Throwback Thursday: Dan + Shay

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by songwriting. Who or what inspired a songwriter to write that song? What happens behind the scenes in the writing room? What’s the most personal lyric in the song?

I’ve had several songwriting columns for various publications over the years, including You Sing I Write. This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is with Dan + Shay during a chat for CBS Radio in May of 2015 when the pair taught me how to write a song. The article never made that publication due to a layoff. When a new editor asked me the following year to start a monthly column I knew I wanted mine to highlight songwriters. That chat with Dan + Shay in 2015 became one of my first features for Sounds Like Nashville’s The Writers’ Round series, which you can read below.

Dan + Shay met in the unlikeliest of places: underneath a tent at a party in Nashville, Tenn. nearly 10 years ago. The two immediately hit it off and met the next day to write and have been co-writers and band members ever since. In our interview, the duo share their tips on songwriting and walk us through a typical co-write.

As Shay Mooney explains, it’s important to be open when writing a song. He says he and Dan Smyers work so well together because they’re not afraid to say something stupid. He also likens songwriting to a puzzle. “When you go into a co-write everyone brings in their own little piece to the puzzle,” he shares. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Being descriptive is key and Dan + Shay often rely on specific visuals that allow their songs to stand out to listeners. On “Nothin’ Like You,” they sing of a girl with “purple untied shoestrings” who is also “rockin’ that rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt.” Their single, “From the Ground Up,” gives the visual of “a painted pink room” as they sing of a baby girl on the way for the couple in the song.

While Dan + Shay say there is no set formula to writing songs, they always aim to pen “something fresh,” or a perspective that hasn’t been used before. They admit that sometimes it takes them hours to settle on a hook and say that they often try to start with a song title or concept in mind.

Settling into a conference room atop a bustling street corner on Seventh Avenue in New York City, Dan + Shay admit that the Big Apple is an inspiring and mesmerizing place for them. New York is a cultural center that has every ethnic food imaginable and for many is the land of opportunity as far as career choices. This is not lost on the duo. In fact, it inspires them to start writing a song.

“A concept if you were going to write a song — thinking of something different that might not have been said — I was walking down the street and there’s so many beautiful girls here,” Smyers observed. “Everybody here is good looking, everybody is dressed well, and when you’re living here it’s probably tough to find the perfect person, because there’s so many people. It’s like that scene in the movie The Butterfly Effect, where two people are passing each other on the street and they lock eyes, and you fall in love with somebody like that.”

He pauses before he continues what soon becomes a song idea.

“Out of all the millions of people here in this one place, you’re walking by and you fall in love with one person. Of all the people in New York, how do you find that one person?” he asks.

A unique concept, he and Mooney decide to elaborate on this and a title eventually emerges from his observation: “Walking By.” In doing so, Dan + Shay walk us through a typical co-write as Smyers explains that in Nashville songwriting is a 9-to-5 job. Most of the time the writers meet around 10 a.m. and chat about song ideas over coffee.

“The best way to do it, without going in circles, is coming up with a concept or a title. Say we were doing a title, for example, ‘Walking By.’ If we were going to sing about that concept — whether it’s you pass someone and they catch your eye, they’re pretty, might that person be the one — you want to get a title. If you don’t have a title, at least a strong concept to write around,” Smyers explains.

As Mooney takes out a guitar, he starts fiddling around on it, humming to himself, trying to come up with a melody while Smyers wraps his head around the lyrics. Eventually, the lyrics pour out as the duo decide to start with the first verse, explaining that it’s often easier to start from the beginning of a song and paint a picture. Smyers adds that it’s more important to flush out a concept than to worry about rhyming because working on the latter will often result in a finished song that has no meat to it.

Smyers says they always strive to have something visual in their lyrics. While writing a song about New York, he references Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York” as one example that vividly describes specific places in the City.

“Whether somebody has been there or not, it’s still good to throw something in like that, because it paints an honest picture of ‘they were really there,’ rather than ‘two busy streets, walking through,’” Smyers advises.

Realizing they’re high above Seventh Avenue, the lyrics start falling out.

“There she was, Seventh Avenue,” Mooney sings before Smyers cuts in.

“There she was, walking by. Seventh Avenue baby blue eyes,” Smyers continues.

Mooney then hums a few more lines as Smyers explains why he includes the title, “Walking By.”

