On the Road with Pam Tillis

2007 started out with a bang for my friend and cowriter Mary Sue Englund – literally! She suffered a really bad fall on the way out the door to pick me up at the airport, and broke four of the vertebrae in her lower back! She was bedridden for about a week, so I moved in with her and played nurse as best I could until she was on her feet again.

Mary Sue is Pam Tillis’s touring acoustic guitar and piano player, and Pam had some dates scheduled last weekend in South Carolina and Florida, so they took me along to lighten Mary Sue’s load. It was my first time on a tourbus, and I LOVED it! There were eleven of us on there including Pam, the band, and the sound and light technicians, so it was a full bus. We slept in bunks (about 7 feet long and 3 feet high – not quite tall enough to sit up in). The first night, I didn’t sleep a wink – I was hyper aware of every movement the bus made – but after that, I slept like a baby, especially in the pitch dark of my bunk. It’s quite a surreal thing to fall asleep in one state and wake up in another!

I even managed to fit in some extra fun – I got to ride the ferris wheel and feed giraffes at the Palmetto Fair, wade in the ocean and get a sunburn in Fort Pierce, and watch Marty Stuart play his show from backstage on the last night (which was absolutely riveting). Pam was as elegant in person as she is on stage, and before I got off the bus on Monday she signed my ragged old copy of Homeward Looking Angel, which was in my CD player for my entire second year of college. Funny where life leads you sometimes!

I got off the bus on Monday just in time to go down to 12th and Porter and sing background vocals for Lauren Lucas in her band showcase. Included in her set were a new song called “What Am I To You” (Lauren and I wrote it with Jerry Flowers), and a cover of my song “I’m Gone”. Lauren always rocks, so it was great fun to be up there with her.

I also found out over the holidays that my song “Fly” (cowritten with Amy Dalley) was recorded by Broken Bow Records artist Megan Mullins for her debut album, which is great news. She’s currently the fiddle player in the house band for Nashville Star (which airs Thursday nights on USA). I’m especially enjoying watching this season because it features my cowriters Josh Stevens and Whitney Duncan, as well as my friends Zack and Angela Hacker, as contestants. Josh got me a ticket to see the show in person this week, so I’ll be there cheering them on.

Well, it’s back to cowriting now. Getting back into the swing of things is always a bit tough after taking a break, but I’m ready to get started again!

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Swallow at the Hollow in Roswell, Georgia

I got to experience another music road trip this weekend! Rachel Proctor invited me to join her and Casey Kessel for a performance at Swallow at the Hollow, a restaurant/bar in Roswell, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta which has become a popular place for weekly in-the-round shows by top-billed Nashville songwriters. The walls are lined with autographed 8×10 photos of some of my songwriting heroes. Last week’s featured writer was Matraca Berg, and next week’s is Jeffrey Steele, so it was an honor to be there, both as a performing writer and as an acoustic guitar accompanist for Rachel.

I had worked with both Rachel and Casey before, but I had no idea how much fun I was in for. We drove down there together, and we didn’t shut our mouths for the entire trip. Once we got there, we were put up in a hotel and got to enjoy anything we wanted to order off the Swallow menu. The chocolate chip banana puddin’ was the best! We played 2 shows, Friday and Saturday night, and by Saturday’s show we knew each other so well that the banter on stage was almost as good as the audience, who were highly supportive, and the songs, which were really fantastic.

You may be familiar with Rachel Proctor if you heard her hit “Me and Emily” on the radio when she was signed to RCA, but she has also written a great set of songs for pitching to other artists, including Martina McBride’s hit “Where Would You Be”. Rachel delivers it on stage with just as much intensity as Martina, so it’s really worth catching her live. You can purchase her new EP, “Only Lonely Girl”, at her myspace site www.myspace.com/rachelproctorsongs where she has posted a blog about our trip (and also a blog about a cowrite of ours called “Remember That” which she has posted as downloadable, so check that out too).

Casey Kessel is also a writer/artist who has written some songs for other performers – she wrote the current Danielle Peck hit, “Finding a Good Man”, she’s a well-known demo singer in Nashville, and she has also recently released her own independent record called “Ripple in the Water” which is now permanently stuck in my CD player.  Both of these girls have great talent and a fantastic personality. What a treat for me to get to know them both.

