There’s a reason Tia Sillers phone rang last month with the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame nomination committee on the other end of the line. It’s because Tia Sillers is a badass. I know that’s not a very poetic description and surely not the verbose delineation a songwriter of her caliber deserves, but quite frankly there’s no other way to put it.
Tia Sillers is a brilliant badass.
The brilliance is easy to hear, just listen to her songs. The badass part is tucked away from those outside the inner circles of Music Row but just as necessary in making her songs happen as Sillers has had to fight for every opportunity she’s gotten. In a town where success doesn’t come easy for anyone, man or woman, it’s been an especially steep uphill battle for this walking stick of dynamite to go from potential hedge fund manager to a Nashville Songwriters HOF nominee.
Always an overachiever, Sillers finished high school early and then did the same in college. When she wasn’t packing her brain with knowledge, she was treating it to music. Throughout high school and college the Bluebird Café was her haunt, going to soak in the songs of whomever was performing. She loved it. She craved it. As graduation and the real world edged closer, she had a discussion with her mom about chasing her passion instead of diving right into the life her education had prepared her for.
“I was only twenty years old, but I wasn’t ready to go ‘do’ this, so I told my mom I wanted to try to be a songwriter. Just for one year, that’s all I was gonna do, but when I was in summer school at Vanderbilt, I had met this guy named George Ducas and we had begun writing on the side.”
As it would turn out, that friendship and writing collaboration became the launching pad of her career. The two co-wrote Ducas’ first hit “Lipstick Promises” and Sillers was hooked. By all accounts, Sillers built a successful songwriting career from that point penning a number of hits like “There’s Your Trouble” by The Chicks and “Land of the Living” by Pam Tillis. Unlike most writers of the time, she wasn’t contained to Music Row as she also wrote smash hits like “Deja Voodoo” and “Blue on Black” for blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd. A solid start to a solid career but only until August of 2000 because after that, nothing would ever be the same as that’s when the earth tilting hit she wrote with Mark D. Sanders, was unleashed upon the world.
“I Hope You Dance” has gone on to live in a stratosphere few others call home. “Stairway to Heaven.” “Friends in Low Places.” Maybe “Living on A Prayer.” Yet as iconic as those songs are, “I Hope You Dance” did something they didn’t; inspire. While they may have jolted countless musicians to join a band or learn how to play guitar, they didn’t push a planet’s worth of people to chase their life’s dream. They didn’t inspire people to go out and truly live. At the time, Tia and Sanders knew they had a monster song, but nobody could have predicted the generational shockwaves it would produce.
Actually, strike that. One person did.
“My mother died of cancer really soon after “I Hope You Dance” and she was always telling me that I’m going to have to show humility the rest of my life. She’d say, people are going to come up and tell you how this song has affected them. Honestly, I didn’t believe her but as time went on, I’ve had people tell me all kinds of stories. They’ve buried loved ones with the lyrics. I can’t even tell you how many weddings. I’ve met people who said that song made them get divorced, leave an abusive relationship, file bankruptcy; it was this catalyst for whatever they needed which is kind of amazing. At this point it’s like you almost can’t meet someone who didn’t say this was my mom’s favorite song for me when I was a kid.”
The song was different for Tia than it was her co-writer. Sanders, who was inducted into the Songwriters HOF in 2009, was already deep into his songwriting career. Sillers was certainly no rookie, but she didn’t boast the resume of hits that Sanders did.
“I remember when we wrote it, Mark said ‘Tia, I’ve had a career. Now I’ve got a career song. You’ve got a career song, now you have to have a career.’ Now I had some success before that, but I was only at the beginning, in the first decade of my career. When he got inducted into the HOF, which I was lucky enough to induct him, I very timidly asked him if he thought I would ever get in and he told me ‘…you don’t have the catalog yet, little sister.”
Another thing Tia’s mother predicted for her daughter was the repercussions “I Hope You Dance” would have on her career professionally.
“She said to me, you understand you’re going to have to write this good every time to get a cut from now on. I actually think that might have been the thing that did maybe cost me some cuts. Nobody wanted to hear me sing drinking songs or some ‘girl get in the pickup truck’ song. Not only can I not do it, my publishers wouldn’t ever let it get out of the publishing house. One thing that used to happen is I would write these songs that I knew were fabulous and my publisher would say ‘…that’s great, but is it “I Hope You Dance?”
Not only is Sillers creative brain her most powerful weapon, with all due respect to the tremendous songwriters in Nashville, it’s sharper than most. Couple that with her fierce tenacity to overcome any and all hurdles and you’ve got the makings of someone who can move mountains. Still, even with the body of work she’s created both before and after “I Hope You Dance,” success and opportunities are things Sillers has had to fight much harder for than her male counterparts.
Sexism is a real thing and it affects even the top tiers of talent. Sometimes its intentional, sometimes not, but don’t think for a minute it doesn’t exist. Sillers knows, so much so that when she got her HOF nomination call, she didn’t question if she was worthy but instead wondered slightly about the committee’s motive. Was this 100% real or was there something else to it? It’s deserved, but you can understand her uncertainty.
