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….)