I moved to Nashville in 1992 to pursue a career in songwriting. As a young girl, I was told I had a talent for singing so that’s what I did. I sang at fairs and clubs and wherever they would have me. I liked the attention I got. I was a shy, average looking girl who had self-confidence issues but when I sang, I felt special. And that was nice for a little kid. I even got paid $75 once to carry a guitar and accompany myself around a mall at the age of thirteen. But as I got older, I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I think a lot of that had to do with how badly my parents wanted it for me and to this day, I fly in the other direction when something feels expected of me. Singing wasn’t mine; it was theirs. But I do remember the day it became mine.
I was fourteen and I heard a song playing in my mother’s bedroom. It was a Ronnie Milsap tune called “Inside.” As I walked in, my mother was putting on makeup at her dressing table and I was completely transfixed by the words coming out of that radio. Whoever wrote that song had placed the word “inside” strategically in the verses and five times in the chorus and I was completely blown away with how he had twisted that one word title into so many meanings. I knew that’s what I had to do: learn how to put a song together that had listeners going “No, wait, listen to what happens next!” I call that great country songwriting. Now, suddenly, after all my ambivalence about singing, I had a reason to sing: I wanted to sing songs like that! But not only that, I wanted to write them!!! Which is what prompted my move to Nashville as soon as I got out of college.
But when I got to Nashville at age 21, I was told I was too pop to be a published country songwriter. I grew up on the records of not only pop country acts like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell but also the luscious melodies of Burt Bacharach, Kenny Loggins, James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell so there was nothing 1-4-5 about me. 1-4-5 refers to chords in the Nashville number system. It took a while but I finally started to understand “the simpler, the better” and my songwriting began to take shape in a more commercial way. My lyrics became more economical and I canned it with all the key changes!
I treated songwriting like a job long before I made any money at it. I saved up my money and went to every songwriting workshop I could afford. I found a guy who knew his way around a studio and after borrowing a couple of hundred bucks from my mom, hired him to do demos for me. Demos are demonstration recordings to show industry what your song sounds like with a full band behind it. I subscribed to a magazine in Nashville called Music Row. This included a list of who was looking for material for which artists and I would literally keep notes and files and send songs to anybody who was willing to accept unsolicited material. I worked temp jobs and wrote at night. I started to realize that I would need my days free so I could take meetings and co-write with people who were also free during the day. I didn’t have access to the big hit writers, so I went to writers nights and found people like me who were struggling to make ends meet but had the same passion for it as I did.
None of us had publishing deals but every so often I would meet someone whose songs really resonated with me and I would ask if they would like to co-write. There was a hit writer in Nashville at the time named Gary Burr, who we all wanted to be someday. My friends and I played The Bluebird Café every chance we got and navigated this strange thing called the music business together: co-writing and bitching and moaning about how hard it was to get noticed and “You’re not gonna believe this, but that publisher said he liked one of my songs!!! He doesn’t want to do anything with it but he said I’m on the right track!!! Woohoo!!!” We leaned on each other when we got rejected and we celebrated when we got close to what felt like a little bit of heat. It didn’t take much to excite us. To this day, some of those people are still my dearest friends because we “came up” together. We are all by the grace of God making a living as songwriters twenty years later.
At seminars, when people ask me for advice on how to break in to the business, I say “Take a look around you. The people to your left and your right could be the most important people in your career. Network, make friends, write with those who’s music you respect. Take advantage of the fact that you have access to these people. When you come up through the business with your friends who are at the same talent level as you are, you get to learn and grow together. Next thing you know, some friend whom you’ve been writing with every Friday suddenly gets a song recorded and becomes the next big thing. Now the industry is asking for more of that guy’s songs which may very well have you on them as a co-writer. With everyone you work with, you expand your pond and up your odds exponentially and you never know what can happen then!”
The music business is a hard road. But it’s for those of us who have no choice. We have to write songs. We have to sing them.