My family is arriving to spend Christmas here in Nashville with me soon, and then I’m heading up to Canada to get my snow fix before hitting the pavement running again in the new year. Happy holidays to everyone, and see you in 2007.

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USA International Songwriting Competition and New Songs

What a great surprise – I just found out that my song “Midnight at a Red Light” has won Second Prize overall and First Prize in the Country Category of the 2006 USA Songwriting Competition. I came home dead-tired yesterday from a cowriting session, opened my email and found the notification message sitting there like a big Christmas present with a bow on it. What a thrill!

I have been working like a DOG lately! Somehow I’ve booked myself with 5 cowrites per week for the past couple of months, which is really pushing the envelope. I’ve come up with quite a few songs I’m really proud of, and things have been flowing well, but I’m REALLY looking forward to the Christmas break. I need it!

Some new cowriters I’ve worked with in the past few weeks are Jerry Flowers (who has toured as a band member with the Dixie Chicks, is currently Keith Urban’s touring bass player and is a co-producer of JoDee Messina’s new album), Rachel Proctor (was an RCA artist with the hit “Me and Emily” and also wrote Martina McBride’s “Where Would You Be”), Nicole Witt (penned “She Didn’t Have Time” for Terri Clark), Lauren Lucas (an artist on Warner Brothers), Jimmy Ritchie (producer of Jake Owens and Mark Chestnutt), Minnie Murphy (an artist on the Montage label), and Mark Selby (who wrote “There’s Your Trouble” for the Dixie Chicks and “Blue on Black” for Johnny Lange).

I’ve also been performing quite a bit. I’ve sung some Christmas concerts with the Nashville Chamber Singers, a 23-voice a cappella choir of which I’m a member (gotta keep those classical chops up!). I’ve also done a couple of songwriter rounds at The Bluebird Cafe (tonight’s round at the Bluebird also featured other Full Circle writers Ward Davis, Rachel Proctor, and Josh Stevens, who is scheduled to compete in the next Nashville Star TV competition in January), and played at Lyrix in downtown Nashville. I was an impromptu background singer on a Lauren Lucas show when she performed my song “I’m Gone” as part of her set, and I also performed my own 45-minute set with a full band at 12th and Porter, which was especially fun! Two of the musicians in my band had performed “Saints & Angels” on tour with Sara Evans, so they had all the parts down pat. I also asked my good friends Tania Hancheroff and Mary Sue Englund to sing backgrounds for me, so needless to say we had a good time up there! Mary Sue had to rush over to our gig from the Opryland Hotel, where she was playing acoustic in Pam Tillis’ nightly Christmas show. A couple of days later, Mary Sue put Tania and I on the guest list for her show, and we got to enjoy it from the front row and hang out backstage afterwards (a big thrill, since Pam has been a major musical influence for me.)

So I’m off to play Swallow at the Hollow in Roswell, Georgia with Rachel Proctor and Casey Kessel next weekend, then back in town for a few more cowrites the following week, and then it’s time to put my feet up and enjoy Christmas!

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The Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival

I spent the past weekend participating in the Frank Brown Songwriters’ Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. My good friends and cowriters Lisa Brokop, Tania Hancheroff and I decided to take the time out of our crazy schedules to enjoy the weekend down there together as performers. The festival has been going on annually since the late 1980s, and features songwriters from all over the U.S., performing in-the-round at many of the local venues over a two-week period, many of whom are quite well-known. The location is beautiful, and the people are so warm and respectful of the visiting performers that it has grown into a major draw for Nashville songwriters.

The trip down took about 8 hours, which we managed to fill by singing every song we could think of from our childhood in three-part harmony – especially the Canadian ones, since all three of us are originally from there (even though we only met after moving to Nashville). I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life! My personal favorite was our version of “Oh Canada” sung entirely in parallel major thirds, which sounded like a mixture between Chinese music and a horror movie soundtrack. Somewhere along the way, our friend Tia Sillers called to wish us a safe and inspired trip, and told us that she was standing on the beach at Gulf Shores when she came up with the idea for the song “I Hope You Dance”. (“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean…”) It’s a magic place down there.

