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Interview with DAVE BERG (part 1), songwriter for Keith Urban, Rodney Atkins, Reba McEntire, Emerson Drive - Jan 4, 2009

“A lot us have hopes that it will swing back to the artists [wanting] to create the strongest album possible rather than just get a piece of the writer’s pie.”

picture Our series highlighting the many sides to the thriving music hub of Nashville continues with a two part special devoted to multi award winning songwriter Dave Berg. Currently one of its most highly lauded songwriters, Berg boasts a host of No.1s for the likes of Keith Urban (US No.1), Reba McEntire (US No.1), Rodney Atkins (US Top 5, US Country No.1), and has been justly lauded for his efforts with ASCAP and NSAI Songwriter Of The Year awards.

As an introduction to the main interview with Berg HitQuarters first spoke to Natalie Harker at his publisher Cal IV Entertainment about how Nashville’s traditional songwriting heritage is being compromised and reveals some tricks on getting a song cut by a major artist.

The traditional view of Nashville is that’s all about singers that don’t write and writers that don’t sing. Is it still like that, is it still all about the song?

I wish I could say it was all about the song. There was a time when it was like that - that’s basically the backbone of Nashville - but really it is moving towards the artists wanting to be the songwriters. It is becoming much more political now. There’s a lot more of “who wrote the song” rather than if it’s the best song for the project, and that’s frustrating.

There’s definitely a lot of co-writing going on with the artist and I will find that it will be the songwriter that will write a good deal of the song, or at least have a very good idea of where the song is going before they walk in. That way they have a little more control – they know they’re gonna get a good song out of the co-write as opposed to leaning on an artist writer who’s not even really a writer.

That’s not to say a lot of these artists are not capable of writing a great song. A lot of them are songwriters in their own right – they’ll write 100% songs that’ll be great. It’s more the younger artists that get pushed by their labels to write their own songs or just think it’s the thing to do.

But there’s still room for that great song written by the dedicated songwriter such as Dave Berg?

Absolutely there is. A lot us have hopes that it will swing back to the great songs and that artists will want to create the strongest album possible rather than just get a piece of the writer’s pie. There are still a lot of writers out there who believe that it just has to be the song.

How did you first hear about Dave?

I’d loved a couple of his songs. I remember hearing ‘Somebody’ [by Reba McEntire] and thinking that was a great song. There hadn’t been too much from Reba for a while so it was almost like a comeback hit for her. And then his name just started getting spoken a lot and the writers I was working with at the time wanted to write with him and so I started getting requests for co-writes with him.

Then the company that he writes for now – Cal IV - approached me and wanted to hire me. I was working for John Rich at the time and was under contract with him at the time and so couldn’t. Six months later they approached me again and at that point in time I jumped on it. They have a great roster of writers over there and I was excited to work with Dave.

I guess Cal IV is the forth company I’ve worked with in Nashville. I moved down here about ten years ago and went to college and then did an internship with Erv Woolsey’s company – he manages George Strait and Lee Ann Womack and at the time Dierks Bentley – and from there worked for James Stroud’s publishing company, and then John Rich’s publishing company.

Now that Dave is signed with you as a writer with Cal IV are any of the songs that he wrote before that part of this deal?

They are separate. When he was writing for other companies those catalogues are owned by those companies. Dave still has a share in those but the publishing company themselves also has a share. So when he came to Cal IV he basically started brand new with the Cal IV catalogue.

Is that right that as the creative director you’re responsible for pitching Dave’s songs and who has the ideas on who to pitch them to?

Our company’s very small and we collaborate a lot but that’s technically what I do.

So if Dave hands you a great song then what happens next?

Ideally if you can get it directly to the artist – if you know them or the writer knows them or somehow you can track them down – and let them hear it then it’s wonderful because they have the final say.

But we also take them to their producers, and also a lot of producers have assistants or people that do A&R work for them. We can go to the label and play it to the A&R staff there.

You can even take stuff to managers. Some managers are open to listening and love to be the one to take the great songs to the artist and say, “Look what I’ve found!”

If you’re pretty positive that the song is right for them then even if one person passes it’s usually a good idea to hit everybody around that artist.

A lot of times you hear a song and you don’t love it as much as you do on a second listen and so sometimes I’ll speak to one of Dave’s co-writers’ publishers and we’ll hit the same person with the same song a couple of times and pretend we didn’t know anything about the other person doing it [laughs].

But you say it’s best to get the song directly to the artist?

Sometimes. Some artists are better than others at doing that – they’ll fight for a song they love. A lot of newer acts are not so good. The young newer acts tend to refer to their producers a lot, so then it’s better to go straight to the producer …

Has Nashville been affected by downloading?

Yes. When people started downloading singles that hit every music genre including ours. But country music fans tend to be a little more loyal to their artists than other genres. A lot of pop rock writers seem to come and go and acts seem to come and go but with country music it’s a little different. You’ll have these artists that span decades and still have a loyal following even if they haven’t had a hit in a long time.

Read On ...

* The Dave Berg double-header continues with an interview with the songwriting star himself
* Next BIG Nashville CEO Jason Moon Wilkins talks about the thriving non-country side of Music City USA
* Senior VP of Bug Music Nashville and seasoned songwriter Roger Murrah offers advice on making it as a songsmith

Interview by Monica Rydell
Photo by Stacey Irvin

Next week: Part two of the interview with Dave Berg

Read On ...

* Rascal Flatts A&R Doug Howard on breaking Nashville talent
* Publisher and songwriter Roger Murrah on cutting it in the songwriting capitol
* President of Next Big Nashville festival Jason Moon Wilkins on the city's music scene
* Still all about the song? The changing sounds of Music CIty USA