Jake Brown as written over 30 books, several of which focus on a given artist (like Heart, Iron Maiden, and Tori Amos, to name a few) work in the studio. In Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Musics Greatest Hits he steps out of the studio to talk to some of the songwriters putting hits on the charts. Jake was gracious enough to talk to us a little about the book.
Music Tomes: The book tells the stories of many hit country songs, but instead of structuring the book around the songs, you did it around the songwriters. How did you decide to do that?
Jake Brown: The songwriters in this town are the unsung heroes of country music outside of the immediate confines of Nashville, and though there artists like Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood who co-write many of their # 1 hits with songwriters interviewed in this book and I wanted to tell their story in a definitive book series. For generations and generations, its been one of the better-kept secrets that there was this amazing community of songwriters working behind the scenes composing the majority of country’s biggest hits: Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler,” for instance, was written by a legendary songwriter named Don Schlitz, and “Always On My Mind,” one of Willie Nelson’s biggest hits, was written by another songwriting great, Wayne Carson, who we were lucky enough to interview for the book. Bob DiPiero, who is a VERY respected member of the Nashville songwriting community, and Tom T. Hall, Craig Wiseman, “Whisperin” Bill Anderson, Sonny Curtis, Tom Shapiro, Dean Dillon, Jeff Silbar – there were so many members of the songwriting royalty, if you will, that were willing to share their wisdom, and stories behind hits that go back throughout the decades, allowing us to appeal not just to today’s newest generation of country music fans, but also its classics. In the same time, I’m very proud to say this book chronicles the majority of the hits within the catalogs of today’s biggest country stars: Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, and so on for stars and stars. So it was just a privilege to have such access to the behind-the-scenes stories of how literally hundreds of # 1 hits – chronicled in this book – came to life before they became chart-toppers.
This approach also allowed me – and hopefully the reader- an educational opportunity from hearing these songwriters talk about their heroes, those who gave them their starts in the business, to put the spotlight on some of country’s original movers and shakers: from Willie Nelson and Freddy Powers talking about the pivotal role Texas country great Paul Buskirk played in launching both their careers as songwriters, and the adventures these guys went on chasing their dream: Rivers Rutherford – who wrote “Ain’t Nothin’ Bout You” by Brooks & Dunn- among countless other # 1s – talk about hopping the fence at the house of Chips Moman and getting attacked by watch dogs while trying to deliver a demo of what became the title track off The Highway Man album! The huge chances these guys took – and struggles they survived – in pursuit of their dream to make it as hit songwriters, like Dean Dillon – writer of such George Strait classics as “The Chair” and “The Best Day”- hitch-hiked down here at 18 with a guitar on his back and not much else. This book tells their stories, the songwriters, and through those conversations about their careers, very naturally, the true-life inspirations behind many of country music’s GREATEST hit songs emerged. It’s a book written by songwriters for songwriters, both to inspire and hopefully to teach, because the collective wisdom these writers share within their respective chapters is priceless to an aspiring songwriter just starting out, or a struggling one that’s been in town a while and hasn’t landed a cut yet. For instance, the torture of a song being put on “hold” by an artist or publishing company and not being recorded for years before it then finally became a hit, or a songwriter getting news that a major country star is going to record their song, only to have it get bounced off the record, and wind up getting picked up serendipitously by another star who took it to # 1. These are the true stories behind the journey of those songs, and of their songwriters, and of the 20 writers profiled in this book, not one of them hasn’t won the biggest awards in the business: ASCAP/American Academy of Country Music/NSAI Songwriter of the Year, BMI ICON, Nashville and Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees, CMA/Billboard Hot Country Music Songwriter, Grammy Nominees and on and on- their status as the biggest names in the business is confirmed by their endless parades of hits and accolades for that success as songwriting.
Another fascinating aspect within this book was exploring the longer-term collaborative relationships between key songwriters and country music superstars who worked for album after album over multi-decade associations, like Dean Dillon and George Strait, or Chris Dubois and Brad Paisley, or more recently, Luke Bryan and Dallas Davidson. The kindred nature of these relationships were fascinating, and very authentic, with one instance being Kenny Chesney’s hit “Out Last Night” which he co-wrote with Brett James on a trip they took down to the Islands together. So those authentic backdrops were always cool to hear about as they inspired a song idea that went on to become popular enough to top the charts. It speaks to country’s almost universal relatability within the subject matter of the songs we talk about in this book, and its an important point the writers make over and over, the necessity of being able to relate to the audience. To paint “a 3 minute movie” as Craig Wiseman, co-writer of Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” and “The Good Stuff” by Kenny Chesney, and the skill with which these writers reflected the every-day language of Nashville and their respective rural roots or hometowns in the lyrics of these hits. Dallas Davidson, one of Luke Bryan’s main hit writers – including this summer’s monster # 1 smash “Play It Again” – put it best when he said in the book that “I tell people all the time, my job is to ‘speak the language,’ and if you’re going to have a hit, especially in today’s time, you need to speak the language, you need to talk hip and you need to put that in your songs, because it relates to a new generation, and to my generation. You have to do that, and I think just going out and living and listening to people and the way they talk, and translate it in your words and in your songs, it will work.” So the chance to get inside these amazingly creative minds, really for the first time in a book of this kind, it was never lost on me how unique an opportunity I was being given as a biographer. I’ve written 36 books in the 14 years I’ve been doing this, and this is by FAR one of top 2 or 3 favorite books I’ve ever been involved with.
