CJ Solar released his EP Coming My Way this year featuring a song by the same title along with crowd favorite “Watered Down Whiskey.” Unable to tour due to the pandemic, he’s offered online performances as well as smaller performances around the South when the venue is outside. Courtesy CJ Solar.

Coming your way: Baton Rouge native CJ Solar takes his musical talents to Nashville

About 30 minutes out of Nashville, at a cabin overlooking the water on Old Hickory Lake, singer-songwriter CJ Solar picks up his guitar and starts throwing out lines while playing with country musician Payton Smith. The two knock out a song in about two hours, a quick finish for the songwriting process. But on this Wednesday in mid-November, the creative juices flow and everyday distractions are at bay. They start on a second song.

“When everything is clicking, it’s so enjoyable you don’t want to stop,” says CJ. “Today with Payton, we were on the same page and having a blast. It’s like God grabs a pen, and you don’t know where it is coming from, but you just try and keep up.”

Keeping up with CJ Solar, a native of Baton Rouge, has had its own challenges these last few years. He’s been busy. His collaboration with Smith, originally from Houma with a major record label to his name, may prove to be fruitful if one of the songs CJ cowrote with him becomes popular. But Solar’s already had a taste of popularity in the music world. He cowrote “Up Down” for Morgan Wallen featuring Florida Georgia Line—a song that was a platinum-certified chart topper in 2018. He also cowrote songs recorded by Jason Aldean (“I Don’t Drink Anymore”), Justin Moore (“Between You And Me”), and Jerrod Neimann (“Blue Bandana”). Rolling Stone Country named him one of its “New Artists You Need to Know.” He’s shared the stage with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chris Janson, 38 Special, Hank Williams Jr. and more. “Some Girls,” a song he cowrote for Jameson Rodgers, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Music Chart at the end of October.

Only 28 years old, CJ has had a guitar in his hand and lyrics on his mind for two decades. “My dad had a guitar in the closet, and I found it when I was about 7,” recalls CJ. Both his parents are physicians, but they loved Southern rock, and they often played it for their kids. “I started taking guitar lesson from Zeagler’s on Florida Boulevard. Pretty soon, my younger brothers wanted to play too.”

CJ (top) and his twin brothers Cody, with the bass guitar, and Mack, with the drumsticks, formed the band “Solar Heat” when they were young, complete with signature flaming shirts and bandanas. “It definitely made for some fun family times,” says their mother, Kay Solar. Courtesy Kay Solar.

CJ joined forces with his twin younger brothers, Cody and Mack, and created the band “Solar Heat” when CJ was 10 and the twins were 8. Their parents, Kay and Curtis, helped them get small gigs at Brew Ha-Ha!, La Carreta on Government Street, Blue Bayou, Sullivan’s, Phil Brady’s and Avoyelles on Government, as well as at FestForAll. The trio practiced nights and weekends in the Solar living room in Old Goodwood. CJ recognized early on that he was more interested in the lyrics and melody than anything else. He started writing songs around age 12, songs he now admits were “probably terrible.” While in middle school, their parents took the brothers to Nashville and CJ attended the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, with a lineup of new rising stars: Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley.

“I had always loved Southern rock,” says CJ. “But after watching those guys, I became enamored with country. I went home from that weekend with a new focus.”

CJ researched and found the Nashville Songwriters Association International, and noted that they had a chapter at the time in New Orleans. He joined the group in high school and attended workshops in Nashville during the summer to learn how to write songs. Then, after graduating from Catholic High in 2010, he went to Belmont University in Nashville, which has a nationally recognized school of music.

“I always knew that CJ loved music because he was the kid that played his guitar all the time in his room. I never had to ask him to practice; he just loved it,” says his mother Kay Solar. “I knew that he was creative and talented, but more so. He had the drive and work ethic to be successful.”

During his senior year at Belmont, CJ landed an internship with Sea Gayle Music, an independent music publishing company based in Nashville and co-owned by Brad Paisley. Within the first few weeks of the internship, Vice President of Creative Mike Owens offered to look at some of his work. CJ had just produced seven new songs and brought the demo to work for critique. Owens was impressed. He started sharing CJ’s music around the office.

Inspired to pursue a career in country music following a childhood trip, CJ has a special place in his heart for the Grand Ole Opry, especially following his own performance on the legendary stage in 2019. Photo by Chris Hollo

“Mike brought me into the office to listen to it, and it was really good,” says fellow singer-songwriter Brent Anderson. “When he told me it was made by the new intern, I said, ‘You mean the kid up front wearing Saints gear?’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Sea Gayle offered CJ a publishing deal before his graduation day.

Anderson and CJ soon became good friends, eventually rooming together for a while, and still play together when they can. “I think CJ brings a lot to the table,” he says. “When we come out of this pandemic, I see a resurgence for new records and new music. He’s going to thrive.”

In the fall of 2019, CJ revisited the Grand Ole Opry, this time on stage. He debuted between performances by longtime country music icons Connie Smith and Ricky Skaggs. Just days later, CJ won a Nashville Songwriter Award for “10 Songs I Wish I’d Written” thanks to “Up Down.” In May of 2020, he released his third EP, Coming My Way, to great success. And he just released his first holiday song, “The Only Present I Want.” But CJ admits that performing on the road is something he loves and misses. And while he loves writing songs for others, his ultimate goal is to secure a deal for himself.

“Of course, I want a major record deal, but having hit songs for other people really helps. That’s how a lot of today’s stars started. Writing songs for others really validates what I’m capable of,” says CJ, who plans to start touring with that in mind as soon as restrictions subside. “I love my own songs, and playing shows on some level makes it all worthwhile. When the words and the music and the performance all go well, it’s a lot of fun and it doesn’t feel like work.”

Catch CJ Solar and other local singer-songwriters at the annual “Home for the Holidays” performance on December 27 at Manship Theatre. Click here for ticket information.