The back wall at Bobby's Idle Hour

What Happens in Nashville …

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. Songtown

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.

Debi Champion

Debi Champion

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.

Todd Richards onstage at the Commodore Grille.

Bill Commodore

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.

Douglas CornerTuesday 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. NSAI logo

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.

Will Todd Bill Maxwell House

Wil Maguire, Todd Richards and Bill Berry onstage at Millennium Maxwell House.

Steve Maxwell House 5

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

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

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.)

Steve Idle Hour 3

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.

Gifts

I read something this morning that made me feel a little better. Maybe it will be helpful to you too:

Don’t feel you’re weak because you doubt yourself. Your self-doubt is telling you that you’re doing something new and exciting.

question-mark-460868_1280This came from Hanneke Duistermaat, a copywriter who also has an excellent blog on the topic of writing better copy. (“Copy” means “text” or “content” that written with the intention of selling a product or service.)

In the last couple months, I have discovered that my own family had a dim idea of what I am doing. “So you’re moving to Nashville to learn how to do what?” or “If you work from home, then you can work anywhere. Why are you moving to Nashville?” So, a quick explanation:

I had worked at the same position in LA for more than 12 years. In the last three years of that time, I’d experienced a resurgence in my songwriting and saw very big leaps in my ability to write songs that moved people (laughter, tears … money). After a trip to Nashville in 2012, I decided I would move there. I’d also decided that from that point, I did not want to work any more day jobs.

last-one-to-die

My first editing gig, Life Won’t Wait by Michael Essington

About the same time, I edited a novel as a favor for a friend of mine and found I possessed a skill I’d not been fully aware of. From there, I began to work part-time at home, editing books and other types of writing for clients, all via the Internet. Then I got interested in commercial writing and took a home study course in copywriting (writing sales and marketing copy, like those long letters I mentioned earlier). The more I learned, the more excited I became. I find the concept and mechanics of arousing interest and creating sales to be intensely interesting. So, I began to take on writing gigs as well (articles, blogs, website content, etc.)

When I finally left my job, I wasn’t yet earning enough from writing and editing to live on, but it was increasing bit by bit. My great old friend Jane let me stay in her spare bedroom for six weeks, during which I also house-sat for her. My family, though they maybe didn’t exactly get what I was up to, was more than happy to help me, too: My brother let me stay with him in Las Vegas for nearly four months, during which I built up my clientele and nearly doubled by rates. My mother did not allow me to go hungry, whipping up some of the best dishes she ever has.

Currently, I am in southern Alabama, living with my dad and his wife. Only 365 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, Music City, USA.

Alabama backroad

Alabama backroad

Now, I tend towards independence and self-reliance to a fault but I really don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t accepted or had the benefit of my family’s and friends’ help. It would have been a lot harder to undertake this cross-country career-change transition. And the self-doubt would likely have been much greater.

As I reflect during this holiday season, I see that my greatest gifts have been my family and my friends. I am not sure how I could ever repay them. And allowing them to help me has been a lesson for me.

As a songwriter, I mostly have written alone. But in Nashville, most songs are usually written by two or more writers. Writers want to find co-writers that they’re comfortable and compatible with. I look at that compatibility as a matter of who you can help and also be helped by. For instance, I am probably a stronger lyricist than I am a melody writer. So, I can help a writer who isn’t as strong lyrically and they can help me with the melody—if I can be a little less self-reliant and independent.bing-crosby-white-christmasbing-white-christmas-records-vinyl-and-cds---hard-to-find-and-out-mmr1q5vs

Well, it’s a week until Christmas. May the days of the season be, as Irving Berlin wrote in 1940, “merry and bright” for you and your family and friends.

Thanks for reading,

Steve

Stuff

There have been times in life when owning things felt like security. I recall having a hall closet full of mismatched drums (the kind you play) and an assortment of related bits of hardware that made up a funky drum set. I’d collected and kept the stuff for years, dragging it from apartment to apartment. At the point I am thinking of, I hadn’t done anything with the stuff in a long time. But I liked knowing it was there. It had memories attached to it and I guess I felt a sort of security in that. Then one day, I put an ad in The Recycler (the now-defunct newspaper equivalent of Craigslist) and let it all go. No regrets. I still have the memories. I just don’t have to haul around the stuff.

