Jody Williams has dedicated his career to helping songwriters. For more than 40 years, Williams has been in the trenches with Nashville’s songsmiths, lending an attentive ear and guiding careers. Fittingly, he will be honored with the CMA Songwriter Advocate Award at the 13th CMA Triple Play Awards tonight (March 1).
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
“I’m really honored that the CMA would do this for me,” Williams tells American Songwriter. “I’ve spent a lot of years following songwriters and having a great career in support of songwriters.”
Williams spent half his career at BMI and the other half in publishing. A musician and songwriter at heart, Williams says he learned early in life that he wasn’t the best guitar player or songwriter. He adds that he was lucky to stumble upon publishing at the age of 20 while he worked in the mailroom at BMI.
An early friend and mentor was then-writer rep Del Bryant, whose parents were professional songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Williams fondly remembers days when he and Bryant would go to the company’s listening room to hear Bryant’s parents’ demos.
“He’d say, ‘Help me figure out who should cut this song,’” Williams recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, so-and-so could do that.’ And he said, ‘You might be pretty good at that. Those are really good ideas.’ He explained publishing to me. I worked at BMI for about a year and a half, and I really wanted to become a song plugger and wanted to work for a publishing company. … When I found publishing, it was very easy to start walking down that path to see how far I could go.”
And far he’s gone. Throughout his Nashville journey, Williams has worked at countless publishing companies where he helped mentor and champion the careers of Liz Rose, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church, Vince Gill, Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood, Brooks & Dunn, Taylor Swift, Natalie Hemby, and Alison Krauss. The executive’s recognition from the CMA comes on the three-year anniversary of the launch of his newest publishing company, Jody Williams Songs, where Hemby serves as a staff writer.
“If there was no Jody Williams, there would be no Nashville,” Hemby says. “He has been our backbone, our champion, our cheerleader, our confidant, and most importantly, our friend. He cares about the song and the songwriter, the art and the artist, the music and the musician. In this competitive business, he encourages us to work together and not against each other. I am one of many who have followed his advice and guidance through the years, and I owe my career to him.”
Brooks & Dunn’s Kix Brooks agrees. “Jody and I have worked together for over 40 years,” he says. “There’s never been a better friend to Nashville Songwriters or a better friend to me.”
Williams’ storied career includes working at Tree Publishing in the 1980s as a song plugger and famously taking Jamie O’Hara’s cassette of “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” to Brent Maher. The Judds went on to cut the song two days later and it became their sixth No. 1.
“Jamie O’Hara was an incredible songwriter,” Williams says. “[He] did not co-write a lot, [and] wrote a lot of songs by himself. That was all by himself.”
O’Hara’s cassette tape of “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” was a stripped-down guitar and vocal. Williams says what struck him about the song was that every word counted, and it had a beautiful melody.
“It’s a perfect sentiment and you can see the kid talking to the grandfather,” he says. “The images that conjure up in your mind subliminally almost within this conversation. Jamie played a gut string guitar into a little tiny cassette deck and that’s all it was. No bells and whistles.”
Following his time at Tree, Williams returned to BMI where he served as a writer rep from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. He calls it an “incredible experience” and left after nearly 10 years to run MCA Music Publishing. After four years, MCA Music merged with Polygram Music and Williams lost his job. Unable to find work, Williams was urged to start his own company by Sony/Tree Publishing’s Donna Hilley. She reminded Williams that all his relationships were with songwriters and that he should pitch some of their songs. If he got some momentum, she said she might be able to give him a joint venture.
One of those relationships was with singer/songwriter Pat McLaughlin. Williams visited the singer and was given 10 of his songs to pitch, one of which Alan Jackson recorded. Chely Wright also cut a McLaughlin song that became a single. When Williams returned to Hilley and shared these successes she promised a joint venture.
“She basically believed in me more than I believed in myself and put me in business,” Williams says of Hilley’s help in launching his first publishing company, Jody Williams Music.
It was around this time that Williams started signing writers and was introduced to Liz Rose. He knew her at first as a publisher. Rose’s company at the time was going out of business, so Williams decided to buy the catalog. He kept Rose on to pitch the catalog and soon realized she wrote many of the songs.
“In that catalog, her name was on a bunch of the songs, and I said, ‘Liz, did you write the songs?’” Williams remembers. “And she said, ‘No, I didn’t write the songs. I was just helping the writer, pointing out some things that they could change.’ She was not taking any credit on it. Then I’d ask the other writer on the song, and they said, ‘Oh no, she co-wrote the song big time.’”
Williams offered Rose $1,000 a month to write songs, but she still wasn’t convinced she was a songwriter. “Begrudgingly, she said, ‘Okay.’ I think she just needed a tiny shove and for somebody to say, ‘You can do this,’” Williams adds.
At the time, she wanted to write with younger songwriters that she found – one of those being Taylor Swift. While Williams put his trust in Rose, he began to wonder how many songs she should write with Swift instead of with veteran writers in town.
Williams recalls a teenage Swift coming into the office after school with her parents to write with Rose. The pair would come into his office after their writing sessions and play the songs they wrote – like “Tim McGraw” and “Come in with the Rain” – and then go to Nathan Chapman, who helped record demos.
“There was nothing to dislike about Taylor Swift,” Williams says. “She lit up the office when she walked in at 15 years old. She had that thing that we all see back then. … There [were] no teenagers on the radio. There was nothing like this in the market at all in country music. It was a long shot. I certainly didn’t see it coming at all.”
Williams says after seeing the success of Swift, he learned not to get in his own way as a publisher. Meanwhile, Rose remains a friend today. “I’ve learned so much from her about publishing and how to work with writers,” he says.
Throughout his career, Williams has met with countless aspiring writers and offered advice. As far as what defines a great song, he says it’s often a distinctive voice and a songwriter who sees the world like no one else.
“It’s a universal message that you’ve never heard delivered like that before,” he notes. “That to me is a great song.”
It’s these pieces of wisdom that Williams has offered that continue to make him one of the most revered songwriting advocates in Nashville. “In the 30 or so years I’ve known Jody he has befriended and encouraged me in good times and bad,” Robert Earl Keen says.
As Williams continues his next career venture with Jody Williams Songs, he maintains his hands-on approach in sharing wisdom with both up-and-coming and veteran songwriters.
“Everybody’s so focused on right now that I think we’re spending less time thinking about, whose shoulders you’re standing on,” he notes, “and how those writers, some of them that wrote hits in the ’90s, are still writing hits. … I think younger writers and writer-artists are missing out on another tool in their toolbox by not delving into some more of the history.”
(Photo by Emma Delevante / Courtesy of CMA)