Mitzi Matlock is the marketing mastermind behind the Mark Wills song “Looking For America”. Despite being new to Nashville, she has assembled a crack team of publicists and radio promoters who have all worked together to make the song a hit. “Looking For America” has taken on a life of its own and has received attention from numerous companies and politicians who want this patriotic anthem for themselves: Sarah Palin, Diamond Gusset Jeans, and a certain republican presidential candidate with an iconic head of hair and a bank account that “trumps” them all. (Ed Note: this interview took place before Trump dropped out of the race)
Tell us about “Looking for America.”
It’s a song about looking back to a time that was simpler, when children could run around and feel safe, when a blue-collar man could have a job for life and feed his family. It’s a song about getting America back to basics.
Did you have any fear that the song might become just another partisan product that would divide more than unite?
Well, the writers and I believe that it has the power to unite because…who doesn’t want the things that this song talks about? Who doesn’t want the economy back on track? One of the writers, Bernie, has a saying. He says, “This song isn’t for red states or blue states. It’s for red, white, and blue states.” It’s for everybody. We don’t want it to be divisive in any way. We just want it to say to everyone, “Let’s get back to basics and make this country work again.”
Can you tell us more about the writers of the song?
The writers are Bernie Nelson, Jeremy Bussey, and Philip Douglas. They are all very different writers in some aspects, but similar in a lot of ways. They come from very similar blue-collar backgrounds. And they’ve held on to that. So when they got together to write the tune it wasn’t like a bunch of young slick writers sitting there thinking, “How can we write a song that will appeal to Republicans and put it the country vein?” They just got together and wrote about what was on their minds and what they were feeling.
How did you start working with them?
Bernie introduced me to Jeremy and Philip. I’d met Bernie at a little greasy spoon in Dickson, TN. When I realized he was a songwriter I told him to come by my office, and he came by and dropped off a CD. What attracted me to his writing was the honesty on every song on the CD. It was so honestly and naturally country-not the whole “Look how country I am, I drive big trucks” sort of country. It was just great songs, and the country-ness was just inherent. Beautiful country songs. Then, “Looking For America” floats out, and it’s this simple country song with someone in first person saying “I miss that; I believe in that; why can’t it be like that; let’s do something about it!” And that’s what real country music has always been about ever since the Carter Family and all the people who came out of the Bristol Sessions in 1929.
Your background in is classical music. Why switch to country music?
I grew up here. I grew up hearing country music and granddad playing the fiddle, but I studied classical stuff in high school and college. Even when I lived in the U.K., I ran a country music show in the late 90’s. It was a great radio show. But yes, I mainly worked in booking and promotion for classical music over there. Four years ago, though, I moved back to Dickson, Tennessee still working with my classical groups. But then, people started wanting me to pitch songs and all that. Living so close to Nashville, country music just made sense. So, eventually I made a publishing company and Bernie started writing for me. My background in international concert promotion really has paid off, especially the fundraising. When you’re working in classical music you’re always raising money-writing grants, corporate sponsorships, arts and business partnerships. So, I was able to take all of that and sort of slide it over into this genre.
Do you work with any other writers?
Yes, I work with Benita Hill who wrote “Two Pina Coladas” for Garth Brooks. And I work with Lorna Flowers, a British writer. She’s got several good ones about to pop. Then of course Bernie Nelson. Other than that, I’m starting to get my hands in some artist management as well.
Do you have a method you use for song exploitation?
Well, a lot of times it seems like the most sensible pitches go nowhere, and then out of nowhere you’ll get a call from someone saying, “Guess who’s cutting your song!?” But as far as commercial stuff goes, I like to listen to a song and think of products that would go well with the song. For instance, Bernie wrote a song with a writer named Phil O’Donnel called “Land of Ya’ll” that’s all about the South. It names all sorts of iconic southern places and is full southern references like kudzu, the bayou, and Georgia peaches. So, I immediately thought of pairing it up with a show like Paula Deen’s roadshow. You know? I’d love to be all romantic and say, “It’s just about a beautiful song,” but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about selling a product. If you’re selling a dress to a lady who wears a size eight, you’re not gonna bring her something in a size two! Do you know what I mean? You fit it to the person. That’s my job. That being said, as a publisher you also have to respect the fact that your writers are creative people. So, you have to let them write those songs that are from the heart and not always worry about who will cut it or which artist it would fit. You have to let them write for themselves too.
Back to “Looking for America”. Tell us a little about some of the offers you’ve gotten.
Well, we keep having people write in saying that this needs to be the new patriotic anthem, and that it needs to be the song for 2012. So, we’ve pitched the idea to some people and made a proper pitch to one particular candidate. Now, we don’t know who the candidate is. It’s a campaign manager that we’ve been talking to, and they said, “Yeah. Absolutely, we think the song’s great. I cannot tell you who the candidate is, but I can tell you that he is a Republican. I would like to take your song to the National Republican Convention and pitch it to my client.” And I said, “That’s great, but what if that client tanks and the song tanks with them?” So, he says, “I get that, but this person’s pockets are deep enough that I can assure you that he will be in the race at the end of August 2012.” So, that makes me think that it might be Donald Trump. And, I mean, this campaign manager only works for the big dogs. So, I feel like it’s either Donald Trump or Mitt Romney. I just hope it’s one of the two! (laughs)
Is there any chance of Sarah Palin getting it?
Well, that’s how it started off. I sent the demo of the song to HarperCollins who published her book Going Rogue, to see if they would like to use it for her promotional tour. That didn’t pan out. So, I pitched it to Bill Haslem’s people, and they loved it! So, yes, the song had a political beginning, but then I thought, “What if we save this for them, and when the time comes they don’t like what we’ve done with the song and change their mind?” So, I started pitching the song to artists. We set our sights on Mark Wills, and got him to cut it, somehow. I’ve been sort of stumbling through all of this, but so far so good!
Aside from political candidates, is the song attracting attention from elsewhere?
Yeah. We’ve talked with Bridgestone, Real Tree (a camouflage clothing company), and A&W. There are also a few other projects that are coming to us. John Ratzenberger, the actor who played Cliff on Cheers, is a huge activist for jobs in America. He has this show on the Travel Channel called Made in America that’s all about American products, how they’re made, etc. Anyway, he and Center for America are working on a new series that deals with skilled labor in America, and they love “Looking for America” so much that they want me and my team to create a piece of music to be the theme song for this new series. Basically, they want another “Looking for America” which is just a huge compliment.
Another thing that’s come in is a project headed by a lady named Sarah Sharp. She has a project in the works called Festive Evolution that was set to take place in 2001, but after 9/11 it got put on the back burner. Somehow, I met Sarah and showed her the song, and she said that “Looking for America” had inspired her to get Festive Evolution up and running again! What an honor, right? So, what they’re gonna do is bring liberal artists and conservative artists together on the same ground here in Nashville and have them talk about important issues. I’m talking big names like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins getting together with Marc Wills and other conservative artists, and they want Marc to sort of headline with “Looking for America” and let the song act as a catalyst for the debate.
So it sounds like this song is setting the pace for the rest of your business.
Very much so. This song was what really got the ball rolling for my publishing company, and I’ve made so many contacts with people in the industry because of it: publicists, and radio promoters, and designers, videographers who’ve taught me the process of making a proper music video. In a way it’s been a baptism of fire, but this song has just sped up my knowledge of this business.
Do you have any advice for the would-be publishers out there?
I’d say to have a thick skin. A real thick skin. Get up everyday, no matter what happens, and work hard at whatever you’re doing. And do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next. Have an open mind. Be honest. Trust your instincts, and be good to people.