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.”
DENNIS WHO? A lesson well-learned!
Speaking of unsung [unrecognized] heroes, “Do you know who Dennis Morgan is?” Wallin asks rhetorically. “He wrote hits like ‘My Heart Can’t Tell You No,’(Rod Stewart), ‘Let Me Let Go’ (Faith Hill), ‘Smoky Mountain Rain,’ (Ronnie Milsap), ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,’ (Barbara Mandrell & George Jones) and the list just goes on and on. Well I was at the Broken Spoke one night they were having a songwriter’s night hosted by Lee Rascone. I’d just gotten my deal with King Lizard, and I was just full of myself. This guy came in and sits down and we strike up a conversation. He said his name was Dennis and that he’d just flown into town. I asked him if he was a songwriter, and he said he was. I told him what a great town this is, and that some of we fortunate ones get to do it for a living. Then Lee Rascone comes over and asks this guy to get up to play. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow! How great is it that he gets to perform his first night in town?’ So this Dennis guy gets up there and starts singing, “I don’t want you to come round here no more begging for mercy…’ and I’m still thinking ‘Oh no! He doesn’t even know he’s not supposed to play cover songs!’ But as he played hit after hit, I finally realized what was happening, [still laughing heartily with embarrassment] and I felt about an inch tall. I definitely learned my lesson that night.”
Garry Burr has been a longtime favorite songwriter-son of Nashville. Even those without a lot of knowledge of the music industry have probably at least heard the name “Gary Burr,” and there’s good reason for that.
Burr hails from a small town in Connecticut, but he says when he started writing and pitching songs – though he pitched to LA, NY and Nashville, it was Nashville that embraced him. What brought Gary Burr all the way from Connecticut?
BEFORE THE SUCCESS
As Burr relates it, he and a buddy went to Woodstock to watch all the bands, and they also took in the provocative reaction these band members seemed to elicit from the females in the audience. So being young, red-blooded, American males, and having witnessed such wonders, they decided to start a band.
As they were learning cover tunes by their favorite bands, they realized the rhythm guitar player was usually the songwriter for the group. So Burr’s group assigned him the task. Humbly, Burr says, “I started writing songs, but they were awful… but then they got better to the point where we thought they were worth recording.”
Shortly after they’d recorded, Burr surmises, “I actually went to the music store and wrote down 12 names of record companies that I saw listed on other people’s albums. And I sent 12 reel-to-reels out. Eleven out of 12 responses said ‘No,’ but one said, ‘Call me.’ And the guy who responded became my mentor and my publisher.
“Then things got a little crazy for me, because I had my first cuts while I still lived in Connecticut. And the first song I ever had recorded was ‘Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me’ by Juice Newton. And seriously, it kind of messed me up, because the first three songs I had cut went straight to the top, so I started thinking this songwriting thing was going to be easy! So when I hit my first streak of going a couple years without any action, it kind of stung me.” From that, Burr learned there are peaks and valleys, but wisely, he hung in there.
His personal process for songwriting? “I actually write on the BIG SKETCH PADS like little kids would draw on. Someone who impressed me early on did that, so I do it – and it’s great because you have room for all your ideas and don’t have to flip pages. And it’s a little retro, but I still write with the pencil and sketchpad. PLUS when I’m done –when I transcribe it into the computer, I catch little mistakes. So it’s a good final way to edit myself.”
“It’s a lot of fun when you write with the right person, because if you’re not having a great day, the other person can carry the ball. On the other hand, if you’re not having a great day and you’re writing alone, you can put it down and go have a cup of coffee. But I have a standing appointment with Victoria Shaw every other week, and I always look forward to that. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’ve written more hits with her than with any other person.”
According to Burr, inspiration comes from many places: a melody in your head, someone saying something, or even tragedy can generate a song. “She Can’t Be Really Gone” (by Tim McGraw) came from an article Burr had read in the newspaper. There was an interview with a young woman who said she’d just made lunch for her daughter when her daughter’s little friend came by and wanted to play outside. She let her daughter go but told her to stay away from the road. Tragically, her daughter did get too close to the road and was killed. When the young mother returned home from the morgue, she said the first thought she had was, “She can’t be really gone, because she hasn’t finished her lunch.” Burr chose to make the song more ambiguous, so the listener could decide what “gone” would mean to them.
As for the Conway Twitty hit, “That’s My Job,” Burr wrote that about his own dad and his own personal loss. Burr says, “It was not like any other song I’ve written. My dad died, and I sat down in my studio for about two days and wrote it and sang it all the way through, and I never changed a word. I was obligated to my publisher to give it to him and turn it in, but I never expected anything to happen with it. But Conway was a song guy, and he took it!
For the Garth Brooks song, “One Night A Day,” Burr notes that song simply came about due to a piano riff he’d had in his head for three years – that and the words “There’s not a lot of things to do….people who aren’t there…” Then he had his first writing session with Pete Wasner. a piano player. Once Pete added to the melody, the rest just flowed out and the song became what it is today – one of Burr’s 14 Number #1 hits.
ADVICE TO NEW SONGWRITERS
“The music industry is like a graph that goes up and down in style – but you should write straight down the middle of what you do best. And that up and down line will intersect with you three or four times in your career, and everyone will call you a genius….” he states jokingly.
So if you’re an aspiring songwriter, take heart. It’s never been easy, but the trials are worth the results. Sports & Entertainment Nashville celebrates all the unsung heroes behind the songs and all those who will follow in their path – writing the songs that make us want to sing.