Special Feature: Still All About The Song? - The Changing Sound of Music City USA - Jan 25, 2010
“You can dismiss country music all you like but you can’t deny its songwriters know how to write a good song, and a good song is a strong currency in whichever genre you choose to travel.”
Despite the label Music City USA, Nashville is largely just renowned for its country music and for its songwriting, but as its music culture diversifies to accommodate the more wide-ranging sounds of Jack White, Kings Of Leon and Paramore, is it still a city where it is “all about the song”?
To conclude our recent series on Music City USA, Special Feature looks at white-collar songwriting, why Nashville is an industrial music town, and why artists of all colours are forsaking New York and LA in favour of the Tennessee capital.
Nashville has long been renowned both as a country music stronghold and, as a genre firmly rooted in songcraft, a bastion of classic songwriting. It is here that No.1 songwriter/producer and singer of OneRepublic Ryan Tedder came to learn his craft, hailing the Tennessee capital, “the epicentre of some of the best songwriting in the world”.
However, the city soundtrack is changing. As traditional country music has become increasingly commercialised and pop-orientated in search of a wider audience, its stranglehold has slackened and allowed diverse new music culture to emerge that has fostered a vibrant homegrown scene as well as international artists like Kings of Leon, Paramore and Be Your Own Pet.
With country music no longer dominating the spotlight, is there a danger that the city’s strong songwriting heritage is under threat?
A Music Industry Town with a Music Working Class
Nashville didn’t earn the tag ‘Music City USA’ for being the beating heart of American music but because, like with Detroit and the automobile, the song has always been one of its chief industries. And just like cars in the Motor City, songs have rolled off the Nashville production line on an industrial scale.
As with any industry this needs to be supported by a sizable working class. New York may be a bigger commercial centre for music but it is very tough to make a living from it. Instead of having to hold down service sector jobs in an effort to keep a musical career afloat, Nashville offers its citizens real music jobs.
Employment can be found in the dense assortment of managers, publishers, labels, studios, live music venues that populate the city grid, nowhere more dense than the Music Row district, the traditional heart of Nashville’s entertainment industry. According to Jason Moon Wilkins, local musician, journalist and founder of the Next BIG Nashville festival,
“We have twice as many people per capita as many other places in the United States working in the music or creative music industry.”
It has been estimated that the music industry contributes 19,000 jobs to the Nashville area, as well as generating $6.4 billion a year.
The 9 to 5 Songwriter
In such an industrious environment even songwriting is seen as a ‘proper’ job, and as such is a place where it is still possible to live out the dream of moving to the big city to make a living out of song craft.
Songwriters are employed as staff writers for publishing houses and enjoy a normal working life that involves commuting to the office everyday. However, instead of filing completed reports in their out-tray they file a set quota of songs.
Senior Vice President of publishers Bug Music Nashville, Roger Murrah, who himself year ago lived out the dream of moving to Nashville and making it as a songwriter, details the working lifestyle at his company,
“Our writers will come in about 10 a.m. and work away on their songs until 4 or 5 o’clock just like a person working on the assembly line! We give them an office here and they come in with their laptop computers. Some writers write at home, but generally speaking in Nashville you go to work - writing is treated just like any other profession.”
Dave Berg, a staff writer at Cal IV Entertainment that has clocked up No.1s for Reba McEntire, Keith Urban and Emerson Drive, acknowledges, “It’s a very strange job when you try to describe it to people back home.”
In line with most other local publishers, staff writers at Bug earn an average steady wage of $18,000 per annum. The publisher recoups the money when the faith they’ve invested in the writer’s talents starts bearing the fruit that are hit songs.
The pairing of white-collar work and the creative arts might seem bizarre today but this was normal before The Beatles and the ‘British Invasion’ came along and, as the legend would have it, taught the world that singing and writing were not mutually exclusive.
The majesty of timeless chart gold like ‘Be My Baby’, ‘The Look Of Love’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ belies the fact that their writers penned them while hunched up in office cubicles during a weekday grind. During the early 60s Brill Building staff writers like Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Greenwich and Barry, Mann and Weill - even a young Lou Reed at Pickwick Records – all paid the rent turning up to work in their ironed white collars like so many other office drones.
The focus on collaboration which saw most of this era’s songwriting legends existing in partnerships is also shared by modern Nashville songwriters, although usually in less rigidly loyal combinations.
