Nashville is known as “Music City, USA.” You don’t have to look far to find out why. Many think it is because the record companies, licensing companies and studios are all located here. Of course that is true. There are many record companies and studios in Nashville, and all 3 music-licensing companies, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC reside here. But there is more to it than that.
The Nashville Songwriters Association in Nashville, aka NSAI, has a saying. “It All Begins With A Song.” If being technical – or if quoting songwriting great Frank Dycus, you might say, “It all begins with an IDEA for a song.” Either way, you’d be right. Songwriters comprise much of the backbone – if not the entire – backbone of the music industry. Without songs, there’d be no need for any other part of the industry… There’d be nothing to record, nothing to produce, nothing to perform and nothing to license.
If you’ve ever been to a restaurant in Nashville and had a chance to speak with your server, you’ve probably met a songwriter. If you’ve ordered a pizza, your pizza delivery guy or gal could very well have been a songwriter. Songwriters are indeed everywhere in Nashville. They work in the music business, and they work at just about everything else also. It is the norm to have a “day gig until you make it.” And if you live in Nashville, you know there are many times you walk into a club – hear a songwriter for the first time and think, “Why aren’t they famous? Why am I not hearing this song on the radio?” Believe me, the songwriter is hoping you one day WILL hear their song on the radio. That is after all, the point.
And to honor the songwriter and all they endure prior to their big breaks, NSAI has a time-honored tradition called “TIN PAN SOUTH” that has been going on for some 20-plus years now. In fact, 2013 marked the 21st year of Tin Pan South!
Produced by NSAI, Tin Pan South is the largest songwriters’ festival in the world. Last year, there were nearly 350 songwriters who performed in Nashville at 10 or so local venues, and this handful of venues plays host to nearly 10,000 music fans during the festival.
One of the greatest parts of living in Nashville is the opportunities we have to see songwriters and hear first-hand what inspired them to write the songs we know and hear on the radio.
The line-up of songwriters continues to keep expanding, from those we may have heard little from so far to those whose songs we all sing along with. I remember when my husband and I were at Loews Hotel during last year’s Tin Pan South, listening to an incredible round that included Leslie Ellis, Casey Kelly, Alex Call and CJ Watson. The majority of the “over the top” talented group had written songs that had “hit the charts” in the past, but the one standing ovation of the evening went to CJ Watson for the song, “I’m Living in Coupe de Ville,” a western swing number about a singer/songwriter pursuing his dream in Nashville. As a starving artist and unable to pay the hotel bill, he has to live in his car. The song has a nice turn around at the end, noting that even after he has success and goes on the road (with a ‘back seat bunk, and a drummer livin’ in his trunk’) that he is still “livin’ in Coupe de Ville.”
And as good as last year’s plethora of incredible songwriters were, this year’s lineup could not have been more impressive.
Linda Davis, Lang Scott (Who are the proud parents of Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, by the way!), Jim McBride, Brent Rowan and Bill Whyte performed at the Commodore Lounge with the infamous Debbi Champion hosting, and the room was filled with warmth and true appreciation for those on the stage. But of course, what was not to appreciate?
Linda Davis is absolutely amazing – and was hosting the round. She sang the duet “Some Things Are Meant To Be” with her husband and, of course, her iconic 1993 hit “Does He Love You” with Reba McEntire. Every man, woman and child who has had the pleasure of meeting Linda or even standing in her presence can feel her warmth and experience the genuineness of her character. It is absolutely refreshing to see someone so beautiful and talented be equally as beautiful on the inside.
Jim McBride is essentially world-renowned for his songwriting skills, having written such songs as Conway Twitty’s “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn,” and Johnny Lee’s “You Can Bet Your Heart On Me.” After building a friendship with Alan Jackson, they collaborated on “Chasing That Neon Rainbow,” “Someday,” “Who Says You Can’t Have It All,” and the smash hit “Chattahoochee.”
Guitarist Brent Rowan is one of Nashville’s premier session players who has played on so many hit songs for so many country stars that we could not possibly list them all here. But Rowan has played for artists ranging from John Conlee (“Friday Night Blues”) to Alabama to Blake Shelton…and that is, literally, just to name a few. When taking his turn in the round, Rowan threw a couple of instrumental guitar songs into the evening, which made for a nice mix.
Bill Whyte was quite funny – and is known for writing more comedic songs. Even just the few lines he threw out that were not complete songs were very funny! For instance, with melody, he sang, “Whatever happened to having good taste, what the heck happened to Kenny Rogers’ face?’ Okay, so maybe you had to be there. But trust me, it was funny. And according to Whyte, “it’s about knowing when to quit.” Two other VERY funny songs of Whyte’s for the night included “You Can’t Be Ugly to Be A Star In This Town,” and another titled “I’m Going Ugly Early Tonight,” about being lonely and going to a bar to pick someone up. It was hilarious! And check out the song “Retired,” written by Bill Whyte and recorded by Ray Stevens.