By the time we got there, we sounded like a bunch of basses – no top end at all, and lots of Janis Joplin rasp! But we tuned our guitars a little lower, and over the course of the weekend we played several shows for extremely attentive and supportive audiences. We even received a couple of standing ovations. That kind of reception is chicken soup to the souls of hard-working songwriters like us, who often don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labor outside of the writing room.

It’s funny – I spend so much time with my girlfriends that I forget how talented they are as performers. Tania Hancheroff (we call her Poncho Pants-are-off) is a top-call demo singer in Nashville and is working on developing her own career as an artist, but she also has quite a resume of recordings as a background singer (she is the high voice on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, and she also has worked with INXS, Montgomery Gentry, Ray Charles and Joan Osborne). We played several of the songs we’d written together, and I accompanied her on acoustic guitar for her other songs as well, since she is a pianist who is still learning how to play guitar. Lisa Brokop (we call her Lefty) is a Juno-award-winning vocalist with a very successful solo career up in Canada, and I remember admiring her voice on the radio before I was even considering making the move into songwriting. Now she’s one of my closest friends, but when she opens her mouth to sing I still pinch myself and say “WOW! THAT’S LISA BROKOP!” We closed our shows with “Saints & Angels”, with both girls singing harmonies – it sounded great!

When we weren’t on stage performing, we were making the most of the beautiful ocean-front condo which the festival provided as our accomodation for the weekend. We collected seashells, jogged down the sugar white sand beach, body-surfed in the waves (until a school of stingrays paid us a visit and we made a bee-line for the shore), sunbathed on the sand, watched the dolphins jump in the surf, built a giant sandcastle city decorated with shells and feathers (complete with moat, swimming pool, and tiny guns facing the ocean), watched the sunset from the hot tub, and ate candlelit dinners on the balcony overlooking the ocean. The experience was so renewing that it was absolutely spiritual. I hope we can co-ordinate our schedules to do it again next year!*

*A note from the future:  we never did make it back down there the next year.  In fact, we were all in the delivery room with Tania while she had her first baby!  So we had a good excuse.

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The Art of Co-writing

I don’t know what it is about this time of year, but I always seem to write a lot of songs in the fall. This year is no exception, especially since I’m cowriting full-time now. Cowriting really is something that you have to learn how to do; when I first came to town, I was floundering my way through cowriting sessions and then writing with much more clarity and quality on my own, but now I really seem to be hitting my stride when I’m sharing the experience with a collaborator or two. I think it’s about developing the confidence to express your thoughts when they come to you, no matter how stupid they might sound. If you spend your time self-editing or being self-conscious, you’ll end up staring at the wall in silence all day, which won’t help either one of you. One of my cowriters named Michael Dulaney likes to call it “turning poop into poetry” – you throw out some poop, and then just putting it out there in the room might inspire your cowriter to turn it into poetry, or at least start them in a direction that may not have occurred to either of you before.

I had five writing appointments this week, and wrote five songs with seven different cowriters – and I’m excited about every one of them. A couple of them are uptempo, positive songs, which my publisher will be happy to have added to the catalog. (There’s a newsletter-style publication on Music Row called a “pitch sheet” which is basically a list of the artists who are scheduled to record in the near future and a few details about what type of songs they are looking for – and 99% of them are always looking for “uptempo, positive” songs, so those are always in great demand.)

I wrote with Rachel Proctor this week, (you may know her from her RCA single “Me and Emily”). It was our first experience writing together, and we spent most of the day pouring our hearts out and sharing stories about past relationships and the heartaches we’ve been through. It didn’t seem like we were working…but we were. Towards the end of the day, we wrote a complete song in about 1 1/2 hours which incorporated a lot of the conversation we’d had.  (A note of caution: if you’re going to date a songwriter, you’d better behave, or there’s a good chance that what you did will be broadcast nationwide during drive-time.)*

I also wrote with one of my best friends Mary Sue Englund – and she told me the story of the moment when she and her husband fell in love – and then we made that moment into a song. It was a very inspired day, and I found myself sitting at the piano, which I had never done with a cowriter before (usually I write on guitar). We had the distinct feeling that the sky was raining scraps of lyric and melody down on us, and we were just arranging them in a way that fit.

