As of early December, I am living about 350 miles south of Nashville. So far, I’ve made two trips there. The first one, in early January, was not too eventful, so far as songwriting is concerned (though my friend Susan, who lives there, took quite a bit of time to show me around the city).
I drove up again on Sunday, February 22 to meet with a song circle made up of members of Songtown USA, an international songwriting community that was started by a couple of current Nashville hit songwriters named Marty Dodson and Clay Mills. (The Songtown.com website is full of helpful and interesting content for beginning and even more experienced writers. With their subscription-based service, you get access to live webinars, and can also meet and network with other songwriters, find cowriters and more.) Clay and Marty encourage members to start their own local song circles.
The meeting was in the home of a Songtowner named Jon Helfand, who started the local Nashville circle. There were about a dozen writers in attendance, including a few from out of town, like me. The song critiques were fair and always targeted at making a better song. I met a writer there who I am now co-writing with.
I had not originally planned on arriving Sunday. It was a last-minute decision to attend the song circle. So I didn’t have a place to stay that night. Now, I am not above sleeping in my truck once in a while but there was still snow on the ground from a downfall that closed the city down the previous Thursday. It was about 30 degrees at 5 pm and not warming up. I decided not to worry about it. It would be alright.
My friend, songwriter-novelist Todd Lincoln Richards, who visits the city a couple times a years for a few months at a time, was in town. Another friend, Bill Berry, was up in Kansas City and traveling south to Nashville. I was expecting to see him Monday, so I’d rented a motel room for the week and we were going to split it. Due to some miscommunications, he actually arrived on Monday, too. I didn’t know this at the time though.
I drove over to meet Todd at the Commodore Grille, which is a restaurant-bar in ground floor of the Holiday Inn near Vanderbilt University. It’s also a well-known songwriter showcase (ostensibly for tourists to get a taste of Nashville’s local talent and even some bigger name songwriters).
I met up with Todd, who was assisting Sunday night showcase host Debi Champion. While I was sitting at the bar, enjoying a cold Yazoo, Bill called from the motel wondering where I was (huh?) AND Debi asked me through Todd to fill in at the showcase for an artist who cancelled at the last minute.
So, there I was, playing my first showcase of the week, totally cold. I did it as a two-man round with Todd. Debbie very much appreciated that I could/would do it at the drop of a hat (and I think she was also happy that my songs didn’t suck).
Todd Richards onstage at the Commodore Grille.
Bill Berry onstage at the Commodore Grille.
Then I went and picked up Bill from the motel. (He ended up on the Commodore stage later that night, too.)
We all spent the rest of the night meeting and listening to other songwriters, including a fellow from Arkansas who sang “If I was a Mormon, I’d have ten wives …” and proceeded to sing about the amount of sexual activity he’d have with those wives. The room became very quiet.
Bill and I ended up with Todd at this huge, Moroccan-decorated home where he stays when he’s in town. We stayed up late talking about songs, songwriters, movies, whatever. The owner, who Bill and I met the next morning, is a very nice lady who was very accommodating to us. We passed the guitar around and played her a bunch of songs, which she accepted as fair exchange.
Later Monday, Bill and I got a good look at the motel in the cruel light of day and decided it did not look very safe (I’d reserved online). So, we moved a bit further out of town and found a place that was very clean and inviting. Except for motel hunting and some food shopping, Monday was uneventful.
Tuesday night, I was asleep in my truck in the parking lot of Douglas Corner, a little club that’s a Nashville legend. I think the cold had gotten to me and I was coming down with something so, feeling a bit woozy, I took a nap while Bill went into club, waiting for Todd to show up.
Todd, who seems to know everyone in the local songwriter scene, booked me and Bill on songwriter rounds at a different place each night. (A round is where you’re on stage with two or three other writers and you each take turns playing one. It usually goes around anywhere from one to four times.) Our Tuesday night was at Douglas Corner.
I was woken up from my nap by the sound of the band Halfway to Hazard playing a song called “Getting Lucky.” Halfway’s first album was produced by Tim McGraw and McGraw’s producer, Byron Gallimore. They were rockin’ pretty hard inside Douglas Corner. Sounding great. Very energizing to wake up to.