On Halloween morning 2010, I was at a red light when a nice lady in a Lincoln Continental crashed into the back of my little Suzuki Swift, pushing it into the SUV directly in front of me. No damage to the Linc or the SUV but my car looked like a can of Bud Lite that a construction worker had drained and then crushed.

Video 13

Ouch. It still started and drove but really: Would you want to drive something that looked like that?

I was not too shaken up about it.

For the next three and a half years, I got around on foot, bicycle, bus and train and, for the most part, I enjoyed it. You see so much more on foot than you do from inside a car.

But when I decided to leave LA, I knew I would need to buy another vehicle—a truck, to be exact. So, this past May, I got a pretty cherry 2000 Chevy S-10 extra cab, figuring to put all my stuff in it and head east.

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

Starting in mid-2013, I began selling off my stuff: furniture, books, musical instruments, recording equipment. I’ve always lived pretty light (or so I thought) but I was amazed at how much stuff I’d held on to that I no longer used. Examples:

  • a microphone I bought in 1990, which I hadn’t used in 18 years
  • a pair of headphones I’d had since 1980 that broke and went gone un-used for 20 years
  • a bass guitar I hadn’t take out of the case in four years
  • dozens of CDs I hadn’t listened to in five, 10 or more years
  • pairs of shoes and gobs of neckties I’d not worn in years and years and years
IMAG0133

A different mustache for every day of the week? There’s no way I could get rid of this. I will keep this ’til the last.

I became extremely unsentimental and totally practical: If I was currently using it or it had a definite and actual use, it stayed. But if it was just taking up space because I thought it was “cool” or “might be useful” or I might want to wear it or listen to “some day,” it went.

I listed my stuff on eBay, Amazon and Craigslist and sold it all off or gave it to Goodwill (or to my friend Pat Anderson, who got my pretty-cool bookcases). Nevertheless, I discovered that what remained was still more than I could fit into the Chevy.

Uh-oh.

I didn’t want to buy a bigger truck so…I took my stuff to Las Vegas in two loads, a few weeks apart.

Now, it’s one thing to make two trips when those trips are less than 300 miles each (LA to Las Vegas) but Vegas to Nashville is 2,000 miles and three days each way. Ain’t no way I am making two of those trips for the sake of stuff.

My solution was to attain a deeper level of unsentimentality than I thought I was capable of:

How many guitars do I actually need for writing and performing songs?

One.

I will probably never spin these or my other 45 rpm records again but I just can't part with these individual packets of joy.

I will probably never spin a 45 rpm record again but I am hangin’ on to these little packets of joy just in case.

Great. Sold the other one.

Most of my CDs are on my iTunes or can be played on my Mac.

Goodbye, boombox and most of my CDs and so on.

Now, please understand: I like stuff—comfy couches, stereo equipment, old beloved books, pictures on the wall. I love the feel and the look, the sound and the mass of things—even things I don’t use. But I am not a slave to them. More stuff = less freedom and right now, freedom is king. There will be time again for more stuff when I am settled. (Hell, I’ll minimally need to get a bed and a desk.)

Of course, I am not a complete cyborg. There’s still a sliver of sentimental in me. (The pictures in this post are some of those “impractical” things that make me laugh or feel good that I just could not let go of.)

Rock and roll never forgets. I still have a bunch of buttons, mostly from my "new wave" days, including one that says "Turning Japanese."

Rock and roll never forgets. I still have a bunch of buttons, mostly from my “new wave” days, including one that says “Turning Japanese.”