Finally, yesterday I wrote with two other very close friends, Tania Hancheroff and Tia Sillers. Tia was a cowriter of “I Hope You Dance”, and a writer that I admire very much. She brought a great title idea, and I found myself sitting at the piano to write for the second time this week. We were all on the same wavelength right from the start, and wrote a beautiful ballad about the bittersweet feeling of running into an old lover. Writing is such therapy! When we played the last chord of the song at the end of the day, we were all in tears.

There are times when I feel like the melody, the lyric, the pattern of a song is predetermined, and I’m just trying to find the piece that comes next. Sometimes I’ll try one, hoping that it works, and there will be something missing, something a little “off” about it…and then I’ll tweak it a bit, or try something else, and BAM, it’s like the feeling you get when a jigsaw puzzle falls into place. You just know that it’s right.

Well, I have a demo session next week to record these new songs, and then they’ll be out of my hands. It’s a bit like sending your kids off into the world, hoping that they’ll make some friends out there who believe in them, and that maybe in some small way they’ll change the world for the better. They may end up in a dusty corner somewhere, or they may be heard by millions of people. You never know!

(* A note from the future:  the song Rachel and I wrote was called “Remember That”.  It was recorded by Jessica Simpson and went on to debut as the most downloaded song on the #1 most downloaded CD on iTunes.)

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What I’ve Been Up To So Far

When I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology and Anthropology, each of the graduates in my class spent a moment during the ceremony shaking hands with the Dean of the Faculty, receiving their degree and chatting about their plans for the future. The girl in front of me was bound for medical school. The boy behind me was heading off to law school. Me? I told the Dean I was going to Nashville to write songs. He got a pretty big kick out of that. “Be sure to let us know how THAT goes”, he said.

I spent the summer working as a waitress, a dishwasher, a busker, a beer-bottle-collector, and a record store salesperson, and saved up every penny I could. I worked 7 days a week, 18+ hours a day. I knew that as a Canadian, it wasn’t legal for me to earn money in the U.S. until I earned a staff songwriting position and was sponsored for a visa by my publisher.

A few months later, I loaded my belongings into my Chevy Sprint (including all my clothing, 2 guitars, an amplifier and a futon…don’t ask me how) and trekked down south to land on the couch of my high school bandmate Deric Ruttan, who had moved to Nashville a few years prior and lived in an old dilapidated farmhouse.

I thought Tennessee was warm. It’s not. The winter was cold. Very cold. The farmhouse had a few missing pieces (doorknobs and such) where the frosty air crept in, and my roommates and I couldn’t afford to pay for the electricity to heat the place, so aside from the occasional fires in the woodstove when wood was available, we just wore our coats and mittens all the time. I mastered the art of playing guitar with my mittens on and began to really delve into my songwriting.

I hit the open mic scene full-time, networking and performing at local songwriter hang-outs such as The Broken Spoke, Douglas Corner and The Boardwalk Cafe. I spent time with some other people in the same boat who are now names you might recognize… Tony Lane (writer of “Letters from Home”), Mark Nesler (“Just to See You Smile”), Jennifer Hansen (“Beautiful Goodbye”, “Leave the Pieces”), Crystal Shawanda and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, to name a few…. I was a regular in the audience for the late-night shows at the Bluebird Cafe, which featured successful songwriters performing their hits. I sat, wide-eyed in the cheap seats, and listened to Don Schlitz play “The Gambler” and Tony Arata play “The Dance”…I cried lots of tears, soaked it all in, made notes, and tried to figure out what makes a great song great. And my savings dwindled.

After a few months I had written some pretty decent songs. My networking paid off and I was referred to Ralph Murphy, the writer/publisher liaison at ASCAP, the performing rights organization for songwriters. I took his advice and took a large and painful bite out of my remaining savings and recorded full band demos of six of my best songs. It was a last-ditch effort…I knew I was going to be out of money soon and I would have to go home.

When I played the finished product for Ralph, he picked up the phone right on the spot and called several publishers, setting up appointments for me. One of the calls he made ended up landing me a three-year publishing contract as a staff songwriter. I put my last $20 in the gas tank to drive downtown and sign the deal with Fame Music.  Talk about timing!

