Nashville Songwriter Series: Steve Leslie

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Steve Leslie is a successful Nashville songwriter, with cuts by George Strait, Darius Rucker, Mark Chesnutt, and Darryl Worley, who has cut at least 10 of Leslie’s songs at last count. But perhaps as much as anything, Leslie is a man who loves to teach others how to write the songs they have inside them. With a degree in guitar/jazz studies, Leslie was an adjunct professor of jazz history in Florida before he came to Nashville some 20 years ago to see what would happen. What has happened has been things like publishing deals and cuts by some of country’s biggest acts.

Leslie also coaches, teaches and mentors other writers both in person and via the Internet, helping them be the best they can be. He also just wrote several songs for a musical called Umbrella which is in the rehearsal stages. American Songwriter caught up with Leslie between students and writing appointments at his suburban Nashville home.

You have a background in jazz, both in your degree and in your onetime vocational life as a college-level jazz history professor. How are you able to turn that off, to turn off the more complicated progressions and feel of a completely different genre and go for the simplicity of country?

There’s no conscious effort of any kind to “turn off” the conventions of one particular style of music when writing in another. The same responsibilities exist in any style I may find myself writing in: A striving towards clarity, form revealed by process, and a conversational approach to lyric writing. As far as simplicity goes, great songs in any genre sound “inevitable;” the right choices at the right times, not “simple” or “complicated.”

Along those same lines, you’re working on a musical at the moment. What kind of thought process do you have to adopt for that as opposed to writing something you hope will get radio play?

Well, I hope the songs in my musical get radio play! (smiles) For the most part, writing songs for a musical allows, but also demands, longer forms. I’m still responsible for the things mentioned above, as well as story development and characterization. There is more “creative freedom” with certain aspects of the music, but limitations still exist. Limitations are liberating, you know.

You give training and mentoring via Skype. How does that work out for you, and what do the students get out of not sitting in the same room with you?

I teach songwriting method on-line with Skype. I have students from all over the country, as well as Canada and Australia. It saves them the cost of a plane ticket and hotel stay, and I can teach in my underwear.

You also do critiques of MP3s during a time when a lot of writers and publishers are terrified to critique anything of anyone’s for fear of a lawsuit. That obviously doesn’t bother you.

What bothers me are those who give critiques of other’s works who don’t have a clue how to convey helpful information. They should be sued on the grounds of impersonating a critic.

A lot of successful writers won’t give a co-writer the time of day unless he or she has a publishing deal, or unless that co-writer is also a signed artist. But you seem to stay pretty open in terms of who you co-write with; you don’t just write with people who have deals, but with writers ranging from up-and-coming writer Nick Autry to semi-retired Nashville veteran Bobby Fischer. Since it’s harder for those guys to be getting cuts, what do you get out of that?

My choices for how I spend my time aren’t normally based on political or career motives. I’d have more records on my wall if that were the case! If I spend a good day with a good human being, that’s really about as good as it gets. The writers you mentioned are two of the best human beings I’ve had the pleasure to work with. If we write a hit out of the deal – and we have! – that’s gravy.

What would you tell a new writer coming to Nashville to focus on in his or her first 90 days in town?

Find out where the best coffee shops are, walk Radnor Lake, go to the Bluebird shows, and sign up for songwriting lessons with me. (smiles)

You’ve had some nice cuts, including a George Strait cut (“That’s the Truth,” from Always Never the Same), which most writers would kill for. Who is the one artist you still want to get a cut on the most before you call it a day?

Well, writers don’t stop writing when they’ve achieved a professional goal; just ask Bobby Fischer. I think at this stage of the game, I’d be more pleased to get a cut on a new artist that I believed in, and maybe helped in some way. That feeling – and I’ve felt it a few times – is the best.

*For those who want to look up Steve Leslie on the Internet, he is not to be confused with the St. Louis, MO-area recording artist and guitar instructor of the same name. Steve Leslie of Nashville is at*


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  1. it is BEST to have an OPEN “Mind”.. you never know who is Talented unless you give them a “Chance”,… remember when “YOU” were hungry for “any” deal?… i’m sure you do. I’ve seen many Writers that look or sound like they Are Connected or “know” some people and Expect to get a Favor or open door. Fail because they are only Interested in “Them self”…ok, that’s Normal but Look around for those open doors you NEVER expected !….sometimes “Partnering” can also be “FUN”….Anyway Just keep Writing…GOOD Luck** Joseph Nicoletti Consulting Ph: 949-715-7036

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