Nashville Songwriter Series: Jim Reilley

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Today his band probably would be played on AAA radio and maybe would have even won a few Americana Music Association awards. But in the late 1980s and throughout most of the 1990s, the band that Jim Reilley founded with co-writer Reese Campbell, The New Dylans, was lumped in with the “folk-rock” contingent. The New Dylans spent years living in vans and motels, opening for legendary acts and recording two critically-acclaimed albums, playing for festival audiences of thousands as well as rooms where there was nobody but a bartender. But in the late 1990s when Reilley decided to leave The New Dylans, which had had such ardent supporters as Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs and REM’s Michael Stipe, his future in the only thing he cared about – music – was uncertain.

So Reilley took a direction that perhaps would have been unexpected for someone with his background. He moved to Nashville, where he soon was signed to Curb Music Publishing as a staff writer. For the next eight years Reilley labored in the song mill, garnering dozens of cuts on such country artists as Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum, Jack Ingram and others. He became a fixture on Music Row, a man known as a writer’s writer who could produce both viable product for country radio and top-notch material to fit his own artistic endeavors. But then Reilley left Curb, and has since concentrated on writing almost exclusively by himself.

Reilley has also found time to produce his own solo albums, and musicians and co-producers who admire him have been in abundant supply. His recordings have featured assistance from co-producers like John Carter Cash and former Mavericks bassist Robert Reynolds, and such musicians as bassist Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco), guitarist Audley Freed (the Black Crowes) and even renowned steel and Dobro man Al Perkins, who’s worked with everyone from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Rolling Stones. (Thank God I’m A Contrary Boy, Reilley’s second solo album, will be released in 2012, followed by the reissue of his first album, The Return Of Buddy Cruel.)

Reilley is known in Nashville as someone who eats, sleeps and breathes music and the history of the people who make it, one of those guys who can tell you the name of every musician on the last Patsy Cline session at RCA Studio B, and that’s because he probably knows half of the ones who are still alive. He’s also known as a fine producer whose work lives and dies by a good drum sound. American Songwriter caught up with the Grammy nominee in the Nashville coffee shop where he, his guitar and his laptop hold court several days a week.

You haven’t done much co-writing since you left Curb a couple years ago. Why is that, and do you plan to get back to it?

That’s true. I came here for the first time in 1997 to play the Bluebird Café to fulfill a commitment of my band The New Dylans. I had just broken up the band after nine years of countless one-nighters, some highs and many lows, playing hundreds of shows in most all of the 50 states. We were lucky to have shared the stage with so many musical inspirations including The Band, Shawn Colvin, 10,000 Maniacs, Richie Havens, Steve Forbert, Townes Van Zandt – who was a fan of our band – and many others. We even had astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, open a show for us once. It was an amazing ride that was both magical and arduous. In The New Dylans, I co-wrote with my musical partner Reese Campbell. Our particular style of co-writing was often more like “I have two verses and a chorus and need a bridge” or “Is this song any good” as opposed to the usual Nashville way of hammering it out together from scratch in one room with two guitars.

When I came to Nashville, I had written a handful of new songs myself and, thanks to Roger Sovine of BMI, and (songwriters) Paul Craft and Harlan Howard, I began to get meetings around town. Many of the publishers that took interest in me had assumed that I co-wrote the songs and once they realized I hadn’t, they began asking me to write with their writers. The cynic in me said “Sure, you want a piece of my brain without having to pay me for it,” but when Jim Rooney, a producer whom I respected and admired a great deal, suggested I write with Tim O’Brien, I was very up for that. I was awed by Tim’s artistry even before I moved here and we hit it off immediately. Our first writing session produced a song – and one hell of a Tim-made burrito – that I played for Greg Riggle, now at SESAC, who was at the time working for Almanac Records. They were putting out an album with Nanci Griffith, John Cowan and others called Celebration of the American Farm. They loved Tim’s and my song and said if Tim would sing it, they would put it on the record. Mind you, I had literally just moved to town a few weeks before. So my first Nashville co-write went quite well [laughs].