The obscure book, Takin’ it to Nashville: A Songwriter’s Do-It Book, from which this blog gets its name, didn’t really address dragging or not dragging your stuff to Nashville. But if it did, it would probably would’ve said something like this:

“So the day that you’ve marked on the calendar is drawing near and you know you’ve got to make some choices. Are you going to pack up your entire home and take it along with you or just throw your sleeping bag and Martin guitar in the back seat of the car and go? Either way, don’t get so caught up in ‘stuff’ that it that it keeps you from reaching your destination. After all, it’s just stuff. The world is full of it and you always seem to accumulate more of it, don’t you?”

So, I am continuing to whittle down my stuff to a single truckload. Made a trip to Goodwill this past Saturday to dump some more clothing and things. Took the CDs that the local record store didn’t buy and put them on eBay, etc. I even found a handful of thumb and fingerpicks and put ’em on eBay. (Never could get the hang of using those things.) Someone bought ’em. Just one less handful to haul around.

Now it’s really starting to feel like I’m traveling light.

Steve

Decisions

It all started with a decision.

For most of my life, I was not good at making them. Ask my dad. He’ll tell you. He used to give me hell about being indecisive.

Oh, sure: I could choose something off a menu (well, I eventually got pretty good at it). I chose to quit college and play in a band (easy decision, that one). I chose to move out on my own when I was 21.

But as far as my artistic life was concerned, I was, for much of my life, irresolute (definition: “showing or feeling hesitancy; uncertain”). I would join a band but I would never feel fully committed to it. I would begin songs—lots of them—and never finish them. I “decided” in 1997 to get into the publishing business, bought books and read up on it. A year later I looked back and realized I’d sort of “forgotten about it” without even realizing I’d forgotten. (Does that sounds weird? Well, you’re right: It is.) Compounding the problem was a lack of persistence. Any great endeavor, and even a lot of those smaller ones, is going to run into some problems. Do you abandon the car at the first red light and walk home, vowing to never drive again?

Things began to change in 2009. I’d been working on and off for some years what I’d intended to be my long-awaited first CD. The “on” and “off” were because I was recording it myself at home and continually got bogged down in technical problems. But one day, I looked at the sum of what I’d accomplished and I realized that with a little bit of work, I could have four songs completed–I could make a four-song CD! Suddenly, I was motivated. I could get a finished product. Things really began to fly. Why? I had decided this little thing could be done. Suddenly, instead of feeling apathetic and coming home after work and watching game shows, I was staying up to 1, 2, 3 am every night, designing the CD art and then designing and learning to build my first website from scratch–more things I’d decided I could do, see?

I began to suspect that this failure to decide—I mean, REALLY decide something with all of one’s fiber—and a failure to persist in the face of adversity, is the root of why people stay stuck. Certainly it was the root of why I was stuck. It can be the quiet death of many a dream.

Decisions breed action.

A few years later, having racked up some little successes in my art, I decided (hey, there’s that word again) that my main thing, artistically, was writing songs. Later, I decided that I was going to move to Nashville, the songwriting hotbed of the world. That meant leaving my job without another to go to. Moving to a town where I didn’t know anyone. I had no money saved for such a major transition. But you know what? I didn’t even think about those things.

I’d made the decision. And the decision is paramount. My decision opened doors. It created possibilities. It made further decision-making (“Do I take the furniture or leave it?”) fairly easy. The decision was bigger than any possible barriers I might encounter. It had a lot of power and I feel that it still does.

As I sit here on an cool evening, staring at the computer screen, I am not yet celebrating. As I mentioned in the first post of this blog, I left L.A. on August 14, 2014. Currently, I am 300 miles northeast, in Las Vegas–not quite Nashville but it’s progress. I’ve had to handle some obstacles that popped up in the meantime (money mostly) and I am not quite ready to move on. No big deal; they’re just obstacles. You go around them or over them or through.

I suppose that if I still had a copy of the booklet of Takin’ it to Nashville: A Songwriter’s Do-It Book (from whence this blog gets its name), the author would probably be saying something like “You’ve come this far only find yourself outside of Amarillo with $500 in your pocket, a blown head gasket and a thousand miles yet to go. Do you punch at the air, catch a Greyhound and comfort yourself all the way home with the false excuse that it was all just a crazy dream anyway? Or do you leave your ’84 Toyota by the side of the road and throw your thumb in the air? Catch the ‘hound east? The answer is: whichever one is going to allow you to sleep better at night.”

