Sleeping in his car at the beginning.
Waiting tables by night to write songs by day.
Playing Mr. Mom while his wife taught school.
Arlis Albritton remembers those years well.
“Saying you’re a professional songwriter meant you live off your wife,” joked the 1991 Palmetto High School alumnus.
Well, those days are over.
Have been for awhile.
After 17 years in Nashville, the 39-year-old Manatee County native has established himself in Music City.
What more validation can there be than the 53rd annual Grammy Awards tonight in Los Angeles?
One of the nominees for 2011 Best Country Album is Jamey Johnson’s, “The Guitar Song” -- and one song on that album is “Good Morning Sunrise,” by Arlis Albritton, who is part of Johnson’s Grammy-nominated production team.
It’s also a nominee in the same category at April’s Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.
“I’m glad he’s finally getting some recognition,” said Jana Albritton, his wife, high school sweetheart and mother of their three children. “He works so hard and he’s really talented. Just being nominated is quite an accomplishment.”
Johnson’s album is up against big competition for the Grammy -- Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and the Zac Brown Band.
“I’m confident about this one,” Albritton said. “You’ve struggled so long, the acknowledgment does your heart good. It helps in the eyes of your peers. You just don’t do this for the money, but you’re doing it because you love the music so much.”
“Good Morning Sunrise” ended up on the album by happenstance.
Albritton has known Johnson for seven or eight years and was in the studio when Johnson spoke up.
“He said, ‘Somebody play something I haven’t heard 24/7.’ So I played ‘Sunrise’ acoustically and he said, ‘Great song. I gotta sing it,’ ” Albritton said.
It’s a lament about lost love, fit for Willie Nelson.
Or Jamey Johnson.
“Good morning sunrise how long has it been.
Well it looks like I drank myself sober again
Ever since she left me you’ve been so hard to face
Good morning sunrise Guess I’ll call it a day.”
Johnson said Albritton’s song completes “The Guitar Song,” the most widely acclaimed country album of 2010.
“‘Good Morning Sunrise’ hit me where I live,” the singer said via e-mail. “When I first heard that song I think it was even early morning dusk and we were polishing off what was left of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and talking about women. It was the perfect song for the moment.
“He used my band on the session when he went in to record it. It sounded just like home for me so I stole it from his demo session and it became the last song added to ‘The Guitar Song’ and the hinge necessary to connect the dots between the other songs. The album would not be the same without it.”
Serious props from a country singer some consider the modern day Waylon Jennings.
“When I met Arlis he was writing songs to hone his skill; songs that begin with a nice setup that leads to an interesting hook. But that didn’t have a particularly personal connection to him,” Johnson said. “When he started writing inwardly and switched his topics from cool hooks to songs that are reflective of his life, the difference was drastic.
“I place Arlis among the top writers in Nashville and attribute that to his unrelenting integrity and strong sense of self.”
Albritton has written hundreds of songs for many singers over the years. Besides Johnson, his current clientele includes the likes of Jason Michael Carroll, Christian Kane, Steven Lee Olsen and Julie Roberts and Josh Thompson.
In fact, he co-wrote Thompson’s present hit, “Won’t Be Lonely Long.”
“I’m good at listening to people’s stories, what’s happened in their lives,” said Albritton, who joined Amylase Entertainment/Warner Chappell Nashville in August 2009. “It’s hard to write for someone who never struggled as opposed to a guy like Josh who was pouring concrete the day his first single came out.
“You feed off what they’re telling you, put it into rhyme and, hopefully, some kind of reason.”
Not bad for a guy who didn’t learn guitar until Albritton taught himself at Manatee Community College.
“I learned the Jimmy Buffett songs and started putting my own lyrics down for fun. That’s how it started and got me thinking,” he said. “Then I flipped a quarter -- California? Or Nashville?”
His mother remembers him telling her and husband Larry his plan.
“He came home from school and said, ‘I want to be a songwriter. What do you think?’ ” Jean Albritton said from Port Charlotte. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be one of those who said I wish I had done it and never did.’”
Albritton followed his dream and stuck to it through sleeping in his car and six years of waiting tables.
“It sure wasn’t the tips. It was the goal to make it,” Albritton said. “Told myself, give it five years and if I don’t do anything, then go elsewhere.”
It took him 51/2.
Albritton joined EMI Music Publishing and eventually got “We All Fall Down” recorded by Diamond Rio in 2002.
“Like going from Triple-A ball to the bigs,” he said. “Twenty-two thousand people move here to do this and there are only 300 writers in this town getting paid or got a publishing deal. Maybe five percent are making real good money.
“I haven’t had a big hit yet, but I’ve been steady with my cuts.”
A Grammy would be a grand slam.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.