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It was an exciting week in Nashville when hundreds of songwriters converged on Music City to play their songs to packed houses in some of Nashville’s hottest downtown bars and cafés. The festival known as Tin Pan South gives the stage to the songwriters and performers who often don’t receive their fair share of attention during the rest of the year. 

 

Tin Pan South began 17 years ago, and according to the official website, the musicians who started the music festival did so to give a voice to the most important people behind the scenes, the songwriters. “Recognizing Nashville as the ‘new’ Tin Pan Alley, like the New York scene at the early part of the 20th century, these modern-day troubadours were seeking to bring attention to the new center of song: Music City.” The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) was in charge of putting on the show, and aspiring songwriters came from all over to study and enjoy the successful writers who performed their songs in-the-round. 

 

Dish caught up with some of the songwriters at the Bluebird Café, 12th & Porter, and Mercy Lounge, and they told us about the songs that started their profitable careers in the country music industry and made household names of the artists who performed them. 

 

 Rodney Clawson (“Amarillo Sky”), George Teren (“Stealing Cinderella”), and Lee Thomas Miller

David Lee at the Bluebird Café 

 

On March 31, the legendary Bluebird Café hosted the first performance that Dish got to see. The show featured David Lee (“Letter From Home”), Rodney Clawson (“Amarillo Sky”), George Teren (“Stealing Cinderella”), and Lee Thomas Miller who has been on a good roll lately with the Jamey Johnson hit “In Color” which he co-wrote with Johnson. 

 

Some of the stories we heard from the writers weren’t so much about how the song came to be or what the song meant to them, but what meaning it took on after it  left their hands. Not all songs have profound inspirations. Some are just written to be written, and “Letter From Home” was one of those that gained a great story only after it was released. It was written by David Lee and recorded by John Michael Montgomery. 

 

Lee and some friends were at a bar in Italy drinking wine, when he overheard a man speaking English at a nearby table. Lee and this man started talking, and the man asked Lee what he did for a living. “Well,” said Lee, “I’m a songwriter.” The man couldn’t believe that a person could make a living writing songs, and he asked him if he had written anything famous. “Letter From Home” was the first song Lee mentioned, and the man was overwhelmed with emotion. “That was me and my son’s song,” the man said and turned to his wife. “Can you believe that guy wrote that?”

 

“They both started crying,” said Lee, “and my sister was there, and she started crying. Then my wife started crying, and I was just in shock. We were in Italy in the middle of nowhere.” 

 

It all became clear when the man took a bracelet off his wrist, put it on Lee’s wrist, and asked him to wear it. The bracelet commemorated the man’s son, Matthew P. Wallace, a soldier killed in Iraq. Before playing “Letter From Home” that night, he dedicated it to the memory of the fallen soldier. 

 

Harley Allen’s Songs to Break the Heart 

 

Harley Allen played at 12th & Porter on April 1. One of his most famous songs is “The Little Girl,” about a girl whose parents are negligent and addicted to drugs and alcohol. The girl’s father kills her mother and then himself, but a loving couple adopts her. When she goes to Sunday school and sees a crucifix for the first time, she says the man on the cross, whoever he is, was with her when her parents died. John Michael Montgomery recorded the song and made it a hit. “I think every songwriter wants to write a song that touches people,” Allen said. “I’ve been fortunate to write songs that did that, but none of them to the extent that this song did. It’s so sad, it could be a bluegrass song.” 

 

Harley Allen and Trent Tomlinson

By now, fans of Harley Allen should expect his songs to cheer them up and then rip out their hearts, but there’s nothing predictable about his music. Yes, he is a professional songwriter for country musicians, but he’s always been a bluegrass man. As bluegrass artists often are, Allen is as much a storyteller as he is a songwriter. Add his songwriting skills to his abilities as a guitarist, and it’s no wonder he’s so rich. “Thanks to my hits, I’ve made enough money to last the rest of my life,” he said, “as long as I die by next Thursday.” 

 

Trent Tomlinson’s Politics and Poetry

 

Performing alongside Allen that night was Trent Tomlinson, who is as successful a performer as he is a songwriter. Tomlinson is an opinionated man, and he’s not afraid to sing and talk about his political and religious beliefs, saying he can’t comprehend why soldiers can fight for the U.S., but children are no longer allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. “I’ll stop right there,” he said, “before I pull a Dixie Chick and ruin my career.” 

 

One of his greatest achievements is “One Wing In The Fire,” his BMI-award winning song about his father’s checkered past. “My daddy was a guy who never lived his life righteously, and the apple don’t fall too far from the tree, but he was a good man in the eyes of our town. He was a great man, but nobody in our town knew the kind of guy he was after an all-night bout with alcohol when he come home. And so, for so many years, I was torn—like, I love this man, I hate this man—and not sure how to feel about it. And it messed me up for a long time. One day I got to thinking about heaven and hell, and how could heaven be heaven to me if I couldn’t see my daddy there? So I wrote this song, a plea to God to let him into heaven. He’s not dead yet, but I know he’s going.” Tomlinson also talked about inspirations for other songs, including growing up on a farm (“It’ll Do”) and the effects the recession has had on the music industry (“That’s How It Still Oughta Be”). Still, it’s a good bet that his songwriting career will at least sustain him until the economy improves and touring becomes profitable again. 

