(l-r) Kristian Bush, Drake White, Maren Morris, Bennett Lewis (Morris’ guitarist), Liz Rose and Mac McAnally perform during the sold-out CMA Songwriters Series at indigo at The O2 in London as part of the 2017 Country2Country festival.
I’ve always been something of a songwriter junkie. For years, I bought records as much for the person that had written a particular song, as for the act performing it. Even today, the first thing I look at when I get a physical album is to peruse the writer’s credits.
I get very annoyed when albums are released lacking these important and vital credits, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve yet to join the millions that are busily streaming or downloading music.
Songwriters are the life-blood not just of country music, but most genres of music. Without the writers creating the songs, there would be no recordings, no stars and no shows. For much too long, though, the songwriter has been the anonymous, almost forgotten part of the jigsaw puzzle that leads to highly successful music careers.
At one time New York’s famed Tin Pan Alley was the home of the songwriter. But now it’s Nashville’s Music Row. Nashville has long been the primary destination for anyone with an appreciation of songwriters and the art of songwriting. The beginnings of Nashville as a songwriters’ magnet can be traced back to the early 1940s. Roy Acuff, country music’s biggest star of the time, was also something of a music visionary, and he saw the importance of songs and songwriters in his and other singers’ careers. He realised that it was important that he should earn royalties from his songs and recordings, so he got together with pop songwriter Fred Rose, to set up Acuff-Rose, a music publishing company that was destined to become one of the most important in country music.
Based in Nashville, the company struck gold when it signed the little-known Hank Williams to a publishing contract in 1946. Over the years, Acuff-Rose has signed such pioneering writers as Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Don & Phil Everly, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Mickey Newbury, Don Gibson and so many others, as it became not only Nashville’s leading publishing company, but renowned around the world.
Nashville’s famed Music Row
As Nashville also became a recording centre, so more and more publishing companies mushroomed in the city, including Cedarwood, Tree and Combine. By the mid-1960s, Nashville’s famed Music Row area was jam-packed with music publishers, large and small. It led to the formation of the non-profit Nashville Songwriters’ Association International (NSAI), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.
In 1970, the legacy of the great Nashville songwriters was celebrated and preserved by the formation of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Each year a selected few are elected to this high honour, with more than 200 of the greatest writers from all genres of music ever to put words to music in Music City, having been enshrined in the Hall. A few years ago, a Hall of Fame Gallery was opened in Nashville’s Music City Center.
Included are such luminaries as Bill Anderson, Bobby Braddock, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Bob McDill, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose, Don Schlitz, Cindy Walker, Gretchen Peters and Hank Williams. Since 1992 the NSAI has organised the annual Tin Pan South festival. It has become the world’s largest all-songwriter festival. This year’s Silver Anniversary (March 28th to April 1st) event features more than 350 songwriters performing at a record 100 shows, at 10 of Nashville’s top venues, including the famed Bluebird Café.
The famed Bluebird Café
Even before the Nashville TV series put the Bluebird Café solidly on the map, this intimate venue had a worldwide reputation among knowledgeable music aficionados. Though the Bluebird Café can only accommodate 96 seated patrons, it has attracted such major stars as Carole King, Garth Brooks and Neil Diamond, as well as the cream of the Nashville songwriting Community; from unknown newcomers to coveted Hall of Fame members, all of whom have played “writer’s nights” at the Bluebird. The Bluebird Café was opened in 1982 by Amy Kurland, initially as a casual gourmet restaurant with some live music. Three years later, Sunday writer’s nights were added as a chance for new writers to audition and perform before a special guest writer. It was around this time that the first songwriters-in-the-round started. The format, inspired by Fred Knobloch and Don Schlitz, has become an important part of the Bluebird tradition.
‘In the round’ is the usual term indicating a group of maybe four or five songwriters sitting in a circle, playing acoustic instruments and singing songs known primarily from their days as radio hits. In these intimate settings, the songwriters pay homage to songs they created and, usually, others made famous. Often, before their ‘unplugged’ performances, the songwriter tells the audience about the song’s origin and what inspired it, shares the story behind its lyrics and otherwise reveals details that are often left untold.
Over the years, these ‘in-the-round’ writer’s nights have spread and any night of the week will find a writer or group of writers performing their newest song or their latest number one hit to an appreciative audience in almost any of Nashville’s clubs. While new unsigned writers in town would like to think that there is a publisher or a&r person at every table, reality is that is probably not the case. Publishers, song pluggers, producers and a&r reps do go out to writer’s nights, but most often it is to see someone they already know. If an unknown writer is also on that showcase, then they might meet, a relationship form, and who knows what might happen down the line?
