Hello Heart

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I woke up with the first verse of “Hello Heart” in my head while I was on a songwriting retreat at a cabin in the Smoky Mountains.  It poured out so fast that I had to jump out of bed to grab my guitar, and my cowriters and I just hung on tight while the words came out.  It’s a very personal song about that moment when you feel your heart coming back to life again after it’s been broken to pieces.

When I started performing the song, I would look around at the faces of the people in the audience, and I always saw someone who was in tears.  It just goes to show that no matter how alone you feel, you are never isolated in your pain.  Just about everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle, and you usually can’t tell what that battle is just by looking at them.

So I decided to make a video for Hello Heart.  But not a high-budget, slick professional music video.  I wanted to make something honest and raw.  I wanted to remind people how important it is to be kind…to react first with compassion, and never to assume anything about anyone until you understand where they’re coming from.

These are real people in this video, sharing their innermost struggles.  They chose to make themselves vulnerable because they believe in the message we are trying to spread with this song.  And I couldn’t ask anyone else to do that without making myself vulnerable too, so I have shared my own heartache publicly alongside theirs.

I hope you’ll watch it, and I hope you’ll share it.  It’s not an attempt to sell the song, because we’re giving it away for free (people can sign up to receive it at this link). We just want to send this out there in hopes that it will spread a little more kindness in the world.


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Bluebird Cafe Meets the Nashville Ballet


I was 17, sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. I had tears streaming down my face. It was the first time in my life that I had to choose – consciously choose – to shut the door on something that I’d always dreamed of doing.

I was juggling school, voice lessons, piano lessons, choir, learning guitar, playing in school bands, and ballet lessons. Something had to give. So I found myself saying goodbye to a childhood dream of someday spinning across a stage in pink pointe shoes.  I chose to make music instead.

This weekend, I found myself on a huge stage playing my guitar and singing songs I had written, surrounded by a sea of dancers spinning and sailing through the air. The Nashville Ballet had choreographed my music for a show called City of Dreams, named after a song I wrote about my adopted hometown after it was hit by a devastating flood in 2010. It was part of a collaboration with the Bluebird Cafe for their Attitude program: 4 shows to a packed house at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

I can’t begin to explain how it felt, but crescendoing from the quiet whispery verse into the last big chorus of “City of Dreams” at the end of the show, I felt the rush of air as the ballerinas ran past me and leapt up into the outstretched arms of the men for a huge, soaring lift…and the audience exploded into applause…and my heart felt like it was going to explode into a million pieces.

Sometimes dreams come true in the most unexpected way.

“I am your City of Dreams
My faith is just worn, it’s just tattered and torn at the seams
But don’t you give up on me.”

Click here to read Broadway World’s review of City of Dreams.


Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.

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“Why Baby Why” on American Idol

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Tonight, I’m sitting in my living room watching an American Idol contestant sing one of my songs in an audition. That’s pretty surreal.

I wrote “Why Baby Why” with two of my dear friends and collaborators, Emily Shackelton and Phil Barton. We holed up in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains for 3 days for a writing retreat, and since there was nothing to do but eat, sleep, and write, we came home with 9 songs!

I tend to stockpile ideas for these occasions – just a line or a title to start a song from – and I had sung a few lines of the chorus for “Why Baby Why” into the voice recorder of my phone a few months prior. It was tickling at the back of my mind during the retreat, so I decided to sing the lines to Phil and Emily while we were out for a walk in the fall leaves between writing sessions. They loved the idea so much that we turned around and rushed back to the cabin to pick up our instruments and finish it! All in all, it probably took less than an hour to complete. It’s nice when songs fall out of the sky and bop you on the head like that.

Fast forward a couple of years and now “Why Baby Why” has been recorded and released by Capitol artist Mickey Guyton. She sings the fire out of it, and I got to sit up in the balcony at the Ryman Auditorium and watch her perform it to a standing ovation for her debut at the Grand Ole Opry. I guess Mickey’s stellar performance of the song made an impression on American Idol contestant Tristan McIntosh, because now here I am watching her sing it on TV in a really moving audition!

Click here to see a video of Tristan’s audition on the GossipCop website.

(p.s. Would you like to hear the origin of this song, from the iPhone voice memo of the idea right through the piano/vocal work tape to the demo and final recording? Click here to sign up for my newsletter – you’ll get behind-the-scenes unreleased material like this that I don’t share with anyone else…plus free songs!)

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2, 4, 6, 8…How Do We Collaborate?


If you look at the tiny print under the songs on a CD cover, you’ll almost always find multiple songwriter names listed. Collaboration is a big part of what we do.

How does that work, you might ask?

Well, collaborations happen in many different ways. Sometimes, you’ll find 2 or 3 songwriters working together (lyricists, instrumentalists/melody writers, or most often everybody does a bit of everything). Sometimes an artist – who may or may not have songwriting experience – is paired up with a songwriter or a songwriting team to write material for their next record. Nowadays, you’ll often find a “track builder” collaborating in the songwriting process as well, putting their own stamp on the sound of the song by using audio recording software to singlehandedly layer all the instruments together and create a professional-sounding recording of the song as it’s written.

What does a collaboration schedule look like?

In Nashville, those of us who work as songwriters on Music Row typically schedule our “co-writes” 4 or 5 days a week, starting our day in the songwriting office at 10:30 or 11am Monday to Friday. Although we each have our own pace and style, it’s quite common to finish a complete song by 4pm. After that, you might find us in the studio working on recording demos of our new material for pitching to artists/labels, or some of us might “pull a double” and start another song with another set of collaborators from 4pm to 8pm or so. Not everyone in the industry works at this furious pace, but when you are a staff songwriter living on a salary consisting of royalty advances, the more quality songs you write, the more likely you’ll be to get songs recorded, earn your publisher’s investment back and get your annual contract renewed.

How do you come up with a song collaboratively?