Lang Scott performed in the round with songs he’d written, like Ray Stevens’ hit “Misty,“ and he sang a duet with Linda entitled “Love Never Gives Up On Us.” The biggest surprise of the night was when he sang “I’ve Done Enough Dying Today,” written by Larry Gatlin and a 1979 hit for the Gatlin Brothers. Lang Scott’s rendition of the song may very well have rendered Gatlin a little green with envy, had he been in the room. Nashville is such a strange town. It makes you wonder why guys like Lang Scott didn’t become as famed as, say, Elvis.
Another “never forgotten” artist/songwriter who appeared this year was Eddy Raven. Remember the song “I Got Mexico”? Well, if you’d like to hear it again, click here. Raven co-wrote the song with Frank Myers, who appeared with Raven at the Rutledge (on 4th Ave) for this year’s Tin Pan South. Also appearing in Raven’s show were Billy Montana, who wrote “More Than A Memory” for Garth Brooks; Danny Wells with “Check Yes or No” for George Strait; and Lisa Harless, the representative of corporate sponsor Regions Bank. Awarded for her commitment to supporting country music artists through the financial industry, Harless is also a singer/songwriter. She sang with Frank Myers, performing his Eddie Rabbit and Crystal Gayle hit, “Just You and I.” ‘Twas an incredible night, and it was a reminder of all the greatness that has been and that still is…Nashville.
And though of course we couldn’t see every show, we did manage to squeeze in one more show this year – that of Jimmy Fortune, Buddy Jewell, Billy Yates and Eddie Heinzelman at the Station Inn. What can we say but “Wow!!!”
Fortune started the show singing the Statler Brothers hit, “Elizabeth,” and the others fell into perfect harmony as if they’d done it a thousand times before. Fortune’s vocal was sublime and so phenomenally on key (Who says singing on key is out of style?), and so genuinely authentic that it melted nearly every listener in the room. I even saw a couple of grown men pretending they had something in their eye…you know what I mean. I wouldn’t have wanted to follow that act, but the young man who did was just the man for the job. His name may not sound familiar yet, but might I suggest that you remember the name “Eddie Heinzelman”? Heinzelman performed a song titled “Crawl” that will be in a new Santo Films movie titled “Dead in 5 Heartbeats.”
As the evening progressed, it proved – dare I say it – joyous. “Joyous?” you ask. Yes, joyous. The chemistry between the four guys on the stage, Yates, Jewell, Fortune and Heinzelman, was nothing short of family-like. They have performed in rounds together before but not often. Still, wherever they had left off, they had picked right back up that evening on the Station Inn stage. The genuine friendship and kinship between them was obvious, and it flowed over into the audience. Laughter was abundant, as was the collective spirit of awe in the crowd.
Yates performed “Choices” and “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” both former hits for George Jones. Yates was a king at tossing all emotions into the proverbial ring that night, when he played a song he’d written for a long-time friend who, when dying with cancer, had asked him to write a song for her. She did get to hear the song from just him and his guitar, but she never got to hear the recorded version. Cut by George Strait, the song was titled “My Infinite Love.” Later in the evening, Yates pulled out a song called “She’s Looking Better Every Beer,” which brought as much laughter as the former brought tears.
Buddy Jewell performed “Help Pour Out The Rain,” the song that won him first-place on Nashville Star in 2003. Jewell was then signed to Columbia Records, where he went on to release the album “Sweet Southern Comfort.” Aside from these hits, one of Jewell’s best performances of the evening was “Jesus Saves Never Fades,” which was written about a Pennsylvania church that had become a bar. Yes, who says, “stranger things have happened?” And if you haven’t heard it yet, check out the song “Jesus, Elvis and Me.”
Jimmy Fortune had another shot at tearing up the place, with a song titled “If I Was God,” which proved so well written that even my grandmother would’ve approved. Heinzelman performed a song – perhaps one of the best-written songs of this decade – titled, “They Don’t Ask About the Thirst,” about an old man who drinks heavily due to the losses in his life and how people judge without thinking. It definitely gave us all something to think about.
Later in the evening, Yates performed “Flowers.” I hadn’t heard this song in a long time, but it still gets me every time. It’s about a man who is drinking and driving, forces his wife to ride along, and she gets killed in an accident. If you haven’t heard it, you might sneak over to YouTube and listen to Gene Watson’s version of it.
Heinzelman’s closing song was for the songwriters, titled “Here’s to the Ones Who Write the Songs,” as was Fortune’s sign-off, titled “A Song Will Find Its Way.”
Well, it must be true. For many a song and their writers have found their way to town. Many have achieved their dreams and are still riding their rainbows, while others are still seeking a place to get on. Still seeking they are, and no doubt, just when the time is right, the song will find its way – and we’ll finally hear those songs on the radio or television that we are hearing in and around Nashville. We will then be able to say, “That’s a Great Song…It’s about time!”