If your plan is to become a professional songwriter, Nashville is holy ground. It’s that magical place where old men ride in from the farm on John Deere tractors, head to Music Row, and write the kind of country song only sung by legends. So you chart a course, like legions before you, for Nashville. The truth is, as friendly and laid-back as the South can be, Music City can be incredibly intimidating. One stroll down lower Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon and you’ll find hundreds of artists and bands performing for free in every bar, restaurant, coffee shop and street corner, hoping to catch a break. You’ll also soon learn that everyone, from the bartender to the barista, is a songwriter, singer or musician. So what’s an aspiring songwriter to do? Well, here are a few tips.
First, I assume that your songs aren’t seven minutes long and have five verses. This might seem a little ridiculous, but I’ve met a lot of artists who can easily write “good” songs, but they head to Nashville prematurely – because those songs don’t fit a conventional song structure. What we hear on the radio now is primarily “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus” format, and transpires within about three minutes and 15 seconds. Most beginners feel that their songwriting is divinely inspired, and therefore not in need of editing. But like many endeavours, songwriting is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. If you’re writing commercial music, it’s absolutely necessary to compare your songs to what’s current and hip on the radio. If your song needs more work, which it probably does, then re-write!
Country music also has its own lyrical standards. In Nashville, there’s a saying that “lyric is king,” meaning that storytelling within the song is paramount. The music is important, but the song has to say something, and it has to be said in a conversational style. That simply means that the lyric should sound as if you were having a conversation with someone. I’ve been in pitch meetings where the publisher would comment on a lyric, and say something to the effect that “you wouldn’t say it that way.” An example would be “her favourite hat, she always wore.” Most people wouldn’t say that. In a normal conversation, you’d say, “she always wore her favorite hat.” This makes the song more immediately accessible to the listener.
As a rule, Nashville usually writes to the “hook” or title. Take a song like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” a hit for Carrie Underwood. The first verse is about a woman who loses control of a car. The first chorus literally asks Jesus to take the wheel and save her. In the second verse we learn that she’s made mistakes in her life, and by the time we reach the second chorus, the words take on a new meaning. She’s now asking Jesus to spiritually take the wheel of her life. This dual meaning technique or “hook” is utilized a lot in country music. “Jesus Take the Wheel” is written so that when you hit the chorus there’s a lyrical as well as musical payoff, and when the listener reaches the second chorus, that lyrical reward is heightened all the more.
In other genres, lyrics can be more stream-of-consciousness than conversational. The lyrics are secondary to the emotion and mood of the song. Artists from Dave Matthews to The Fray use this style of writing. The listener can view the song through their own lens and imprint their own meaning upon the lyrics. Country music doesn’t use this style of writing, and almost exclusively uses a conversational lyrical approach.
Before you go to Nashville, make sure to contact anybody who might be able to open a few doors for you, especially to connect you with other writers interested in co-writing. If your songs are ready, a contact may be able to hook you up a pitch meeting with a publisher. Associations such as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC regularly host Nashville writers’ groups and sessions that are open to the public. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) is another helpful organization based in Music City. There are writers’ groups online, and on Facebook and LinkedIn, and with a little legwork you can meet some fine folks who are more than willing to co-write. It’s all about networking and building your contacts.
When you do get an opportunity to write with a professional songwriter, it’s usually because someone has taken a chance on you. A friend or industry professional made a connection, and convinced another writer to take that chance, too. Now you have an opportunity to make a good impression. Don’t come in unprepared! Although the publishing is likely to be split equally, don’t view yourself as equals. If you’re a newbie, and you’re writing with an established songwriter, you’re writing up. What does this mean? It’s an unspoken rule that it’s your responsibility to bring the creative ideas to the session. You need to have several musical and lyrical ideas ready to go. Bring along that list of song titles that you’ve been sitting on, and let the established songwriter pick the direction of the session.
You’ll also need to be comfortable voicing your ideas. If you pitch a line and it doesn’t grab the writers in the room, let it go and move on. Don’t feel bad about it. The best writing sessions in which I’ve participated are those where everyone feels comfortable, and lines are coming quickly. When the golden line enters the room, there’s typically instant agreement on it. Be sure to be polite and courteous, and don’t be a know-it-all. After all, you’re not only trying to write a great song, but you also you want to be invited back. If things go well, your network will have just expanded exponentially. You may be lucky enough that the other writer or writers have a publishing deal. If that’s the case, he or she is likely to play that song for their publisher. If the song is strong enough, the publisher may then pitch it around Nashville. Maybe you’ll win big and land that elusive cut on a record. At the least, your name will now become familiar to Nashville publishers, and that may create opportunities for you.
When I moved to Nashville, I first started writing with a neighbour a few doors down in my apartment complex. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had publishing deal. The songs that we were writing, he was taking back to his publisher, and before I knew it we were in the studio with Clint Black. Sadly, that deal fell through, but that opportunity opened a lot of doors for me. So stay open-minded to anyone you might bump into on your trip.
You never know where your next break might come from.