I’ve been sleeping pretty good.

Thanks for reading,

Steve
http://www.stevennealwagner.com

L.A. in my rear-view

I’ve been writing songs since my early teens. Probably like most beginning songwriters, I started doing it for personal expression. I would have a feeling and I would channel it into a song. The first song I ever wrote, at age 12, was called “Marla,” about a girl I had a crush on. Music was a great emotional outlet but it would be another 15 or so years before I got a clue about what it took to write a real song. It would be several more years before I understood that writing solely for your own emotional gratification can work career-wise if you’re the artist but it was not necessarily the route to a professional songwriting career.

I was a rock ‘n roll kid, raised on what’s now referred to as “AM Gold” and later, the FM radio music that came to be called “classic rock.” In many cases with rock, the most important factor is the “feel” of the music: the sound, the production, the raw emotion. The strength of the lyric is not always the greatest concern. Consequently, as a songwriter, lyrics were not my greatest concern. (Not a good thing, for someone who calls themselves a songwriter.)

In the mid-eighties, as a daily commuter, I got bored with rock ‘n roll radio in the car and started listening to country music. I liked what I heard: the hot Telecaster pickin’, the three- and four-part harmonies and lyrics that actually made sense and had something to say (most of the time, anyway). It eventually had an affect on my own writing but not right away.

IMG_20130303_023710Sometime in the late eighties, at a used book store in L.A., I bought an independently published booklet called Takin’ it to Nashville: A Songwriter’s Do-it Book. In it, the author described, in a second-person story form, the cycle of deciding to get serious about your songwriting, going to Nashville, getting your first cut, soaring to the top, falling off the mountain, etc. (E.g., “You arrive in town around sundown and check into a cheap motel. After you unload your car, you walk around downtown for a little while, exhausted from the drive but full of anticipation. You stop into a little diner and get some fried chicken for dinner, careful not to spend too much money. Afterwards, you head back to the motel. You close the door behind you and in the silence, you start to feel a bit homesick in this new place, but then you remember why you’re here. You take out your guitar and write a song. Then you go to sleep early. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”)

It made it all sound kind of romantic and I read it not for any practical purpose, but like I would read any sort of story. Inside, I had no hope of actually doing what the book described. I was very low on confidence and didn’t really know it. I couldn’t even allow myself the luxury of dreaming about making such a bold step. If that sounds sad, you’re right: It is. I worked in an office during the day and went home and played my guitar and wrote songs with a hazy idea about “making it” some day.

I held on to that booklet for years and would read it every now and then. It was destroyed in a flood in 2002 but I never forgot it.

Never Give UpAs the years pressed on, I accrued disappointments in my pursuit of success as a songwriter. I became apathetic and quit a few times. The last time I took it up again, I was a very different person that the person who’d quit seven years earlier–a different person from the one who’d played in garage bands; a different one even than the one who had developed a liking for country music. I’d experienced changes in my life which exposed to me a great well of confidence that had been covered up for most of my life. I began to feel that I could actually do something with my music. I began paying more attention to the craft of songwriting and I started learning again. I got enthusiastic over all the things I began to discover about the craft. On an invitation from an old friend (also a songwriter), I joined a songwriter’s group in L.A. that played a game a couple times a year, based loosely on how the songwriting business works. (I will talk more about this in another post). It was in that group that I made my greatest strides as a writer. And it was in that group that I decided that my goal was to be a working songwriter, with my songs on the radio.

It was also through that group that I made my first trip to Nashville in summer of 2012, for a songwriting retreat. To say that I was charmed by the place is an understatement. And it really had little to do with the music business. I found i to be a beautiful, orderly (not-so) little (but not-so-big either) Southern town full of friendly people. The fact that it’s Songwriter Central is a big bonus.

I decided later that year that I was going to move to Nashville. About 18 months later, on August 14, 2014, I left L.A.

TO BE CONTINUED…