Todd and Bill and I played on a round with a writer named Edgar White, who we would see more of later in the week. We heard some remarkable local songwriters, (including Will Maguire, who we would end up playing a round with the next night) and witnessed some colorful local characters, too.
The next afternoon, I attended a “Wednesday with a Pro” event at the headquarters of Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriter’s trade association. The pro was Rob Hatch, who has had many of his songs cut by the likes of Jake Owen, Luke Bryan and Lee Brice—big country music names—and was named 2014 Songwriter of the Year by the songwriter performing rights organization SESAC.
He talked to a group of 40 about how he rose up through the Nashville songwriting ranks and then he did some question and answer. What I found most interesting was his approach to writing songs that get recorded: He doesn’t even begin to work on an idea unless he’s sure that it can be carried out fully and remarkably. He analyzes it thoroughly to ensure there are no places where the idea could “jam up” (i.e., result in an incomplete or “eh” song). So, he writes fewer songs than a lot of Nashville pros but his statistics (cuts, hits, etc.) speak for themselves.
Wil Maguire, Todd Richards and Bill Berry onstage at Millennium Maxwell House.
Me onstage at Millennium Maxwell House.
That night, Bill and I played a round with Todd and his friend Will Maguire (from the night before) in the lounge of the Millennium Maxwell House hotel. This was a long one: four songs each. I had not played any of my own songs since last July, so it’s a wonder I was able to get through any of these gigs but I somehow pulled it together. Chalk it up to muscle memory. I even sang with Bill on a song we’d not played together since the late ‘80s. Fun gig and, again, met some very talented and interesting people. And it started snowing!
Thursday, thanks to Bill Berry, I met with Kris Bergsnes, Spoon Williams and Danny Traynor of Red Bandwagon, a new publishing company in town. (Bill has known Kris for years.) It was a good meeting and it’s a place where I can send my songs in the future … so who knows?
Later that day, I attended a “Pitch a Publisher” event at NSAI. These are events where songwriters can play a song for a publisher who has come to NSAI expressly for the purpose of finding songs they can then place with recording artists. Sometimes you know beforehand if they are seeking certain kinds of songs (e.g., drinking songs, fast songs, etc.). This was just a general pitch. I sat through three-quarters of the event and heard portions of about 50 songs. The publisher took two or three (mine was not among them this time). NSAI does these pitches once a month.
That night, Bill, Todd and I played at another Nashville institution: Bobby’s Idle Hour. Bobby’s, located in Music Row, is little more than a yellow-painted 50’ x 50’ cinderblock beer bar with a stage in one corner but there is an
Todd Richards and friends onstage at Bobby’s Idle Hour
undeniable magic about the place. I think it’s the people who work and hang out there: mellow songwriting “lifers” who have seen and heard it all.
The back wall at Bobby’s Idle Hour
Whatever illness I was coming down with really started to kick in at the pitch event. By the time I got to Bobby’s, I didn’t think I could go through with the round. I felt too congested to breath, let alone sing. “Lizard,” the man runs Bobby’s, was genuinely concerned and offered to call the paramedics. I thanked him, told him it wasn’t that serious. Somehow I pulled it together and played the round. (I’ve been home more than a week now and I am still coughing up stuff.)
Me and Guitar Slim onstage at Bobby’s Idle Hour
I spent most of Friday in bed, trying to fend off any further illness. Later that night though, I ended up back where I started, at the Commodore Grille, where Bill and I bought dinner for Todd, in thanks for setting up all those rounds for us to play. Again, I heard some remarkable writers, including Edgar White and partner Paul Dean; a new writer named Harlan Pease and Joel Shewmake, who co-wrote “Toothbrush,” a song that Brad Paisley recorded a few years back.
So, I have finally “taken it to Nashville”—made my first real contact with the music business on a couple of levels.
I don’t spend too much time worrying about who I do or don’t know in the music business. I just keep my attention on writing better and better songs. It’s great to know people and make contacts but if anything is going to happen in a songwriter’s career, it will not be because of who they know but how well they write songs. Great songs—hit songs—are the valuable currency of Nashville.