After I signed with Curb a few months later, of course, they set me up to write with countless writers and artists, and some of those experiences were good, some were very good and most not so much. I’m sure it’s that way with most writers at the professional level where publishers throw you into situations for many different reasons, political or whatever – not always the most conducive environment for art. I continued to write many songs by myself as well, so as not to lose my own songwriting voice and identity. After eight years, though, of on-demand co-writing by appointment, and although I was lucky enough to get over 40 cuts, I was really fried. I felt like I really needed to pull away from the whole Music Row co-writing treadmill for a bit. I had just recorded my second solo album, and many of the songs on that album were indicative of my frustrated state of mind at the time. I had begun producing records as well, so when I left Curb I started producing more. I would often encounter old co-writers who would ask me to write, but I would always make some excuse not to. I really needed some time away from that whole game to recharge.

Then about a year ago, a singer/songwriter named Parker Welling started bringing me these amazing songs she had written. I thought, “Wow, here’s someone who is just writing songs for all the right reasons, making great co-writing relationships, loving and living the moment, and the songs are really great.” I was really inspired, or re-inspired I guess. In the last several months, I’ve started to feel that passion and drive churning inside of me again, and I’ve subsequently begun to reconnect with several old friends and co-writers who were all very understanding of my needing time away. I was again feeling the way I felt when I first came to town 13 years ago. Like I was never here.

The music you wrote with The New Dylans, in some ways, wasn’t all that different than what you ended up writing in Nashville, in terms of form at least. What was the biggest change you had to adapt to when you went from writing whenever you were inspired to writing for a steady paycheck?

Not really any conscious change really – at least musically. When I was growing up, the AM radio station in my little hometown would play a Beatles song then a Buck Owens song then a Monkees song and then a Carole King song. No format radio. I often credit my hometown radio station as one of my main early musical influences. It was this spirit of creative musical freedom that inspired Reese, who had also grown up listening to that same radio station, and I to begin writing songs in the first place. Our mantra was always, it’s more important as songwriters to be in service of the song itself and to let each song tell us where it needs to go musically or style-wise, instead of adhering to a specific genre. I mean, even the Beatles on Rubber Soul, at least the U.S. Capitol version, had an introspective ballad, “In My Life,” then a folk song, “Norwegian Wood,” followed by a straight-ahead pop song, “You Won’t See Me,” then a pseudo-country song, “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” then a gothic folk song, “Michelle,” in French even!

When The New Dylans started in 1985, there was no “Americana” genre. Back then the format was called AAA and we received generous airplay on it, even though the songs of ours that the AAA stations were playing were all over the place stylistically. I’m still writing those same kinds of songs, and if the band were still together, they would likely just be more New Dylans songs. Right or wrong, country music has become more inclusionary, and more artists in Nashville are pushing more boundaries musically. Some artists I meet even cite my old band as an influence on their sound or style. It’s flattering, but I always say I just wish half the people who claim that we influenced them had just bought one record.

As far as how, if at all, my writing changed when I signed with Curb stylistically, I guess it didn’t change all that much, as I was still trying to always just be in service to each song. I will say it did take me a while to get used to the whole (staff-writing requirement) “be brilliant by 10:30 a.m.” concept, one I often violated (laughs), but I usually would try to write at least something every day if I could. The very notion of steady money was so foreign to me that I doubt a paycheck was in and of itself much of an incentive. I have never been able to accurately monetize what I do anyway, good or bad. I mean, there were years when The New Dylans were touring where I would clear a whopping $3,000 for the whole year – nothing to be proud of for sure – so when I was hired by Curb, even for a fairly modest draw, it might as well have been a million dollars to my wife and I.

When you started writing for a publisher, did you make any kind of conscious effort to study the works of people who had preceded you in Nashville? Or did you feel like you had already pretty much done that?

I’ve spent my whole life studying music. I would literally spend entire summer vacations in my bedroom playing my guitar and writing songs. I would literally read the back of every album I owned studying the players names and songwriters names. I think that to be a good songwriter you need to be a student of music. I have very little time for people who don’t want to invest in music listening. I understand that as writers the most important thing is to write, but I personally think that writing involves both output and input. I have met some people who claim, or more likely pretend, that they don’t know much music other than their own, or who proudly boast that they “don’t know a Beatles song” or a Bob Dylan song or whatever.

