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Book dishes on guys writing the songs

By Henry Carrigan, October 2014

Jake Brown can't stop writing about music. Over the past 10 years, he's published 35 books, ranging from "Rick Rubin: In the Studio" and "Suge Knight: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Death Row Records" to "Heart: In the Studio." In 2012, he won the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards in the category of Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.

With his new book, "Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music's Greatest Hit," Brown turns to country music and the writers behind the hits. He gathers original interviews with 20 songwriters ranging from Freddy Powers, who co-wrote "I Always Get Lucky With You" with Merle Haggard and Sonny Curtis, the pen behind the iconic pop and country hit "I Fought the Law" to Tom T. Hall, Chris DuBois (the writer of many Brad Paisley hits and also of Mark Willis' "19 Somethin'") and Ashley Gorley, whose first number one happened to be Carrie Underwood's "Don't Forget to Remember Me."

To his credit, Brown moves to one side, allowing the writers to talk volubly about their craft, its highs and lows, their success and failures. These writers tell their stories of that moment best captured by Thom J. Schuyler in his song, "Sixteenth Avenue," made famous by Lacy J. Dalton: "Ah, then but one night in some empty room/Where no curtains ever hung/Like a miracle some golden words/Rolled off of someone's tongue/And after years of being nothing/They're all looking right at you/And for a while they'll go in style/On 16th Avenue."

What prompted you to write this book now?
Brown: This has been one of my favorite writing experiences. Country songwriters are the unsung heroes of country music, and I thought this is crazy that no one has ever profiled these folks. Every writer I talked to has at least 10 number ones. I wanted to put a light on the songwriters' stories and let them tell about the craft of the trade. This is the first book in a series on Nashville songwriters.

How did you select the songwriters you included here?
Brown: Craig Wiseman was the first person I reached out to, and he agreed; he introduced me to others, and the doors started to open from there. I did my first interview in June 2012 and my last one in June 2013. I wanted to touch on every era, and I'm really pleased with the balance here in the book; I mean, you've got everybody from Bill Anderson, Sonny Curtis, and Freddy Powers to Ashley Gorley, Kelley Lovelace and David Lee Murphy. Some of these guys might not ever get to do another book interview again. I also wanted to illustrate the sturdiness of the songs that this diverse group of writers has written; many of the songs are timeless and have gone to number one several times for more than one artist. Some of these folks chose to be songwriters rather than singers, so their stories reveal a real lesson in patience.

What are some of the greatest obstacles that these songwriters shared with you about their work?
Brown: One part of that is the time it took for them to make it as a songwriter. Brett James followed in his father's footsteps and went to medical school at the University of Oklahoma and kept writing songs during his first couple of years there. During his second year of med school, he sent out a cassette of his songs to a well-connected friend, received great encouragement, dropped out of med school after he finished his second year and moved to Nashville and waited tables at a local café while he wrote songs.

Others talk about supporting a family on the meager income from their early days of songwriting, but of the satisfaction of eventually being able to support their families well through songwriting. Almost all of these writers talked about the lesson they learned to let go of the idea that they'd get rich from songwriting. The richness, they said, comes in the ability to keep working and the pride that comes from being able to feed their families by doing what they love. Songwriting is an adventure.

Can you share some of the tricks of the trade that these songwriters shared with you?
Brown: Maybe the biggest trick of the trade is knowing that less is more and knowing when to keep it simple in songwriting. Simplicity of the country song is its magic. I learned about the inner workings of a group write: everyone comes into a room, and one guy might come with the hook, another come with the chorus, another with the title, and another had the phrasing. If you're going to a co-write or a group write, never show up with fewer than five ideas.
The approach to writing for each of these writers is very different, of course. Rivers Rutherford strums his guitar to get a song going. Ashley Gorley keeps a running list of titles, and often, the title comes first for him. Most writers draw from life experience and present that experience as a little different in their songs. For example, Kenny Chesney and some of his friends stayed out partying one night, and the next day when one of his friends told some others that "we went out last night," a song was born.

What did you learn about songwriting from these interviews?
Brown: Within country, the catechism of songwriting is story, hook and chorus. Sentimentality can kill a song; it can be too precious. If you can't play your song on an acoustic guitar and know it's gonna be a hit, then you're not going to get any further than that with a song. No matter how many overdubs you add, if it doesn't work when you sit down to play it on your guitar, it's not gonna be a good song.

In a town where many of the best songwriters are women (Brandy Clark, Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg), why are there no interviews with women in the book?
Brown: This wasn't intentional. I had to go with the interviews I could line up. In the second volume of Nashville Songwriter, I do plan to include several women writers, and I'm trying to reach out to them now.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?
Brown: I hope the book appeals to a couple of different audiences. If you're a songwriter, the book really takes you inside the heart of the business and reveals its highs and lows, offering lessons, inspiration and caution. If you're a country music fan, you can put on your favorite songs, listen to them and then turn to the section in the book on the song's writer and find out about the story behind the song.