The Right Harmony
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This band could be the next big superstars of country music. Lady Antebellum, watch out!
By Lorena O'Neil
Brace yourself: This gets a bit meta.
In 2008 two strangers were paired up for a class assignment to quickly improvise a song and perform it for an audience of upperclassmen. It was a hazing ritual meant to embarrass freshmen music students with a swift ego check. But while most of their classmates were “crashing and burning,” this guy and this girl earned a small round of applause. The two guitar majors started meeting up to write and play more songs, began performing around Nashville and eventually dropped out of school to focus on their burgeoning careers as a country duo.
In 2012 the TV series Nashville debuted, including a storyline about two young coworkers, both guitarists, both songwriters, who work at the legendary Bluebird Cafe. She’s a reluctant performer who prefers to leave the limelight to others, but he gently coaxes her onto the stage, where, despite her embarrassment, they are warmly applauded by the audience. The impromptu performance turns into an ongoing collaboration, and soon the characters are songwriting partners with a music-company deal. Fans of the show have made this duo’s songs real-world hits on iTunes.
One of the fictional characters’ biggest hits? A song penned by the pair of music students, Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, now known as Striking Matches. It’s a haunting, unwinding love ballad titled “When the Right One Comes Along,” cowritten with Georgia Middleman. The song is as much about romance as it is about the search for a big break, and when the young, sexy, aspiring country stars weave its harmonies together, the longing is unmistakable.
Three of Davis and Zimmermann’s songs have appeared on Nashville, and the show has brought them a lot of attention. Perhaps it’s because their alter egos Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett (Clare Bowen) are the show’s breakout stars whose halting, sweet affair has lit up fan forums. Or perhaps it’s just that “When the Right One Comes Along” is a bluesy, soulful love song with rare emotional directness.
There’s no music, no confetti
Crowds don’t cheer, and bells don’t ring
But you’ll know it, I can guarantee
When the right one comes along
The band’s publishing company, Universal Music (the pair signed with them in 2011), convinced two key Nashville execs to turn around on their way to the airport to watch Striking Matches play. The duo performed three songs, including “Right One.” At first they didn’t know what to make of the reaction from Frankie Pine, the show’s music supervisor, and Dawn Soler, ABC music senior vice president.
Zimmermann, who comes from a musically inclined family, plays the clarinet, violin, saxophone, guitar, mandolin, dobro and autoharp. Davis jokes that he started out on pots and pans before moving on to guitar, and now also plays drums, piano and bass.
“They ended up crying. We were like, we either rocked this or completely blew it,” says Davis. Pine says, “I felt an immediate attraction to their music. I hope huge and amazing things happen for them. Trends and things like that come and go but I think at the end of the day what really shines through for them is that they are really, really great songwriters.”
Their third Nashville song, “This Love Ain’t Big Enough,” cowritten with Jill Andrews, will be performed in the Season 2 premiere of the show on September 25. Pine says there is another Striking Matches song in the pipeline involving a new character we haven’t seen yet.Zimmermann and Davis, who are just friends, were working musicians before the show. They even performed “Right One” for the first time at the Bluebird Cafe. But their path to success wasn’t struggle-free. As Davis explains, “The biggest challenges were finding [ways] to reach fans. Once you have them, it seems easier to make more and to interact with your current ones, but starting from scratch is really hard.” After the boost from their TV connection, they’ve had some special moments with fans. “They bring us cookies. We’ve had some start crying, and when they hand us stuff to sign, they are shaking. It blows our mind. It’s just us,” he says. Now they have fans singing back lyrics at concerts, a surreal experience Davis especially loves, and which Zimmermann compares to their first performance at the Opry, when she ended the night “completely bawling” with happiness.
Their success in the country music world seems secure, but their TV-friendly sound could easily propel them into crossover pop territory. This potential transition could put them in the same category as Hunter Hayes, a country music singer and friend who they opened for this past summer, and who skyrocketed to the top of the music charts in the past few years. Striking Matches has also appeared at the Grand Ole Opry multiple times, and has racked up a string of awards. They were finalists for Viacom’s O Music Awards Make a Band Famous competition, and CMT just named them September’s Listen Up artists, a category for musicians the channel thinks are on their way up. The Nashville Scene called their harmonies “phenomenal,” although they added that their songs weren’t “up our alley,” sniffing, ”that’s more a commentary on the market’s requirement that a song be able to boil down to a gift shop T-shirt than a critique of the group’s songwriting abilities.”
Davis and Zimmermann just dropped a new single, “Trouble Is as Trouble Does,” and hope to release a full album in the future. Check out Striking Matches’ upcoming events, including another opening performance for Hunter Hayes in October.
The tension between broad-based pop crossover and “authentic” country sound is a running subplot on Nashville, which chronicles the intergenerational drama of fictional Nashville stars on their way up and some headed down. Perhaps ironically, Striking Matches’ alter egos Scarlett and Gunnar are cast on the side of “pure” country: songwriters setting their own personal stories to music, with little flash.
So, how much do Davis and Zimmermann’s lives match up with their Nashville counterparts? “There are definite similarities,” says Davis, “except for at the end of their cowriting sessions, they end up sleeping together. No work would get done if we did that.”
Update: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sarah Zimmermann’s last name.
Rebecca Moreno contributed to this report.