I was still living at the poverty level – your first publishing deal typically doesn’t pay very much – but at least now I could afford to move into my own apartment, so I was off and running!  I started frantically writing, writing, and writing more songs in order to establish a catalog at my new publishing company. My songs were being pitched to artists, and I was getting some “holds”, which was a good sign. (When an artist places a song on “hold” it means that they don’t want it to be pitched to anyone else because they are seriously considering recording it.) As usual, most of the holds fell through, but then my work paid off! My first cut, “Sittin’ on a Goldmine”, was recorded by ex-Shenandoah lead vocalist Marty Raybon for his self-titled independent solo album. That song was one that I had written by myself at Deric’s farmhouse, with mittens and jacket on, the winter before, and had been included in the initial set of demos I had made to secure my publishing deal.

I was doing some cowriting at this point, but was still coming up with better songs on my own, so my publisher encouraged me to start writing exclusively by myself, which I continued to do for the next several years.  I carried around a “hook book” – a collection of song ideas, and each day I would look through it to see if anything caught my attention.  Often what is happening in your life will inspire songs to fall out onto the page, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love… and one of the phrases that I had been carrying around in my book for months suddenly meant something to me… “Saints & Angels”. I wrote the song by myself in fifteen minutes…I had no idea how much it would change my life.

One of the first artists to hear the song was Sara Evans. She placed it on “hold” for a few months, and then…it became my first cut on a major label! She recorded it for her RCA “Born to Fly” CD.

I got a backstage pass to Nashville’s Fan Fair, where I got to see Sara perform my song live for the first time. I took some fuzzy photos of myself standing in front of the stage, wearing a big grin while she sang my song in the background. Later that afternoon I got to spend some time with Sara and her family on her bus, where we talked about the song and what it meant to each of us.

The following year, Sara released “Saints & Angels” as her third radio single off the album. When I first heard the song broadcast, I was driving down a backroad in my hometown of Mount Juliet (just outside Nashville, TN)…luckily it generated enough royalties to pay for the hefty speeding ticket I got.

The song appeared on the Billboard charts in the early fall, continuing to climb through the 9/11 tragedy and into early 2002 for a total of about 27 weeks of airplay. It peaked at #13 in the Radio and Records Country Singles chart and #4 in the Canadian Top 100 Country Singles Chart.  Sara also released a video for the song, with subtle inclusion of the New York City skyline in several scenes. It was a thrill to see my name listed in the video credits.  The video peaked at #4 on CMT and spent 5 weeks at #1 on CMT Canada, and it made the nominee list in June 2002 for the U.S. CMT Flameworthy Music Video Awards in the category of Best Video by a Female Artist.  The “Born to Fly” CD was officially certified double platinum in the U.S.A. for 2,000,000 unit sales, and I was presented with a plaque to celebrate the event.  My song was also featured as background music in the Paramount movie “Serving Sara” starring Elizabeth Hurley and Matthew Perry. It wasn’t a great movie, but I sat in that theater until the very end of the final credits – no one there but me and the janitor sweeping up popcorn – and cried while I watched my name roll up the screen.

As an added perk, I was given a backstage pass to hang out with Sara at her “Girls’ Night Out” concert at the hockey arena in Louisville, Kentucky, which also featured artists Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Jamie O’Neal and Reba McEntire. I slipped out into the crowd to hear her perform, and before singing my song she announced that I was present at the show, which was a thrill! I can’t describe the feeling I had when she sang that last part of the bridge…”these feet of clay, they will not stray”…but I remember turning around and seeing the entire audience’s lips moving to the lyrics…and I felt like I had been swept right out of my shoes up to the ceiling. It was one of the most intense experiences I have ever felt!

I was awarded the American Society of Composers and Publishers’ (ASCAP) 2003 Country Music Award for the song which ranked among the top 50 most played country songs of 2002. It was a special honor, since there were only three solo-written songs that received awards that year. It felt like I was playing dress-up, arriving at the awards ceremony in a limo and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kenny Chesney, Terry Clark and Trace Adkins…it was a far cry from the unglamorous life of a staff writer, grinding away at songs in the office every day!

Immediately after receiving the ASCAP award, I was invited up to Toronto for the Canadian Society of Authors and Composers’ (SOCAN) awards banquet to be presented with a SOCAN “International Achievement Award” for the song’s international success. This time, I got to rub shoulders with Tom Cochrane and Corey Hart, which was a blast. It was especially exciting to be recognized by my peers at home.

