Donovan Woods is very aware that he currently enjoys the best of both worlds. The highly respected, country-folk singer-songwriter has a successful solo career as a recording artist, one about to be boosted by the late-February 2016 release of his fourth album, Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled.
He’s also an increasingly in-demand songsmith, whose compositions have been covered by high-profile U.S. country stars and many Canadian country acts.
“I feel lucky that I can always be working,” Woods says of his double life. “If you’re just an artist, then between album cycles you feel really lost. Once the tour and promo cycle for this new record is over, I’ll go back to Nashville for a couple of weeks of co-writing, and that’s just really fun.”
He explains that another advantage to his parallel careers is that “I can take a song I’ve written that I love and go play it on the road. If Nashville songwriters have written a song they love and no-one cuts it, then it maybe never gets heard.”
“I think it’s good to have a perspective on Nashville by not being mired in it.”
Right now, Woods is playing his tunes on the road via an extensive, cross-country tour of soft-seat theatres (e.g., Toronto’s Massey Hall, Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre) opening for Matt Andersen. Sarnia-raised and Toronto-based, Woods paid his proverbial dues earlier, via two independent, under-the-radar albums, prior to breaking through with 2013’s Don’t Get Too Grand.
It earned high-rotation CBC Radio 2 airplay and a 2014 JUNO nomination (Roots & Traditional Album – Solo), and he’s grateful for that exposure. “The JUNO nomination was an utter surprise and a real joy,” says Woods. “I may have been cynical or snobby earlier about airplay, but I didn’t know what I was talking about. What better medium is there than radio? I was so excited to experience what that was like, and now I know I can go to any town in Canada and have some people come [out to see me].”
Woods’ Nashville success as a songwriter began to snowball at around the same time. His first big break came when country superstar Tim McGraw cut Woods’ song “Portland, Maine,” while Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley just recently put “Leaving Nashville” – a tune co-written by Woods and Abe Stoklasa – on his debut solo album. The powerful portrait of a struggling Music City songwriter has quickly earned shout-outs in Billboard, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, and more. Woods currently has other songs on hold in Music City.
“Leaving Nashville” also appears on Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, alongside a co-write with legendary American songwriter Tom Douglas, and other tunes co-written by Woods and fellow Canadians Carleton Stone, Andrew Austin, Gordie Sampson, Dylan Guthro and Breagh McKinnon. A joint composition with Austin and Stone, “On the Nights You Stay Home” recently topped the CBC Radio 2 Top 20 chart.
“When I started co-writing,” says Woods, “I never thought I’d record a co-written song for my own record. But as you get better at it, and write with people you like, you eventually start to get songs from those sessions where you think, ‘I could do that one.’”
Woods first started going on writing trips to Nashville in 2012, and is close to finalizing a new publishing deal there. “I have a place there, but I choose to stay in Toronto,” he explains.
“I think it’s good to have a perspective on Nashville by not being mired in it,” says Woods. “I think I’ll always treat it as a place I go to work, but can always leave. It’s a real grind to be a staff writer there, and I think I’d hate songwriting in about six months if that’s all I was doing.”