Writing somewhere between 50 and 250 songs per year may seem impossible, but collaborating is like exercising a muscle. After a while, you get very good at it. You’re able to sit down with a complete stranger, immediately talk openly about intimate emotions or experiences, find a song idea that you both feel excited about, pour your heart into a lyric and melody, piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle, and make a quick acoustic recording of the result, all within about 3 or 4 hours.

There are a few tricks to the process. The first rule of collaboration is DARE TO SUCK! You’ve got to spit out your ideas…and I mean verbalize every instinct, phrase or melody that pops into your head…no matter how stupid it might sound. Self-editing has no place in a brainstorming session, and songwriting is full-on brainstorming. Even the most ridiculous idea can spark something in your collaborator’s head, and that’s what keeps a songwriting session moving forward.

What comes first, the lyric or the music?

Sometimes you start with a melody, sometimes with a lyric, or sometimes both pop into your head as a unit. Sometimes you get a groove going on the guitar and that inspires the rest of the song. There’s no hard and fast rule for where the ideas begin.

Sometimes, lightning strikes and you pull a song idea out of the sky right on the spot, but it’s good to come into a songwriting session with some raw material to kick start things in case that doesn’t happen. Preparation is a big part of our job. All pro writers keep a list of potential song titles, and often we take turns sharing these ideas at the beginning of a co-write session until one of them catches our collaborators’ imagination. Sometimes, I come in with a chunk of melody that I hum, sometimes I’ll have a verse or chorus already written, or sometimes I’ll just have an experience or concept I’d like to write about. Track builders may bring anything from a simple drum loop to a bunch of fully-built tracks that just require a vocal melody and lyric to be written over top (a process called “top-lining”).

Music Row publishers keep a “pitch sheet” for their songwriters: a list of artists with upcoming recording dates that includes details about what kind of material they’re seeking for their record. That information can help us to focus our songwriting towards those specific artists, although aiming a song towards a specific pitch as you write it can be difficult. Usually I prefer to write the best song I can on any given day and figure out where to pitch it after the fact, but sometimes knowing who is looking can help us decide which direction to go when we reach the potential crossroads in the writing process: if the song could be happy or sad…a story song or a captured moment…a male perspective or a female one…a Miranda pitch or a Carrie pitch…etc.

What about writing with artists?

Writing with an artist requires a higher level of preparation, because the stakes are higher. You’re more likely to get the resulting song recorded, but you’ll probably have far less time to work with the artist or to revisit the song with them if you don’t nail the concept and finish it quickly. Sometimes you’re out on their bus stealing an hour of their time between the soundcheck and the show…sometimes they’ve flown into town for a day to work with you…sometimes you’re at an intensive retreat where the artist circulates constantly between different collaborator groups. That means you need to do your homework: you listen to the artist’s previous material so you know their style, their vocal range, and so you don’t pitch them ideas they’ve already covered in other songs. Once you’re in the room with them, you find out where they are in the recording process, and what kind of song they may be missing for their upcoming record or for their live performance set list. Then, you have to find a song idea that they can relate to, so it helps to know as much about their life story as you can in advance, and then to listen carefully to what they say about themselves in the room.

How does collaborative songwriting feel?

Collaborative songwriting is the easiest and the toughest thing I’ve ever done.  Sometimes, you stare at the blank page or search for a line until your eyes are bloodshot and your brain feels like it’s bleeding out your ear. There’s the pressure of sitting in a room completely star struck by someone you admire, when your sense of self-worth drains away with on your inability to come up with anything the least bit interesting. Sometimes your co-writer leaves you in the dust and you’re left feeling inadequate because you can’t keep up. There are times when everything grinds to a silent halt and you wish someone would call in a bomb threat at your office so you could get the hell out of the room.

But then, sometimes, it flows as if God’s hand is on the pen and you’re just trying to keep up.  You click together…you’re on the same wavelength, coming up with the same words at the same moment, tapping into turns of phrase and melody that choke you up with emotion. Your co-writers take the song to places you might not have found alone, and vice versa. You might even break down and cry in front of complete strangers because of the beauty of what you’ve just created together. When a song like that is done, there’s a shared dopamine rush that comes from the mutual creative victory. You ride that high like a junkie, and when it wears off, all you want to do is feel it again.

In the end, everything good is better when shared, and songwriting is no exception to that rule.


If you’d like a little more insight on collaboration, check out this video of my co-writers and I talking about the process of writing our song “Ordinary Angels”.  (Never heard the song?  Click here to watch us perform it in the room where it was written.):




Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.

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Show Me the Money!



I’m often asked by fans what is the best way to purchase or listen to music in order to ensure that the songwriters behind it are being paid fairly. After all, if you love a particular songwriter or artist, it’s the best way to make sure they’ll be able to continue doing what they do so you get to hear more of it!

The music royalty system is complicated, so it’s not surprising that many people have no idea that there are “good ways” and “bad ways” to consume music when it comes to where the dollars go. So I’d like to post an outline of what I know about this subject;  just something to keep in mind when you’re making choices about how to listen.  Here are the rankings, from best to worst, of different ways to consume music when it comes to supporting the creators behind it:



How Much We Earn: $5 to $20 per CD

Buying a CD from a performing songwriter in person at a show is hands-down the best way to make sure most of your dollars will end up in their pocket. If the songwriter is a performing artist also signed to a label, they generally purchase their own CDs from the label for a few bucks each and mark them up for resale. Indie songwriters will have paid for the CD out of pocket in the first place, so they’ll put your dollars back towards the debt they incurred in the recording and printing process. (An indie songwriter CD generally costs $10,000 to $20,000 to make, which includes studio time, musicians, mixing, mastering, photography, graphic design and CD printing costs.)



