AMERICAN SONGWRITER PRESENTS: Will it ever happen again?


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Every week I make appointments to write songs with my friends.  We get together at ASCAP or BMI or Joe’s farm or my house over in Mt. Juliet.  It’s not always easy to do that.  You see, my last hit came in 1992, and my last major album cut happened in 1994.  Last week we celebrated my tenth consecutive year without a cut.  Gallows humor is no humor-not when you take your life seriously.

I feel so sorry for my wife.  We were married in 1982 and we struggled for years.  Oh, we had dreams.  I’d get big hits and she could stop working and we’d have a family and live like real people.  I went seven years without making a dollar on my songs.  Then when things happened, they happened suddenly.  I wrote a couple of things with Duke Devery.  Duke wrote for Hitlannd Music, and Hitlannd had a very hot plugger named Dwarf Duval.

One memorable week Dwarf got both of the songs I wrote with Duke recorded, one with Randy Travis and one with Alabama.  For three months we waited, and sweated, and then within two weeks of each other, both Randy and Alabama had our songs out and on the radio.  We watched the two records race each other up the charts.  My wife and I went to the bank and borrowed money for a very nice little house.  I began to listen to the radio every day, and most of the time I heard at least one of the songs.

Suddenly country music sounded so much better on the radio than it had when everyone else was getting all the hits.  In October, when the BMI Awards came along, it seemed like that whole dinner was for us-me and Duke and my wife, and Dwarf, and the company owner Mr. Crawford. They went up to the stage with us to collect the plaques, grinned at us, slapped us on the shoulders and called us “their boys.”

That went on for three years…three years of cuts, and singles, and awards… and the checks…oh Lord the checks.  My wife and I felt like such normal people that we started having kids-two of them, as I recall.  Oh, and we’d be invited to sing our songs at the little writers’ shows around town.  Funny thing. Our songs weren’t any better than when we weren’t getting hits, but now that we had hits, we were considered expert songwriters.  Folks assumed we knew what we were doing.

So did we.  After three years of hits, did we have confidence?  Oh yeah…!

Maybe so.  Duke and I would come into the Hitlannd building where they gave us our own little writer room and we’d get to work, and along about eleven, Dwarf would knock on the door and tell us we’d better get this one finished because Warner Bros. had put a hold on our last one for Travis Tritt.  Then he’d take us to lunch.  At lunch he’d sometimes talk about how he wished he could write like us, and how glad he was that he had the talent to pitch songs, and great songs to pitch like the ones we were writing.  Oh man did he gush.  And we ate it up, along with the free food.  All that money we were making…and we didn’t even have to buy our own lunch.  One time I called home to tell my mom that my song was being sung on the Leno show, and she called everyone in town about it.  Later she sent me an article from the Jamesville Sentinel about us, me and Duke, and all the hits we were getting.  Tell you what. I’ve saved all the Billboard charts that had our songs on them, saved all the articles I could find, even a couple of videos of our songs, taped right off TNN, but nothing satisfied quite so much as knowing that all the girls back in Jamesville who had turned their noses up at me would have to read about me.  Hell, I could’ve written “How Do Ya Like Me Now” years before it was actually written…I wanted to. I did, in fact, more than once, but Dwarf just said it was too obnoxious. It’d never get cut.  We never even saved a lyric.

I can remember sitting in the backyard at the house, watching the kids splashing in the wading pool, the sun a big red ball on the edge of the horizon, me looking at my wife as she watched the kids, a glow so warm around both of us, both of us believing this was gonna go on, and on, and on.  Living like it was gonna go on and on and on.  Disney World for the kids, new cars, a bigger house with a bigger yard.  Don’t tell me I didn’t appreciate what we had. I appreciated every damn bit of it, and so did she, and that’s why we wanted more of it.

Guess what? Me and Duke didn’t split up to write with more famous writers.  Dwarf didn’t get drunk and run his car under an eighteen-wheeler.  Hitlannd didn’t sell out to Sony Tree.  None of that happened.  We didn’t even stop getting cuts-not all at once.  Just…just, one year the cuts (there were eleven of them), stopped turning into singles.  And it happened that the albums they came out on were not multi-platinum.  Soon our draws began to morph into debt.  After about a year and a half of that, I began to notice that Dwarf would not bubble quite as much when he’d walk in, and when we’d play him our new song he’d say, “You better get a bastard demo on that one.”  Duke must have been hurt by stuff like that, because we weren’t writing as often as we had.  That’s what happens to writing partners when the hits stop coming.

At the two year mark without a hit, I noticed that Dwarf was beginning to say things like, “We need a hit, boys” a little too often to be a joke.  Then came that third year, the first time in six years that I didn’t get a single song recorded on a major label.  That was the year Mr. Crawford called me into his office and said, “Jack, been lookin’ at your statements…you’re into us pretty good, don’t you think?”

I sighed.  It wasn’t unexpected, but it hurt.  “Yeah, guess so.”  I wanted to ask him, how about all the money we’d made him when we were making money-before they started pitching these three new guys they’d signed the year before.  I wanted to tell him our new songs were the best in years.  I wanted to beg him not to break up a winning team.  And I wanted to tell him to shove a red hot poker up his ungrateful butt.

Maybe, just maybe, the script should have called for him to say, “We’re gonna pick up this last option, but this year better be a good year for you”…because I knew this year was gonna be a good year for us, I just knew it.  I always just knew it.

