Randy VanWamer: Crossing Musical Boundaries

Randy VanWarmer is one of those writers who has earned a reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter” and deservedly so. He wrote and recorded one of the biggest hits of the late 70s, “Just When I Needed You Most,” and since moving to Nashville he’s penned numerous hits including “I Will Whisper Your Name” for Michael Johnson and The Oak Ridge Boys’ hit “I Guess it Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.”Randy VanWarmer is one of those writers who has earned a reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter” and deservedly so. He wrote and recorded one of the biggest hits of the late 70s, “Just When I Needed You Most,” and since moving to Nashville he’s penned numerous hits including “I Will Whisper Your Name” for Michael Johnson and The Oak Ridge Boys’ hit “I Guess it Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes.”

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He’s one of a short list of songwriters whose lyrical integrity and unique melodic style transcends musical genres to produce hits in any format. Sitting in the conference room of Opryland Music Group, VanWarmer is friendly and informative. He’s the kind of songwriter who has so much to share with aspiring writers his comments could easily fill a book instead of a feature story.

A Colorado native, VanWarmer relocated to England while in his teens. He started seriously writing songs at 16, and was fortunate enough to connect with a mentor in the publishing world who helped him hone his raw skills into commercial songs. “In London in the early 70s you could just walk into a publishing company and they’d listen,” recalls VanWarmer, who found a receptive ear in publisher Ian Kimmet. “In those days it was much easier to get someone to listen. I worked with one publisher for five years without a contract. I’d catch the train into town every few weeks and play my songs.”

VanWarmer admits those early tunes were quite different from the songs he writes today. “My early, early stuff was meandering and pretty vague,” he recalls. “The publisher always sad they were shapeless although in my mind there was shape. I am turned me on to Buddy Holly, Jesse Winchester, people who understood the shape of songs.”

Though his early songs may have been lacking in proper form, Randy says they made up for it in emotion. “Sometimes the best stuff just comes from raw talent,” he says, “when you really have something to say. Younger writers tend to have more of a sense of urgency.”

Randy signed with Bearsville Records, the same label as Winchester. Although record company politics created a delay between the time he recorded “Just When I Needed You Most” in Nashville and it’s eventual release in 1979, his patience paid off when the tune hit the top of the charts, becoming one of the big signature ballads of the late 70s.

His career as an recording artist has had its highs and lows, from his phenomenal pop success to a couple of critically-acclaimed, but commercially lukewarm country albums in the late 80s. But regardless of whether or not he was recording, he was always writing.

Co-writing has been a factor in Randy’s career that he feels has helped him improve his craft. “I never did any co-writing until I moved to Nashville in 1985,” he says. “The most important thing with co-writing is to write with someone you feel comfortable with and someone on an equal level as far as skills are concerned. If there’s too big a gap as far as confidence levels, on person is going to be compromising too much.”

VanWarmer says he writes the bulk of his songs on guitar and just uses the piano occasionally. He feels songwriting has helped improve his skills as a musician. “Sometimes I’ll come up with a melody and I’ll hear chords I can’t play,” he comments. “So writing has really helped me grow as a musician.”

He says musicianship, either from the songwriter or another musician, can definitely make a big difference in a tune. He cites “Just When I Needed You Most” as an example. “John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful put the autoharp on that song,” Randy recalls. “I think that really transformed it from being a song to a record.”

VanWarmer feels there is a definite difference between a song and a record. “The rhythm has a lot to do with it and the artist’s delivery,” he explains. “Jim Weatherly played ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ but Gladys Knight took it from being a song to a record.”

In discussing great songs, Randy says there is a difference between great song ands great records. “I’ve realized you don’t really need to have a great song to have a great record,” he comments, citing John Anderson’s hit “Swingin'” and the Knack’s “My Sharona” as prime examples. “I always thought ‘My Sharona’ was a great record, but it’s not exactly a great song.”

As for what makes a great song, Randy defines that as “one that touches people emotionally very deeply,” he says. “My whole approach is to tune into yourself and say what do you want to say.

“Personally, I think that the best songs come out of people when it’s their own personal perspective,” he states. “People should write what they feel. In trying to conform, people overlook their own unique perspectives.”

Van Warmer also says people shouldn’t be afraid to write sad songs. “There’s a big difference between sad and depressing,” he stresses. “Sadness is a noble emotion that people love to feel. Depression is a hopelessness. But you can feel sad and still feel hopeful because you’re in touch with your feelings.”

Another thing his experience has taught hi is that there is a definite difference between country and pop songs. “Country music is much more lyric oriented,” hey says. “Pop music is more impressionistic. In country music you have to paint a picture that is very lyrical. In pop music you can just jump around more in time. I think country music is much more of a craft and to me pop music is more of an art.”

He credits Music City for helping him become a more disciplined, productive songwriter. “I’ve benefited immensely from being in Nashville,” VanWarmer states. “I really love country music and I’ve learned so much about songwriting since I’ve lived here.”

One aspect of the songwriting business that VanWarmer believes in is pitching your own songs. “Nobody is going to pitch your material better than you,” he says. “Also if you know you’re going to be pitching your own songs, it makes you think about them a little harder. You can’t just stick your head in the sand.”

Personal experience indelibly stamps VanWarmer’s songs. “Just When I Needed You Most” was written about a high school sweetheart who went to England with him and later left him. “I Will Whisper Your Name” was written for his brother’s wedding. “I Guess It Never Hurt To Hurt Sometimes” was written about his father’s death.

“When I first wrote that [It Never Hurts…] it felt so personal, I wasn’t going to play it for anybody,” he recalls. “I was going to file it away, but I played it for Ian and he thought it was the best thing I had ever written.

“With most of my songs the emotion comes after the event. At the time I’m so traumatized. It’s almost like I predict the way I’m gonna feel. Then a year later I start to relate to the song. Maybe in a sense we sense our future.”

One thing Randy says he’s learned through his years in the business is when you find something that works – stick with it. “I was very naïve early in my career. I didn’t want to be labeled a balladeer so I tried to do rock ‘n roll and I didn’t have the weight in my voice to carry off music with real heavy drums,” he says. “My advice is if you find something that works stick with it.”

After the demise of Nashville’s 16th Avenue Records, VanWarmer has once again signed with Bearsville. He’s been writing some wonderful songs that he looks forward to having released when Bearsville finds a distributor. He says after having written with an eye and ear toward getting cuts by other artists, it was good to just write for himself and his own project.

In talking to Randy VanWarmer it’s obvious he’s a songwriter who has a real passion for the craft of writing – that passion, combined with talent and perseverance have made him one of the most successful writer’s in any field of music.

“Songwriting is a craft that you never stop learning as long as you can keep in touch with yourself,” he says. “You have to hone those skills on a continuing basis. It’s a way of life.”

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