How Much We Earn: depends on chart ranking

Terrestrial and satellite radio royalties are the bread and butter of non-performing professional songwriters. There’s no easy answer to what a hit song earns, because it’s based on a per-capita weighted split of collected radio tariffs each year, but I’ve seen Top 20 country radio hits earn around $30,000-$60,000, Top 10 hits earn around $100,000-$200,000 and Number 1 songs earn as much as $500,000 in total songwriter share (which is split among all the writers and publishers involved in the song). For Canadians reading this, since Canada’s population is 10% of the USA’s, radio hits pay about 10% of that. And of course earning this money as a songwriter requires having your song selected as a radio single, which only happens to a couple of songs per album released, and even for the luckiest of us this usually only happens a couple times in our entire career!  But listening to the radio, whether it’s your local station, satellite radio, or terrestrial radio stations that stream online (such as iHeart Radio), supports the songwriters behind the music you hear.



How Much We Earn: 9.1 cents per copy sold

Buying a CD in a store or online in the USA generates 9.1 cents per song as the songwriters’ share. This number is then split between the songwriters and their publishers, so a song written by two professional songwriters with publishing deals would generate each writer 2.27 cents per copy sold. (Having a song on a platinum record – 1 million copies sold – would therefore generate $91,000 in songwriter revenue to be split among writers and publishers…however, records almost never sell that many copies anymore.  And in Canada, record sales are generally 10% of what they are in the USA due to the difference in population.)



How Much We Earn: about .00008 of a penny to .05 of a penny per stream

Streaming services are known for their pathetically poor songwriter royalty rates. Each pays a percentage – an unbelievably LOW percentage – of their revenue, and outdated legislation in the USA forbids songwriters’ Performing Rights Organizations to change this rate. This is something songwriters are fighting like crazy to change, and it’ll HAVE to change or else we’ll be extinct as a profession in the next few years. With a revenue percentage, there’s no way to do the math for a specific answer on what a stream pays. But in general, it’s in the vicinity of 0.00008 of a cent to 0.05 of a cent per stream. So a MILLION streams of a song would earn the songwriter somewhere between $1 and $500 (probably closer to $1, in my experience).

But let’s face it, streaming is here to stay, and it’s convenient.  One way to make yourself feel better about doing it is to buy a copy of the songs you find yourself streaming regularly; I have a policy of buying any song that I stream more than twice, so I know the songwriter will be paid fairly for the fact that I’m enjoying their creation.  In addition, make sure you’re streaming through one of the “good guys”.  Here’s how some of the most popular streaming services measure up from a songwriter perspective, according to a performing rights representative I talked to recently. They all pay within the range above, but some more than others:

Good guys: Apple Music, Spotify

Bad guys: Rhapsody, Pandora (the most uncooperative when it comes to songwriter rights)



How Much We Earn: nothing!

OK, so as attractive as those free downloads look – you know, the ones you find in a Google search advertising “free MP3s” or “file sharing” or “torrent” files – please think before you click on them. Those not only pay songwriters zip, but they’re also illegal. So basically, they’re bad for everybody involved (except the criminals who are using them to benefit from advertising dollars).


I hope this info is helpful to music lovers out there! Please feel free to comment or share. And if you’d like to be in on further behind-the-scenes posts like this, I’d like to invite you to join my newsletter here.


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The Writer’s Block Secret


It used to be a huge struggle for me to be creative. That might be a strange thing to hear, coming from a professional songwriter, but most writers, artists, and musicians have experienced the feeling of being creatively blocked. Every time I wrote a song, I used to go through an emotional spin…”What if I can’t think of anything? What if I do and it’s not good enough?” I used to have myself in tears every time I tried to come up with something – it was like a ritual of self-doubt I had to go through in order to write. Recently, I’ve found a way to overcome that.

Think for a minute about the word “creative”. “Create”. “Creator”. Somewhere inside you, there is a little piece of God. A creator. I don’t care if you’re Michelangelo or the guy that works at the McDonald’s drive-through – we each have that creative spirit within us. So why is it that we don’t treat that with the deference and respect it deserves? Instead, we become our own worst enemy. We beat ourselves up, pick on ourselves, refuse to defend ourselves against criticism – in fact, often we internalize the criticism we hear and use it to beat ourselves up even more.

I like to think of my internal “creator” as a small, innocent child. When that child is crying, when it doesn’t want to come out and play, as a parent to your own creative child, what do you do? Do you smack it across the face and say “smarten up and stop crying! Geez, you’re so stupid, always crying all the time! Now PLAY, dammit!” Of course not. You take that child in your arms, soothe it, and you say “what do you need, precious one? What can I do to make you feel better?” If someone else is picking on your child, do you join in, point the finger and say “yeah, they’re right! You suck!”? No. You comfort and reassure that child and tell it how beautiful and special it is.

If we don’t value ourselves, protect ourselves and treat ourselves with gentle respect, how can we expect anyone else to? And how can we expect our creativity to flow abundantly if we’re stifling it with negative self-talk? The next time you catch yourself treating yourself with anything less than the respect you deserve, be aware of that. Change the pattern of your thought. Are you frustrated? Why? What would make you feel better? Do you need a day off? A nap? A bowl of chicken soup? A walk in the woods? A vacation? Do you need to laugh? To cry? To shout? To dance? Then do it.

Your internal creator is very, very powerful when it is nurtured properly. It is your own little piece of divinity within. It has an endless supply of inspiration and ideas. If you catch yourself doubting your own creative capabilities, cut it out! Consciously change that doubt into faith. Remind yourself that although this “creator” is within you, you are not the source of what it creates – that’s not your job, so the pressure’s off. You are a conduit into an endless universal source, and at any given moment you can tap into that, just like the faucet in your kitchen sink has an endless source of water. The water doesn’t come from you – you don’t have to MAKE the water – you just have to turn on the tap.

When I show up at the office to write a song on Monday morning at 10am, I now fully believe that I will be able to do it. I have the faith that the ideas are there, waiting to flow when I turn the faucet on, and I am prepared to listen carefully to what comes in. And the ideas do flow. And then again the next day, and the next, and the next. If the flow is interrupted, if it slows down, then I gently ask myself what I need to allow it to flow well again. Sometimes I call my cowriter and say “I need a break today” – and they respect that. Sometimes I clear my calendar for a while and take a vacation if I feel that’s necessary. I feel completely justified in doing whatever I need to do to nurture my creativity, because I know that if I give it what it needs, it will give me what I need. And I am constantly amazed with its ability to do that.


Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.


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Adopting Baby Alexa


Twelve days ago, my husband and I received the most precious gift possible. We were given the honour of becoming parents through adoption.

Our journey to parenthood was long and trying. For years, Dave and I privately navigated our way through the cyclical heartbreak of infertility, living by the thermometer and the calendar, holding each others’ hands through repeated invasive procedures and choking down the bitter pill of bad news from doctors that pointed their pencils at statistical bar graphs and never seemed to look us in the eye. We came to know the pain of grieving the loss of a child that would never exist – one with my husband’s eyes, my smile, and hints of our parents’ faces mixed in – and even though we felt like we were surrounded by friends having babies on all sides, we found that we weren’t alone in our pain. As we started to talk openly about what we were going through, we realized that many of our friends were fighting the same battle. One in six couples, in fact, struggles with infertility. But that’s not something you learn in light conversation, so chances are you may never know which of your six friends is the one feeling that deeply private pain.

I distinctly remember one of my darkest days in the process. It was the moment when we had tried everything – from spending a year being poked with acupuncture needles…to eliminating all chemicals from the house and eating strictly vegan meals from an organic garden we painstakingly planted in the backyard…to having my husband inject me in the stomach with a syringe full of hormones in a random mall parking lot in the passenger seat of the car between tour dates…to exhausting our hard-earned savings on medical procedures that only left us right back where we started: childless. We had spoken about our plan to adopt, but in that moment, sitting on the bedroom floor after coming home from our last second-opinion doctor appointment, I couldn’t bear the thought that I would never know the feeling of carrying a child in my body. I completely broke down.

But when one of us had a weak moment, somehow the other always managed to be strong. So Dave looked at me and said, “You’re right. We’ll never get to experience what having our own biological child is like. But we WILL get to experience other things. They will be things most people don’t get to experience – things people don’t talk about – but they will be beautiful just the same. We can’t compare our journey to everyone else’s. We have our own journey, and it’s happening this way for a reason. We have to trust it.”

And he was right. Because now, sitting here with my daughter next to me on the couch, I can’t even count all of the unspeakably, uniquely beautiful things we’ve been able to experience.

We’ve walked into a room at the adoption agency to meet face-to-face for the first time with the young, very pregnant birth mother – and equally young birth father – who would choose us to parent their baby. We’ve spent time getting to know both of them and sharing the hopes and dreams all four of us have for how this baby’s life should be. We’ve seen the power of a parent’s love overcome biology in order to give their child the life they envision for her and give the gift of a family to someone who couldn’t have one. We’ve shaken the hands of the extended birth family in the hospital waiting room, answering their tentative, shy questions and sharing the story of our journey with them. We’ve sat in the hospital room watching the fetal heart monitor beep, and holding the birth mother’s hand side-by-side with the birth father as she gritted her teeth through the contractions when the epidural didn’t take properly.

We’ve held baby Alexa minutes after her birth, and then passed her around to be held by each of the extended biological family members who were present to welcome her arrival. We’ve left our own hospital room empty for most of the 48 hours before discharge in order to share a room with Alexa’s birth parents – 2 moms and 2 dads taking turns holding her, admiring her, feeding her and loving her. And we have witnessed that extraordinary young couple gather all the strength they could muster in order to walk out the doors of the hospital lobby after placing their baby into our arms. That is trust. That is generosity. That is love beyond what I ever could have imagined.

And it doesn’t stop there. From crib to stroller to car seat to clothes, our friends and neighbours have rallied around us during our “holy cow, we’re getting a baby in 3 weeks” expectancy period and supplied us with hand-me-down nursery equipment fit for a queen. They’ve set up this fundraising site to help offset the costs of Alexa’s adoption.  Not only that, but a couple of dear friends have even donated their precious supplies of pumped breast milk to ensure that baby Alexa will have all the antibodies she needs to grow up strong and healthy.

We feel incredibly honoured to be able to parent this magical little being who is bringing so much joy into our lives. This journey that began years ago with our first “baby steps” towards adoption is teaching us more about open-hearted, unselfish love than we could have dreamed. An open adoption means that Alexa will have continued contact with her birth parents as she grows up surrounded by people who love her. She will know her story, and the inevitable questions that go along with it will never go unanswered. Thank you, Kaitlin and Brandon, for the privilege of raising our daughter, Alexa. She’s the joy of our lives and your selfless act has given us the greatest gift anyone could ever give.


Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.



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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up



Do you find yourself watching the TV show “Nashville” and wondering how true-to-life it is? Well, the  real music business is just as crazy as the TV version.  

Here’s a story about royalty checks that should be delivered by armoured truck…#1 songwriters who are broke…exes that think your songs are about them…and more.  It’s a podcast recorded in October 2014, when my cowriters Emily Shackelton & Phil Barton joined me during a Canadian tour to spend an afternoon talking with radio DJ Mike McGuire for his “Mike on a Monday” podcast. It’s a fun listen and a humourous, candid look behind the scenes at the real Nashville music biz.

Here’s the link to listen:



Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.


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What the Heck is a Staff Songwriter?


I’ve spent almost 20 years living my dream as a staff songwriter on Music Row, and I consider myself very blessed to still be doing it today. Due to the decline of physical CD sales and the advent of streaming services that pay songwriters less than a 10th of a cent per stream (basically nothing), the staff songwriting business in Nashville is about 90% smaller than it was when I got here. In celebration of this rare and dying breed of musician, I thought I’d re-post this update of a blog I wrote way back in 1997, along with a new section at the end. Times have changed…but the heart of the music business hasn’t. No matter where the money goes, it still starts with a song.


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. Many country artists don’t write their own material – or need help doing it – so that’s where staff songwriters like me make a living.

When you buy an artist’s CD or purchase it for download, 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 play a couple of songs off each CD that are released by the record label as “singles”.