“We always like to start with something simple, like if that was the first part. ‘There she was, walking by. Seventh Avenue baby blue eyes. Busy street. Green light. Her and me locked, eyes.’ Then you try to pick it up and build a little more energy dynamic-wise coming into a chorus,” Smyers shares. “Painting that picture of what’s going on.”

He adds that as a writer, you don’t want to give away what you’re doing too soon to the listener because then you don’t have anywhere to go. Case in point: the guy in the song probably doesn’t walk right up to the girl in the first verse.

“The chorus, since you’re going to repeat it throughout the song, it could be more generalizations. ‘What if she’s the one?’ Then in the second verse you stop her on the sidewalk and ask her name,” Smyers says. “Then you could still repeat that chorus. She might be the one, and if I never did this, never took this chance, I’d never know.”

Mooney then suggests, “what if she was thinking what you were thinking?” Then he hums a few words, singing she was “running around like a hurricane” while Smyers continues to fathom the vastness of New York.

“That’s the crazy thing about this city, what if you passed your wife on the street [and] you didn’t say anything and lost that opportunity? That’s a crazy concept about being here.”

Mooney says as a songwriter, he always wants to know how his song will conclude while he’s writing it but that doesn’t always happen. “You can’t force it. You never know really where you’re going to end up. Sometimes you do, and hopefully you do. If you do, you can write the song a lot faster. Sometimes you’re writing a song and you have no idea where you’re going to end up. It’s always interesting to see,” he says.

Meanwhile, band mate Smyers explains that while he doesn’t know how this particular song will close he wants to prevent it from being cheesy so they’ll avoid lines like “she gave me her number!” and “we got married!”

“I’d probably make it, you walk by and maybe time has passed and you never said anything. Maybe you just said hello, but you’re still thinking about that person, to keep the concept of ‘what could it have been,’” he explains.

Dan + Shay call songwriting a “crazy, chaotic process” and advise that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. They say they typically start with a concept like they did above with “Walking By.”

“Luckily there, we did have a title. Sometimes you don’t, but if you have a strong concept or an idea, somewhere to go, it’s a little bit easier,” Smyers shares.

So what’s the best advice Dan + Shay have received on songwriting? Mooney says it’s to keep writing.

“I think the most important thing you can do as a songwriter is just to write a million songs. You have to move here, you have to work really, really hard because there are 50 million other people that are trying to do what you do, and they’re probably working just as hard or harder than you are,” he says. “You have to completely sacrifice everything and go for it, and write as many songs as you possibly can.”


Throwback Thursday: Kip Moore


It’s no secret that I’ve been a massive Kip Moore fan for a decade now. Someone on Twitter recently asked about my first interview with Kip, so I dug into the archives to find our first official sit-down in November 2014. Ahead of his “CMT Up In Smoke Tour” stop at New Jersey’s Starland Ballroom, Kip and I chatted backstage about Bruce Springsteen, new music and his dedicated fan base.

It was home turf for me as throughout college I’d frequently attend shows at Starland Ballroom and even got my start interviewing bands at the venue! After soundcheck I followed Kip backstage to catering and then to a room with a big screen TV and leather couches where his band was hanging out. In between dinner and watching the news–which was reporting on the massive snowstorm in upstate New York at the time–Kip filled me in on his latest EP Soundcheck and what to expect from 2015 sophomore album, Wild Ones.

He had released Soundcheck, a five-song live EP featuring four brand new tracks, two days before his tour kickoff that September. The release was aimed at his fans, and he told me that he hoped the new music would hold them over until his sophomore album was released sometime the following year. Below is the story I wrote for from our interview.

Interview: Kip Moore Explains New Album Delay & Praises The Boss: ‘Springsteen Gave Me Hope’

Kip Moore is just two dates away from the end of his first major headlining tour, the CMT Up In Smoke Tour with Charlie Worsham and Sam Hunt. Each night before the show a select number of his diehard fans are invited to attend soundcheck, where he plays some of his unreleased songs that might wind up on his sophomore album—or, in some cases, a song he wrote that very morning. headed to Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Nov. 20 to catch up with the country singer and watch his soundcheck, where he fittingly covered Bruce Springsteen, gave some insight into his songwriting (“I try to write the most real that I can”) and took fan requests.

“This is a chance for the real fans to come here and listen to some new songs that are not on the radio,” Moore said before a fan requested “Comeback Kid.” “Of all the songs that I recorded for this new record, that’s probably the most special to me on the whole album. I can’t wait for people to hear that track and hear space in music.”

