Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Paul Compton

Paul Compton / Facebook
Paul Compton / Facebook


Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Paul Compton shares what he has learned from working with Nashville songwriters as a song plugger.


Paul Compton was drawn to music from an early age. He played in his first band shortly after high school and eventually received a performance scholarship at Calhoun Community College in Alabama. In 1990, he moved to Nashville and completed his degree in Recording Industry Management at Middle Tennessee State University.

A fan of music and songwriting, Compton found himself interning at a publishing company called Murrah Music Corporation for two semesters. It just so happened that once his second semester ended, his boss exited which left a position open at the company. So, prompted by another employee, he applied and got the job. Compton would find himself at the same company for the next 17 years where he helped the early careers of many up-and-coming singer/songwriters including superstar in the making, Luke Bryan.

Compton recalls meeting Bryan around 2002 and while he says he never predicted the remarkable success that the “Move” singer would eventually have, he knew Bryan had the drive and determination to make it in the industry having come from a family of hard workers.

“When he walked in a room, before anybody even know who Luke Bryan was going to be, he could captivate a room,” Compton recalls. “This big southern voice, good looking guy, looks like a young Elvis, walks in a room and just lights up the party. You knew that if he could capture that in some artistic way on the stage with his songs, that people were going to respond because they did that before they even knew he could sing.”

Compton says Bryan was like a sponge when it came to learning about songwriting. He often borrowed what he could from people who had years of experience on him and soon went from someone they signed as an artist who wrote a little bit to becoming a “really respectable writer.”

Bryan’s early cuts included the title track off Travis Tritt’s 2004 album, Honky Tonk History and Billy Currington’s No. 1 song “Good Directions.”

“Luke started getting attention as a writer before his artistry was brought to fruition. He came at ideas from a different angle, wrote with writers who taught him how to craft a song. He was a good student and he worked hard. That was the deal with Luke,” Compton adds.

Compton says his job started out as a professional manager, what a lot of people in the industry call a song plugger. In addition to pitching songs to artists, he acted as a manager by setting up co-writes as well as demo production. He learned a lot from the publisher’s owner Roger Murrah, who is a Hall of Fame songwriter, and recalls Murrah having the perfect career attributes of being both creative and business savvy, which he says is often rare to find.

“I worked with him for 17 years, mentoring off of him, and slowly was promoted inside the company all the way up to Senior Vice President, which is the position I held for the last ten years that I worked there. We helped mentor young, aspiring professional writers to get to their first level and second level of success. Some of those writers, a great majority of them, went on to have No. 1 songs. I was a part of helping a lot of those writers get established, and get their songs cut. ”

For 17 years the company grew and was recognized by Billboard as Independent Publisher of the Year. Some of Compton’s personal successes included pitching what would become career songs for Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts. While he says there isn’t a direct science to getting a song in the hands of a popular artist, Compton would always pitch songs he believed in.

“I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of great firsts. Great songs that were a big part of not only the writer’s career but may have been a big part of the artist’s career,” he says with a smile. “I remember a young Kenny Chesney coming in, who had just gotten signed to RCA and they had cut most of his record, and they were looking for a few more songs. He was really desperate to find an uptempo song. I was back and forth playing him song after song of these uptempo songs, and towards the end of the meeting I kept asking, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to hear a ballad?’ He kept shooting me down, ‘No, I need uptempo.'”

Eventually Barry Beckett, Chesney’s producer at the time, urged him to try a ballad. So, Compton played him “When I Close My Eyes” written by Nettie Musick and Mark Alan Springer.

“He literally jumped off the couch, ran around the room, and it was almost like he had just scored a touchdown, he was so excited,” Compton recalls.


The song would be featured on Chesney’s 1996 album Me And You and make it all the way to No. 1 on the R&R chart (Radio and Records). It would also be his first No. 1 hit as an artist. Compton would have similar success with a brand new trio in 1999 — Rascal Flatts. Once again he was told by the band’s producer, Mark Bright, that ballads just weren’t probable at country radio. He recalls him saying, “A ballad right now is impossible. A midtempo is next to impossible. We just need uptempo songs to finish the record.”

Compton had only brought a midtempo and a ballad with him to the meeting, where 10 other song pluggers went around in a circle and pitched their songs. So, he started with the midtempo. He was the last one at the table and was getting increasingly more nervous as his turn came to play the ballad.

