The man at the door stamped the back of my hand with the inky image of a machine cog. “Ironically appropriate,” I mused to myself. After all, like any fine crafts person, a professional songwriter sets out to use the highest quality components and apply proven designs to build a composition he or she hopes will, upon first listen, capture attention and – cross fingers – ultimately pass the test of time. My first view down the Rutledge bar provided a refreshing sight: attractive, well-dressed, 20-something females, one after another, vying for attention from the overworked bar staff. This wasn’t your typical writers-in-the-round audience. Not a single beer gut or receding hairline. An absolute dearth of cowboy hats. The show to follow proved that being relatively new to the scene does not automatically indicate an unreadiness to excel.
Since its inception two decades ago, Tin Pan South has grown into a Music City tradition of substance and import, focusing a well-deserved spotlight on the creative folks who toil day after day in little rooms to cobble words and notes into songs. NSAI’s annual songwriter festival not only avails music fans with the chance to see and hear some of the world’s most venerable tunesmiths up-close and personal, but to discover some of the hottest new kids on the block.
Ella Mae Bowen, a freckled, ginger-haired, 16-year-old South Carolinian, wields a throaty cry that recalls Tammy Wynette. Only an old soul, one that, in some past life, had suffered the pain of D.I.V.O.R.C.E – and worse – could summon this much emotional truth. It’s no wonder that Big Machine mogul Scott Borchetta chose this talented youngster to bolster his roster. Tonight, the little girl with the big voice was not alone in the uber-talent department. Barry Dean, the lone keyboardist on the docket, demonstrated Billy Joel-ish vocal chops. The divine Natalie Hemby recalls Christine McVie in her softer tones, then crescendos effortlessly to a Bonnie Raitt rasp, as she demonstrated in her Little Big Town hit, “Pontoon.” “Out there in the open, motorboatin’…” Fun stuff, penned with intelligence and performed with wry, earthy humor.
From the fourth stool, Trent Dabbs summoned Will Rogers in his rambling introductions. Then, during one candid moment, he scratched his dark, spiky hair and gee-golly-goshed the packed room, “I love how we’re all here right now. It’s like 6:30 on a Friday night!” To me, this off-the-cuff remark hints at the true spirit of Tin Pan South. There on the Rutledge stage sat four extraordinarily gifted people who write together, admire, and encourage each other. Repeatedly, they expressed genuine awe for one another’s work, and pinch-themselves gratitude for the privilege of living a creative life. Conspicuously absent was Hemby’s and Dean’s frequent cohort Lori McKenna, the Massachusetts mother of five who, a few years back, suddenly leapfrogged to the head of the class by scoring several Faith Hill cuts. However, you never know who might sit in as a Tin Pan South pilgrim. Luke Laird, a hotter-than-hot young tunesmith, was invited to the stage to duet on a couple of his Hemby co-writes. From my vantage point, it was more than gratifying to observe the torch of excellence still being kept ablaze by yet another wave of exceptionally talented, fresh faces.
The 9:30 round at Douglas Corner attracted a considerably more seasoned audience. Many more chins, far less hair, quite a few bellies hanging over belt buckles. However, the Shoals Brothers were just as much a solid, dedicated peer group as were the more youthful Rutledge bunch. Walt Aldridge, James LeBlanc, Gary Baker, and Brad Crisler comprise a Central-Bama foursome who’ve buddied around and collaborated for decades. Result? An impressive discography that stretches from Mac MacAnally to Rascal Flatts. The quartet’s self-deprecating humor was marinated in experience. “I tried to murder Conway Twitty with a high note,” quipped Aldrich. “I did manage to kill off Ricky Van Shelton, though.” (Aldrich confessed to penning Van Shelton’s career-ending stiff single.) Then, the ambassador from Muscle Shoals offered some sage advice to the crowd: “You just show up and get your tools out. I’ve been writing songs for 32 years and it’s still the greatest mystery of my life. Beware of anyone who tells you they know the answers.”
Speaking of “answers,” I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention NSAI’s Spring Training, a simultaneous sister event that offers a total-immersion experience to serious hopefuls. By day, Spring Training attendees receive song-craft instruction from hit writers and are schooled on the ins and outs of music publishing from those who battle daily to score those rare cuts. The students also get a healthy dose of what makes Nashville the true center of the songwriting universe: Community. The two young ladies with whom I visited over lunch at Farmers’ Market hadn’t had much sleep during the previous two nights. Jenny Gipson, an articulate, petite, 39-year-old mother shared the reason why she’d returned from Atlanta for her second consecutive Spring Training: “It’s a safe environment to meet a community of creative folks who all encourage each other.” Instead of grabbing their needed shuteye, Gipson and Sarah Stevens, 30, a schoolteacher from tiny California, Maryland, had jammed into the wee hours around an out-of-tune, sticky-keyed lobby piano. It wouldn’t surprise me if, during these post-midnight bondings, seeds had been planted for yet another successful group of songwriting peers.
Gipson and Stevens quoted hitmaker Chris Wallin: “NSAI provides a window to reality.” That’s precisely what Spring Training is all about. With Tin Pan South, the world’s pre-eminent songwriting organization also gives would-be pros a glimpse of possibility: what is actually doable should writers not only devote themselves to developing craft, but to seeking out and maintaining the right set of friends. Tin Pan South and NSAI’s Spring Training takes place annually in March. If you haven’t already, you might just wanna check out these all-important songwriting events.