Earlier this year, Moore told us the story behind the song, which he said will “strike the core of blue-collar America.” During our interview in New Jersey, he reiterates how important the song is to him.

“I feel like every now and then you land on a special recording,” he says of the track. “It’s about anybody in life who has passion of trying to be more, make more out of their life from where they are at that particular time and having somebody that believes in them at all times. Everybody needs that. And that’s what that song is about. It’s about the hardworking blue-collar people every day that are fighting for a dream.”

When asked who believed in him when he was fighting for his dream, he credits both producer Brett James and Bruce Springsteen as having a major impact on his career.

“Brett James, if we’re talking about somebody that stood by me and walked with me through the fire and never gave up on me. I owe a lot to him,” Moore reflects. “He’s never wavered on me when everybody else was wanting to cave in on me and had quit on me. He always believed in me.”

It’s no secret Moore also looks up to The Boss. He even covered his song “Atlantic City” twice that day at the Starland Ballroom, once during soundcheck and again when opening his show later that night.

Moore closed his soundcheck set raving about Springsteen, attributing him as “the guy that really saved my life and the life I was living.”

“You know, Springsteen gave me hope,” he says. “Gave me hope that I could get to where I was trying to get and also gave me comfort. It’s a scary thing to face yourself when you’re feeling like you’re irrelevant. That vulnerable feeling. His music gave me comfort to feel that way, but he also gave me hope into a better life.”

Much like Moore looks up to Springsteen, his fans look to Moore for inspiration—something that is difficult for him to believe. But it is knowing this that makes him work harder and has him choosing his lyrics more carefully.

“It’s awesome and it’s scary at the same time, because you realize how much weight your words hold. And when you realize your words hold that much weight, you actually think about what you’re saying a lot more,” Moore says. “It means a lot to me because that’s why I do what I do. I always wanted people to hear my music and I wanted it to impact them in a profound way, so now that it’s actually doing that it means a whole lot to me.”

Moore released Soundcheck, a five-song live EP featuring four brand new tracks, two days before his tour kickoff in September. The release was aimed at his fans, and he hopes the new music will hold them over until his sophomore album is released sometime next year.

“We’re pretty passionate about those songs. It was a cool way for giving the fans that have been waiting so long just a taste of what’s coming without actually exposing the record. A live version is not quite the same as a studio album,” he explains. “There definitely will be some of the songs [from the EP] that will make it onto the record.”

He has another special treat in store for fans attending the last two dates of his tour, too. He’ll be playing snippets of every track from his forthcoming record over the PA right before his set. He says he would have done this for the entire tour, but he’s not getting the final mixes of the record until this week.

And what about that record? A fan tweeted last week, “It took 20 years for a second Dumb and Dumber and @KipMooreMusic’s record label is trying to beat that with his second album.”

Moore, though, explains his record label isn’t to blame—in fact as he describes it, they’re “protecting” him.

“People need to understand this is not my record label’s fault,” he asserts. “To be honest, it all comes back on me. I wrote a song, ‘Dirt Road,’ that I thought was going to get further up on the charts and high enough to release a record around, but my label is protecting me in a lot of ways. In my own stubbornness, I just want to put the record out. They know what they’re doing, and it’s hard to release a record around a song that didn’t get past number 40 [Moore’s first three singles all reached No. 1]. And that’s just the fact of the matter.”

So, adds Moore, “hopefully we can come with something next time with some more traction and we can put a record out around it.”

Despite “Dirt Road” not seeing success on the charts and radio, it’s a fan-favorite at every show. Moore says everybody in the crowd knows the song, and for a track that only got to No. 48 on the charts, it’s an unusual thing.

“My fans know the music. I have real fans. They’re not fickle, fair-weather fans. They stick with me no matter what’s going on,” he says. “I’m not worried about them. I have to worry about myself and worry about creating music that’s gonna be heard. All I can worry about is me and what I can control is my music. Radio has been so good to me throughout my career, and I’m the one that happened to drop the ball, and it’s up to me to pick the ball back up. That’s the way that I look at it. They didn’t drop the ball, I dropped the ball.”

Moore promises the record will be out next year, with a new single to kick things off on Jan. 12. While he isn’t sure what song will make the cut, one thing he is sure of is that it will be an intense album.

