Growing up in the small town of Ellenwood, Georgia, Wynn Varble learned the basics of country music by listening to his father’s collection of albums, which featured Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Merle Haggard.
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Once upon a time, a place known as Music Row had a door wide open to those who had talent, desire and a respect for the craft of songwriting. Country music was more or less a cottage industry, and the stakes and money at play were nowhere near to what they are today. Unpolished songwriters knocked on doors, and the doors would open, and the people might laugh after the doors were closed, but these unknowns could walk in and jaw and pitch their songs to publishers.
In the late 1970s, Music Row went through a minor face-lift, with money and influence moving in from Los Angeles and New York. Films such as Urban Cowboy and the success of many crossover hits meant that the checks, which had been relatively small, now had the potential to be huge. As Nashville cashed in, the country music radio stations mushroomed to nearly the same number as the pop stations.
As song publishers began making big money, the conglomerates swallowed up the major record labels and bought out publishing houses, creating their own in-house labels to get in on the deal. When the sensational Garth Brooks set all kinds of record sales, publishers got woozy and began paying higher advances to more writers, resulting in a glut of talent and material. Then, the bubble burst.
Today, the bubble is growing again. More and more young singers are getting record deals. Just as in the halcyon days of the 1960s, veteran writers are working with young writers and artists, crafting and pitching tunes and getting the right management involved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of earlier established artists, publishers and producers getting behind someone they believed in and liked personally, such as singer/songwriters Mel Tillis, Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings. Just like the old days, their success varies, despite the support.
The Age of the Internet has spawned dozens of talented, technologically skilled newcomers making names for themselves while bypassing the major labels. Even the names conjure memories of the long-gone record companies such as Bullet, Hickory and Bluebird.
So things change and the pendulum swings back. But not everything changes on Music Row. Writers still get in a room with an idea, and that’s where it all begins. When you come down to it, there still remains the same nervous energy and the same excitement of near anarchy that has always defined the Nashville writer experience. Maybe, it really started with The Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt. Or the tavern singers on Dickerson Road. No matter. The old temptations, tragedies and heartaches are all still there . . . and all of those things are still going to make country songs.
Let’s listen in as four of today’s hot tunesmiths share a bit of their craft: Nashville’s own Wynn Varble, Lee Thomas Miller and Rodney Clawson, and pop-country stylist Alissa Moreno, who takes turns writing on the West Coast and in Music City.
Growing up in the small town of Ellenwood, Georgia, Wynn Varble learned the basics of country music by listening to his father’s collection of albums, which featured Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Merle Haggard. He taught himself to play the guitar and formed a bluegrass band at 16. He made his first trip to Nashville in 1982 and that initial experience led Varble to finally hang his hat in Music City in 1992.
In 2003, he gained his first No. 1 song with “Have You Forgotten?” by Darryl Worley, which earned a CMA nomination for Song of the Year. Other artists who have sung his songs are Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Womack, Montgomery Gentry, Gary Allan, Trace Adkins, Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt and Sammy Kershaw. The grin pasted on his face in recent months comes from writing “Waitin’ on a Woman” with Don Sampson for Brad Paisley.
How has songwriting changed since 1992?
When I first moved up here, it seemed more of a tighter-knit community. …Today, it seems a little more spread out. There were so many labels back then, and all the rosters were full, and a lot more writers signed deals. It got to be more about money than music, so to speak.
What inspired “Waitin’ on a Woman”?
I had that title written down in my book for a year at least. I wanted to write with my buddy Don Sampson. I heard about a guy I used to work with who was in the hospital and on his deathbed. I called him and asked, ‘Where’s your wife at?’ He answered, ‘I told her to go on home.’ After I hung up, I realized the good Lord said, ‘Here is what you need to write that song about.’ I talked to Don about it, and his wife’s dad had just died, and he said, ‘Yeah, big Herb is gonna be up there waiting on a woman, too.’ We wrote it faster than anything we had ever written.
How did it find its way to Brad Paisley?
Don writes for Brad’s company, Sea Gayle. Brad put it on his Time Well Wasted album, and it never came out as a single. We were pretty bummed out, but he said, “It’s gonna be a single,” and he kept his word.
What did you think when you saw the video of “Waitin’ on a Woman” with Paisley and Andy Griffith?
Golly, can you imagine, being an Andy Griffith Show fan all my life? Gee, man, that video would bring a tear to a glass eye. Watching Andy Griffith say words to what you wrote, that’s pretty cool.
How do you select a co-writer?
I look for someone who writes the kind of stuff that I like that I think will bring a different angle. It’s still very hit-and-miss.
Describe your routine in a songwriting session.
We’ll sit down and shoot the bull a few minutes. Sometimes, we’ll pass ideas back and forth or just start playing a groove and lyrics come later, but usually I like to start with the idea.
Once a song of yours is ready to be demoed, do you handle the details?
Yes. I set up the session and get the players and studio and engineer. I’ve been working with the same guys a pretty long time.
Where do you eat lunch near Music Row?
The Pie Wagon is close and quick and good.
Some people compare you to Roger Miller in that you write humorous and very serious songs just like Miller. How do you react to that comparison?
I think that’s a huge compliment. I was always a big Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall nut. I’m nowhere close to them.
Are you planning to take your performing career to a higher level?
I did a record for Sony five or six years ago. I haven’t pursued it since, but you never know.