Ten years ago, Kurland decided to sell the Bluebird Café and retire. In the Green Hills area of Nashville, it was in a prime development area, but rather than sell out for big bucks, Amy entrusted ownership of the legendary songwriter venue to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), who have maintained the same format as Amy had established. When we first met some ten years ago, she talked passionately about the Bluebird Cafe, explaining: “It’s a live music venue featuring songwriters of great country hits and songwriters who are trying to make it. It’s a listening room. We insist that our audiences be quiet and listen to the music.”
Over the years, songwriters-in-the-round shows have spread around the world. In 1992, I helped organise the first in the UK, featuring Brian Golbey, Gary Hall and other local songwriters with shows in Maidstone and Bristol. More recently the CMA (Country Music Association) instigated the CMA Songwriters Series, which brings a touch of the famed Bluebird Café to much larger audiences. Masterminded several years ago by hit songwriter Bob DiPiero, these intimate ‘in-the-round’ concerts have been held in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Austin and Washington DC. I was lucky enough to be present at the very first one in New York City at Joe’s Pub in 2005, and I can tell you it was a thrilling experience.
The CMA brought their Songwriter Series to the UK in 2012, and since 2013 the shows have been held at Indigo at London’s O2 as part of the annual C2C Festival. Each year it has attracted a capacity audience, with the majority of the patrons being completely au fait with various writers’ creations. This year’s event was hosted by Kristian Bush (former member of Sugarland) who introduced newcomers Drake White and Grammy-winning Maren Morris, alongside Liz Rose—who co-wrote with and nurtured a teenage Taylor Swift – and veteran singer-songwriter Mac McAnally. They swapped songs and stories for well over two hours, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats with humorous anecdotes and memorable songs, with many singing along to the more well-known ones. This was not a jam session. It was the kind of thing that used to happen more often in living rooms and small clubs, far more modest than Indigo: old friends with guitars, trying to knock each other out with their songs.
By and large, songwriters are considered the unsung heroes of the music industry, mostly unknown to the general public – except for aspiring songwriters who check writer credits to see who is living the life they aspire to. Without the song, there would be no singers, no stars, no music industry. With the internet, home recording and self-publishing, there’s never been a better time to be creative and get involved in music. All over the world, people are sitting down with their guitars and keyboards to write songs.
….bitching about the demise of country music….
I’m constantly bombarded by people bemoaning that there are very few good country songs being written these days. They are bitching about the demise of country music, but they’re missing the point. At a time when everybody is overly-styled, making the rounds and doing the marketing, they’ve missed the point of what made the oeuvre great: people lived hard, put their hearts out there and harvested the pain and the passion with a ruthlessness that often, left ravaged relationships in their wake.
When you take your seat at the Bluebird, or at one of the CMA Songwriter shows, or any of the writer’s nights in Nashville, then you’ll discover that the torch, lit by the likes of Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson is being carried on by some very talented and committed young writers in modern day Nashville. In fact, anyone with an interest in the way songs develop, these shows will provide an insight into the process by which a simple melody picked out on guitar can be transformed into a stadium anthem. Above all, they are a tribute to the songwriters whose talent lies at the heart of the Nashville music machine.
Nashville has long been a place to inspire artists. Countless thousands have tried to claw their way up a slippery slope, trying to get some kind of recognition in a city that sets the highest standards for artists, yet also sets up roadblocks at every turn. It takes ‘champions’ to bring the most talented of these creators of quality of music to the masses. It takes a music magazine editor championing to their readers, a radio dj championing to their listeners; a passionate blogger, or the next person who you walk past in the street, telling their best friend about the latest Gretchen Peters or Mac McAnally record, while having a beer after a long day at work.
It’s either that, or we can just be spoon fed the latest musical package off the production line, mass marketed and mass advertised to the point that you know the inane words to the song and you don’t even know why. I know where I stand on this, and I will continue to champion the quality songwriters of yesteryear, today and tomorrow, as I have been doing for the past fifty years. It’s vitally important that they not only receive recognition for their unique talents, but also earn the royalties that they are due, so remember the next time you illegally download, share or stream music, that you are depriving talented songwriters of their living.
- Look out for my special Tin Pan South coverage coming soon in Music Republic Magazine…
By Alan Cackett
All photographs: Amy Westney/CMA