“It’s just a very passionate, intense record. There’s a lot of seriousness behind this record,” he says. “There’s definitely some playfulness. It’s changed a little bit, too. It was a lot more intense and it’s changed a little bit.

“We’re gonna be rounding it out and figuring out what this record is within the next week. A lot of things are still up in the air.”

Moore adds that it’s also important to him for “people to hear the whole project rather than focus on a song. We live in such a singles world where people just focus on one song. I’m still focusing on the old school way of creating a whole body of work. I want to create a whole body of work that people want to listen to.”


Throwback Thursday: Darius Rucker

Credit: Jim Wright

If it wasn’t for Darius Rucker, I wouldn’t be covering country music. I realize that’s a bold statement to make, but it’s true. In order for you to understand, let me take you back to the summer of 2009 when my love for country music began.

My childhood friends Wendy and Deana had been talking about visiting Nashville for quite some time. Every June the city is transformed into country music fan central as thousands of country music diehards and artists descend on the city for CMA Fest, formerly known as Fan Fair.

For four days, country music fans are treated to live performances, surprise appearances and exclusive meet-and-greets with their favorite country artists. The three of us booked our festival package and flights from New Jersey to Tennessee. I was later approved to cover the nightly press conference and days events for Marie Claire. An outsider to country music at the time, I would also be attending a press conference for the first time.

My first night in the press conference was intimidating to say the least. Not an exceptionally outgoing person, I soon learned that in order to get your question in you usually had to yell out to the artist onstage. The first artist in the room was Darius Rucker. The Hootie & the Blowfish frontman recently released his debut country album and would be performing on the main stage later that night.

Being my first time in the press room, I kept raising my hand in hopes to get my question answered. When the last question was asked and the publicist started to usher Darius off the stage he pointed in my direction. “You’ve been so patient this whole time,” he said. “What’s your question?” After looking around and realizing he was talking to me, I was shocked and thankful to be given a second of his time. So, I asked him how his Hootie fans had reacted to his leap into country music and he told me they’ve embraced and supported his career in the genre. Still stunned he pointed me out in the crowd, I instantly knew country would become my new favorite genre.

I’ve since interviewed Darius countless times and he is always so kind during each chat. Earlier this week I even covered his “13th Annual Darius and Friends” concert benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He performs again tonight during CMA Fest at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.


Dylan Jakobsen’s ‘Six’ Lyric Video Revisits Singer’s Musical Beginnings

Credit: Matt Bacnis / Classic 77 

Dylan Jakobsen knew from a young age he wanted to be a musician. The Seattle native started playing guitar at age eight and was writing songs by the time he was in the seventh grade. The summer before eighth grade, Jakobsen’s parents convinced him to perform at an open mic at their local mall and he never looked back.

“I was one of those kids all through middle school and high school who just wanted to grow up to be a rock star,” he says.

By the time he graduated high school, Jakobsen booked his first tour and found himself on the road regularly much like his songwriting heroes Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger. He moved to Nashville three years ago and says it was important to be in the city where the music is getting made.

Jakobsen never forgot where he came from and fondly recalls locking himself in the music room of his Seattle home after school where he wrote songs and played guitar. He still handwrites all his songs and has kept a box of lyrics which includes all the songs he’s written since childhood. Current single, “Six,” is one of those songs.

Jakobsen wrote the autobiographical song in 2019 by himself. While the final product is an uplifting tune that tells of his passion for music, “Six” actually started from the disappointment of his previous single “I Am” and its chart standing.

“I was upset because we were pushing a song of mine to radio, ‘I Am,’ and it was in its final push week and it was sitting at No. 16,” Jakobsen recalls. “It was set up to make the top 15 on MusicRow and we were so excited! And then there was one station that dropped the song. We came up six spins short.”

Instead of focusing on the disappointment of his single not hitting the top 15, Jakobsen saw the silver lining. So, he decided to spin the idea of the number ‘six’ into a positive.

“When you’re six years old you feel like you can do anything,” he says. “Then flash forwarding to my 26th year, we were out — me and six of my best buddies — touring the country going 60 miles an hour, 600 miles to go play for caller six on the radio station. You almost get that feeling that you do when you were six years old. You get that feeling of you can take on the world, anything is possible or the magic is there. It completely took a different meaning then.”

