,” says Adam, whose “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” was released by Alan and nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 2012.
Adam now writes for Carnival Publishing, a Nashville company owned by Frank Liddell, who’s married to Lee Ann Womack, one of Adam’s biggest supporters and a frequent collaborator. Shannon continues to write songs as well and puts her marketing degree to good use as marketing director for Alan’s AJ Good Time Bar in Nashville.
In November, Adam performed in front of a hometown audience at Wadsworth Auditorium where he sang tunes from his latest CD, “Dust.” He wrote all the songs, most from the character’s perspective, like “Billy, Get Your Bike,” a dark tale inspired by a true story that happened in Coweta County.
“Once I wrote that song, it kind of broke the seal,” he says, noting his affection for Southern fiction, Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. “It allowed me to explore anything, to just drop in on a moment.”
A dark, moody tune with a startling ending, “Billy” has no chorus, no bridge and no chord changes.
“On the road with Alan, I can’t play it opening for him in an arena with people ready to have a good time,” says Adam. “But you get in a listening room filled with people who love to share stories, and it’s a good song to have in your set.”
Another song from the album, “From My Bough,” was named one of Rolling Stone Country’s 10 Best Country and Americana Songs in 2018.
All in all, “Dust” is “a bit of serious writing,” says Adam. “I really went down the rabbit hole on this one and emerged a different writer, I think a better writer. I spent months on some of those songs, until I felt like they were the best version of whatever they were going to be.”
Adam received his second Grammy nomination this year for “All The Trouble,” a Womack song he co-wrote with her. In the meantime, he’s working on two new EPs set for release later this year.
He ponders the impact his family’s musical roots had on him.
“When I was growing up, Dad played piano and if we had an art project, Mom would help us, but it wasn’t like this big creative house,” he says. “I always felt like I was the oddball because I was hopelessly artsy. I could barely dribble a basketball.”
Along the way, he says, he learned a lot from his Uncle Alan: “The biggest thing—he has a way of writing simply but in a heartfelt way. It’s a difficult thing to do, write simply but deeply.”
Adam also remembers seeking musical advice from his grandfather Wright: “I called and asked him what scales I needed to be learning. He said, ‘Scales? Where are you going to get a job playing scales?’ He told me to just play songs.”
And that’s what Adam has done—written and played songs, simply but deeply.
“The business of music is a turnoff,” he says. “What’s important is enjoying what you’re doing. If you enjoy it, you’ll do it enough to be good at it. And if you’re good at it, you’ll enjoy doing it. That’s kept me alive so far, so I’m going to stick with it.”
Brian follows the family passion
While Adam developed his musicianship at an early age, his brother was an adult when he learned guitar.
“I taught myself to play guitar when I was 21,” says Brian, a professional pilot who also writes songs.
He flew for Delta 18 years and now flies internationally with UPS. After the airline industry hit a rough patch following the 9/11 attacks, Brian says he and another pilot from Newnan, Andy Hoffman, decided to dedicate their free time “listening to real country music and talking to normal people.”
Brian said to Hoffman: “You know how we can do that? We can start a band, play the kind of music we want to play, get free drinks and the girls will come to us.”
Within days, Hoffman bought a drum set and another Newnan friend, David Van Drew, joined them on bass. With a couple more bandmates, they practiced a few months before playing their debut gig.
“At the end of that first show, a girl walked up to me and wanted to help me carry my guitar and amp,” says Brian. “She ended up being my wife, so yeah, it worked like a charm.”
Brian’s first album, “Honkytonkitis,” was recorded in Nashville with some of the best studio musicians in the industry, he says. Millions have heard the record’s singles, which are released via his website. His single, “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” a cover of a Waylon Jennings song penned by Newnan native Steve Young, topped the charts in the south of France where Brian’s fans not only sing his tunes but line dance to them as well.
Brian plans to record his second album at Muscle Shoals, Ala., this year.
The pilot says he was about 17 when his Uncle Alan quietly influenced his taste in music: “He handed me a Merle Haggard CD, maybe George Jones, and a really rare Keith Whitley album and said, ‘That’s about all you need to know right there.’”
While those country artists remain among his favorites, Brian’s a huge fan of his brother as well.
“Adam, he’s off the charts good,” says Brian. “As far as talent goes—lyrically, melodically, musicianship and vocally—it just doesn’t get much better than my brother.”
Brian was about 25 and on his uncle’s tour bus one day when country music legend George Jones stepped onboard.
“George was opening for my uncle, or maybe my uncle was opening for George, somewhere in South Carolina,” he recalls. “I asked him what he would tell a young guy starting out in the music business. He said, ‘Just sing and make songs exactly like you talk, but whatever you do, keep it country.’”
Brian’s been following that advice for the past two decades.
The fourth generation
The Wright/Jackson family’s three professional music couples—Alan and Denise, Brian and Angela, and Adam and Shannon—all live in Franklin, Tenn., a small town outside of Nashville that’s reminiscent of Newnan with an artsy vibe.
Adam and Shannon have two sons. Adrian, 8, plays the ukulele and Charlie, 5, is a born comedian, according to Lamar. Along with Carlisle, Brian and Angela have a son, Cole, who’s 10 and plays drums.
“The children got it from both sides of the family, and now the grandchildren are getting it,” says Cathy.
Bitten by the music bug that infects her family, Carlisle sings, plays guitar and writes songs. She leans toward the same traditional country music favored by her dad. She joined him onstage at Wadsworth Auditorium in Newnan in 2017 and wowed the crowd singing Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline standards.
“She’s a shy thing,” Lamar says of his granddaughter. “But put a microphone in front of her and put her in front of a bunch of people, and she is fearless.”
She comes by it honest.