From the county fair and River City Radio Hour to “American Idol” and Lower Broadway, Rockbridge County native SJ McDonald has been busy making a name for herself as a songwriter and singer in Nashville.
After her graduation from high school, McDonald packed her guitar and headed to Music City and the songwriting capital of the world to pursue her country-music dreams.
Growing up on a five-generation cattle and turkey farm, all the ingredients of a good country music song are part of her roots; something even the most established country artist may never experience.
“I was the farmer’s daughter,” said McDonald. “I did 4-H and showed cattle and lambs and goats. I didn’t realize how good I had it back in Rockbridge before I moved on to the big city. It was just a simple country life – living the life you write country songs about.
“I picture Rockbridge County when I’m writing a song. I picture what we did when I was in high school, what riding in a tractor with my dad is like and what turning the wrench is like. It really helps to visualize it and help a song come to life.”
McDonald has independently released two songs in recent months: “Hummingbird” on Feb. 2; and “Break A Cowboy” last fall. She has a growing social media audience with more than 12,000 followers on Facebook and 81,000 followers on TikTok.
“With ‘Breaking Cowboy,’ I did the photo shoot and the cover photo on my parent’s farm back in Virginia,” said McDonald. “I got to show the world, whether they know it or not, a little piece of Rockbridge County.”
The move to Nashville included earning a degree in songwriting from Belmont University following in the footsteps of Belmont alums Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood and Florida Georgia Line, to name a few.
While life under the bright lights of Nashville was a big adjustment from her much quieter life in Virginia, she quickly connected with other up-and-comers who have made her journey fun. From a group that likes to two-step to a party to watch the Super Bowl, “there’s always something to do and someone who wants to tag along.”
Last week, McDonald had major news – signing a publishing deal with Major Bob Music – paving the way for songs she writes to be pitched to country music stars.
“SJ’s name just kept coming up from great songwriters who we admire, and after we began booking co-writes with SJ, we quickly discovered for ourselves why so many people love her. She keeps it country and is a perfect fit for Major Bob,” said Andy Friday, head of publishing at Major Bob Music, in a news release announcing the publishing deal.
Her goal has always been to get a publishing deal. Something she said means she gets paid to do what she already loves.
“It basically means I get paid to make up songs,” she said, “which is insane to say. Over the past four years, I’ve taken my writing incredibly seriously, writing songs at least three times a week. Sometimes five times a week, and sometimes multiple times a day if I’m feeling crazy.”
Her dream team at Major Bob Music will help SJ “cultivate my creative and find the right people to write songs with.”
If she wants to pitch a song to Lainey Wilson, for example, she said, her publisher could help make that happen.
Before her publishing deal, McDonald had success on a well-known show that helped create megastars like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson. In 2019, McDonald made it to the Hollywood round on “American Idol” after an audition in Idaho earned her a golden ticket.
“I was sitting in Hollywood with 180 other people,” she said. “It was honestly overwhelming how much talent was in the room.”
She sang one song in Hollywood a cappella – “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. She was cut from the show after her performance, and she was never featured on TV.
“So whenever people ask me to play ‘Crazy,’” I say, ‘oh, you didn’t know this, but you just picked the song that kicked me off ‘American Idol.’”
When she didn’t make it big on “American Idol,” McDonald returned to Nashville, every bit the starving artist, playing cover songs in an area known as Lower Broadway.
“I’ve been down on Broadway since my first week in Nashville making a living down there,” she said. “That’s how I paid for college. That’s how I supported myself.”
Last summer, McDonald hit the road for an extended tour, booking herself at venues in 22 states.
“It’s been a long journey, but in its own way, it’s been steady,” McDonald said. “Because all I’ve done from the beginning of getting to Nashville is music.”
While in Nashville for UVA’s football contest against Tennessee in September, AFP found SJ performing at AJ’s Good Time Bar in Lower Broadway.
“It’s been a dream come true,” said McDonald. “It’s a slow and steady climb. It’s really cool to just take a moment and think back to where I was 10 years ago, when I was playing in the Valley.
“And the fun thing about making a living playing in Alan Jackson’s bar downtown is that it’s very full circle, because the first song that I ever sang was ‘Where I Come From’ by Alan Jackson.”
McDonald is returning to the Valley and her Rockbridge County farm this week – playing one show in Vienna and another in Vinton – giving local fans a venue a little closer than Nashville to hear her in person.
- Tuesday, Feb. 13: Jammin’ Java in Vienna, 8 p.m., opening for the Belles on the Wildflower Country Tour
- Saturday, Feb. 17: Rosie’s Gaming and Colonial Downs in Vinton, 8-11 p.m.
“The end goal for me is to have my songs on the radio and make a living on tour on a tour bus,” McDonald said. “I’ve mentioned Lainey Wilson already, but she’s such a role model for me, because she’s blazing trails for women and country music, and I just want to do what she’s doing.
“I want to go pedal to the floor, city to city, just sharing country music as long as I physically can.”