The lyric video, out now, includes home videos of Jakobsen around age six playing guitar and singing into a microphone. His parents found the footage, and his team made it into the music video. An extended version is included in the new lyric video, available below.

“Before I even played guitar, I was just sitting there holding the guitar dancing around and singing into this little microphone from one of those toy karaoke machines,” he says. “It’s definitely a special video for me that we were able to put together.”

Jakobsen says the idea to release a video exclusively of clips from his childhood came from his fans. They wanted to see all the home footage, as the initial “Six” video has the singer performing in present day at a theater with video snippets in the background. So, he decided to release that footage as a lyric video giving the song added meaning.

“There’s so many special moments in this song for me,” he says. “If I had to pick one, the first line of the song: ‘When you’re six years old/ You believe everything that you’re told/ Like the moon it follows you/ And you can do anything you want to.’

“That whole phrase is really special to me,” he says. “I remember growing up and I’d be riding in the back seat of my mom’s car. Driving down the road at night she’d be like, ‘Look, Dylan the moon is following you.’ That holds a special place in my heart.”

“Six” is featured on Dylan’s 2021 album, Set Fire to the Night. He says the record as a whole is about taking the darkness from the pandemic, being able to navigate it and seeing the silver lining in it all.

“One of the reasons that we felt ‘Six’ was a great song for this project was because that’s exactly what I did when I was writing it,” he says. “It took a whole new meaning, and it went from this negative scenario, and I was able to flip it into something really incredible.”

Jakobsen has had more time to write during Covid-19 and says he is continuing to spread a message of positivity within his music.

“I was writing to help other people and inspire them, but along the way it’s almost been a form of self-therapy for me,” he says. “We wanted to continue to put out that kind of music and continue on setting fire to the night and having light prevail.”

For more on Dylan Jakobsen, visit his website. “Six” is now available on all streaming platforms.


You Sing I Write Featured On Nashville Voyager

Annie Reuter interviewing AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys in 2019

I recently chatted with Nashville Voyager about my journey to Music City. It was quite the experience to be on the other side of an interview! Below is an excerpt of our chat.

Annie, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to write. As a kid, I’d write plays when my cousins visited that we’d later act out for our parents during family get-togethers. By high school, I joined the school paper and in college was Features Editor of Rutgers University’s award-winning newspaper, The Daily Targum. Watching Almost Famous solidified my love of music journalism but it wasn’t until my first live review for my college paper’s entertainment section that things clicked. I still remember it like yesterday: I was front row for a Gavin DeGraw concert — notebook in one hand and digital camera in the other — when I realized I could do this for the rest of my life! From there I took three unpaid internships at JANE Magazine, MTV News, and Rolling Stone and have been writing about music ever since. 

Journalism jobs were hard to come by after graduation so I continued to freelance for Rolling Stone and some other outlets while launching my music blog You Sing I Write to keep up my writing skills. I’d review concerts and those reviews would be featured on MTV’s concert blog and homepage. That visibility helped me land interviews for my blog, and I often did those interviews on my lunch break while working at WebMD. 

I took on any writing assignment I could get — sometimes unpaid in the beginning — which is how I wound up in Nashville for CMA Fest in 2009. Two friends were going and invited me along so I pitched festival coverage to an editor at Marie Claire who I had interned with a few years before at JANE. It truly is all who you know in this industry! Soon, I was in Music City for the first-time interviewing Martina McBride, Darius Rucker, and Taylor Swift in a press conference. I’d never been so nervous in my life! 

CMA Fest was the first time I attended a press conference and Darius Rucker was the first artist to come through. At the time, I didn’t realize how aggressive you had to be to get your question in. As other journalists yelled to get their questions answered, I sat there quietly with my hand raised as if I was in school (and probably looked like I was still in high school at the time!). The last question was asked and as Darius was being ushered off the stage by his publicist he stopped and pointed at me. He said, “You have been so patient this whole time. What is your question?” I fell in love with country music in that very moment and dreamed of moving to Nashville ever since! 

For more of my interview with Nashville Voyager, visit the publication’s website here.


31 Days of Women: Dolly Parton

Credit: Rob Hoffman

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Who better to close out Women’s History Month than Dolly Parton? An American treasure, Parton has served as a constant ray of light at a difficult time. My personal highlight of 2020 was interviewing the singer. A larger than life figure, Parton was never someone I considered interviewing — it just didn’t seem possible. My 20-minute phone interview proved that maybe it’s time to dream a little bigger. Below is an excerpt of my chat with the legend from a cover story for Sounds Like Nashville.