 

The Legends at Mercy Lounge  

 

Another legendary Nashville venue we sat in on was the Mercy Lounge on April 2. This might have been the most anticipated show at Tin Pan South! It featured Steve Bogard (“Every Mile A Memory”), Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Bob DiPiero (“Blue Clear Sky”), and Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn

 

Brooks let Dish in on how he and Ronnie Dunn wrote “Red Dirt Road.” “Ronnie and I got in this discussion one day about where we grew up. He grew up in south Arkansas, and I was talking about riding with my grandfather when I was a kid out down these old logging roads. He had a couple little pieces of property, and he would cut a tree here, a tree there. Anyway, it’s not a ton that we got in common, but we found some common ground with this one.” 

 

Steve Bogard (“Every Mile A Memory”), Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Bob DiPiero (“Blue Clear Sky”), and Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn.

The story behind a song is especially enjoyable when it lets you in on the songwriter’s inspirations. This story is for anyone who ever wondered why Bob DiPiero titled his song “Blue Clear Sky” instead of “Clear Blue Sky.” The movie Forrest Gump inspired this song. DiPiero said he could never decide if Gump’s girlfriend Jenny “was a fragile flower or a hoe. She was a hoe, I think, ‘cause she kept leaving Forrest. But at some point, Forrest was talking about Jenny, and he said, ‘Out of the blue clear sky, she was back.’ I’d already finished my 48 ounces of coke and my tub of popcorn, so I was paying attention to it.” 

 

Craig Wiseman inserted some wisdom: “This is a great story. It comes down to these freaking moments you think you got this song—you got all this shit—but you could play one moment in eternity wrong and send your life careening into some crack ditch of existence.” 

 

Steve Bogard agreed, having some fun at Brooks’ expense: “Look what happened to Kix. Shit, stuck as a hillbilly rock star. Could have had a normal life. He was doing fine as a staff writer with us, then he had to go off and blow it all. He’s like, ‘I don’t even need a writing deal.’ Now he just has busses and shit.” One of the true joys of Tin Pan South is that you never hear a story without at least a few humorous interruptions. 

 

Bogard continued his story, saying he heard the words “blue clear sky,” and during a writer’s circle with Mark Sanders and John Gerard, he came up with the song. “In the showbiz vernacular, we ‘demoed it,’ and then my phone rings about two weeks later, and it’s Tony Brown, a producer here in town like Napoleon on crack.” On the phone, Tony Brown told him they were recording his song, but he didn’t like the title. He thought “Clear Blue Sky” was a better title. Bogard told him his Forrest Gump story, and Brown passed the phone to someone else. It was George Strait, and he asked Bogard where he was from. He said he was from Ohio. “Well, I’m from Texas,” said Strait, “and in Texas we call it the ‘clear blue sky,’ not the ‘blue clear sky.” 

 

“One slip,” Bogard said, “and I would be drinking Sterno under that bridge. I’d be eating stuff out of the dumpster.” Again, he told his Forrest Gump story, and Strait asked him if he thought there were a lot of “Gumpsters” in the world. Bogard said that, yes, he thought so. “Well, I guess we’ll be Gumpsters then.” The moral of Bogard’s story: “Don’t change your mind if you really, really believe in something.” 

 

“Actually, I was thinking,” said Brooks, not missing the opportunity to zing Bogard for making fun of him earlier. “Can you imagine how much freaking money that song would have made if you called it ‘Clear Blue Sky’? You would have your own tour bus and your own Learjet.” 

Josh Kear, Karyn Rochelle, Sarah Siskind, and Mindy Smith

 

Josh Kear’s “Before He Cheats”: 

The Making of a Hit  

 

Josh Kear, Karyn Rochelle, Sarah Siskind, and Mindy Smith played at 12th & Porter on April 3. Perhaps the most popular song of 2007 in any genre, “Before He Cheats” (sung by Carrie Underwood) was co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins. The song was never intended to be sung by a male vocalist, so it’s interesting to note that a couple of guys wrote it. “It’s exactly what it is,” said Kear, meaning “Before He Cheats” was never titled “Before She Cheats.” In fact, Kear said, “I probably write almost as many girl songs every year as they [Rochelle, Siskind, and Smith] do. I know—it seems weird to me, too. It seems even weirder to just sit up on stage and play them. I feel kinda stupid, but these are the songs I have to play.” Of course, those feelings of stupidity must certainly vanish when he receives his royalty check each month. Kear and Tompkins didn’t originally have Carrie Underwood in mind when they wrote “Before He Cheats.” “We were told that Gretchen Wilson was looking for songs, and we were trying to write something for her second record. Gretchen ended up passing, and luckily Carrie swept it up.” 

 

Sometimes a song can take off and shoot up the charts and suddenly become a #1 smash hit. These songs have a certain magic to them, but Kear doesn’t know why people like some songs and absolutely love others. He said there is no difference in writing a song destined to be a hit than writing songs that don’t end up on the charts. “The only real difference comes way after the fact usually. When you’re writing it, you’re not really thinking about where it’s going to end up or chart position because none of that matters. You’re either writing a really good song, and you know you’re kind of on to something good, or you’re still looking for a good idea, because you try not to waste time just writing a song to write a song anymore.” 

 

Josh Kear clearly has a bright future ahead of him in the country music industry. And even if things don’t work out writing the songs that make the stars, he can always take his guitar and powerful vocals on the road. Maybe if he dons a dress, a country song whose chorus is “I don’t want to waste good lipstick on you” might not seem so weird coming from a guy’s mouth. Then again, maybe it would be even weirder. 

 

For more information on Tin Pan South, visit www.TinPanSouth.com. To check out NSAI, go to www.NashvilleSongwriters.com

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 98 - September 6570
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