Life of a Song – Songs You’ve Heard Of and The Unsung Heroes Behind Them
by Jessi Maness
Songwriters in Nashville are nearly as prominent as the stars of the heavens, and all are trying to “make it.” For some, though, the stars have shined upon them, and they’ve reached a definite threshold of respect in the business and are now known as a “successful songwriter.”
What does it take to reach this level of success? Well, according to Chris Wallin, you have to eat a lot of twenty-nine cent hamburgers.
CHRIS WALLIN – BEFORE THE SUCCESS
When Wallin first arrived in Nashville fresh out of high school, he had all kinds of odd jobs. He even worked at an exotic animal farm and says he shoveled “every kind of manure you can think of. I’m an entre-manure!” he jokes! But after six months, Wallin moved back home to Newport, Tenn.
Determined, Wallin still drove back and forth to Nashville for a couple of years trying to get to know some people before he moved here permanently. When he finally made the move, it wasn’t easy.
In those early days, he recalls, “McDonald’s used to have twenty-nine cent hamburgers on Wednesdays. So I would go in and order 50 of those at one time, a large fry and a Diet Coke. I’d eat a couple of them while I was there, but then I’d take the rest home and freeze them…and I could eat all week for fifteen bucks!”
Wallin continues, “Then one day I learned my car was going to be repossessed if I didn’t come up with $840! Well it may as well have been a million, because I didn’t have $8. I was ready to move back home, because I didn’t think I had any options. But thankfully, I’d been pitching [songs] to King Lizard Music. Well, they called me and were interested in having me write for them. I went down the next day, and ironically, they wrote me a check for $900. I wired $840 to cover my car payment. That was a Tuesday, and on that Wednesday, I went to McDonald’s and ordered 100 hamburgers, and I ate for two weeks until I got my next paycheck. And I had that car for a long time.”
Today, Wallin doesn’t have to eat twenty-nine cent hamburgers…not like he could find one. He writes for BMG/Chrysallis publishing, and his catalog includes hits like Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink” (co-written with Casey Beatherd) and “Love Me If You Can” by Toby Keith, “Something To Be Proud Of” by Montgomery Gentry – all number ones. Other hits include “I’m Tryin,” “Speed,” “What Brothers Do” and “John J. Blanchard,” to name a few.
If Wallin’s lyrics always seem conversational and easy to relate to, it’s because of his personal process for writing songs in the first place. Wallin makes it a habit to read through every song, to ensure it makes as much sense when read out loud, as it would if it were an actual conversation. If there are any doubts at all, he rethinks the line until it becomes something every listener can relate to and feel – even if they haven’t lived it.
Elaborating on his process, he says, “Even if co-writing, I spend time working on the song by myself, because when you go over and over a line, then get back with your co-writer, it usually generates something more solid.”
Asked about the inspiration behind Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink,” Wallin says he’d had the idea for at least a year because he’d lost his mom and two other family members in the two-year period prior to writing with Casey Beatherd that day. It turned out that Beatherd had also just lost a neighbor in a motorcycle accident. Wallin reminisces, “I told Casey,sometimes we forget to send people flowers while they’re living, because we always think we’re gonna have more time. So I just had this idea and it came out that day – and it was supposed to.”
“For “Love Me If You Can,” I was actually watching one of those controversial TV shows, and this guy came out and everybody was booing him, and he said something along the lines of, ‘hate me if you must but love me if you can.’ So the next day I went in and wrote with Craig Wiseman, and we ended up making it a statement. Five years went by, then Trace Adkins cut it but didn’t put it on his album. Then Toby cut it, and it went #1.”
ADVICE TO NEW SONGWRITERS
“I think a lot of writers worry too much about pitching their songs when they first get to town and not enough about learning. My schooling was sitting alongside songwriters like Tony Lane (“Roll With It,” “A Little Past Little Rock,”), David Lee (“Lucky Man”, “1970something”) and Anthony Smith (“Run”, “Chrome”). So you’ve gotta go out and see songwriters who blow you away, because that will inspire you to become better…and great songs will always rise to the top – eventually. I still believe that.”