“I’m sitting there the whole time sweating bullets and thinking, ‘I’m holding a ballad and that’s all I’ve got.’ It’s like playing poker when you know you have nothing, and you’ve got all the chips on the table,” he reasons. “I believe in this song, I know it’s a hit song, I know it’s great. It kills me. It’s brand new, maybe I’m just too in love with it. I start trying to talk myself out of it. It gets all the way back around to me and I had no choice. I’m like, ‘Here’s the moment of truth. Either they’re going to laugh me out of the room, kick me out of the room, or think I’m a complete idiot, but I’m totally committed to this song, I believed in the song.'”

So, he plays the song and the room remains silent as the track comes to a close.

“It’s like that awkward thing where you tell a joke and nobody laughs right away. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Then it’s almost like everybody exhaled, and Mark Bright said, ‘They can like it now or they can like it later, but we’re cutting this song.'”

That song — “I’m Movin’ On” written by Phillip White and D. Vincent Williams — would become the last single released off the band’s self-titled debut album in 2000 and garner them an ACM Song of the Year win.


“It was a good moment for them and a great moment for us,” Compton adds. “I love songs that go past the entertainment value, that actually change people’s lives. I remember seeing emails and reading stories about how there were people contemplating suicide, going through a drug addiction, who were in prison. There were people going through the lowest point in their life and they heard that song, and it gave them hope that they could move on. When you’re a small part of something like that and you put it out into this world that went way past just entertainment, that’s a pretty special feeling. I hope Nashville can continue to celebrate those kind of talents and that kind of creativity that can foster those kind of songs.”

Murrah Music was bought out in 2009 and the company has since dissolved. Compton, however, has far from stopped helping up-and-coming songwriters. He has started a management company called Music Highway Writers Services that is strictly focused on writers. While he works on a daily basis with artists and singer/songwriters, he prides himself in helping the unsigned writer who hasn’t gotten their break yet. His goal is to help each writer get to the next level. Additionally, he helps the older, more established writers stay connected and plugged into the Nashville songwriting scene and acts as a consultant for those hoping to build their own publishing companies. Compton aims to help Nashville newcomers to navigate the waters easily and with nearly 30 years in the business, he is offering his talents to many Music City transplants.

“There’s a saying I used to have in my office, ‘You become successful by helping others become successful.’ That has been the motto of my career. I’m only successful if my writers and my artists that I work with can find success, and I’m happy with them getting all of the spotlight, because that’s not what I came to town to do. When they have their moment, there’s no better feeling in the world than to watch them revel in their moment.”

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Willie Shaw


Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Willie Shaw shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


Willie Shaw grew up in a musical family where holidays were spent playing obscure songs on the record player while each family member guessed the musician who sang on the track. He says it was an unwritten rule in his family that each child picked up and learned an instrument at a certain age and his calling was the guitar. While he didn’t learn chords until he was a senior in high school, Willie recalls playing the guitar as a sophomore and writing songs in class.

“I grew up around music. I would always steal my mom’s CDs. I found her Beatles CDs and I would play them over and over and over again,” he recalls of his upbringing in Orange County, Calif. “I was the best shower singer in the world. My shower head knows all about my vocals. At that time, I didn’t even realize I was good at singing. I just did it in my shower, in my car.”

Even though music was part of his life from an early age, he didn’t fully realize he could sing until freshman year of high school when he learned he was getting a B in choir class. Willie and his football buddies sat in the back of the classroom and talked throughout each lecture and he soon learned that the only way to receive an A was to sing in front of 250 of his peers.

“I went up with my iPod and I put Stevie Wonder, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” in my ear and sang along to it. Everybody went from joking and making fun of me to really quiet,” he says. “I thought I messed up the words or something, so I started freaking out. After class the choir directors, they came up to me and said, ‘How do you feel about singing in our next concert? Have you ever sung in front of a large audience before?’ I was like, ‘No, but why not?’ So I sang two songs in that final concert of the year.”

Soon after he began writing songs, admitting that his first songs were “so bad.” Not knowing how to transition from verse to chorus his early songs were often seven minutes long. The more he wrote, though, the better he got. By junior year, he wrote what he calls his first real song, “Eskimo Kisses,” in geometry class. Writing songs was an outlet for Willie where he learned who he was and who he wanted to be.

Now, he immerses himself in songwriting and compares it to a job that he shows up for every day. “Some days you write a cool song you really like and some days you write a song that you give to somebody else,” he says.

Willie moved to Nashville last August after being discovered singing on a street corner in Williamsburg, Va. while studying at the College of William and Mary. A woman who had connections in Nashville walked up to him and asked what his plans for music were. An ego boost, he set up meetings with some of her contacts last June and two months later moved to Music City.

Currently, Willie works as an accountant for NASA part-time and once he finishes his shift each day he spends time honing his songwriting skills. He says his transition into Nashville living was slow at first, but now the people he has met feel like family.

“Before we even talked music, it’s like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from? Are you a good person? What church do you go to?’ Stuff like that where it’s very humanitarian based,” he says of the Nashville songwriting community. “In California, my experiences with the music industry, it’s very product driven first. Then, who are you second, if at all.”

Willie is a pop artist who cites acts like Andy Grammer, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars as inspiration as well as Motown, doo-wop and jazz.

“I grew up by the beach in California, so I have that sound. I love 40s Big Band, swing music. As I’m cooking dinner, I’m listening to Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers and Frank Sinatra. I love Motown, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. I also love the early rock and roll with Elvis, like everybody does,” he explains.

These influences can be heard throughout his music. Songs like “Good Feeling” and “Move,” available on his Soundcloud, were written when he was in high school and while he’s changed musically since then, they’re a good indication of where he came from.

Willie notes that an important songwriting lesson he’s learned since moving to Nashville is in being as honest as possible.

“People connect to things that are honest,” he explains. “I think that’s why you see a little bit of push back right now, especially in pop music. You listen to the radio and everybody’s talking about sex, drugs, alcohol. Not that that’s a new trend, but people can’t always connect. You look at people like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar in the hip-hop realm, they are so brutally honest that people will follow them anywhere. It’s the same with country. Country’s a little more holistic because it’s so faith, family and values driven. Just being honest, whether that means you’re struggling with an addiction of some kind or you’re struggling with love.”

Willie also advises new songwriters and artists moving to Nashville of the importance of having a business plan and career goals.

“As much as it’s heroic and poetic to say ‘I’m chasing my dream,’ you have to have a goal with it too. If you’re just running around like a chicken with its head cut off, what’s the point? Where are you going to end up? You’re going to look back after a certain amount of time and be like, ‘I wasted X amount of money, X amount of time that I can’t get back.'”

He also urges those songwriters and artists to study people in the room when they’re out at writer’s rounds.

“Since I don’t sing country music, I have a five to ten second window when I first start singing to grab whoever’s there. That’s why often you’ll hear me sing something really jazzy, or I’ll start beat boxing, or I’ll play my mouth trumpet or something,” he explains. “That’s the hook, that’s the trailer to the rest of the movie.”

For more on Willie Shaw, visit his SoundCloud and Facebook.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Erik Dylan


Photo courtesy Lonestar PR

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Erik Dylan shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


Guitars were always present in Erik Dylan’s home as a young boy. The Kansas native vividly remembers listening to his father’s record collection which included artists like Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Taylor and Guy Clark. Once he was older, he recalls his hour-long bus rides to and from school with the radio dialed in on mainstream contemporary country.

“That’s where the musical journey started for me,” Dylan shares over coffee at East Nashville’s Sip Cafe. “I’ve always loved music but I moved to Tennessee to go to MTSU for recording and production technology.”

While attending Middle Tennessee State University, Dylan got the songwriting bug and attempted to transfer into the songwriting program unsuccessfully. As he recalls, the professor of the program told him he wasn’t qualified to be a songwriter because he didn’t know enough music theory. Though this news sidelined him for a while, it wasn’t before long that he picked back up his guitar and began to write songs more seriously.

In 2011, Dylan hit a wall. Miserable at his job, he realized he wasn’t happy doing anything but music so he began playing open mic nights around Nashville every chance he got. As he recalls, he played close to 200 shows that year.

“I’ve always had a philosophy that you must be present to win with whatever you do and I thought at least being off of the couch and playing in front of people would give me a chance to find out how to get plugged in,” Dylan reasons. “I really didn’t know anybody in the music industry and wasn’t related to anybody in the music industry so I just kept doing that. One night I was playing at Belcourt Taps in the Village and luckily a guy named Kip Moore walked by and heard me and got me in touch with his publisher and producer, Brett James. That was the only publisher I ever met with and that’s who I signed with and I’ve been there for the last five years.”

While Dylan is the first to admit there are many highs and “tons of lows” when it comes to life as a songwriter, he says it’s his family who constantly keep him grounded.

“There are days where I wonder if I had the sort of normal 9-to-5 job, would I be making more money? Would I be making the same money? Would I be able to provide better for the family? I think what it comes down to is that I’m a better person when I’m writing songs,” he says. “I think I’m a happier person, I’m more grounded and I think it’ll be cool that my son knows he can do anything he wants to do, to chase a dream.”

Since he signed on as a songwriter with Cornman Music and Warner/Chappell, Dylan has been able to write with some of his heroes including Guy Clark and Steve Earle. He recently performed at the Ryman Auditorium as part of a memorial concert for Clark, citing it as the coolest moment he’s had in Nashville.

Another rewarding moment is having his first major label single with Eric Paslay’s “Angels In This Town.” Written with Paslay and Corey Crowder during a writers retreat in Alabama, “Angels In This Town” was finished quickly. Dylan remembers Crowder initially playing a track he had started while Paslay began strumming his guitar and humming a melody.

“Melody just falls out of Eric. He’s amazing when he sings. He has melodies for days, you never have to worry about a melody,” Dylan shares. “It sounded like he was saying ‘Angels In This Town’ at one point and we all looked at each other and I said, ‘I think that’s our song.’”


For more of my interview with Erik Dylan, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Jerry Vandiver



Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Jerry Vandiver shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


Seven years into his teaching career in Missouri, Jerry Vandiver visited Nashville during Spring Break and dove into the music scene playing his songs in writers rounds. He had visited Music City many times over the past few years during spring and summer breaks but this trip was different and a fellow teacher at school noticed the change. As Vandiver recalls, while the two were chatting about their vacation there was a lull in the conversation. While he had no immediate plan to move to Nashville, she saw things differently.

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” she asked. “You’re going to move to Nashville.”

“I thought about it and I said, ‘Yeah!’” Vandiver recalls of that fateful day in 1984. “I don’t know if she hadn’t said that if I’d be here today, because it’s a scary thing. I got everything in order, I told my Principal, told my Superintendent I’m not coming back. I came here in the fall and I remember driving from Kansas City to Nashville. I was halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis and I had the trailer behind me. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

While he admits he almost turned back, ultimately he knew Nashville was the right decision. And, the thought of turning around and facing some of his biggest supporters after all those going away parties kept him driving. Vandiver cites that conversation with his colleague and his move to Nashville as his first defining moment. The second would come four months after his move when he would play the Bluebird Cafe for the very first time.

“Like everybody else that was really serious about it, I had my blinders on. I was like, ‘Damn the rejection! Full speed ahead.’ I pitched my songs like crazy, but none of them were ready at all,” he admits. “Up until that moment I had been naively calling publishers trying to get my songs heard. I say naively because at that time my songs were not ready. At that time though publishers were a little more receptive and a lot of them — not all of them but a lot of them — would offer critiques and feedback especially if they saw that you were serious.”

There was one publisher in particular called The Reese Company who Vandiver called only to learn that they weren’t taking any material. After his successful performance at the Bluebird, however, another songwriter approached him who had recently played some songs for the company’s owner, Jan Reese. That songwriter, Sandy Ramos, asked if he’d like to co-write sometime and for Vandiver it was a no brainer. He says it was all part of the networking process and after four years of co-writing with Ramos he signed his first single-song contract with The Reese Company. While the song he was signed for never got cut, it was a foot in the door that led to more single-song contracts for the songwriter. Vandiver calls his first single-song contract a “momentous moment” and he and Ramos continued to get better writing together.

One weekend, he was writing a new song while trying to get over a heartbreak. When he and Ramos met later that week she loved what she heard and said that she could make it a hit. Ramos put a new melody on the song and it became their first major label cut together for Gene Watson. The song was called “Don’t Waste It On the Blues” and went to No. 5 on the country charts in 1990 and won Vandiver an ASCAP Award. Vandiver notes that had he not gone to the Bluebird that one Sunday night and met Ramos and had he not had that heartbreak, the song would have never come together.

“Those are the stories that are all over Nashville. I find them fascinating, from anybody’s perspective,” he adds.

Before the song was put on hold Vandiver thought about giving up his career as a songwriter. At the moment his song was being pitched to Watson’s team, Vandiver was considering returning to school to get his Master’s Degree in Secondary Education and was at a local campus taking a tour. Vandiver says going back to school just didn’t feel right and went to his publisher’s office at Little Big Town Music afterward when he learned he had his first hold with Watson.

“I think that most songwriters can make a little bit of encouragement go a long way and so you get a little encouragement like that, a hold or sign a single-song contract or something, and you go, ‘Okay. I can make this last a few more days,’” he explains.


For more of my interview with Jerry Vandiver, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Richard Casper of CreatiVets


(Pictured L-R) Richard Casper, Johnny Bulford, unnamed veteran, Stephen Salyers; Photo via @creativets on Instagram

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Richard Casper shares his journey to founding non-prfit CreatiVets.


For many veterans, returning home after war is a challenging ordeal. Numerous men and women who have served our country suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS) and struggle to get reintroduced into society, some even commit suicide.

In a 2013 study, the Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 22 veterans each day commit suicide. CreatiVets, a non-profit organization that aims to offer relief and healing to veterans through songwriting, visual arts, music and creative writing, hopes to combat depression, PTS and suicide.

Richard Casper is the co-founder of CreatiVets and learned the struggles firsthand when he returned home after one tour in the Marine Corps Infantry in Iraq where his humvee was blown up four different times and his best friend died beside him. Casper himself suffered through three concussions, tore cartilage in his chest and after returning home learned he had brain damage from a traumatic brain injury.

“I had a lot of stuff inside me that I couldn’t get out after the war about my buddy who died,” Casper tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I started writing a lot about it. Not a song yet, but I was in a creative writing class so I was writing about it.”

When Casper returned from Iraq, he enrolled at a community college in Illinois and a friend suggested he try his hand at songwriting. Soon after, he got accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and to make money while studying, Casper worked at Joe’s Bar. It was there that he was introduced to several songwriters through the venue’s songwriter series, all the while, he continued to write on the side. As he explains, his anxieties and depression minimized through songwriting and one night after a writer’s round at the venue he approached songwriter Mark Irwin (Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw) and shared his story and asked if he traveled to Nashville if Irwin would write with him. Irwin agreed and soon after Casper took a trip to Music City and wrote a song about his experience in Iraq called “One Night In Iraq.”

After his first writing session, Casper knew he wanted to find a way to help other veterans. He invited his friend who lost a leg and was severely burned from a vehicle borne Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to Nashville and they wrote a song in May of 2013 with Blackjack Billy. It was during this co-write that CreatiVets was born and was founded as a nonprofit that July.

Since 2013, nearly 30 veterans have come to Nashville to write with songwriters like Darryl Worley, Johnny Bulford, Lance Carpenter and Erik Dylan. Casper serves as the nonprofit’s co-writer and tour guide as he spends three days with each veteran. The day before the veteran sits down to write his or her story, Casper takes them to a writer’s round and tells them to listen to why the songwriters created their songs.

“Days prior, I’m on the phone with them prepping them about what the song’s going to be about so when we go into the writing room they know exactly what the song’s going to be. We’re not trying to write a hit song,” he stresses. “We’re trying to write their story and turn it into a song. If it becomes a hit that’s awesome, but that’s not what we’re doing it for. When we’re done, the guitar that we wrote the song with I give to the veteran so that we can get them to hopefully keep learning how to play guitar on their own and to write more music about what they went through and give them a new tool to help with the PTSD.”


For more on CreatiVets, read my article on Sounds Like Nashville and visit


Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Brett James


Photo courtesy Evolution PR

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Brett James shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


Brett James’ career is one of perseverance. It includes two stints in med school, two tries at an artist career and a long legacy of 22 No. 1 songs over the span of 16 years. In an interview with Sounds Like Nashville, the songwriter shares how a Steve Wariner concert shifted his life plan and sparked his decision to move to Nashville.

During his first year in med school at the University of Oklahoma, James attended Wariner’s concert and instantly thought, “I think I can do some of that.” As he recalls, he knew he could sing and he thought he could write songs, too.

“He inspired me to show that part of me for the first time,” James explained to Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “And so, I went home and wrote ‘Sweet, Slow Oklahoma’ and I wrote about ten other songs and took some summer money I made in between my freshman and sophomore year in med school and did a little cassette tape.”

It was 1991 and James had one friend in the music business who was an intern at a college radio station in Michigan. She shared his music with her boss who was well connected and soon called James and said he’d like to be his manager, asking how soon he could get to Nashville. Spring break was coming up so during his sophomore year of med school, James traveled to Nashville for the first time and found himself at the famed Bluebird Café and took several label meetings. His third day in Nashville he met with the president of Arista Records, Tim DuBois, who promised James a record deal if he moved to Nashville.

Knowing a record deal doesn’t happen so easily, James went back to med school and thought about his impending decision. Once he realized Nashville was the answer, he then finished up the school year and told the dean that he’d take a year off. That one year turned into seven. James then waited a year before he reached back out to Arista Records because he says he wasn’t ready.

“I waited tables at Midtown Café in Nashville and hit the streets and got my own publishing deal and finally, when I thought I had something that he’d want to hear, I came back in and said, ‘Remember me? It’s been a long time, but you said if I moved here, you’d give me a record deal,’” he explains.

James had another meeting with Arista and they liked what they heard and he eventually garnered a record deal and spent 1993-1997 on Arista Records and released three singles. James admits that he “failed miserably” as all three songs went to around No. 28 on the country charts. By the time 1999 rolled around he was dropped by both his label and publishing deal and with two young children at home he had to figure out a Plan B.

“I just wanted to make sure I could feed my family. At some point, that’s what it comes down to when you’re a dad,” he says. “And I really didn’t care how. I didn’t care if it was in music. I figured I’ve given music my shot, and it hasn’t worked out, so let me figure out a way to feed the family. All I’d ever done was gone to med school, so I wrote the dean of the school a letter and said, ‘I’ve been out one year, I know it’s been seven, but is there any chance I could come back?’”

The dean allowed him to return, but said he had to repeat his sophomore year. So, in the fall of 1999 he went back to Oklahoma since he knew as a doctor he could feed his kids and put them through college. But that’s far from the end of James’ Nashville story.

“It was kind of bizarre to be back at school, seven years later, same classes and all that kind of stuff,” he admits. “I started on Sept. 1, and on Sept. 4 Faith Hill cut one of my songs. And up until that I only had two of my songs recorded by other artists. By the third day back to med school, Faith Hill cut one and the floodgates opened, and I got 33 more of my songs recorded in the next five months and ended up having five Top 10 singles that year while I was going to med school every day.”

While finishing up his sophomore year for the second time, he decided to give Nashville one more shot. Although, James admits had it only been 10 songs cut, he probably would have stayed in med school.

“It was so overwhelming that there were so many of my songs getting recorded and people liking them all of a sudden that I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a job now,’” he recalls. “After a lot of failure in Nashville I came back in 2000, and that was 16 years ago.”

For more of my interview with Brett James, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Lori McKenna


Photo by Becky Fluke

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Lori McKenna shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


The youngest of six children, Lori McKenna grew up writing songs in her journals. Her two older brothers were songwriters and as a result, she thought that everybody wrote songs. It wasn’t until she got to high school that she realized songwriting wasn’t the norm.

McKenna remembers writing songs as early as twelve years old and the first one she wrote, a track titled “Take,” she first presented to her brothers.

“It was a country song and my brother, Richie, was like, ‘How in the world did you just end up writing a country song?’” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “We didn’t grow up listening to country music. We grew up listening to songwriters; James Taylor, Carly Simon, Neil Young. I remember my brother being like, ‘What just happened? How does that come out of you?’”

She kept writing but never thought to pursue music professionally until she was 27 and her sister-in-law talked her into doing an open mic night in the Boston area. (McKenna still lives in Massachusetts with her family and five children). The open mic night was successful as the man who ran it invited McKenna back to perform.

McKenna has since made a thriving career as a songwriter with her home base in Massachusetts where all her siblings live within 45 minutes of each other. While many of her peers reside in Nashville, McKenna instead makes several trips a year to Music City to co-write and when she’s not in Tennessee she writes by herself back home. Her writing credits have not suffered as they include songs recorded by Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, among others.

“It would be hard for the kids to leave their cousins or their school or for my husband to relocate and all that, and it’s worked out really well for me to just travel back and forth to Nashville because I’m not an everyday writer,” she admits. “I’m not really built to write every day. Some of my friends are and they write one or two songs a day. I need to simmer on things more.”

Simmering on songs is suiting McKenna just fine as she recently celebrated a No. 1 with “Humble & Kind,” a song she wrote with her five children in mind that Tim McGraw took all the way to the top of the country charts. It also marks the first time in over four years a song went to No. 1 with one writer. (The last was Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012).

During a recent performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, McKenna says she wanted to write a list of things to tell her children so she wouldn’t be accused of not sharing important life lessons later on.

“I had the title and I knew I wanted it to be things I wanted my kids to know,” she says, explaining her process. “Once you get there, there’s a lot of information. You could overshoot the song. It was more about editing and taking out ‘put the toilet seat down.’ That didn’t necessarily have to be in it.”

McKenna says that the song itself is fairly simple and the list of hopes and dreams was easy to write as a parent. While she always starts with verses when it comes to songwriting, McKenna said for “Humble & Kind” the chorus came first.

“I knew that I lucked out in finding that chorus, to be honest, and then everything else, like I said, was easy to put in there,” she explains. “It was just a matter of editing it down and putting it all in the order that worked in my head the right way.”


For more of my interview with Lori McKenna, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Marc Cohn


Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Marc Cohn shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


As a teenager, Marc Cohn was constantly inspired by songwriters. He admired artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Randy Newman and says the art of songwriting moved him so much that he willed himself to be a songwriter.

“I wanted to learn if it was possible for me to do the same thing and have been on that journey to find out ever since,” he tell Sounds Like Nashville over the phone during a recent tour stop.

Cohn wrote his first song as an early teen. “It was about a girl, of course,” he says with a laugh. It wasn’t until he was 29 years old that he signed with Atlantic Records and later released his first album. This year, he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his debut self-titled album which included his timeless single, “Walking In Memphis.”

While Cohn has seen much success as a songwriter, it was a long journey. He says there were many times he was close to giving up. In those dark hours, it was always someone in his life that encouraged him or an opportunity arose that convinced him not to throw in the towel.

“I had people in my life that believed in me more than I did and were really very loving and very supportive and encouraged me to try a little bit harder. That was important,” he shares. “The truth is, it’s a matter of luck and fate, too. It’s not just being good. There’s a lot of good songwriters that don’t get discovered. I was lucky.”

When he was in his early 20s, Cohn moved to New York and found work as a session singer where he sang demos for other songwriters. He eventually began writing for commercials and movie scores, which kept him going financially as he continued to pursue a songwriting career.

He credits his songwriting success to putting in the hours. Much of his time was spent eating, breathing and drinking music, whether he was writing on his own, jamming with friends or listening to records.

“I would spend any time I had at a piano or a guitar or with my legal pad writing lyrics,” he recalls. “Month after month, year after year, honing my craft and trying to find my voice. It took a long, long time. Longer than I hoped.”

Cohn says it’s important for songwriters to study the people that inspire them and perhaps even imitate them for a while. Sooner or later, what makes an artist’s music resonate is when he finds what is “essentially you and not someone else.” For Cohn, it was listening to the advice of a hero of his, James Taylor.

“He gave advice in this article to songwriters who were stuck for ideas. He said, ‘Go somewhere you’ve never been. Get in the car, get on a train, take a guitar, keyboard, whatever, and go some place you’ve never been,’” Cohn recalls. “He called it a geographic. Do a geographic. His advice was that if you get out of some familiar territory, you might come up with something you wouldn’t have thought of if you just stayed at home. Go places. Open up your sensibilities. That’s what I did. That’s why I went to Memphis. I was following James Taylor’s advice. It was great advice.”

Cohn admits he would have never written “Walking In Memphis” if he didn’t travel to Memphis. Writing the song was a big moment for Cohn. He wasn’t signed to a record label at that point, but he knew he turned a corner as far as finding his songwriting voice. As he explains, he felt that there was something about the song that was essentially him as he wasn’t imitating anyone else.

“It was a wonderful beginning to my songwriting and artistic journey, no doubt about it,” he says of writing “Walking In Memphis” when he was 25 years old. “It has opened up and continues to open up a lot of doors.”

Cohn said after traveling to Memphis for the first time in 1985 he knew he had a song. During his trip, he visited Al Green’s church and met an inspiring woman named Muriel Davis Wilkins who played piano at The Hollywood. All these experiences made their way into “Walking In Memphis.” While he took some poetic license, Cohn says the song is as close to a true travel log as they come.

“In the end, that song is about the transformational power of music itself, which is why over all these years, it’s still easy to sing, because that’s still true for me,” he explains. “It resonates the fact that music is really a healing thing.”


For more of my interview with Marc Cohn, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Caitlyn Smith


Courtesy Essential Broadcast Media

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Caitlyn Smith shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Caitlyn Smith’s first song dates back to elementary school. She was eight years old when she began writing the verses for a song she titled “It Felt Like Magic.”

“Then I co-wrote and finished it with one of my friends on the playground and we’d sing it to our recess lady,” she recalls with a laugh over ice cream at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Nashville’s 12South neighborhood. “It was there that really sparked an excitement and a curiosity for me around songwriting and so I continued to do it.”

By the time Smith was a teenager, she was frequently traveling back and forth to Nashville from her home in Minnesota to co-write and meet with publishers. It was during these visits that she realized she could have a career writing songs and she set a personal goal to write 52 songs a year. She quickly learned the Nashville style of writing, which she says typically starts around a title or a riff, melody or groove.

Smith’s dream was to be an artist but she saw writing songs as a “really great plan B,” she explains. Through a series of connections she met Beth Laird, who worked at BMI at the time, and introduced her to several publishers. For years, Smith would travel to Nashville to meet with publishers and after being featured on a BMI showcase she found herself with several offers. Now writing for Cornman Music, she spends her days writing for other artists as well as focusing on music for her solo album which is due out next year.

“It was years and years of writing and rewriting and coming back and forth,” she explains. “The best decision was moving here though because it made it a lot easier to be submerged in the culture and have the luxury of co-writers around you at all times. When an idea strikes you can call someone and they’ll write it with you and it’s way easier that writing by yourself.”

Living in Nashville for the past six years has allowed Smith the ability to write with a number of artists, one being Meghan Trainor, who was just a songwriter when they sat down with Justin Weaver to write what would become her No. 1 song “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” As Smith recalls, the song had a reggae feel with her singing on the demo and Trainor playing ukulele.

“My publisher set the three of us up and I was really excited about it because I had heard some of her stuff and I was already obsessed. It was a super fun day,” Smith recalls of the write several years ago. There was no pressure because she at that time didn’t have a record deal so we were like, ‘Let’s write the best song that we can write today!’ Someone threw out the title and the song happened pretty magically and quickly.”



For more of my interview with Caitlyn Smith, visit Sounds Like Nashville. Her EP Starfire is out now.

Songwriting Session

Songwriting Session with Tia Scola

Tia Scola

Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Tia Scola shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Tia Scola has always been passionate about music. From the moment she began speaking as a young child, Tia would sing and make up songs as her mother captured the footage on a VHS tape from their yard in New Jersey.

“I used to take over my dad’s cassette tapes in my karaoke machine. That’s how I recorded my first songs,” she recalls with a laugh. “There was definitely more advanced technology than that but that’s just what I had so that’s what I did.”

In high school Tia’s passion for singing and writing songs only grew, prompting her mother to suggest she continue it professionally. One summer she attended a songwriting camp at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. where she learned of the songwriting program at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. She applied and was accepted, saying her acceptance was the “first statement of validity” she had about a career in music.

Now a student at Belmont, Tia has lived in Music City for nearly two years where she spends her days co-writing and interning at various management companies and publishers as she tries to navigate all aspects of the music industry.

“Since I’ve been here it’s been the most absolute amazing journey,” she gushes.

One recent evening Tia found herself on stage in a writers round beside hit songwriters like Billy Montana, Dan Couch and Erik Dylan. Having come a long way from hosting her own songwriters showcase at her high school, Tia held her own as she debuted new songs she wrote with friends and paid close attention to the greats who played before her.

“They’re all really talented writers in their own way and lyrically is what is most impressive about all of their writing to me. It just makes me strive to have better lyrics,” she says. “It was such a rush. It reminded me how much I love performing.”

Tia didn’t begin co-writing until she moved to Nashville and remembers being nervous during her first co-write, not knowing what to expect. As she explains, it’s a great way to meet people and it’s always more fun to write a song with someone else than writing it by yourself.

“I do have a few people that I write with all the time but I am trying to find that circle where it just clicks for everyone, every time,” she adds. “I’ve only been here for a short while so I’ve been grateful to be able to write with people [but] I never want to lose the ability and the love of writing very raw and my own thoughts in my room. I book co-writes four times a week but then those other days I’ll just write by myself.”

Tia says when writing a song she’s strongest with coming up with a melody. So, each song she’ll usually start with a melody in mind before she figures out the lyrics. Her song, “Dead Roots,” came together for a class assignment. She was paired with a classmate, Derek Scott, who had the idea dead roots. The term had her immediately think of moving away from home and leaving everything behind while he envisioned it more as the end of a relationship. The song soon evolved into a universal theme where every listener could relate.

“I think it’s something that resonates with a lot of people because if you’re in that relationship, whether it be a bad friendship, a bad intimate relationship, or even your family, it’s hard to leave all of that behind and just move on,” she explains. “We combined both of our stories; me leaving my town that was holding me back and no longer fertile and he had a relationship that didn’t end well. I think that’s the song that most defines me as an artist.”

Currently, Tia is working on a project with producer David LaBruyere (John Mayer). She makes her demos available on Soundcloud where her equal love of Kelsea Ballerini and Jason Isbell are apparent. Recently, one of her previous projects, Worktapes by Tia, found its way to former X-Factor contestant Alyssa Mezzatesta. Loving what she heard, Alyssa recorded three of Tia’s songs including “The One,” “Over You” and “Learnin’ Lonely.” While Tia credits being honest in her songwriting as a reason why some relate to her music, she says the best advice she has received is to write every song like it’s the song.

“Like it’s the song that’s going to make or break you,” she explains. “If you leave a room and you don’t really believe in the song then you did not do your job that day. I think that if I leave the room every day and I love that song and I can go back a few days from now and still be proud of that song, then I did my job as a songwriter. My songwriting teacher, Drew Ramsey, said write every song like it’s going to be the one that puts you on the map.”

Living proof that hard work and determination always pays off, Tia Scola is one songwriter to keep on your radar.

Tia will perform on June 7 at Neighbors at 8 p.m. and Aug. 3 at The Listening Room in Nashville. To hear more of Tia’s music, visit her on Soundcloud