“There hasn’t been a woman on the nomination ballot for a couple years now. I started deep diving into the history of the women in the HOF and that’s when I found out there are only seventeen women in the HOF in fifty years. I’ve been doing little biographies on each one of them on my Instagram page. After Loretta Lynn in 1983 is Dolly Parton in ’86, then a woman named Dottie Rambo in 1989 and after that, there is not a woman again until 2007. That’s nuts, but that also shows you we’re such a minority.”
It’s mind blowing that a songwriter who wrote what might be the biggest and most influential song of all time even felt the need to question their own resume. The sad truth is, for a moment, she did.
“The hardest thing is, and this is me being painfully honest, I know that I don’t have as many cuts as these men, but I also haven’t gotten the opportunities to get them. That’s just the bitter truth. I haven’t had the success or number of successes or the sheer volume of cuts because I don’t get to go on the bus with the guys. Because I don’t get invited to the all-male writer retreats. Because I don’t get to hang out backstage and drink beer. I mean, you just don’t get to.”
For those that don’t understand the dynamics of the songwriting world, here’s a few common situations of how Nashville songwriting often plays out. In non-Covid days, the most traditional way to co-write is for songwriters to get together in writing rooms at various publishing houses, etc. For some, writing rooms feel sterile so they take the session elsewhere. It could be at someone’s house; it might be hopping on a tour bus with an artist for a few days or it could even be renting out a cabin in the woods or on the beach. Everything from jealous wives & girlfriends to pure immaturity can (and do) sometimes play a part in who gets a seat at the table. It can even boil down to common outside interests or even simple logistics. Granted, we’re all adults and none of that should be a problem but the world isn’t always a grown-up place.
“I think it’s a gender thing and I don’t even think it’s an intentional thing. I mean, if you’re going to have a writer’s retreat, how do you have five guys and one woman? I don’t know. I think it’s also a practicality thing. I don’t ever want to sound ungrateful but if they go on a fishing trip or a golfing trip, one I don’t know many women that would want to do it and then two, I just think by the nature of it, it’s not conducive.”
Far be it for Tia to allow herself to be shut out. She found ways to get into writes and found writers who didn’t see her as a woman but merely as a talented songwriter. At times she had to work the system but never by compromising her work or herself. Eventually she was able to establish herself, but it took a handful of men to help allow her the at-bats to do so. Some were very influential publishers in town, and another was her late husband Mark Selby, or MOS as she affectionately refers to him (Mark Otis Selby). The combination of those men letting her step up to the plate was all she needed to show the world she was not only good enough to play in this sandbox, she was better than most.
“What I would call my Career #1 which was pre-MOS and with him up until his death, I went to work every day in a baseball cap, blue jeans and sometimes even construction boots because I wanted to blend in with the guys. I wanted to take as much of that off the plate. I just wanted to be known for my brain and for my craft.”
Today, against all those odds, her name sits at the doorstep of the fabled Nashville Songwriters HOF. She smiles as she points out coincidences in her path that generations of women have traveled and overcome.
“2020 happens to be the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote. That was passed right here in Nashville and the suffragettes trying to get the amendment passed wore yellow roses. What’s really crazy is the HOF turns 50 this year and when you’re a nominee, you get a yellow rose. As a person who loves history and coincidence and is always looking for tiny little signs and meanings, it’s like this is the year of yellow roses for me.
“When I was 20, I got to see Jimmy Webb inducted and I went holy moly. In my brain, I went oh my gosh, I want to work so hard that one day I get to stand up there and tell people that I’m so glad I got to take this creative journey. I’m embarrassed to say it but what the hell, I have fantasized what my speech would be. It’s changed that some years it’s been mad, some years it’s been empowering, some years it’s been weeping because I’m a widow, some years it’s been ‘don’t quit.’ It’s almost like envisioning that speech has been this thing that has made me want to be a better writer.”
Whether she gets in or not, the HOF doesn’t mark an end for Tia Sillers. Not even close. Still well inside her prime, she’s still writing and living life.
“One of the things MOS said to me before he died was ‘…you wrote “I Hope You Dance,” now you have to live it.’ I started thinking about that, so I went on all these journeys. I hiked and I walked, and I went on all these huge adventures in Europe all by myself. I taught myself to play the guitar. I taught myself to write all these songs by myself, I spent two years almost exclusively writing by myself. Last year I passed the two-year mark and I was feeling really good and that’s when I started writing with Shannon LaBrie. I started to get my feet wet and then Covid hit. So that’s where I am now.
“I have this gigantic dictionary at home that MOS gave me and every morning I open it up to a different page, take my magnifying glass and go up and down the pages just for fun. I’m always discovering new words and the nuances of words and the beauty of slightly different words and that brings me tremendous joy. When I’m done with a song, I might look at it and see there are three words that are not as good as they can be but give me a week and I’ll figure it out. I still get so excited when I get to use a word that doesn’t sound songwritery or get to trick a melody.
“I love that.”