When international No.1 songwriter Steve McEwan arrived in Nashville for his first songwriting session this set-up was entirely new for him but its benefits became quickly apparent,
“It’s very one-on-one and it’s very personal [and] I love the fact that you can get into a room with someone who is culturally a million miles away from you and write a song together.”
Country Music Songwriting
Unlike the Brill Building’s era-defining Latin and R&B-infused pop, the songs penned by Nashville songwriters are devoutly country.
A country song is not simply one sung with a twang and decorated with a pedal steel, it is a strong lyric-based discipline rooted in narrative. “It’s the only genre where there is such a hyper focus on the lyric – it’s got to all tie together and it’s got to all make sense,” says Berg.
Its songs typically tell stories about the blue-collar lives of middle-America country folk, where heartbreak, alcohol and humour are common bedfellows. Esoteric and ambiguous in meaning they are not.
It is a style that requires a certain songwriting skill. British writer Sacha Skarbek recalls the difficulty he found in adapting,
“Lyrically it wasn’t the easiest thing, and I still struggle with it. You don’t necessarily understand what the people that listen to country music want to hear, and what their every day lives are like and what affects them.”
No Bluffing with Country
This well-defined style is one reason why Nashville’s rich seam of songwriting has kept alive all these years. There is no bluffing with country. Whereas you can still create a great rock track with nonsensical lyrics and a fleeting association with structure, or a pop song can rely on a innovative and catchy production to hit big, a country song lives and dies by the composition.
It is this devotion to good honest songwriting that has made Nashville a magnet for those wanting to hone their craft, regardless of whether they are country music aficionados or not.
In addition to pop and rock star Ryan Tedder, who learned his craft here, Dave Berg came from a rock background and country music hitmakers Dave Berg and Steve McEwan originally came out of backgrounds of rock, pop and even African music.
You can dismiss country music all you like but you can’t deny its songwriters know how to write a good song, and a good song is a strong currency in whichever genre you choose to travel.
Artists Writing For Themselves
With such a reliance on songcraft artists wanting to make a success in country music rely on good quality material. Not all great artists can write and so, just like Elvis and Frank Sinatra, naturally turn to professional songwriters, such as Craig Wiseman, Rivers Rutherford, Hillary Lindsey and Dave Berg. This is another reason why songwriting has survived as a profession in Nashville where it has largely died out in other genres. But this is starting to change in Nashville now too.
As much as the Beatles were seen as ‘real’ artists for writing their own songs they would have conceded that it was also as much about being shrewd artists, because publishing is where the real money is. In these times of great economic uncertainty it would seem this mindset is transforming the young country music scene.
Increasingly young artists are being encouraged to write their own songs rather than employ the services of a dedicated songwriter. There are concerns that this is compromising the traditional songwriting backbone of the town. As Natalie Harker, creative manager at publishers Cal IV, says,
“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.”
Harker also cites the current trend for artists to claim songwriting cachet while in fact ‘leaning’ on the talents of professional songwriters,
“I will find 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.”
This is not to say that all artists should leave the writing to the professionals. Naturally there are always artists that are as good at writing as they are at performing. Within country you have artists like Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney. Nevertheless, according to Steve McEwan, even with a talented writer like Chesney, “If he hears a song he loves, he doesn’t care whether he has written it or not, he will record that song.”
Murder on Music Row
Aside from the threat to the city’s professional songwriting sector, there are also worries about the country music itself losing its soul.
Concerns about falling sales and poor radio ratings has seen country labels increasingly seek to secure crossover pop and adult-contemporary fans by buffing down country music’s more characteristic honky-tonk edges and employing touches of mainstream rock and pop.
Such efforts to disguise the countryness have not gone down well with country purists who believe this amounts to sacrilege. The renegade anthem ‘Murder On Music Row’, as sung by country legends George Strait and Alan Jackson, is a stinging attack on the trend towards pop crossover amongst country artists like Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood and Ashley Monroe,
“For the steel guitar no longer cries and fiddles barely play/But drums and rock and roll guitars are mixed up in your face/Old Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio/Since they've committed murder down on Music Row.”
In the effort to bridge the country and mainstream divide, non-Nashville songwriters are being sought out. For Carrie Underwood’s most recent album ‘Play On’ songwriters such as Kara DiGuardi and even Swedish pop supremo Max Martin were drafted in.
