When TK McKamy was asked to make morning announcements as part of a media class at East Jessamine High School, he didn’t want to. But the school had just invested in new video cameras and computers, so he told the teachers, “I’ll make you commercials.
“They said, ‘Well, what would that look like?’ and I said, ‘I’ll show you,’” McKamy recalls. “I started making ‘SNL’ spoofs and sports videos, and kind of humorous and funny little skits for my school to see, and they would air a couple times a week across my school in home room. I remember standing in the hallway and listening to people laugh or react to these little spots.”
The road, it seems, should have been fairly straight from there to McKamy’s life now as a music video director, the go-to guy for artists such as Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line with honors such as six nominations at this week’s CMT Awards.
But there were curves.
After graduating from East Jessamine in 2001, McKamy dropped filmmaking for a while to pursue dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, first at Asbury University and then at the University of Kentucky, where he was also the mascot for a year. But after graduating from UK in 2006, and a few false starts in other endeavors that left him living in an office and subsisting on Ramen noodles, he turned back to filmmaking.
“I remember the first time I got a gig, I knew I would be able to pay rent that month and eat,” McKamy says. That video was “Lift Up Your Face” for Christian rockers Third Day, and it set a career in motion that has included commercials for companies such as Coca-Cola and Verizon. But the signature has been higher and higher concept videos for chart-topping artists.
McKamy’s range can be seen in his CMT nominees. Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.,” nominated for video of the year and duo video of the year, is a pastoral piece shot in a mountainous region of Australia, while Thomas Rhett’s “Star of the Show,” up for video of the year and best male video, is a funny eye-popper done in one continuous shot ending with the singer and his wife doused in paint.
The ideas come from McKamy. Artists will bring him a song, and then he writes a treatment or a few treatments of what the video can be.
“If it’s a performance video or a narrative video, they all have to communicate a singular emotion by the time you’re finished with it,” McKamy says. “You do that while also making people look cool. That’s the name of the game.
“So I get the chance to write all these ideas, which is a lot of fun when you get to see people investing in your idea of making something cool. Millions have been contributed to ideas that I’ve come up with, which is a really crazy thought — millions of dollars and hundreds of millions of views, which is kind of a weird experience coming from Nicholasville and Lexington, Kentucky.”
While the days of million dollar-plus video budgets may be passed and less TV airtime is devoted to showing videos, McKamy says videos are still as important, if not more, than they were in the heyday of MTV, largely thanks to the internet and YouTube. Several of McKamy’s videos have more than 100 million views on YouTube alone.
“Music videos are still the No. 1 way for the audience to see a song for the first time,” McKamy says. “When you go to Google and search a song’s name, the first link to pop up is the video.”
So the success of a video is integral to the success of the song. McKamy’s biggest collaborator is Rhett, with whom he has made eight videos, including his current hit, “Craving You,” a duet with Maren Morris.
“When you work in the wheelhouse of these guys and they begin to realize that you see life similar to them, you become friends and the collaboration works,” he says of his relationship with Rhett, including the singer’s signature hit, “Die a Happy Man.”
That video introduced another signature of McKamy’s work, involving artists’ real life spouses, relatives and friends in videos, which carried over into the CMT Award-nominated video for Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.” The video features the real life wives of the duo, which McKamy says adds authenticity to a video.
The CMT nominee that is pointing to McKamy’s future is the FGL-Tim McGraw piece, a short, dramatic film set in the world of dirt track racing. While he cannot give many details, McKamy says a major film studio saw the video and approached him about writing and directing a feature film along the same idea.
“Usually that’s not how Hollywood films happen, so I feel like it’s a real gift from God to say, ‘Hey, go chase this down,’” says McKamy, who ultimately wants to make movies.
Arguably, McKamy’s biggest success thus far has been the clip for Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country” song, which won the 2015 CMA for video of the year. It was a surprising success given it was a debut video for a debut song by a debut artist, and it was a satire of the very genre it was in.
“I thought, how funny would it be to totally poke fun at bro country and the way country music videos establish women,” McKamy says of the clip, which featured a group of guys being objectified in the way women often are in song lyrics and videos. “The label was initially scared that it might look a certain kind of bad. But I had confidence we could pull it off with humor and class and make a really funny and impactful piece.”
Confidence takes McKamy back to East Jessamine and those first projects, encouraged by teachers such as Marcia Murphy and Patty Patterson, who he says let him develop his own style.
“It gave me a creative confidence that you can’t pay for,” McKamy says. “It was this creative confidence that came to me through my high school that I am so grateful for that said ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
The CMT Awards are at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CMT (Spectrum Ch. 56).