Parton gets personal in her latest book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in LyricsWithin the pages Parton tells the stories behind some of her biggest hits as well as shares never-before-seen photos, memorabilia, and handwritten lyrics to her songs including one of the receipts from Porter Wagoner’s dry-cleaning which she wrote “Coat of Many Colors” on. The songwriter has penned nearly 3,000 songs and estimates around 450 have been recorded by her or other artists.

Throughout her seven-decade career, Parton has amassed 25 No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and 10 GRAMMY Awards. In Songteller, Parton tells the stories behind one of her biggest hits – “I Will Always Love You.” She released the song twice in two separate decades with both versions (in 1974 and 1982, respectively) becoming a No. 1 hit, making her the only person to have two different chart-topping recordings of the same song. When Whitney Houston recorded the track for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, her version spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally written by Parton for Wagoner to tell her longtime collaborator that she needed to leave The Porter Wagoner Show, “I Will Always Love You” has been deemed one of the greatest love songs ever written.

“That’s just the gift that keeps on giving, that song. Elvis [Presley] almost recorded it. I kept hold of my publishing and I cried my eyes out ’cause Elvis didn’t get to do it. It was his manager that said he had to publish it if he did it and I wouldn’t let him have publishing,” Parton explains. “That one has so many stories and so many heart wrenching things, and so many memories. I have to say that revisiting that was more moving to me.”

In Songteller, Parton reveals that she learned Presley was such a big fan of the song even though he never got to record it himself. While she was working with Priscilla Presley, the late singer’s ex-wife shared with her Elvis’ love of the powerful ballad.

“We were thinking about writing a musical about her story. I think that may still be in the works somewhere, but she had been interested in maybe me writing the music for it, so I had gone to meet her,” Parton recalls. “In that process of us talking I said, ‘One of my greatest disappointments is that I didn’t get to hear Elvis sing ‘I Will Always Love You,’ but I couldn’t give up my publishing.’ She said, ‘Oh, he loved that song. When we divorced, when we were coming down the steps from the courthouse, he was singing ‘I Will Always Love You.’ That made me chill all over, that was so sweet. I was so happy she told me that.”

While Parton shares that “Coat of Many Colors” is her favorite of all her songs as it means so much to her personally, she also confesses that she loves to search for song ideas in the graveyard. She assures she’s not morbid, it’s simply a very peaceful place for her to gather her thoughts.

“I write a lot of songs in the graveyard because it’s peaceful and quiet. I love to go there and read. I love to picnic; take a blanket and go take a book or take my writing pad and sit and just think. It’s just so peaceful. It’s not morbid to me because they’re in peace. Like I’ve said before, it’s not the dead that scare me, it’s the living,” she jokes.

“Years ago, I visited this graveyard and there was a little oil lamp, an eternal flame, and it was still burning, and I was so fascinated. Somebody said, ‘That’s called an eternal flame.’ It was a child’s grave,” she recalls. “I was always afraid of the dark myself, so I wrote a song called ‘Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark.’ Her parents knew she was afraid of the dark and when she died, they put an eternal flame on her grave.” 

Parton says she’s gotten character names for her songs from the tombstones in graveyards. “I really think that some thoughts just come to me that maybe were floating around out there, not knowing exactly which grave it came from. Floating on the wind, some thoughts and some ideas and feelings,” she adds.

For more of my interview with Dolly Parton, visit Sounds Like Nashville.


31 Days of Women: Miko Marks

Credit: Beto Lopez, Mooncricket Films

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Miko Marks never intended to record another album. After facing unsurmountable roadblocks as a Black singer navigating the Nashville country music scene in the early 2000s, Marks gave up her dream of recording. Instead, she focused on performing and her residency in Oakland, California at Overland. Thirteen years since releasing her last album, It Feels Good, Marks returns with Our Country.

The idea of recording new music came to Marks from songwriter and producer Justin Phipps. In 2019, Phipps shared a song he wrote called “Goodnight America.” The stripped down ballad details the idea of freedom in America and how certain freedoms aren’t provided for everyone.

“It was such a special song,” Marks tells me. “I had never done something that was so spot on for where we are in the world. I had to [record] this song.”