However Writer of Underwood’s No.1 smash ‘Just a Dream’, Steve McEwan, insists that the star hasn’t sold out by absorbing more radio friendly pop influences, “It’s still country. It’s definitely still got the countryness to it. She’s still very much a country artist.”
Next BIG Nashville
Nashville may be ailing as a hard-nosed country music powerhouse but with major international rock stars like Kings Of Leon and Paramore hailing from the city, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recording in its studios and Jack White and his various factions setting up home in its neighbourhoods, the city as a music hub is in rude health.
To celebrate and showcase this burgeoning flip side to rhinestone Nashville, Jason Moon Wilkins set up the Next BIG Nashville festival in 2006.
In its first year around half of the local acts performing signed a deal as a result of their showcase, and the festival has been growing success and importance ever since.
The international success of Paramore and Kings Of Leon and the increasing prominence of Next BIG Nashville have combined to convince the music industry that the city has become a major breeding ground for talent of all genres. Management companies and record labels are relocating there, major record companies in LA and New York are heading down to Nashville to keep a ear to the ground.”
Non-country music is certainly not new to the city – in particular it enjoyed a long-standing status as a thriving R&B hub - but it is the strength of the modern music culture and vulnerability of the country market that is finally usurping what Moon Wilkins describes as, “A big machine that’s done a very good job of branding an entire city as one genre of music.”
The non-country culture has become so strong because recent years have seen artists from all genres move to city en masse. It is estimated that only 15 to 20% of ‘Nashville’ bands are actually from there. So what is it that makes Nashville now such a draw?
What Attracts Artists to Nashville?
Nashville’s most famous recent resident Jack White reportedly swapped his hometown of Detroit for the Music City because he wanted to free himself from hipster scenes and settle somewhere where there is no shame in wanting to sell songs and make hit records.
The appeal of the city for most artists is likely to be for more practical reasons, however. With New York an ever-costlier place to live, Nashville offers affordability to enable art to take priority over simply making ends meet. It also offers a more central location for bands seeking a base from which to tour, with Atlanta four hours drive away and Chicago eight.
In political terms, Nashville naturally appeals to more liberally minded artists because, like Austin, it is a progressive blue island in a conservative red state.
A Songwriter’s Town
But with country music moving from centre stage is the city’s proud songwriting heritage at threat?
Not according to Moon Wilkins, in fact he believes that despite the shift in musical focus it is still songwriting that sets the place apart from everywhere else,
“What’s different about Nashville across the board, regardless of genre, is that this is definitely a very song-centric place.”
He believes that it is this that unites the artists from across the genres. The natural competition that arises when song-based music fills the local bars and clubs means that Nashville indie is a little more focused on the song and Nashville rock is a little more honed craft wise.
What’s more, in addition to the economical attractions of the city, its status as a songwriting hub is also another reason for its appeal amongst artists. “The singer-songwriters especially tend to come here more often than they would L.A. or New York,” says Berg.
As testimony of this singer-songwriters are better accounted for at Next BIG Nashville than they would be at other festivals.
Nevertheless such encouraging signs for the livelihood of the song in Nashville are not necessarily so positive for the city’s traditional songwriting culture. After all, when singer-songwriters first became mainstream in the late 60s/early 70s, in promoting the trend towards self-expression, they effectively marked the end of the era where professional songwriters dominated. Abandoning their desks for the stage, professional songsmiths like Carole King, Neil Diamond and Randy Newman hit big as solo artists in their own right.
Ultimately it seems that although Nashville’s country music heritage is in transition, the city’s status as a world songwriting hub is very much alive and well. Music City USA is still all about the song but the song isn’t necessarily a country song anymore.
by Barry Wheels
Next week: Interview with Wayne Hector, songwriter for Susan Boyle
Read On ...
* Multiple Songwriter of the Year winner Dave Berg on life as a 9 to 5 songwriter
* Next BIG Nashville festival CEO Jason Moon Wilkins on the thriving non-country side to Music City USA
* Senior VP of Bug Music Nashville and seasoned songwriter Roger Murrah on making it as a songsmith
* Nashville publisher Natalie Harker on the problems facing modern country songwriters
* Songwriter Steve McEwan on No.1 hits with Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban