CRACKING THE COUNTRY CODE: Inside & Out

Over the years, pop and country songwriters have eyed each other’s genres and wanted in. At times, Nashville country writers could be spotted flying west to hook up with pop writers, and the planes flew the other way too. I always figured that each was using the other as an entry point into that “other” genre, so the pop guy is always saying, “Hey dude, let’s try writing a country song today,” and the country guy would be going, “Well, actually, I was hoping we would try something pop.” Or maybe the pop guy would open up the writing session with a country guitar lick, or the country guy would offer up some kind of Steely Dan chord progression-each one trying to steer the song toward the other guy’s genre.

Cracking the Country Code

Over the years, pop and country songwriters have eyed each other’s genres and wanted in. At times, Nashville country writers could be spotted flying west to hook up with pop writers, and the planes flew the other way too. I always figured that each was using the other as an entry point into that “other” genre, so the pop guy is always saying, “Hey dude, let’s try writing a country song today,” and the country guy would be going, “Well, actually, I was hoping we would try something pop.” Or maybe the pop guy would open up the writing session with a country guitar lick, or the country guy would offer up some kind of Steely Dan chord progression-each one trying to steer the song toward the other guy’s genre.

I don’t know whether such collaborations are as common today as they were back in the ‘80s, but I suspect they still happen. Many country writers remember when pop sales and performance royalties dwarfed country income, and their friends back home in the big city made fun of them because they were “only” country songwriters. Pop writers, on the other hand, know that there are country singers who still cut outside songs, and there are more than 2,000 country radio stations, and country record sales have tailed off a little more slowly than pop record sales and…anyway, the other guy’s grass always looks greener.

There’s a more straightforward way for non-country songwriters to try their hand at country. I hesitate to broach this subject, because in my own experience, most pop/rock/etc. songwriters somehow believe that country is an easy nut to crack.

Actually, country song craft tends to be pretty high-level stuff, especially on a lyrical level. The fact that radio and A&R tend to limit the breadth of our creativity only makes us craftier in our efforts to write a song that will somehow stand out from the rest. If you’re trying to go country, you’d better not think you can conquer Music Row with some little ditty about cows and chickens, or trains and mamas.

But if you want to make a really good faith effort, it’s possible to get a fair hearing in Nashville. I’m not here to explain how to write a country song; if you have solid songwriting skills, just do a lot of listening to four decades of country hits-and you’ll figure it out. I’m here to answer the question everybody asks when they’re trying to get up the nerve to expose their songs to the country music industry.

The best way to get a fair shake in Nashville is to come and visit us. There may have been a time when you could mail your songs to publishers here, but that time has long passed. Most publishing companies simply will not listen to songs that come in the mail. Once you get here, you will probably find that few publishing companies will see you cold off the street. The labels?  Fuggetabatem’. It’s like trying to storm Fort Knox.  Oh, I suppose there are people who can talk their way into any place, but on the whole, Music Row-once the most welcoming of all music centers in America-tends to view new kids on the block the way they view deadly diseases.

So it’s a war, not a battle, to get in. If you were to ask almost any successful songwriter how to get started in Nashville, he or she would shrug his or her shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”

“But you did it!” you say. “But I don’t know how I did it!” I say.  Well, I sorta know how I did it, but I don’t know how to translate it into how you can do it.”

I did it during that legendary, kinder, friendlier era when nearly every Music Row publisher had an open door for new talent. That was then, this is now, and the old days are gone. Still, you can get in. New kids on the block do it every year. The key to getting in is hangin’ out. It works because you might not be able to walk into a publisher’s office and get your song heard, but there are a couple of hundred established songwriters who can get you through a door and get you heard by a publisher. Some of them play at writer’s nights in bars and clubs around town. Others draw crowds of fans to listening rooms like the Bluebird. Others appear at events given by organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), the Songwriters Guild of America, ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, who from time to time present classes or critique sessions. Of course, these working writers-when they go out-always run into struggling songwriters who are begging for a little help. It’s hard enough for working songwriters to help themselves without taking another poor soul under their wing.

So you have to figure out a way to be a little more charming and professional than all the other supplicants. One way-I really mean this-is to spend a lot of time coming up with really great song ideas. Then, when you’ve met one of these pros, and you’ve spent enough time with him that he trusts you not to be a germ or a serial killer, you can drop a great idea on them. If it’s a really great idea, I mean a real eyebrow-lifter, you might even get a writing session that way. Now, I remember my youth enough to know that for decent people who don’t like to violate other people’s space, approaching a total stranger and attempting to charm him into being a buddy is a terrible thing to ask. But here’s the thing; as things stand now, new kid on the block, you simply can’t walk in off the street and get your song heard, not unless all the stars and planets really align for you. But a veteran songwriter who has built up a decade or two worth of connections can get you a half hour to sing or play songs to a publisher or songplugger.

Now, cynic that I am, I would hope that you come to town with some really good demos-because there is a definite shortage of ears on Music Row these days. But having said that, if you can sing and play, you’re better off performing live for a publisher than playing him or her a mediocre demo.

The title of this piece is “Cracking the Code: Inside and Out.” I have framed the piece as if the writer is an outsider trying to penetrate the Nashville music industry. But there are many songwriters who have been banging around Nashville for years with a cloud of failure hovering over their heads, because, somehow, they haven’t found their way through any doors…or they’ve only found their way through a door or two over the years, and they’ve failed to impress. Well, the answer is the same. Networking is the key. Oh, the stories I’ve heard! This guy became a waiter at the Greasy Finger Café because he heard music industry people hang out there. And one day, while he was serving a horse burger and fries to Joe Pub, just before coffee he talked Joe Pub into a meeting. Or maybe he was a plumber installing a deluxe super flush commode at Joe’s house. Or he works at a Walgreen’s, and Joe shops there. So right then and there in the laxatives aisle, he caught Joe at a desperate moment and begged for a meeting. And Joe said yes.

Before I close, there is that fatal caveat. All together now children…labels and publishers are looking for young singer/songwriters.  Again, labels and publishers are looking for young singer/songwriters…singer/songwriters that they can package to the labels as artists. I’ll go further. If you are a great singer who can’t write, you have a better chance at getting a publishing deal than if you’re a good songwriter who can’t sing.  Are there exceptions?  Certainly. But my recent experience tells me that if you’re able to get that meeting with Joe Pub, you’d better have the goods, because chances are that what he really wants to hear is a great country voice singing a great self-penned song so he can try and get you a label deal. Hey, I didn’t say I like it; I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

Everybody needs a little help, and everybody needs to rely on themselves to get that help. The less talent you have, the more you need to make up for it with charm and people skills. And yes, I have seen very successful songwriters whose social skills and business savvy were more evident than their songwriting talent. But heck, anything you have that gets you there, use it to the max, right?