A father of five who simultaneously maintains careers as a Nashville songwriting hired gun and a busy solo artist, Deric Ruttan doesn't take many vacations.
And it wasn't exactly a vacation the Bracebridge, Ont., native found himself on when he learned of his Grammy nomination, but (close enough) a writing retreat in Mexico. Gathered at a tiny bar alongside some buddies who also surreptitiously conjure some of the world's best-known country tunes, Ruttan saw some cryptic tweets referring to a Grammy nod.
His initial response was quick: "That's obviously a mistake."
Then his publisher called. Indeed, a winsome breakup tune Ruttan had co-penned – Blake Shelton's Mine Would Be You – was up for best country song at the 56th Grammy Awards.
In a strange twist, one of his cohorts at the table – Jimmy Yeary – was also nominated in the same category.
"What are the chances that you're with another nominee and you're in another country drinking a shot of tequila?" Ruttan recently marvelled down the line from his Nashville home.
So, how did they celebrate?
"We definitely ordered another round," he laughed.
For Ruttan, the nomination is a completely unexpected validation of a two-decade career in Nashville, one that has certainly included some years of hardscrabble hustling.
Not that the 41-year-old hasn't celebrated some major successes.
Shaggy-domed crooner Dierks Bentley whisked Ruttan's co-write What Was I Thinkin' to the top of the country chart and gold certification in 2003 and almost reached the same height with their 2005 single Lot of Leavin' Left To Do. Meanwhile, Ruttan's Eric Church collaboration Guys Like Me peaked at No. 17 four years later and he also found success writing for country singers including Paul Brandt and Gary Allan.
And his solo career, focused largely on Canada, has yielded well over a dozen Canadian Country Music Association Award nominations.
The deeply connected Ruttan wrote Mine Would Be You with longtime friends Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander, the latter of whom he's known since she graduated from college roughly 12 years ago. She even sang at his wedding, but they'd never written a song together.
A 'classic country twist'
With Mine Would Be You, they came up with the title first. They wrote most of the tune during a typical Nashville songwriting session, and about a week later the trio gathered at Alexander's house. While their spouses cooked dinner downstairs, the songwriters came up with the tune's last-verse twist: that the relationship so sweetly celebrated in the previous stanzas deteriorates in the distance, leaving the protagonist racked with regret.
It's a footnote lost on some listeners, Ruttan laughs.
"You know what's hilarious? I've seen several tweets about that song and a couple girls have said, 'This is so gonna be my wedding song,"' he recalls. "I'm like, did you hear the last verse? Did you listen to the song? They missed the classic country twist at the end."
Ruttan sang the demo – and later included his version of the tune on his last solo record, Take the Week Off, released in October – and says that he and his team actually envisioned that Shelton might one day sing the song, something songwriters rarely allow themselves to do.
Fortunately, Shelton loved it. Ruttan notes that he and Shelton both moved to Nashville in 1994 and used to write for the same publishing company, though they never met.
"I've always been a fan of him as a singer," Ruttan said. "I think he's one of the finest country vocalists there are. He can pull off those funny tongue-in-cheek songs, he's got a wicked sense of humour, but he's also a double threat because he can also deliver songs like Mine Would Be You, those ballads that have different emotional layers."
Living in Nashville, Ruttan certainly couldn't miss the fact that the song – which ascended to No. 2 on the American country chart while topping it in Ruttan's native Canada – was a hit.
"I heard it on the weekend," he said. "I was driving around in my truck, I was actually driving home from town because we lived about 16 miles north of Nashville and I heard it on the radio twice (as well as) another one of my songs, a Dierks Bentley song.
"It was great for the ego when I got home."
Friends and nominees
Ruttan won't hazard a guess at how the song will fare at the Grammys, in part because he's friends with virtually everyone else in the category. Alexander and Harrington shared credit with Yeary for Lee Brice's I Drive Your Truck, Ruttan is also friendly with Josh Osborne – who's one of the writers of Kacey Musgraves' Merry Go 'Round – and golden-locked superstar Taylor Swift, up for Begin Again, used to sit with Ruttan in songwriting sessions as a 14-year-old who had to be dropped off by her mother.
"Even when you look at the CCMAs, I've been nominated for like 19 of those things and won one," he said with a chuckle. "I'm never the guy who wins, I'm often the guy on the final ballot. I'm fine with that."
He's mainly excited about the ceremony this Sunday, and not because he has an ambitious sartorial scheme. "I'm a simple man," he says. "The last time I wore a suit was for the Canadian Country Music Awards a couple years ago and I think a couple fans mistook me for Johnny Reid's bodyguard."
Primarily, he's excited to share in the moment with his wife Margaret Findley, whom he started dating just a year after moving to Nashville.
"She's a songwriter too. She gets the struggle," he said. "She was with me before I got my first songwriting deal, when we were getting the lights turned off because we couldn't pay the power bill. And we have five kids. Margaret has been on this journey with me.
"To me, that's the most fun thing about the Grammy thing. 'Remember when we were digging in the couch for change so I could buy gas and drive to town to write a song?' That's what I'm looking forward to about it. To take her and reflect on the life we've had."