Nashville Songwriter Series: Tom Hambridge

A lot of Nashville songwriters work in other areas of music, but Tom Hambridge may well be the city’s triple-threat king. As a writer, Hambridge has had cuts by top names in the blues industry (Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Johnny Winter, Shemekia Copeland) as well as by such country artists as Montgomery Gentry, Billy Ray Cyrus, Gretchen Wilson and Keith Anderson. He’s also had cuts by Danny Gokey, the JaneDear Girls, and Meat Loaf, and his music has been featured in numerous movies and television shows.

That kind of success alone would be a great thing for most of us. But add to that the fact that Hambridge has produced and/or played drums for many of the blues artists he writes for, in addition to drumming for such heavyweights as Boston, Chuck Berry, and the late Telecaster legend Roy Buchanan. He also actively tours with his own band, opening for George Thorogood, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. In fact, on a tour stop with Skynyrd and the Doobie Brothers, performing material from his new CD, Boom!, is where Hambridge was when he found a couple minutes to talk with American Songwriter.

Most people don’t think of Nashville as a blues town, but you’ve played a major role in bringing blues artists into the city’s studios. Why do you think that Nashville’s writers haven’t made more of an effort – or haven’t done better if they have made the effort – when it comes to getting blues cuts? It seems there are plenty of blues artists out there, dozens on Alligator Records alone.

The songs are being written here but the blues market is small compared to country and pop markets here, so naturally the country and pop markets are going to be the primary focus and get the most attention. I think a lot of contemporary blues songs that are being recorded today come from Nashville. We have great writers based here in Nashville who work in that field, guys like Gary Nicholson, Keb’ Mo’, John Hiatt, Richard Fleming and Delbert McClinton.

A major complaint about blues songs, at least among people who want to listen to them to hear more than just a guitar solo, is that it’s always just the same old thing, and that there’s really no lyrical substance. What do you do as a writer to try to make your blues songs a little meatier or more different?

I haven’t heard that complaint myself. But the essential attraction of the blues is its simplicity, and that doesn’t mean simple-mindedness. It means a directness of emotion, which is often enhanced by a stripping away of fancy wordplay. This is carried over into the traditional structure of the blues, and the overall goal is sometimes characterized as “three chords and the truth.” A great song can, and does, ride on many styles, and a perceived lack of technical complexity in no way presumes a lack of lyrical and, more importantly, emotional substance. In fact the opposite is often the case.

Do you think being a drummer first gives you a different perspective on how to write, especially rhythmically or in terms of note placement? Do you maybe just hear differently?

I am definitely locked into the rhythm of any production I’m a part of as a result of the years spent on my instrument, and I know it’s not just the drums that have to be a part of the groove. The most subtle accents on everything from the piano to the back-up vocal can be crucial to me. I don’t know if I “hear” differently, but any producer has to have a vision of the final product and know when it’s working or how to fix it when it’s not.

You’ve written quite a bit with Jeffrey Steele, who’s a great writer, in addition to playing drums and singing with him. You’re pretty well-established now in Nashville, but when you first got here how did you go about approaching the Jeffrey Steeles of Music City when it came to trying to co-write with them?

I had a major record deal as an artist when I moved to town with a charting single on AAA radio. I had also produced a huge Grammy nominated record for Susan Tedeschi which had two top 10 songs on it that I had written. So when I did reach out to some of these great writers they knew I was bringing something to the table. Once you do get in a room though you must deliver or you are rarely asked back.

As a writer, producer, and working musician, you’ve no doubt had some adventures in trying to collect money due you. How important is a good lawyer, and how do you suggest somebody who’s already broke find one to help him or her when they know they have a good case? Or should they try to use whatever resources they can – PROs, the Internet, a law library, whatever – and go it alone?

Collecting your justly earned compensation in this biz can be a hellish, disheartening exercise in frustration. I’m still working on that one and I’m often waiting for money that I’m due. Perseverance, patience, Transcendental Meditation might be helpful. It’s a job in itself.

You came to Nashville as a musician as well as a writer, so you may have been after something different than most writers. But what would you tell a new writer coming to town to focus on in his or her first 90 days here?

Get around the town, start meeting people at writer’s nights. Go to the Bluebird and listen to some songwriters and have a good store of songs available to play for anyone who asks.

You’ve been pretty fortunate with getting cuts in several genres. Who’s out there that you still want to get a cut on, or write with?

Paul McCartney.

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