If you ever tour the world-famous Music Row area, you’ll see a haphazard collection of houses and office buildings. Many of these are publishing company headquarters. Nashville publishers keep a staff of songwriters, ranging in roster from a couple to several dozen, who write songs to pitch to country artists. The publishers provide the writers with a “draw” (an advance against future royalties paid out monthly like a salary).  They also 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!

Staff songwriters typically sign a one- to five-year long contract to write exclusively for a publisher and grant them 25 to 50% of the royalties earned on the songs written during that time period. Songwriters only get their own share of the royalties AFTER their publisher reclaims or “recoups” their investment (i.e. your draw and demo costs). Publishers only recoup their investment from writers in the event that royalties are earned; otherwise, they must write it off as a lost expense.  So publishing is a risky business!

(Note: because royalties have declined so much since I wrote this blog, a modern twist on the classic staff songwriting contract has evolved. It’s geared towards the still-vibrant touring and merchandise side of the music business, and it’s called the “360 deal”. It requires performing songwriters to sign over a percentage of all potential incomes including royalties, gig pay, CD and merchandise sales to a publishing company that acts as a one-stop booking agent, manager, road manager, publicist, and sometimes even as an indie record label. It’s a way to make ends meet for singer/songwriters…but many brilliant writers don’t perform, and thus are finding it almost impossible to survive as music shifts to a streaming model.)


Well…here’s the basic recipe: after making a few visits to Music City to scope things out, 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 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, write, write…you perform at open-mic nights…you network, network, network…you get a job waiting tables at a 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 just begun. Now you start going into the publishing office 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 commercial songs as you possibly can (typically 100-250 songs per year.) If your songwriting draw is large enough to live on, you can give up your greasy spoon job and spend all your extra time looking at the world through songwriter glasses in search of the next great idea to add to your book of potential hooks. Every month or so, you book a studio and hire the same world-class musicians listed in the credits on your favorite records to make the best-sounding demos that you can for the songs you have written. From there, you hand the songs over to your publisher…and hopefully, they run with them.

EdRodeASCAPPhoto1After you’ve built up a catalog of hundreds of great songs (if your publisher is willing to invest in you for that long and is connected enough to get them in the right hands), maybe some will be put “on hold” for an artist – that’s simply a formality meaning your song is being considered for their record. If you’re lucky, maybe one of your “holds” will end up being recorded AND make it to the record release stage, without being dropped from the project or without the artist being dropped from the record label. If you’re SUPER lucky, your song will be one of the few tracks on the record chosen to be a radio single. And if you’re INCREDIBLY lucky, your radio single will climb high enough in the charts that you’ll get to hear it on the radio, see it in a video, watch it performed in concert in front of thousands of people, maybe even walk a red carpet and collect an award for it. If that happens, hopefully you’ll make enough royalties to pay your publisher back what they’ve invested in you so far, have some left over for yourself…and you can finally move out of that seedy apartment into a decent house!  After that, the cycle starts again: your publisher re-invests in you and you hope the next hit will pay them back.

IN RETROSPECT (written in 2015):

I always tell aspiring songwriters that there are three elements to “making it” in the music business: 1) the quality of what you write, 2) networking, and 3) pure luck. To some extent, hard work and dedication can control the first two elements, but you’ll never control the third. For every hit on the radio, there are thousands of songs that are just as good – or better – that you’ll never hear simply because the writer wasn’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. In the music business, there’s no correlation between how hard you work and how much money you will make…unless luck co-operates with your hard work along the way.  You have to be prepared for that, and you have to be strong enough to measure your success by the fact that you get to do what you love, not by fame or by dollars in the bank.

So far, somehow I’ve managed to keep food on the table for almost 20 years doing this. Those years have been 80-hour weeks of writing, traveling, practicing, touring, recording, networking, blogging, and trying to dream up the idea that will pay for next month’s groceries. I’ve had a few months when ridiculously big checks arrive in the mail, but I’ve also had far more months without checks, so in the end it evens out to a pretty humble living. If you aren’t willing to live like this…or if there’s anything else you can do for a living and be satisfied…then this is not the line of work for you.  But if you adore the process of making music enough that you’re willing to ride the rollercoaster, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling life. Personally, I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.


Do you have questions about the music business?  Post them in the comments below, and I’ll answer them the best I can in an upcoming blog post!  (And if you’re not yet signed up for my mailing list, click here to do that – you’ll get a lot more insider info there.)

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An Insider’s Guide to Nashville



With world-class food and some of the most talented musicians and songwriters in the world, Nashville has become an “it” city to visit. Thinking about taking a trip? Now that I’m in my 20th year as a Nashvillian, I thought I’d create an insider’s guide of must-sees and don’t-misses to help you plan your time…my favorite spots are marked with an asterisk.

(Aspiring artists/songwriters: scroll to the bottom for additional industry-related pointers.)



Spring and fall are the best times to visit – but bring your anti-pollen meds in spring if you have hay fever! Winter’s generally overcast and less busy, with temperatures in the 30s/40s (snow is rare, but if it happens the city shuts down). Summer is pretty but very hot and humid, with temperatures reaching over 100F (especially in August).  

Last week of March is Tin Pan South Songwriters’ Festival, a great event when almost all of the big name songwriters in town will perform – but get your passes early because they sell out in a few hours!

Early June is  CMA Music Fest. Visit now if you want to see all your favorite country artists in one weekend, but avoid it if you hate crowds and want a reasonably priced hotel room.  



Nashville is not a very walkable city, unless you plan to stay downtown (and there’s a lot more to see than just downtown). If you can drive here, that’s a good plan. If you’re flying, check Kayak.com for cheap airfare; the airport is small, easy to navigate, and a quick 10-15 minute ($25) taxi ride from downtown. The bus service isn’t great, but there are lots of taxis – and most of us use the taxi-like car service apps Lyft and Uber to get where we’re going.

