VICKY MCGEHEE: Tweaking Her Dream

Like most of Nashville’s top songwriters, Vicky McGehee came to Nashville to chase her dreams. But it wasn’t music that drew her to Music City; she came here to get into entertainment law.

This is just one example of why McGehee, co-winner of last year’s BMI Songwriter of the Year award, doesn’t fit the mold. There are others. While her friends in the Muzik Mafia have been known to keep the lights of Lower Broadway burning long past last call, she prefers to wrap up her day and be in bed by around 9:00 p.m. She’s up at 6:30 a.m., taking care of business at her computer. She still hasn’t played a single writers-in-the-round gig. In fact, she’s performed only once in public, at the Bluebird Café-10 years ago. And her idea of fun still includes poring over writer contracts.

Like most of Nashville’s top songwriters, Vicky McGehee came to Nashville to chase her dreams. But it wasn’t music that drew her to Music City; she came here to get into entertainment law.

This is just one example of why McGehee, co-winner of last year’s BMI Songwriter of the Year award, doesn’t fit the mold. There are others. While her friends in the Muzik Mafia have been known to keep the lights of Lower Broadway burning long past last call, she prefers to wrap up her day and be in bed by around 9:00 p.m. She’s up at 6:30 a.m., taking care of business at her computer. She still hasn’t played a single writers-in-the-round gig. In fact, she’s performed only once in public, at the Bluebird Café-10 years ago. And her idea of fun still includes poring over writer contracts.

How can someone so…we’ll use the word she suggests …”anal” write Faith Hill’s surging and passionate ballad, “Like We Never Loved at All,” wallow in the world of butt cracks and bingo with Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown,” and get deep into the character and iconography of Gretchen Wilson on many of her hottest hits?

It’s simple: “Whenever I sit down to write with someone,” she explains, “I’m a blank slate. And I become that other person.”

The trick, in her case, is a combination of natural empathy and turning her limited performance experience into an asset. The stage was set for this process as she grew up in Shawnee, Okla. Partly to cope with being a country music fan afloat in a sea of Aerosmith addicts, McGehee wrote a lot of poetry based on her observations of life and the fancies of her imagination.

Years later, when a client of the law firm where she worked in Nashville offered to trade studio time for his fee, McGehee brought her guitar to his place and cut herself a demo. This led-in just couple of weeks-to a publishing deal with Buddy Killen.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she remembers. “There was no plugger. There was no budget. It was brand new. But Buddy believed in me, so for two years I was paid nicely while learning to write songs.”

Though she wrote alone at first, McGehee learned quickly that co-writers stimulated her best work. Take “Pocahontas Proud,” “Not Bad for a Bartender,” “One Bud Wiser,” “All Jacked Up” and “Skoal Ring”-all pulled up from Gretchen Wilson’s life, yet each one a collaboration between her and McGehee.

“I hopped onto Gretchen’s bus for two years,” she explains. “I knew her from her first spit of tobacco in the morning to her last at night. When we went through Pocahontas, Illinois, her hometown, I met all her friends-the ones with teeth and without. I hung out at her old bar. I saw the bullet holes in the wall.

“Then all of sudden she turned to me and said, ‘I was raised right here, in Pocahontas,'” McGehee continues. “Now, I’m not sure that scores of people would be flocking to live in this place, but she looked so proud, saying that. And the song went down from there.”

McGehee’s organized side-the one that made sure she kept her notepad while exploring Gretchen’s world-accounts for much of her success, from securing her deal with EMI Music Publishing to working efficiently without booking every spare hour for writing dates. Yet she’s aware that these traits don’t always coexist easily with that intuitive side that’s essential to breathing life into music.

“That well hasn’t gone dry yet,” she says. “And after 17 years in Nashville I’m thinking that you either have that or you don’t. Great music is about being simple and saying something that all your listeners can relate to. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that emotional side.”