Nashville Songwriters Tell the Stories behind Their Songs
Books by and about songwriters are too few and far between. There are notable exceptions, such as Steve Dorff’s recent I Wrote That One, Too: A Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney (Backbeat Books). Dorff’s engaging memoir focuses not just on the details of his life; he offers insights into his approaches to the art of songwriting through his reflections on his work with various artists. Almost five years ago, Jake Brown collected interviews with 20 Nashville songwriters in Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits (BenBella). Now he follows up that first collection with a second, longer, one that features interviews with 35 writers, and includes a concluding chapter that offers interviews with publishers on Music Row.
Nashville Songwriter Vol. II: The Inside Stories behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits follows no discernible order, and it lacks an introduction that would provide any insights into the design of the book. Each chapter focuses on a single songwriter, and Brown chats with the writer about one song and the story behind that song. Thus, he talks with Zach Crowell about the details of writing “Body Like a Back Road,” that became Sam Hunt’s big hit; Brown chats with Tia Sillers about “I Hope You Dance,” Cole Swindell about “This is How We Roll,” Liz Rose about “ Fearless,” and Chris Tompkins about “Before He Cheats,” for example. In the first volume, Brown interviewed very few women songwriters, even though they were writing — and still are — some of the best songs in Nashville. He includes more women in this volume, including Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, and Matraca Berg, among others. As he did in the earlier volume, he provides a narrative framework for each conversation and then allows the songwriter to tell his or her own story of the song.
Discussing the writing of Kacey Musgraves’ hit “Merry Go Round,” Shane McAnally reflects on the qualities that make co-writing successful: “My favorite thing to do is to write songs with Josh Osborne, Brandy Clark and Trevor Rosen. Now one of the things that has happened that changes the story is that Brandy Clark and Trevor Rosen have record deals. I wasn’t writing with them because they were artists. I was writing with them because I had incredible chemistry with them and it was natural. But if you took the fact that they had record deals out of the mix, I would prefer to write with people that are just for the sake of writing — those are the days that are just so freeing. But, the business side of me wants to be in those rooms with artists who are looking for songs and that we know what we are looking for.” Josh Osborne says of McAnally: “We just have a certain indefinable thing when he and I work on songs together. I think we see things very similarly, we grew up similarly … So what happens in a situation like that is, as a writer, it makes you become the best possible version of yourself, because it’s somebody you trust, you know their instincts, you know their thought processes … when I write with him, that’s the best possible version of me.”
Marla Cannon-Goodman, who wrote “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo,” talks about staying grounded and humble: “the best thing you can do for yourself in this business, in my opinion, is [be] humble when it comes to your music, because you never know. Don’t tell people that your songs are great all the time, let the song stand for itself … . I’m only as good as the song I wrote yesterday or the one I’m gonna write tomorrow.”
Matraca Berg, who co-wrote, with Gary Harrison, “Strawberry Wine” for Deana Carter and “Everybody Knows” for Trisha Yearwood, and, with Suzy Bogguss, Bogguss’ hit “Hey Cinderella,” discusses the ways she stays engaged with writing: “A lot of writers stop writing when they get older, and I think Harlan [Howard] and [Kris] Kristofferson definitely never stopped, and that was cool, and I don’t think Cash either, he kept plugging along, and I think because they exposed themselves to different things. … I switch instruments; I’ll put a guitar in a different tuning, or pick up the mandolin. Sometimes when I pick up an instrument that I’m not really good at, something new will happen. I read, I think reading’s really important if you’re a writer, reading good literature. I think Kristofferson was just a genius and it wouldn’t stop coming out of him, but I do think exploring different music and different ways and different instruments and different musicians to work with, and hopefully it will keep coming. You have to kind of stay engaged in life, because that’s what we’re writing about at the end of the day. Life gives me more than enough inspiration, but it’s just catching it (laughs).”
Rodney Crowell once told me that talking about songwriting was like doing cards tricks on the radio. Brown allows these songwriters — ranging from younger songwriters to those who have been working in Nashville for many years — to talk about the tricks of their art. Sometimes the chapters feel rushed and unorganized, but, overall, Brown’s collection offers a revealing introduction to songwriting in country music in the words of some of its most successful and passionate writers.