Marks recorded the song with Phipps and Steve Wyreman in early 2020. While Marks says she and her collaborators initially began recording on a song by song basis, by the time they completed four tracks they knew an album was in the works.

“It was really that organic,” she says. “It was something I didn’t even think to do.”

Our Country includes inspired covers like “Hard Times” mixed in with Marks’ originals like the deeply autobiographical “We Are Here” about the hardships those face living in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. Mavis Staples’ version of “Hard Times” inspired Marks to record her own interpretation as well as pushed her to finish writing a song about the suffering and marginalization of the people in her home state.

While Marks says she sees changes being made in the country industry today, she admits to being disheartened when she was trying to find her way in her early career.

“No matter what I did, it didn’t really resonate in Nashville. So, I was discouraged,” she says. “That may be part of the reason why I stepped away from recording. … The amount of gatekeeping in Nashville was just astounding to me at that time. I was in my late 20s and I had no idea what I was up against.

“It’s refreshing today to see so many people of color making music and making a way for themselves like Breland, Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Rissi Palmer, Reyna Roberts. There were not that many when I was trying to make a go at it. There’s a unity and there’s a movement [now]. The listeners are actually using their voice to acknowledge these talented artists and that is a shift that I didn’t think I would see.”

For more of my interview with Miko Marks, visit Forbes.


31 Days of Women: Callista Clark

Courtesy: Big Machine Label Group

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Callista Clark has been singing since she could talk. The 17-year-old Georgia native began performing at her grandfather’s church as a child before she started posting performance videos online. A cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” that amassed more than 27 million views caught the attention of Scooter Braun, who signed the teenager to his SB Projects management company then introduced her to Big Machine Label Group Founder and CEO Scott Borchetta. Clark’s debut Big Machine Records single, “It’s ’Cause I Am,” is at country radio today.

“I didn’t know what was happening, it was just the craziest thing,” Clark tells me. “I still don’t know to this day what it is about that video that made it do what it did, but it changed my life.”

Clark, who also plays eight instruments, has been co-writing in Nashville since she was 15. Her earliest songs, including “It’s ’Cause I Am,” are featured on her Real to Me EP, released in February.

Clark penned “It’s ’Cause I Am” with Laura Veltz and Cameron Jaymes in late 2019. It was one of the last in-person writing sessions she had before lockdown. The song idea came to Clark after witnessing a snide remark from an older gentleman who saw her carrying a guitar into Starbucks.

“I was trying to get back out the door and this random guy sees that I’m a young girl with a guitar in Nashville and he just goes, ‘Good luck,’” she says. “I turned around and I said, ‘Thank you very much!’ I was so angry that people judge me before they knew who I was or what I was capable of. I had a really fun time ranting to Laura Veltz and Cameron Jaymes about that situation and that feeling.”

The song has Clark sharing that she’s a complicated woman and not one-dimensional. “You want a one-dimensional woman/ It’s OK I understand/ If I seem too complicated for ya/ It’s ‘cause I am,” she sings on the chorus.

“I really like the one-dimensional woman line because no one’s ever one-dimensional,” she says. “Everyone is unique and everyone is special in their own way, and that’s what that [line] means to me. No one’s ever that easy to figure out by one glance.”

“The biggest thing I can hope for being a songwriter and being an artist is just using my voice and hoping that someone relates to it,” she says. “That’s all I can ask for.”

For more of my interview with Callista Clark, visit Country Insider.


31 Days of Women: Reba McEntire

Courtesy: Universal Music Group Nashville

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

In honor of Reba McEntire’s 66th birthday today, I look back on my last interview with the singer for Billboard in 2019. Because of her boundless creative spirit, overwhelming success and outspoken support for other women in the genre, McEntire was named the 2019 recipient of Billboard’s Trailblazer Award. Calling from her Nashville office, the superstar talked about the values that have shaped her career. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

What does being a trailblazer mean to you?

Hopefully I have done some things that have strengthened the country music business. I love country music: what it stands for, how it relates to people of every walk of life — male, female, all ages.

Earlier this year, you expressed dismay that no women were nominated for entertainer of the year at the ACM Awards. Why was it important to speak out?

Because I am a woman, I know how important it was for me to get encouragement and an occasional pat on the back and [hear], “You can do it.” That goes a long way. My mama was always saying, “Reba, you can do this.” And I said, “Oh, but it’s going to be so hard. I’m dreading this.” She said, “Reba, it’ll be over in 24 hours. You can do anything for 24 hours.” That’s a good way to look at it. So I quit worrying.