Lots of folks choose to rent rooms through Airbnb.com, and there are lots of those available in different parts of the city. As for hotels, many visitors stay at the massive Opryland Hotel resort situated close to the airport, 20 minutes east of downtown. It’s a cool place, and they do operate shuttles to the downtown area. But for the real Nashville experience, I usually recommend using Hotels.com to search for a room downtown (near Broadway, Demonbreun or West End) so you’re within walking distance of most of the action down by the river at the bottom of Broadway.



1) * The Bluebird Cafe (Green Hills, 15 min drive from downtown)

If you can fit this into your trip – even if you’ve never seen a songwriter show and don’t love country music – DO IT. Trust me, you’ll love it. This little 90-seat club in a strip mall used to be an insider secret, but not anymore, thanks to massive exposure on ABC’s Nashville TV show. It’s the place where artists like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift got their start, and it’s where yours truly cut her teeth as a performer. They host 2 acoustic songwriter shows per night from Tues-Sat, and no 2 shows are the same. The early round (6pm weekdays, 6:30 Fri/Sat) will be up-and-comers along with established hit makers, and the late round (9pm weekdays, 9:30 Fri/Sat) is usually loaded with heavy hitters.

The trick is nabbing a seat, and that’s hard. You’ve got 2 choices: a) be on their website when they open their reservation system at 8am CST exactly a week before the show you want to attend (or 8am on the Monday before Fri/Sat shows), and click as fast as you can within the 2 minutes before they sell out…or b) line up outside the door at least an hour before showtime to try and get a first come, first served unreserved seat.

Note: Sunday nights feature auditioned but less experienced songwriters headlined by a hit maker at the end of the night, and Mondays are open mic nights followed by a full band show. So it’s best to visit Tues-Sat.

2) The Listening Room (downtown)

This bar/restaurant/listening venue within walking distance of lower Broadway is a larger, somewhat rowdier version of the Bluebird, with songwriter shows nightly. Online reservations are recommended – some shows sell out – but sometimes you can just walk in.

3) The Station Inn (the Gulch, 5 min drive/15 min walk from downtown)

Bluegrass, bluegrass, and more bluegrass!  Even if you’re not a huge Bluegrass fan, the world class musicians that perform at this little hole-in-the-wall venue will make your jaw drop.

4) The Basement (10 min drive south of downtown)

This little basement…literally, a basement…features great outside-the-box talent. This is the place to see the young up-and-coming indie, Americana-country artists you’ll hear on the radio someday. No reservations needed, but I.D. and a cover charge (usually $5) required. And while you’re on their website, check out the schedule at the newer, larger sister venue in East Nashville, The Basement East (known to locals as “The Beast”).

5) *Lower Broadway (the downtown strip)

Don’t leave Nashville without spending at least a few hours wandering in and out of the honkytonks downtown on lower Broadway. There’ll be a band performing constantly in every bar from 10am-2am daily, and while the Bluebird is the place where songwriters cut their teeth in Nashville, this is the place where not-yet-discovered country artists perform for tips and exposure. Grab a beer at Tootsie’s (where Hank Williams Sr. sneaked drinks during Opry set changes and Terri Clark was discovered in the front window).  Wander into The Stage, and Robert’s Western World…eat some BBQ at Jack’s…buy one pair of cowboy boots and get 2 free at Boot Country…bar-hop north on Second Avenue, check out The Wildhorse Saloon, and head up Printer’s Alley to hear country music covers from the sublime to the ridiculous. If you’re a fan of country music history, take a tour of the historic Ryman Auditoriumthe original home of the Grand Ole Opry. And for some late night fun, the Big Bang dueling piano bar is an absolute blast.

6) The Grand Ole Opry (next to the Opryland hotel, 20 minutes east of downtown)

If you’re a fan of classic country music – or of country radio from the 90’s to the present – and you don’t mind a little cheese with your twang, the Opry is a fun evening. Reserve a seat for a show on Tuesday, Friday or Saturday night, and see legendary artists like Whisperin’ Bill Anderson perform alongside today’s country stars like Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood in this throwback live-to-radio show. Artists differ for each show, are announced a few weeks beforehand, and with each artist limited to 2 or 3 songs each, there’s lots of variety every night.  In January when crowds are smaller, get the added bonus of experiencing an Opry show at its original location in the Ryman Auditorium downtown.

7) Other spots…check the Scene!

Whether you’re a country fan, a rock fan, or an indie/Americana music fan, or even a fan of classical music, you’ll find what you want to hear in Nashville. Check out the Nashville Scene’s online show listings before your visit to find out who is performing at other famous local venues such as 12th & PorterCannery Ballroom, 3rd & LindsleyCity WineryDouglas CornerThe Ryman Auditorium and more.  Many industry showcases take place at 6pm, so watch for some of those and you might see an about-to-be-signed artist’s live show as they get scoped out by A&R for a record deal.



1) Gaylord Opryland Hotel (& Opry Mills mall)

I know it sounds strange to visit a hotel if you’re not staying there, but this place is crazy. I’m talking about indoor rainforests, waterfalls, rivers with boats on them, and plenty of places to get lost. It’s a fun place to wander when the weather is rotten outside…get some freshly photosynthesized indoor oxygen…grab some drinks and cruise the indoor stores. Then, cross the parking lot to the Opry Mills mall next door for some outlet shopping.

2) *Country Music Hall of Fame

Music enthusiasts will love this massive downtown museum featuring all things country. On Saturday mornings at 11am, visit the museum’s Ford Theater for their “Songwriter Sessions”, featuring acoustic performances and Q&A sessions with hit songwriters.

3) *Music Row

If you’re here with a car or a bike, take a drive along the streets of Music Row (16th and 17th Avenues South between Demonbreun and Wedgewood) to check out the beating heart of Music City.  At the entrance, you’ll pass the famous Musica sculpture on the roundabout (known as “Hillbilly Porn” to the locals who dress it up for special occasions). The Row itself won’t look like much from the outside – just a few blocks of office buildings interspersed with old houses – but those houses are the legendary publishing companies, studios and record labels that make the country music business wheels turn. Check out the banners hung outside the buildings to celebrate the songwriters on their roster who penned current Billboard hits. On any given day as you drive by, hundreds of songs are being written in those buildings and demoed in those studios.

