(Carson Chamberlain with Billy Currington)
Carson Chamberlain has had one cool career. As a songwriter he penned the number one singles “Love’s Got a Hold On You,” “Everything I Love” and “Between the Devil and Me” for Alan Jackson, as well as George Strait’s “The Best Day,” and songs for Don Williams, Billy Ray Cyrus and others. But he started out as the steel player and bandleader for the late Keith Whitley, which led to road management gigs for Jackson and Clint Black, and eventually a position as Senior Director of A&R for Mercury Nashville.
These days, in addition to his writing, Chamberlain’s bread and butter is producing Billy Currington and Easton Corbin, both of whom have topped the charts in the past year and show no signs of letting up. American Songwriter caught up with the Kentucky native at Music Row’s Sound Stage Studios, where he does a lot of his work.
You’ve had an unusual career; steel men and road managers usually aren’t known for their songwriting successes. Were you writing much back in the Keith Whitley days or before, or was it something you got into later?
Well…I actually started writing earlier. I wrote some songs that the bar band I was working with would do. I’m sure they were pretty bad but we done ‘em anyway. Ha! I never got really serious about writing until about 1988.
You do some co-writing with the acts you produce, but you aren’t afraid to go out and find the best songs for those artists. What do you look for when you’re looking for songs for Billy Currington or Easton Corbin? Does a song have to be a produced demo, or will you listen to a guitar/vocal?
I really just look for songs that I think represent the artist and are great songs. I’ve cut songs from demos and work tapes. We actually cut (Corbin’s number one single) “Roll With It,” and many others, from a work tape.
Do you still make and keep regular songwriting appointments as you might once have, or do you tend to fly more by the seat of your pants now that you’re so busy producing? How much of the co-writing you do with Easton and other artists actually happens in the studio while a song is being arranged or cut?
I still keep regular songwriting appointments. When I’m making a record, I usually slow down on the writing process. We never write songs in the studio. We might tweak a word here or there but that’s it. Time is money in the studio.
There are exceptions, but the rule almost seems to be that most country songwriters are from the south; Jeffrey Steele and your co-writer Mark D. Sanders come to mind as a couple of those exceptions. But most, like you, are from southern states. What is it that seems to give southern writers an edge when it comes to country?
First of all, those are exceptional writers, period. I think as far as writers from southern states, it’s the music we grew up on and probably more of our way of life. We talk different and that shows in our lyrics.
People are still pulling into Nashville every day with songwriting dreams. What should they do during their first 90 days in town?
Good question. I think they need to go to writer’s nights. I’m talking about nights that have proven hit songs (performed there). They’ll hear those songs and others the way they were wrote. Really study the craft. There is usually a reason it’s a hit, whether it’s melody, lyrics, subject matter, etc. There’s an old saying among songwriters, the first 100 songs don’t count.
You’ve had songs cut by some definite legends; Don Williams and Alan Jackson come to mind. Is there anyone you want to get a cut on before you call it quits?
Well…I feel very fortunate to have had cuts on those as well as George Strait and Hank Williams, Jr. There are a few others, of course. I would love to have had a cut on Keith Whitley, George Jones and Merle Haggard. I just wasn’t in the writing game early enough. I’m concentrating on writing for today’s artists that hopefully will be legends at some point.