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'Heart of a Champion'

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Songwriters will tell you, there are times when their craft is less about them and more about channeling exterior forces. That, they say, is when a song is not so much music and lyrics as it is a gift.

Sitting on the floor of a small office at EMI Publishing here for about 40 minutes one recent afternoon, Corbette Jackson and Stokes Nielson were the recipients of one of those gifts. In the magic of those few moments, the Georgia singer/songwriters penned "Heart of a Champion" and became, in Jackson's words, "instruments of God."

Written as a tribute to Newnan firefighter Chris Landreau, a young father who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma, "Champion" has taken country radio by storm. Starting with Atlanta's influential KICKS 101.5, the song spread like wildfire and is now being played on more than 50 country radio stations from Florida to South Carolina to Ohio to Alabama to Michigan to Massachesetts to Tennessee to Louisiana.

"This song has changed my life," Jackson, also a native of Newnan, said Thursday. "I can't explain the feeling I got when we finished writing the song. It's changed my faith, my perspective, everything in my life.

"I've always believed in God, but when He spoke to me through this song, everything changed. Things just started happening, and it has confirmed my belief that when God has a hand in something, it can become great."

Nielson, who lived in Albany before heading to Nashville and founding country chart favorites The Lost Trailers, discovered a kindred Georgia soul in Jackson. So much so, he halted work on his next Trailers project -- an album he's titled "The Dollhouse" -- to work on "Heart of a Champion" and plan a fundraising tour with Jackson to benefit Landreau's family.

"When we first played the song at an event for Chris, he said, 'Through this, I'd like to be able to touch one life'," Nielson said of the stricken firefighter. "But Corbette and I talked about it, and it's become our mission to make sure he affects millions of lives.

"It's just unbelievable how this thing has taken off. And with iTunes sales of 'Heart of a Champion' going to benefit Chris, we decided to go ahead and tour Georgia and use our merchandise sales for the cause, too. We've made it our goal to take some of the worry off Chris. We've assured him that we've got his girls' tuition to Georgia covered. We're committed to doing this until we hit that figure."

Like Nielson, Jackson went to Nashville shortly after graduating high school. He kept running into barriers in his efforts to land paying gigs, but when he met songwriter Jason Roller his fortunes changed. Roller had previously played with the Trailers, and he introduced Jackson to Nielson, who in addition to making music had partnered with EMI Music to create the brand marketing and management company Stokes Tunes.

The two immediately clicked.

"There was an immediate creative synergy," Nielson said of meeting Jackson. "We sat down and wrote 'Newnan Nights' together right out of the gate; we just meshed. Between me and him writing about where we grew up, it was just so natural, so real. Our music was Georgia, it was Georgia country."

Jackson, meanwhile, was asked by a friend to be a part of a benefit planned in Newnan for Landreau. When that friend, the firefighter's sister, Lori Belle, told him her brother's story, he was touched.

"I was about to go to sleep one night when Lori called," Jackson said. "She told me about Chris, told me how the doctor informed him that he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and it was on his heart, his lungs, his chest and his abdomen. But then she said something that really struck me.

"She said when the doctor told Chris about the disease, he didn't cry or start asking why, he simply looked at the doctor and said, 'What are we gonna do to beat this?' The doctor told Chris, 'In all the years that I've been doing this, I've never given a patient that prognosis and had him react that way. You definitely have the heart of a champion'."

Belle's words stuck with Jackson.

"I couldn't sleep that night; I got out my guitar and started working on the song," he said. "The next day I went to Stokes' office at EMI and got there just as he was about to leave. I told him Chris' story, and we sat there on the floor of that office together and in about 35 to 40 minutes wrote the song.

"But, you know, I honestly feel that we didn't write 'Heart of a Champion.' I feel that the Lord used us to get out a message. The song just came out of us."

Nielson agrees.

"This song was pure inspiration," he said. "It literally flowed out of us. It's Chris' story, but it's also the story of his wife and what she's going through. And the bridge is about all of us and the things that we all take on in our lives."

Nielson offers an impromptu run-through of the moving chorus:

"The heart of a champion, The soul of a saint, The strength of a warrior, To take on the pain. When all your blue skies turn grey and run, You've got to rely on the heart of a champion."

After KICKS Program Director Mark Richards got wind of the song, he decided to give it a spin on the Atlanta station. The reaction was instantaneous.

"By Monday, the phones at the station went ballistic (with requests)," Nielson said. "By Tuesday, it was the station's most requested song. It just connected viscerally with country music fans."

(Albany station WOBB is expected to start playing "Heart of a Champion" on Monday.)

Mostly through Nielson's Trailers ties with Georgia radio stations and promoters, he and Jackson have been telling their story to country music fans all over the state. Within a couple of days, they booked a monthlong tour, which will bring them to Albany's State Theatre April 16.

"I don't know why God has allowed me to be a part of this, but I'm so thankful," Jackson said. "I told Chris 'Don't take this wrong, but God chose you for this. I don't know why, and I'm sorry you have to go through this, but God did this for a reason'.

"From what he's going through, we hope to touch lives. 'Heart of a Champion' is a real story about a real man and his real family. And cancer is a very real disease that impacts everyone. I'm so proud to be a part of something that I believe is going to make many miracles."