Your songs often feature powerful female characters. Was there ever a time when you passed on a song because it lacked that perspective?

Oh, lots of times. It doesn’t have to be a strong female voice necessarily, but it has to have a message. If a song has touched my heart, hopefully it’ll touch your heart when I sing it. I’m the conduit. I’m the one that delivers the message. When I go looking for songs, I ask God, “Please send me the songs that will help people, that will touch their hearts.” It might solve a problem for them, it might entertain them, it might get them away from what they’re going through. That’s my job on earth. I feel very strongly about that.

You seem to have a strong sense of what rings true for you artistically. When was the last time you made a misstep?

There was a time that I [covered Beyoncé’s] “If I Were a Boy.” We had done that for [Unplugged on CMT in 2010], and the record label really wanted me to record it and put it out as a single. I didn’t feel real good about it. It wasn’t that successful. The people in the music industry, they’re professionals, and sometimes you have to go with the team. It just didn’t work out.

What do you still hope to accomplish at this point in your career?

I love [performing], whether it’s for movies, television, concerts, recording — whatever it is. I’d love to get back into television, maybe some more movies. I love to travel, so I’m trying to check off some time to see more of this beautiful world that God has made.

For more of my feature with Reba, which appeared in the June 1, 2019 issue of the magazine, visit Billboard.


31 Days of Women: Runaway June

Courtesy: BBR Music Group

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Last year I spoke with country trio Runaway June, who announced the addition of Natalie Stovall to the band following Hannah Mulholland’s departure in May. Below is an excerpt of my Zoom chat with the trio for Sounds Like Nashville.

Runaway June have been working on their sophomore album and Stovall promises there will be much more fiddle on the songs. Meanwhile, Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne say Stovall has elevated the musicianship of the band.

“She’s brought so much spirit and so much positivity. She’s such a good hang,” Cooke says of Stovall. “She’s such a hard worker. It’s been awesome. It’s been really like all of our energy; all of our hopes and dreams and all of our focus is aligned for the same thing. That’s been really great.”

While most of the band’s co-writes have been over Zoom throughout 2020, Runaway June remain motivated. With more time off the road than they’ve had in years, the women are creating and collaborating at a rapid pace. “I think we’re finding the joy in this moment. This is all that matters,” Cooke says. Additionally, Wayne says Stovall bringing the fiddle into the writers room has been inspiring.

“It really is like taking us back to our roots. We had a lot of fiddle and we actually took it out of our music because we couldn’t afford a fiddle player live,” Wayne admits. “It’s been awesome having Natalie come back in, because we can go back to how Runaway June was formed, and bringing that organic country sound back.”

The women joke that since their second album will be the first project Stovall will be working on with them, there will be no curse of the sophomore record.

“It is kind of like a new band all of a sudden while still being an established band,” Stovall says. “For me personally, it’s opened up a world of creativity in my writing where I’ve never thought about writing music for three girls singing harmony. I’ve always thought about a solo voice. So it has completely opened up a whole new world and a little compartment that I didn’t even know existed.”

Runaway June’s latest single is “We Were Rich,” featured on the band’s 2019 debut album Blue Roses and updated to include Stovall’s vocals and fiddle. “We Were Rich” was written by Ashley Gorley, Ross Copperman and Nicolle Galyon. The nostalgic and sweeping ballad takes the listener back to an easier time with descriptive lyrics that connected with Runaway June the first time they heard the song.

“It’s nostalgic, but it also reminds you of the simple and really beautiful times of your childhood and we all need that right now. We can all get in that time machine, even if it’s only for three-and-a-half minutes, and go back to a place where you’re not worried about anything and there isn’t any fear,” Stovall says. “That was actually my favorite Runaway June song, so it was really cool to come into the project and then the first order of business was to release ‘We Were Rich.’”

Adds Cooke, “The first thing that grabbed me was the line, ‘One bathroom sink/ We’d all take turns.’ It reminded me of my childhood. I have 10 brothers and sisters. We always had one bathroom growing up. That line, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my life!’ That was a really special moment … I think it sparks different memories. People are telling us the sweetest stories, which makes us know that they are also being transported to a simpler, better time. And that’s all we could hope for.”

For more of my interview with Runaway June, visit Sounds Like Nashville.