When a college professor randomly paired guitar students Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis for an impromptu instrumental duet, he unknowingly hit on a match with these first-year students at Belmont University.
The duo felt a spark in their performance that day about four years ago and started songwriting and performing together as Striking Matches, a name that Justin came up with one night trying to think of a good band name. He was struggling with it, but seemed to be caught on the words "pair" or "match."
Striking Matches. "I don't hate that," he thought to himself. Sarah liked it too. They are a match, musically, and their music is striking.
If you watched the first season of ABC's "Nashville," you heard two of their songs: "When the Right One Comes Along," performed by the characters Gunnar and Scarlett (Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen), and "Hanging On a Lie," performed by the young up-and-coming character Juliette (Hayden Panettiere).
Fans of the show wanting to know who sang those songs discovered Striking Matches as the songwriters. Georgia Middleman was also a co-writer on "When the Right One Comes Along."
Sarah grew up outside Philadelphia and comes from a musical family. She knew she wanted to be in music, to play guitar, from a young age.
Justin is from Atlanta. "I've always had music in my life," he said. "I wanted to go to Nashville eventually, but I didn't know you could make a living writing songs." Now he does.
The duo were students at Belmont University when their songwriting and performing took off -- like a firecracker on the Fourth of July. They've played the Grand Ole Opry many times, have opened for Kip Moore, Scotty McCreery and were selected by Hunter Hayes to open for him at NYC concert in June. And they were nominated in the Make a Band Famous category of the O Music Awards, and played as part of "Live Music Day" during MTV/VH1/CMT's O Music Awards last month.
I caught up with Sarah and Justin recently, by phone.
Did you both feel there was something that clicked when you played in that guitar class?
Justin: From the first time we played, we got a reaction out of people. We had to play for the senior class. It was the first time we had met and we had to make something up. We got applause. It was kind of a cool moment. We had both played with other people, but we recognized we created a different sound.
You released an EP. When was that? Will there be a single from that released to radio?
Sarah: That was in October 2012. It's a shorter EP so there won't be a single.
Justin: A lot of people respond to "When the Right One Comes Along" and "Hanging on a Lie."
How did those songs get to "Nashville"?
Justin: It's kind of funny, actually. We work for Universal Publishing and the music supervisor for the show was in Nashville and has a bunch of songs (to choose from for the characters and story line). They were on their way back to the airport to LA. The folks at Universal said they would feed them lunch on the way to the airport (if they would listen to us). We ended up playing for them live a few songs.
You were freshmen when you met and about a year later you left college to strike out on your own as Striking Matches. Was that a little scary, a tough decision to make?
Justin: It got to the point where we had to make a choice. Neither of us came to town to be full-time students. You reach a point where you've got to go out and live it.
We signed our publishing deal two years ago. We have a solid job with a salary and then the shows. It got to where there were too many and we had to go full time.
Of the four songs on the EP, which did just you two co-write?
Sarah: "Tell Me So" and "Hanging on Lie."
Justin: ("Hanging on a Lie") was an early song for us. We had written it in a couple of hours. "Right One" took three to four hours. It was kind of a magical moment. "Tell Me So" took about six months to write. We kind of chiseled away at it.
Sarah: It's a song about just meeting and "Oh, my God, I have to know everything about you. We just met but I want to know your life story." We took our time with it. We wanted it to be right.
What's the back story on "Hanging On a Lie"?
Justin: It started with some goofy things Sarah was playing around with. We were sitting around jamming. Sarah picked up a mandolin and played it just for fun. I told her it sounded cool, but make it sound more rockin'. It was great! We had to start writing it right away. We got all the lines and verses. It was all there …
Sarah: But the hook, which is actually the last line.
Justin: We really wanted it to go on the the EP. In the car, we knew we had to play it in its unfinished form for our publisher and management to see what they thought. I said, "What about 'hanging on a lie'"?
Sarah: It pulled it all together. We just realized that was what the song was about.
How was it opening for Hunter Hayes in New York?
Justin: Amazing! We were in Webster, N.Y., it was packed out and the crowd was electric. It was such a cool night, and we played with Ashley Monroe that night. She's one of my favorites.
Are you adjusting to being on the road?
Sarah: We're used to picking up our guitars and getting in the car and go. We've played a lot of shows. … We try to find the cool, hip places (for coffee or to eat).
You drink a lot of coffee?
What do you order?
Justin: If it's a mom-and-pop shop I will get one of the special blends; a latte.
Sarah: In the summer I like iced coffee. I like the small shops' special lattes, made with local (ingredients like) honey. I like to try fun drinks.
You play on Kellie Pickler's new single, "Someone Somewhere Tonight." How did that come about?
Sarah: Her producer produced our EP. He was working on Kellie's record and on that song said 'I think we need a guitar solo' and had us come in.
How was it hearing your song on "Nashville"?
Sarah: TV was different (than hearing your song on the radio) because it was another person singing the song instead of us. Still, it was very cool. But when you hear it on the radio and it's your voice, it's real awesome!
Who are some people who have influenced your music?
Justin: I started in country because my family listened to it. I singled out the guitar pickers, like Jerry Reed. I was always drawn to the guitar players, like Vince Gill. I grew into classic rock when I started to rebel (laughs), like Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin. Then I had a reversal and came back to country.
Sarah: I listened to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. Then I found a Dixie Chicks CD in my mom's car. I fell in love with country music and later got into classic country, like Patsy Cline. We cover some of her songs -- the ones people don't know as well. We don't do "Crazy."
What projects are you working on now?
Sarah: Actually, we're back in the studio working on our next release.
Justin: Our fans have been clamoring for it. We want to make sure we're proud of it. We have some new songs we want to get out. It's really exciting with all the shows we have coming up.
And maybe we'll get to hear some more Striking Matches music on the next season of "Nashville."
Justin: We want to be Striking Matches but … if you're going to be attached to a show, that's a great one."
Striking Matches will open for Joe Nichols in Greencastle, Pa., on Aug. 31. Follow them on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/strikingmatches