The way Emerson Swinford sees it, he had no choice.
He had to work with music. Or die trying.
The Midwestern mentalityWorking with old friends from the Northwest suburbs makes good sense, Conant High School graduate Emerson Swinford thinks.
"Midwesterners in general have a friendlier demeanor and are just regular good people," he said. "There's an honesty and a work ethic. Maybe there's something about our harsh winters that teaches us life isn't always easy. They're good working-class people, and I don't think that changes with success, you know?
"I'd say back in the Midwest, you are less judged by what you do for a living and more on the quality of your character."
"This is what I've dreamed of since I was a kid," Swinford said. "I had to make this happen. It's almost like I didn't pick the career. It chose me."
Growing up in Hoffman Estates, Swinford made a habit of coming home from school and playing guitar until 10 p.m. most nights.
"Maybe I should have done my homework," he admitted.
Maybe. But if he had done homework instead of playing music so religiously, he might not have become a professional musician, songwriter and award-winning TV music composer in Los Angeles.
Ever see TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland"? Swinford composed the theme music. (You can hear more of his work during the season premiere, telecast live on June 19.) Swinford also composed the music to TV Land's "Soul Man" and "Retired at 35."
Swinford's work as a session guitarist has put him in professional company with such artists as Rod Stewart (Swinford collaborated on his upcoming release "Time"), Jennifer Love Hewitt (they cowrote her hit song "Barenaked") and Tony-winning "Wicked" star Idina Menzel (he toured with her show).
Movies? Swinford has contributed his talents to the scores to "Planet of the Apes," "Just Like Heaven" and "Power Rangers."
In 2011 and 2012, he received recognition for his work at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' Film & Television Music Awards.
Good thing Swinford, a Conant High School graduate, met his lifelong friend Todd Milliner back in first grade at Lakeview Elementary School in Hoffman Estates.
"When we were in fourth grade, we had this 'play your favorite record' at lunch time," Swinford recalled. "We would take over the record player and play the Beatles all the time.
"Other kids were clamoring to play KISS or something like that, but we'd stand our ground and put on 'Let It Be.'"
After graduation, Milliner headed to Illinois State University. Swinford earned a commercial music degree from downstate Millikin University, then packed his bags for USC where he picked up a master's degree in music.
"One day, Todd says, 'Hey, I'm going out to California to get involved in show business,' and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'Good luck, buddy! It's a tough gig.'"
Two years later, Swinford received a call from his old pal, now a TV producer and partner in a company called Hazy Mills Productions with Glenbard West High School grad Sean Hayes.
"We're putting on a new show starring Betty White," Milliner said. "You interested in writing some theme music for it?"
That's how Emerson Swinford snared the job on "Hot in Cleveland."
"The thing about TV music is that you need to be very concise and get to the point right away," he said.
"It's not like the old 'Brady Bunch' show where you have a whole minute to sing an entire back story. Now you have to get right to the point. Writing the song with Jennifer Love Hewitt taught me about writing hooks, making it catchy. Making a statement."
The kid who once played guitar and trombone in the band and musical pit at Conant High has made a happy transition from the Northwest suburbs to Los Angeles.
Ten years ago, he went into a Thai restaurant for dinner and fell in love with his beautiful waitress, Sarah. They are now married with two rescue dogs. "One of them looks like he's constructed from spare parts from the dog factory," Swinford said.
Swinford comes from a family of educators. He gives his parents, Helen and Charles, credit for letting him explore his fascination for music.
"My love of music extends to every kind: Dixieland, country, jazz, anything and everything," he said. "Music transcends the labels we apply to it. I just hope something hits the heart. That's what attracts me to it."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are interested in suburbanites working in professional showbiz. If you know someone who would make a good column, contact them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.