4) East Nashville

I’m partial to East Nasty, because that’s where I live…but it’s also been named one of the coolest places to shop, eat, and hang out by several national magazines, so it’s worth a visit. Grab a cab over to 5 Points (10 min east of downtown)…have lunch, bar hop, and do some shopping for antiques, vintage wear or creative art. If you’re a runner, show up at 5 Points at 6pm any Wednesday to get some exercise in a giant group run with the 100+ members of the East Nasty running group…whether you’re a marathoner or a 5k-er, you’ll find your pace and make some new friends.  I’m partial to Shelby Park as well – its Greenway trail meanders along the river for about 27 miles of beautifully flat, forest and honeysuckle-lined paved biking trails from East Nashville all the way out to the Donelson area. You can rent bikes from the outdoor stand at 5 Points and explore it from there, or pedal over to the Eastland area to check out some of the best restaurants in town (Silly Goose etc, see below).

5) Pedal Tavern

If you’re visiting with a group of friends, this pedal-powered bar is a fun outing. Bring your own beer (the keg is just for show) and drink it while you sit on a barstool and pedal your way through downtown Nashvillle on this open-air tavern-on-wheels, stopping along the way to bar-hop.



Nashville has a TON of amazing restaurants – it has become a real foodie hub lately. I’m no expert, but here are a few of my personal favorites, starting with my local East Nashville spots:

1) *Sky Blue Cafe for breakfast (East Nashville)

It’s a small cafe, and there’s no lobby, so on weekends you will have to wait outside for a table. But it’s worth it for the delicious breakfast/brunch options. The Nashville TV show has filmed scenes in the funky art/antique store next door. (After 9:30am, the wait can be about an hour, so put your name on the list and then take a walk to explore the beautiful old Victorian houses on the surrounding streets.)

2) The Pharmacy for lunch or dinner (East Nashville) 

Delicious burgers and old-school style “phosphates” (soda-shop-style sodas) are the staples at this small restaurant with a big backyard of Christmas-light-lit picnic tables. Covered seating is limited in the rain, and expect a significant wait at peak times, but this is a fun hang! 

3) The Wild Cow for lunch or dinner (East Nashville’s Eastland area)

Even if you’re a carnivore, this vegan restaurant makes veggie food taste delicious. I still can’t figure out how they make their nachos or their buffalo-flavored quinoa kale bowl, but it’s GOOD. (Closed Tuesdays.)  When you’re done, wander over to Jeni’s next door for a gourmet ice cream dessert in flavors like Poached Pear Reisling or Cayenne Chocolate.

4) Lockeland Table for dinner (East Nashville’s Lockeland Springs area)

Delicious and unique dishes, a great wine list and an awesome “community hour” happy hour are the hallmarks of this East Nashville eatery. (It’s one of my faves…and that’s a blessing and a curse because it’s literally around the corner from my house!)  For a more laid-back night of takeout food, Italia across the street makes a delicious “drag it through the garden” pizza.

5) I Dream of Weenie & The Pied Piper Creamery for lunch (East Nashville)

A fun afternoon indulgence: while you’re enjoying a stroll through Five Points, grab a picnic table and a loaded hotdog from this VW bus-turned-food truck. Then head across the street for a delicious (huge) cone of locally made ice cream in creative flavors like Cereal Killer and Oreo Speedwagon.

6) Barista Parlor for coffee (East Nashville)

This upscale coffee house, owned by a member of the Black Keys, features leather-aproned baristas creating your own personalized cup of coffee in what looks like a complex chemistry set behind the bar. It’s expensive but good…and the people watching is lots of fun. You’re equally likely to run into Robert Plant or an actor from the Nashville TV show here…if you can pick them out in the sea of hipster skinny jeans and hair gel.

7) The Copper Kettle for Sunday brunch from 10am-2pm (Green Hills, 15 min drive west of downtown)

This is another tiny venue, and again, you may have to wait outside.  But the all-you-can-eat brunch is reeeeeallly good, so make sure you’re hungry. Browse the used bookstore next door while you wait – it’s crammed to the gills with good reads.

8) The Southern or Etch for dinner (downtown)

Both are a little pricey, but worth it!  The Southern is a steakhouse, and the steak at this place is pretty much to die for. Etch is a foodie’s paradise with a menu packed full of locally-sourced, gourmet foods in unique flavors and combinations. Plus, both these restaurants are close to all the fun downtown sights: Lower Broadway, the Listening Room, Country Music Hall of Fame etc.

9) Turnip Truck for a quick lunch on the go (Gulch location, 2 min drive/10 min walk from downtown)

This is a health food/produce store featuring a quick salad bar and hot bar for take-out, or for eating on the patio. It’s a good place for people-watching – you’ll occasionally see some star power here – and it’s also right across the street from Two Old Hippies (the expensive but cool clothing store-to-the-stars).

10) Fido for coffee or breakfast/lunch (Hillsboro Village, near Music Row)

This is a weekly hang for me and my girlfriends…and for half of Music Row. It’s the “let’s grab a coffee” spot for lots of music meetings, but the food is really good too.  Wander Hillsboro village while you’re here too – there’s some cool shopping along the block.

11) Edgehill Cafe for coffee/breakfast (by Music Row)

This Music Row coffee shop hang has recently been redone and is now a full-fledged restaurant, but you’ll still see a full crowd of music industry types in there before the 11am co-writing appointments start! Taco Mamacita across the street is definitely Music Row’s lunch spot of choice.  You might not know the faces (sometimes you’ll recognize a few) but if you know your songwriters and music execs, you’ll see at least 10 big ones in there on any given day. (Try the chicken tortilla soup – it’s really good).