In the meantime, I also had a second radio single released: my solo-written song “Arizona Rain” by RCA debut artists “3 of Hearts”.  Radio singles are usually the only way a songwriter earns any royalties (most of the songs on CDs are not released as radio singles, and in most cases you never see a penny of the record sales unless the CD sells a LOT of copies) – so when one of your songs is selected as a radio single, you get pretty excited.  But just because a song is sent out to radio doesn’t mean it’s going to be a hit, and I’ve learned that lesson the hard way a few times.  There are a lot of factors that determine what drives a single up the charts.  Unfortunately with “Arizona Rain”, the artists were  dropped from the label and the single wasn’t promoted aggressively, so it didn’t chart well in the states. However, it did do quite well in Canada.

Around the same time, the demo recording for my song “You Believe in Angels” was used in the soundtrack to an episode of “Doc”, the PAX TV show featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. The series was being filmed in Toronto, and I was invited to visit the set for a day. I looked over the director’s shoulder to watch a scene being filmed, and then had the chance to eat lunch with the director and Billy Ray, both of whom were really nice guys. When the show was broadcast, I found that my song was used in its entirety for a beautiful musical montage over an emotional storyline. To this day I am still getting emails from fans who heard the song on that show and were touched by it – it was quite a special thing.

In October of 2004, I left Fame Music and signed a 3-year copublishing agreement with a relatively young company on Music Row called Full Circle Music.  This was the beginning of one of the most challenging and one of the most enlightening years of my career.  In the next few months, I went through a very painful divorce from a marriage that had become abusive.  Without friends and with very little songwriting collaboration in my life over the past few years, I suddenly came to recognize how much I had isolated myself from the world outside my door.  I needed to find that fearless, outgoing part of me that had somehow become reserved and shy.  I needed to get out there and perform, network, and make friends.  And I needed to take the heart and soul I had poured into my marriage and focus it on myself instead.  So that’s what I did.

As a writer at Full Circle, I was able to develop my cowriting to a new level, and established cowriting relationships with some great collaborators. I began to write with George Teren (“Real Good Man”), Kerry Kurt Phillips (“Almost Home”), J.P. Pennington (lead singer and writer of many hit songs for the band “Exile”), Michael Dulaney (“The Way You Love Me”), Steven Dale Jones (“One More Day”), Roxy Dean (“My Sister, My Friend”), Carolyn Dawn Johnson, new RCA artists Sara Johns and Catherine Britt, Curb artist Amy Dalley, Universal artist Gary Nichols and Capitol artist Whitney Duncan. As usual, I also kept up my solo writing as much as I could.

One of my favourite things about the Nashville music business is watching the people you work with going on to have great success.  Gretchen Wilson was an example of that.  Before she had a record deal, I hired her to sing a demo for me, and we ended up cowriting together. At this point she was trying to get a deal, but wasn’t having much luck – she’d been turned down by just about every label in town, most of them twice!  She played me the demos of “Here for the Party” and “Redneck Woman”…which just about knocked me out of my chair…I wish I could have bet everything I owned on that girl, ’cause I definitely would have done it.  A few months later after her deal was signed, Gretchen invited me to participate as a beer bottle-waving extra in her “Redneck Woman” video. The video featured cameos by artists Tanya Tucker, Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr., Big and Rich and James Otto.  Needless to say, that was a fun day!

I had also fallen out of the habit of performing in public – something that used to come so naturally to me – so I gave myself a kick in the butt to get out there and play the songs I had been writing.  Some of my subsequent performances put me on stage with top-notch artists and songwriters like Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying”, “The Good Stuff”), Matraca Berg (“Strawberry Wine”), Hugh Prestwood (“The Song Remembers When”), Steven Dale Jones (“One More Day”), Chris Lindsay & Aimee Mayo (“Amazed”), James Slater (“In My Daughter’s Eyes”), George Teren (“Real Good Man”), Dan Hill (“Sometimes When We Touch”), Tia Sillers (“I Hope You Dance”), Mark Selby (“There’s Your Trouble”), Dean McTaggart (“Birmingham”), and artists Aaron Lines, Jimmy Wayne, Paul Brandt, Deric Ruttan, George Canyon, Jamie O’Neal, Billy Kerrington, Lila McCann, Lisa Brokop, and the supergroup Alabama.*

(*This was the beginning of some big things for me…this is when things really started taking off.  But I’ll tell you about that later….)