“Writers …” he sighed.  “They have their time, then it’s done …”

What the hell did he mean, done?  “Have you heard our new stuff?” I asked.  Stupid question.  Mr. Crawford was not a music man.  Mr. Crawford listened to Dwarf.  It was Dwarf who had told him to cut us loose.

Only it wasn’t us they’d cut loose, it was just me.  Duke had seen the writing on the wall before I had, and after hours he’d started writing with our songplugger.  Dwarf was a salesman. He could get the job done when he really wanted to.  I didn’t know it, but Duke and Dwarf had four songs on hold the day Mr. Crawford cut me loose.

So there I was, without a deal after six years.  I tried to find new writing partners, but I was about two years too cold for any of the good ones to be interested.  I went to all the publishers who had tried to woo me away from Hitlannd in the good old days and not a one of them had the guts to turn me down right then.  They all said they liked my songs and they’d see if they had the money to do a deal and they’d get back to me.

I guess I got discouraged pretty quickly.  I went to everybody I knew on Music Row who had a job and liked me.  I asked for advice and got sympathy but nothing else.  One person who grew short on sympathy after about nine months of that was my wife.  I’m not gonna be too hard on her.  She had worked at Kroger for eight years without complaint waiting for me to turn a trick or two for us.  She’d beamed with pride at every success. She’d found her dream: raising a family and taking care of a happy, fulfilled husband.  We had passed through that moment of concern when it seemed every young female songwriter had me in their sights and we had emerged without a scratch.

Now, suddenly, it seemed like we were back to square one.  Money was running out, the mortgage was too high, our car payments were high, the kids were expensive items, bless their little hearts.  We’d have to downsize-not the kids, everything else.  Such a nice simple word, downsize, means selling this, buying that, losing this, keeping that, meanwhile knowing that when it was all done we would be coated with a rancid layer of failure.  And she would have to go back to Kroger.

Oh, no she wouldn’t.  That’s what she told me the night we moved into a precious little cottage we’d found in South Nashville, a place stuck in a pocket that the developers had forgotten, with a grassy yard, trees, surrounded by country folks living in the city, a long way from the West Meade climb we had made, only to fall.  “I am not going to put these kids in daycare,” she said, her teeth clenched in barely suppressed fury.  “They are going to have a mo-ther!”

I knew what that meant.  I was going to have to get a job; not a music business job, a job job.  My wife was telling me that I had, after all, failed to achieve a career as a professional songwriter.  I could not accept that.

“We still have some money in the bank,” I said.  “I’ll find a deal.  I’ll have a hit.  I’ll make it back!  I was ranting.  I knew I was, but I was not going to admit to being a loser, not after all those wonderful, glamorous victories.

“This is a stupid business,” she snarled.  “And we are stupid for believing in it.  I am not going to see us lose the money we have left, then sell the house, move back into a tiny apartment with two growing kids.  And I am not going to watch you lose your mind because we’ve lost everything else.  Let’s go on to something else while we still have something left!”

I knew she was right, of course, but I wasn’t ready.  Eyes filled with indignant tears, I stormed out of the house, stopped at the first Krystal and gobbled down six Krystal burgers, then headed out to the Old Red Lounge.  It was always Writers’ Night down at the Old Red Lounge.

I suppose a part of me expected to run into Roberta, or somebody like Roberta.  I don’t think she would have given me a second look if my friend Lex hadn’t introduced me to her.  “He wrote …” and began the roll call of hits while I stared at her modestly.  She nodded and studied me as if deciding whether my track record made up for my buffless body.  She chose career over romance, allowed me to lead her to the table, and made a serious attempt at being attracted to me.  I told her my wife didn’t understand and she understood.  I told her I wanted to hear her songs and she did not have to feign enthusiasm.  I had had hits.  I must be connected.  I was worth her time.  That was good enough for her and good enough for me.

It was her turn to get up on stage and sing.  Her songs were not awful.  In fact they were quite good.  They didn’t have a prayer of being recorded, but, you know, they were good songs.  And I told her so.

“You really mean it?” she asked.

“I said it.  That means I mean it.”  I sounded very sincere.

Now it was her turn.  “I didn’t know who wrote those songs,” she said.  “They’ve always been among my favorites.  You’re really nice.  I’m sorry your wife doesn’t understand you.  You have gorgeous eyes.  Do you have a place to stay tonight?”

She was working very fast and her timing was just right.  This girl obviously knew quality when she saw it.  Tonight she was a ten.  My wife was a one.  End of story.

There weren’t enough writers that night and she went up for an encore.  While she was singing her song I was writing my own, about a guy who was such an idiot that he gave up everything he had won over the past six years.  I pictured coming home and telling my wife I was leaving her for a young girl who understands.  Pictured her tears.  Pictured the kids’ tears.  Pictured waking up next to my new torrid love the next morning.  Were divorce songs selling these days?  I hated the song and went no further with it.  In fact, in the middle of her last chorus, I waved to her, smiled, blew her a kiss, gave her a thumbs up and headed out the door.

I drove home, and walked in the house, not guilty but gruff.  “I’m not looking for work!” I growled.  Her eyebrows raised.  She knew more was coming.

“Not tomorrow.  You got any ideas?”

“You could start by substitute teaching,” she said.  “That’d get a little money coming in.  I can work at Kroger on the weekends if you’ll take care of the kids.  “I’m not giving up on your dream,” she said.  “I just hope you consider that there are other dreams.”  She smiled.  “And we did get to live your dream-for a while.  Most dreams are just like that.  They last a little while.  Then you wake up.”

I was my turn to smile.  I was wide awake, and I liked it fine.

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