12) Noshville for breakfast (Green Hills)

Sadly, the Midtown location has closed its doors to become condos, so the hallowed hang for the movers and shakers of the music industry is no more. (Unless you knew your songwriters, you wouldn’t have realized you were sitting next to the biggest guns in the business as they chatted about today’s song idea in the next booth.)  But I’m keeping the Green Hills location on the list because it’s still going strong and boasts a wide variety of classic breakfast and lunch options.  

13) Bar-hop the Demonbreun & midtown strip: Dan McGuinnessThe Tin RoofLosersBroadway BrewhouseThe Red Door SaloonRebarCorner Pub

Lower Broadway is the tourist strip, but Midtown holds the local music industry hot spots. So grab a booth and some beers to people-watch. A few bars such as Tin Roof feature live music performed by local songwriters. Oh, and check out the chocolate-milkshake-like bushwhacker at the Brewhouse or Rebar – delicious but deadly!  Special mention: The Patterson House…stop in here if you’re a lover of the seriously fancy (and expensive) cocktail. This is a favorite spot for artists like Dierks Bentley because of its great drinks and low profile; there’s no sign out front and a no picture taking policy inside.

14) Additional Foodie Spots:

If you’re a foodie, check out these expensive but renowned upscale Nashville eateries: Kayne Prime (a boutique steakhouse – try the cotton candy bacon appetizer!) and The Catbird Seat (the gourmet chef plans a specific dinner with paired wines and you pay a set amount for the whole thing – book it a few weeks in advance).



1) Malls:

There are several malls around Nashville: check out The Mall at Green Hills (upscale with a Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Mac, BCBG, Lucky, Sephora, Athleta, and various boutique designer stores), Opry Mills (a huge outlet mall designed in a circle so you can walk the whole loop and shop at Saks Off 5th, Guess, Old Navy, Forever 21, Bass Pro Shop, Off Broadway Shoes etc) and Cool Springs Galleria (in the suburbs south of town).

2) Strip Malls:

Check out Nashville West (Target, Ross, TJMaxx, Dick’s Sporting Goods, World Market, Best Buy etc) and 100 Oaks Mall (Ross, TJMaxx, Kirkland’s, Burlington Coat Factory, Ulta etc).

3) Consignment:

Nashville has some cool consignment shops, as you’d expect in a town that centers around show biz where you can’t be seen on camera wearing the same thing twice. Check out Designer Finds (next to the Mall at Green Hills), Designer Renaissance (in Berry Hill), and there are a ton of others listed in this guide by Ms. Cheap.

4) Boutique Fashion Stores:

Nashville has some wonderful (and some wonderfully expensive) boutique shopping stores where you can find unique and super stylin’ pieces. Check out this guide for details. (My faves are Posh, UAL and Two Old Hippies for the expensive stuff and Lizard Thicket and Blush for more affordable items.)

5) Antiques:

If you’re a lover of antiques there’s a lot to choose from around here,here’s your guide to Nashville antique stores.



If you’re an aspiring songwriter or a visiting musician, here are a few tips for navigating your trip to Nashville.

1) Plan ahead

If you’re coming to co-write or participate in the music business, avoid visiting between Thanksgiving and Christmas – many industry folks are gone during that time. Likewise, avoid the first week of May when most of Music Row flies to Key West for the songwriting festival. Folks book their schedules a long way out, so if there are people you plan to meet or work with, try to contact them well in advance.

2) Join NSAI

The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) is Music Row’s Ellis Island…it’s the welcoming spot where newcomers can get oriented and find info about how the business works. Call ahead to make an appointment and find out what they do, or become a member online in advance and plan your trip around one of their educational seminar weekends. (The annual fee for this nonprofit association goes towards the worthy cause of legislative songwriter advocacy.)  Take advantage of NSAI’s song evaluation services from afar, have a one-on-one coaching session in person, or attend a “pitch-to-publisher” night with your demos.  You can also use NSAI as a home base for internet access, printer/computer access, and songwriting rooms while you’re in town.

3) Visit your Performing Rights Organization (PRO)

Are you a member of ASCAPBMI, or SESAC? If you’ve earned royalties from any of your songs, you should be (or if you’re represented by a PRO in another country you’re likely already automatically affiliated with one of the American ones too). When you make your plans to visit, reach out to someone in Member Services at the Nashville office of your PRO and ask them to meet with you, hear your songs, and help hook you up with cowriters or publishing meetings while you’re here.  My Member Services rep at ASCAP was the one who got me the publisher meetings that resulted in my first songwriting deal.  Also, ask your PRO rep if they know of any “#1 parties” happening during your visit (they’re last minute, unadvertised, parties to celebrate the songwriters behind the current hit topping the Billboard chart, and anyone who knows about them can usually attend).

4) Take in the live music

Don’t miss your chance to visit the venues listed above and soak in as much live music as possible while you’re here. You can also try your luck at the Bluebird Cafe’s Monday night open mic night, where attendees enter a raffle for the chance to perform, or speak to the host of the Commodore’s nightly songwriter rounds – one of the most welcoming venues for unestablished songwriters seeking to perform – to see if they can fit you in for a late-night audition and then a potential slot in an upcoming show.

5) Network, network, network!

Know anyone in the music biz down here? Reach out to them and see if they’ll meet for coffee during your visit.  Don’t know a soul? That’s ok…many of us didn’t when we first got here. The beauty of this city is that hardly anyone is actually FROM here. So start conversations…be outgoing…visit restaurants and venues where the music industry crowd spends time, and talk to the stranger sitting next to you. You never know who it might be…and in this business, who you know is just as important as what you do.  

A CAVEAT: One of the rookie mistakes aspiring songwriters often make is asking established songwriters they’ve barely met to co-write with them. Co-writing is an opportunity that must be earned.  It’s a bit like asking for sex before you’ve even been on a date. :)  What you CAN do is ask to buy them coffee…pick their brains…even offer them a CD of your material (which they may not be allowed to accept if their publisher has a policy against accepting unsolicited music due to risk of copyright suits) but unless you’re a writer with success to your name, or unless THEY open the door to that topic, don’t ask them to write.


Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.


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