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What’s a Staff Songwriter and How Do You Become One?


What the heck is that? I’ve been asked that question many times, because Nashville is one of the only places on earth that you will find this rare breed of musician. As you may have noticed if you are a country music fan, many country artists don’t write their own material, so that’s where staff songwriters like myself make our living.

When you buy an artist’s CD, you are generating income for the songwriters – these are called “mechanical royalties”. Similarly, when a song plays on a major radio station, royalties are also generated for the songwriters – these are called “performance royalties”. Typically, radio stations only give airplay to the few songs off each CD which are selected by the record label to be released as “singles”.

If you visit Nashville and take a tour of the world-famous Music Row area, you will see a haphazard collection of houses and office buildings, many of which are publishing company headquarters. Publishers in Nashville keep a staff of songwriters, ranging anywhere in size from just a couple to several dozen, who write songs to pitch to country artists. The publishers provide the writers with a “draw” (a recoupable salary), pay for the partially recoupable cost of making demonstration recordings (“demos”) of the songs, and provide a staff “songplugger” whose job is to pitch the songs to artists in any way possible…via record label staff, artist management staff, producers, hairdressers, makeup artists, personal trainers, dog-walkers, etc… and whenever possible to the artists themselves.

As a songwriter, you sign a contract in return for these services promising to share a portion of your future royalties with your publisher, typically anywhere from a 25% to 50% share. In addition to this, your publisher will recoup their investment (i.e. your draw and demo costs) from your share of the royalties. Publishers only recoup their investment from writers in the event that royalties are earned; otherwise, they write it off as a lost expense.


Well…here’s what you do. You wake up one morning and decide you’re going to take the plunge, so you sell everything that you can’t fit into the backseat of your car, drive to Nashville, rent the nicest seedy apartment you can find, and start beating the streets and attending every songwriter performance venue you can…you soak it all in like a sponge…you read every book you can find about the music industry and figure out who’s who, what they do, and how it works…you write, and write, and write some more…you perform at open-mic nights…you network, and network, and network some more…you get a job waiting tables at the greasy spoon and save up enough money to record demos of your best songs…through your networking you finally get some meetings with publishing companies, and you play them your demos…and hopefully you will eventually find someone who believes in you enough to offer you a publishing contract.

If you’re lucky enough, and persistent enough, to make it to this point, your work has really just begun. Now you start going into the office 4 or 5 days a week, collaborating with cowriters you may never have met, and you open your hearts and souls together and write as many great songs as you possibly can. If your songwriting advance is large enough to live on, you can give up your greasy spoon job and spend all your spare time walking around with your antenna tuned, constantly looking for that next great idea to add to your book of potential hooks. You go to the studio and work with the same world-class musicians that are listed in the credits on your favorite CDs, and you make the best-sounding demos that you can for the songs you have written. From there, it’s pretty much out of your hands.

You work for weeks, months, years…and after you’ve built up a catalog of hundreds of great songs, maybe a few of them will be put “on hold” for an artist (which means your song is a finalist among the songs being considered for their CD). If you’re lucky, maybe one of your “holds” will end up being recorded by an artist. If you’re really lucky, maybe your song will actually make it to the CD release stage, without being dropped from the CD or without the artist being dropped from the record label. If you’re SUPER lucky, you might someday have a song chosen as a single for radio release. And if you’re SUPER DUPER lucky, and the stars all align for you, your single might do well enough in the charts that you have the opportunity to hear it on the radio, see it in a video, or hear it performed in concert in front of thousands of people…and you make enough money from record sales to pay your publisher back what they’ve invested in you, with some left over for yourself…so you can finally move out of that seedy apartment into a decent house!

That’s the dream that we are all chasing as staff writers…the possibility that on one of those hundreds of days when we are sitting at the office with pen and guitar in hand, painstakingly piecing together another song, we might be generating an idea that will reach out to millions of people around the world. That’s why we do what we do, and in a nutshell, that’s how we do it.


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