MT: You interviewed some classic songwriters and some current songwriters. What traits or qualities did you find that they all shared?
JB: I found often that the routines were the same, getting up every morning and coming on to Music Row, getting in a room with a co-writer or co-writers and working 8, 9 hours a day banging out songs, day in and out. The work ethic is truly amazing, especially with just the natural talent for output that these writers’ musical minds have, some of them write up to 200 and 300 songs a year, and a good number of them go on to be cut, if not turned in many cases into hits. Even before they ever had hits though, almost every writer in the book hammers home the importance of doing as much co-writing as you can for the practice, as an up-and-coming writers especially.
MT: What are some differences in their process?
JB: Where that culture varied was within the approaches some writers took, for instance writing from a chorus first, or from concept down, but there were commonalities too within things like happy accidents where a hit song emerged spontaneously out of ANOTHER song a pair of writers may have been working on that day, like Brad Paisley’s hit “Whiskey Lullaby”, which began as “Midnight Cigarette,” or “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which though it went on to become a monster pop crossover hit actually began as a # 1 country hit. Another thing that I found fascinating was to hear about how song ideas came to writers when they may have been driving in that day to a session and that then guided the rest of the writers involved to stick with that idea because they all found it so hooky. There were a million variations on that of course from one song to the next, but my favorite – I have to say – were the hits that songwriters said “wrote themselves.” Kenny Chesney’s “There Goes My Life,” Rascal Flatts’ “Banjo,” and Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States” were poignant examples of that magical moment, where in other instances, you learn about the importance of laboring over an idea when a songwriter felt in his gut it really had promise.
MT: Can you narrow it down to a favorite interview?
JB: Not really, I was an equal fan of everyone I had the opportunity to speak with, but I will say there were some highlights for me personally, one of them being the opportunity to work with songwriting great Freddy Powers, who sadly has been stricken with Parkinson’s for the past 10+ years. We had some help from an amazing club of fans/friends, including longtime co-writer Merle Haggard, fellow Texas writer/star Willie Nelson, and John Rich of Big & Rich, who also gave us a great list of tips of new writers that we closed with as the book’s last chapter. I had the great fortune of speaking with Dallas Davidson, Luke Bryan’s co-writer, and Ashley Gorley, both of whom are wildly popular right now as hit-writers for stars ranging from Luke to Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, Chris Young – just a bunch of today’s biggest and fastest-rising stars. I loved the insight they shared into writing for today’s teenage country fans, who are the next generation that might pop up here in town in a few years with the same dream. Then, from a whole different angle, I had favorite moments that I think country fans will love actually getting a front-row seat into the songwriting process itself. Then you have vets like the aforementioned Rivers Rutherford & Brett James (who co-wrote “Jesus Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood, Neil Thrasher (who co-wrote “Fast Cars and Freedom” by Rascal Flatts), David Lee Murphy (who wrote “Big Green Tractor”, one of Jason Aldean’s biggest hits), and Lee Thomas Miller (co-writer of “The Impossible” by Joe Nichols, which was nominated for the Best Country Song Grammy). Hearing about the tricks and tips these guys have used throughout years of writing hits, and then guys like Chris DuBois, one of Brad Paisley’s principle co-writers and President of SeaGayle Music Publishing, which is one of the hottest Millennium publishing success stories in country music, and Craig Wiseman’s Big Loud Shirt. These companies have mentored and developed a lot of the newest faces on Music Row who are writing chart-toppers, so the advice songwriters reading this book get on the business of becoming a Nashville Songwriter in the current musical climate is priceless. I feel like every writer we interviewed in this book had something invaluable to offer the conversation, so really, its impossible to pick. I think readers will hopefully feel the same, BUT if you have a favorite hit you want to read about by a favorite artist, there’s a better-than-likely chance its covered in the book.
MT: What are you currently working on?
JB: I like to stay busy, and I have a history writing in rock the past few years: I just had a memoir come out last May with guitar legend Joe Satriani titled Strange Beautiful Music that we’re still promoting, but coming up, I’m wrapping work with celebrated rock drumming great Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, John Fogerty) on his authorized autobiography, then I begin writing what I’m proud to say is the first definitive rock & roll drummer’s anthology, featuring exclusive interviews with many of the biggest living drum legends alive, including players from Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Foo Fighters, Jane’s Addiction, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd among many others, and finally, I’m starting work this fall with iconic R&B/Hip Hop producer Teddy Riley on his memoirs, hailed as “a genius” by Michael Jackson at Grammy Awards at the height of their collaboration, and working with Freddy and Catherine Powers on Freddy’s authorized autobiography, The Spree of ’83. So I have a pretty full slate luckily.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
JB: As far back as 10 and 11 years old when I was first really reading because I wanted to, it was Rolling Stone and Billboard Magazine every week in and out till I was out of high school, and because I grew up before the internet was around, if it wasn’t music magazines, it was music biographies, and books like Sound Advice, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business and The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce anywhere I could gain an inside look at how the music business worked. When it wasn’t those books, it was mostly music biographies, and I grew up reading guys like Danny Sugarman, who wrote the Doors book, writers who really gave you a front-row view inside the lives of the artist or band you were reading about. More recent favorites have included Tommy James & the Shandells’ Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, always Motley Crue’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band is classic, Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road, Keith Richards’ Life, I could go on and on. I hope country music fans will add “NASHVILLE SONGWRITER” to their own list of favorites when they’re done reading. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book!
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