For the past eight years songwriter Phillip Coleman has been a real-life example of his best known song, “Cost of Livin.’” The lyrics describe a desperate man filling out a job application, and his determination to provide for his family. Ronnie Dunn’s recognizable voice, plaintive take, and sparse production brought the story to life. With financial hardship affecting many Americans, it’s a timely topic that touched country listeners.
Like most songwriters, Coleman’s path to the radio charts has been long and winding. His youth was spent on a farm in Rives, Tenn. Road trips to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe inspired him to take up the craft at age 26. In the early ‘90s he moved to Music City, where his sister happened to be neighbors with tunesmith Don Henry. “I didn’t know any better, so I knocked on his door and said ‘I wanna be a songwriter,’” chuckles Coleman. “He was extremely nice. He invited me to the Bluebird that night where he was playing with Gary Burr, Matraca Berg, and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It was unbelievable, and I knew I wanted to do that. Eventually, when he called me to co-write, I knew I’d arrived.”
Coleman went on to moderate success, securing cuts by Kenny Chesney and Linda Davis, and the Jo Dee Messina hit “Downtime.” But when his eight-year publishing deal with Carnival Music ended, Coleman was hard-up. Today’s positive mindset helps him look back and admit, “I wasn’t pleasant to be around.”
“Even my wife [songwriter Catt Gravitt] saw it in my eyes,” he recalls. “We were dating at the time, and she said, ‘you need to go do something else, you’re bitter and jaded and mad.’”
He took her advice, mostly out of necessity. “I went to fill out an application at FedEx, and that’s what inspired the song. My whole point was that there’s nowhere on that piece of paper to write down your real story—that you’ll work nights and holidays, that you’re about to lose your house, that your family’s struggling.”
The shipping giant hired Coleman for a second shift gig driving a forklift. “It kept the lights on and food in the fridge,” he says. Starting a lawn care outfit helped him supplement his income, plus offered a pleasant reminder of the farm back home. Songwriting shifted to the back-burner.
A year passed and it was February 2006 before Coleman sat down to write a song called “The Application,” with a chorus that affirmed, “You don’t know that…by looking at the application.”
“When I wrote that song I knew it was special, so I wanted to hang on to the publishing,” he recalls. “Alex Torrez pitched it to Ronnie back when Brooks & Dunn were together. Ronnie liked everything except the title and the hook, and I was nervous as can be when I went to his house so we could rewrite that part.” They changed the chorus to “the cost of livin’s high and going up,” and gave the song a new title, “Cost of Livin.’” Programmers were enthusiastic when Dunn debuted it on his radio tour, and the single came out in June 2011.
Reflecting on the years of holds, waiting, and wondering if it would ever be released, Coleman sighs, “This song has put me through it.” He even had to sell the guitar it was written on.
Now he’s in a much better place. “I’m about to get my first royalty check, and get the breathing room I haven’t had in a long time.”
Along with a little money headed his way, Coleman proudly notes what else is going right, “I’ve got a new attitude—being married has changed me a lot. I’ve got more patience, got back in church, and I’m more focused. I’m a blip on the radar again. It’s funny how when you walk away from something things start happening for you.”
After penning “All Kinds of Kinds” with Don Henry thirteen years ago, it finally made its way to Miranda Lambert’s acclaimed Four The Record. When her producer, and Carnival Music boss Frank Liddell, passed the song on to the feisty singer they both knew it was a perfect fit. It’s an added bonus that Coleman’s peers think so highly of the track. He sums, “When somebody who you consider a good songwriter wishes they wrote the song you wrote, that’s a great feeling.”