This is a pretty myopic view and frankly, their music is usually fairly one-dimensional. I also think it’s important as a songwriter to at least have a basic relationship with a musical instrument. It informs how you look at melody and chord structure, etc. This may be a fairly narrow minded view, and I’ve surely got a few of those, but I feel that you can call yourself a songwriter if you only write music and not lyrics, but if you don’t sing or play an instrument, even just a little, or write with someone who does, then you aren’t a songwriter – you’re a poet.

You’ve done a lot of production and you’re a great historian when it comes to people’s live vs. studio performances, who has had the best drums sounds, and other things that are only peripherally related to songwriting. How do you divorce yourself from the production aspect and just focus on melody and lyric?

Well, I kind of think that sonic footprints and production can occasionally be as important a part of the song as the music and the lyrics are. Great songs have started life as a guitar riff like “Satisfaction” or “Brown Sugar” or “Pretty Woman,” or even a drum riff like “Wipeout,” and sometimes the production is a huge part of the overall song. Brian Wilson’s brilliant “Pet Sounds” album is a prime example of how intertwined production and songwriting can be. That piece of genius forever blurred the line between songwriting and production. Producing records on other artists has only helped my songwriting, by helping me get out of my own head for a while and observe how other writers and artists create their music. That being said though, there’s nothing worse than a bad snare drum sound [laughs].

Did you ever meet Bob Dylan, and if so, did he have anything to say about the name of your band?

No. I tried once to meet Bob but he was off the bus before I could jump out of the moving car I was following him in. I have met his son Jakob though, and he and the guys in the Wallflowers were aware of my band and got the joke. I have met and/or played music with a few of the other so-called “new Dylans,” like Steve Forbert, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson, and they all also got the joke and thought it was a great band name. Not so sure Bobby would.

When you came to Nashville you were already a seasoned performer with a discography who almost immediately was able to play for people like Harlan Howard, and you had a publishing deal within a few months. But what would you advise someone who doesn’t have such doors already open to them to do in the first 90 days he or she is in town?

I think you need to study people and things, and experience as much life as you can in order to write about it well. Besides those fundamentals, I guess someone who is new to town should probably be going to writers nights, or do the open mic at Douglas Corner or the Bluebird Café, or look into joining NSAI, or get out and meet, observe and maybe even write with other writers. It is true that Nashville is a town that demands immersion. Many people though confuse immersion with assimilation however, and the danger there is that it can be easy to lose your own identity in the process. It’s as important to do your musical journeymanship as it is to try to find and maintain your true artistic voice. I believe publishers are hopefully still looking for writers who are writing something bold and new, or at least saying the same old things a bit differently.

It’s a weird game because a publisher first becomes interested in you because you do your own thing, then the minute they become involved you have to fight to do your own thing. It eventually becomes a battle of wills just to express yourself the way that comes naturally to you and that got you the deal in the first place. If you let it suck you in, you begin questioning every move – never a good place to be. The best advice I can give is to just be yourself, and write the best song you can write that speaks to your musical soul.

You have more eclectic tastes than many Nashville writers, and you’ve been cut by quite a few big country names. Who’s still out there, in whatever genre, that you would still love to get a cut on?

When I first moved here I said if I could write with or get a song recorded by Tim O’Brien, Hal Ketchum, Don Henry, Deana Carter, Jim Lauderdale, Vince Gill and Pam Tillis, I would be a happy man. I have had cuts and/or written many times with Hal, Don, Tim, Jim and Pam, and Vince cut a song I wrote with Lauren Lucas, but I would still love to have Deana cut one of my songs, or better yet, one we wrote. Also, I think the biggest honor is when someone who is known as a songwriter cuts your song, so someone like Kris Kristofferson or Rodney Crowell or Willie Nelson or Jimmy Webb would be awesome. Or maybe Brian Wilson or Neil Young or Matraca Berg or Elvis Costello or Paul McCartney.


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