Nashville Songwriter Series: Troy Verges

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PHOTO: Troy Verges, right, with co-writers Tom Douglas and Hillary Lindsey, at the 2011 Oscars, where they were nominated for Best Original Song for their song “Coming Home” from the movie Country Strong. They lost to Randy Newman (“We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3), who Verges actually names as an influence on his own career.

The majority of songwriters in Nashville concentrate on the Nashville market, as the performers and publishers of Music City are pretty accessible in what is essentially a small town. But then there are writers like Troy Verges. Verges has had dozens of country cuts but some of the biggest names in the business, including Tim McGraw (“Drugs or Jesus”), Kenny Chesney (“You Save Me”), Carrie Underwood (“Crazy Dreams”), Easton Corbin (“Someday When I’m Old”) and numerous others. But Verges has gone outside the Nashville system, and even outside the U.S., in pursuit of his muse, with cuts by Celine Dion, Hispanic singer Paulina Rubio, and even Dutch pop singers Marco Borsato and Sita.

Originally from Louisiana, Verges played in bands in high school and moved to Nashville after graduation to pursue a music business degree, first at Middle Tennessee State University and then at Nashville’s Belmont University. Today he is one of the most respected writers not only in Nashville, but in the music business overall. American Songwriter caught up with him during a rare opening in his schedule.

You have a music business degree. There’s no doubt that the degree has helped you in business matters, but how much difference do you think it’s made in your writing?

The degree doesn’t make any difference in my day-to-day writing. When it comes down to it you either write a song people want to listen to or you don’t. And no degree can really help you do that. Pursuing my education at Belmont helped my writing in a roundabout way though. During college I interned at Patrick Joseph Music for Pat Higdon and worked in the “tape room.” I listened to the songs coming in all day long from some of the best writers in town. It was a real education in songwriting for me.

You’ve had a lot of country cuts, but you’ve also had cuts by Bon Jovi, Il Divo and others who aren’t really “Nashville.” To do that, you’ve worked with co-writers who are sometimes outside the normal Nashville system. Have you intentionally sought out co-writers from other genres, or have those connections been happenstance?

I have always intentionally sought out ways to work in other genres. I love country music, but I love a lot of other kinds of music too. It feels good to stretch and change it up and experiment with different methods of writing and recording. I learn so much every time I do.

Does your geographic location affect your frame of mind when writing? That is, have your pop cuts been written in Nashville, or do you go to L.A. or home to Louisiana or somewhere else for the inspiration that can come with a change of scene?

I’m a big believer in the inspiration that comes from a change of scenery. I already love to travel. And there’s not much more fun you can have than heading to a new place with your friends and making music. Gordie Sampson, Blair Daly and I wrote a lot of Gordie’s Sunburn record in London. The two songs you mentioned earlier were written in Stockholm and in London. And I’ve been on some great writing trips to a lot of different places…Nova Scotia, the Netherlands, Belgium, New Orleans, Key West. You almost can’t help but have new ideas when you’re having new experiences. I love the energy of that.

You’ve obviously been influenced by a lot of different styles of music. When it comes strictly to songwriters, who are some of the writers that made you sit up and take notice when you were figuring out who to emulate?

When I was a kid it was artists like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Randy Newman, Billy Joel. Once I got to Nashville I got a whole new look at things. While I was interning in that tape room I got to hear the entire catalogs of Matraca Berg, Tim Mensy, Gary Harrison and loads of other great writers. I was working there when Matraca and Gary had “Strawberry Wine.” I remember feeling the impact that that song had on me and then watching it become a massive hit and have the same impact on everyone else. I wanted to be able to do something like that. That was also about the time that Patty Griffin came out with Living With Ghosts. That record was a total game changer for me. Those songs had the power to knock you down like nothing I’d heard before. Still do.

In terms of tradition, what’s going on in Nashville these days is leaving, in the minds of many, very little hope for anything that will be considered any kind of “traditional” music 20 years from now. Where do you envision the future of country music to be headed?

I don’t think country music is going anywhere. It seems like it’s always cycling between being more pop, then more traditional, then back again. But some things never change…the lyric is always more important in country music and that is what really sets it apart to me. Whereas some genres are more about production hooks and sounds, country music is always about the song first.

What advice would you give to a new writer in town when it comes to what they should do during their first 90 days in Music City?

Listen to a lot of music. Meet a lot of people. Go to writers’ nights. Join NSAI. Try co-writing. Be nice to people. Have fun!

You’ve had cuts on a lot of huge artists, but there must be someone who hasn’t recorded one your songs that you would give almost anything to get a cut on. Who would that be?

Keith Urban. Technically he has recorded one song of mine, but it was only released outside of the U.S. I’m a really big fan of the records he makes. Always classy and totally musical.

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