What is your job, and how long have you been doing it?
I wear so many hats. I'm a producer, a studio guitarist and vocalist, a recording artist, and a songwriter. I guess I wrote my first song in high school and I wrote bad songs for several years because I had the wrong motivation as a writer. I was a guitar player who tried to write specifically for my instrument. So I'd write songs that had great guitar parts and solos but were otherwise bad songs. It's been about 20 years that I've been doing this but maybe only 15 years of writing good quality material.
What role does your job play in the music industry?
In Nashville especially, the songwriter is the foundation. Many country artists only co-write or don't write songs at all, so there's a huge demand for the songwriter in this town. Nashville seems to be one of the last places where you can write a song, get it in the hands of the publisher who gets it to a producer who plays it to an artist--all in very short order. And it's not uncommon for an artist to drop by a publishing company office and listen to what the writers are working on.
Are you/were you ever a musician?
Yes. My greatest inspiration is my dad, Jerry, who has played on literally thousands of recording sessions over the years with so many country, pop, and rock artists it would be impossible to list them all—Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, to name just a few. There were always guitars lying around the house and he was always bringing home tapes of the latest sessions he was working on.
What subjects did you study in school that help you to this day in your career?
I think the most critical thing for me, believe it or not, was my high school chorus class. I was in class with David Huff and his brother Dann. Dann is now an in-demand producer who has records like Faith Hill's breakthrough album Faith to his credit. We were the band for our high school. We didn’t have a marching band or a pep band but we had the rhythm section of us three. And we would back the chorus for these school concerts--one year, 1950s music, one year 1970s music--and so on. At Belmont University, I took classes in publishing, studio technique, music theory, composers, and so on. But I think most of what I've learned musically has come because I'm such a huge fan. I had to find out what kind of amps the guitarists used, what kind of tubes were in the amps, what kind of effects gear they used—every detail I could learn.
Do you meet many famous musicians? Do you ever feel nervous or intimidated by them?
To be very honest, yes. In February of 1999, I was sitting in Peter Frampton's home studio, trying to teach a song to the guy who released one of the best selling records of all time. That was a little nerve wracking! Of course, when we went to New York for the Grammy Awards a few years ago, even though we were being given the Song of the Year Grammy, we were rubbing elbows with Sting and Eric Clapton and people like that. I'm a huge fan of Sting, but later I thought, "Well, he's won one Song of the Year award and so have I." That put it in perspective for me.
Did you follow a specific career path to get where you are today (i.e. internships, college degrees)?
Looking back, I can see a path that led me to where I am now, but it certainly wasn't anything I planned. Just a few days before my grandpa died, he paid for my dad's first guitar lesson. Had he not done that, who knows if my dad would have become a professional musician, thereby influencing me to become one as well. That was just one case of a man I never knew profoundly affecting my life.
I attended Belmont for three years, and during the second semester of my junior year, I had the opportunity to land some gigs as a session guitarist. That conflicted with a mandatory class that my professor refused to excuse me from. I only went back to one class after that. In retrospect, it was the wrong thing to turn my back on three years of school, because I got very little work for a long time after that and I wish I had finished.
A couple years later I joined Whiteheart, which is where I developed a lot of my songwriting and performing skills. But I got married during that time and started a family, and knew I didn’t want to be in a touring band. So [producer] Brown Bannister began using Tommy Sims, Chris McHugh [also formerly of Whiteheart], and me on a lot of his projects, and I shifted back to studio work. That's also when I formed the friendship with Wayne Kirkpatirck. Wayne and I worked together on Susan Ashton's first record and we continue to work together as much as possible.
Do you have a current project or album you are working on at the moment?
There's the album Coming from Somewhere Else that features Wayne, Phil Madeira, Billy Sprague, and me. Each of us has taken a couple songs we wrote that were made hits by other artists and we sing them ourselves, which was a lot of fun. Wayne does "Place in this World" (Michael W. Smith), Billy does "Via Dolorosa" (Sandi Patti), I sing "That Kind of Love" (PFR), and so on.
Wayne and I have two songs in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous that we co-wrote with Peter Frampton. And Madeira and I co-wrote the recent Alison Krauss single, "Maybe." I've been working on a lot of Dann Huff's sessions, playing guitar. And Frampton wants Wayne and me to work on his next album.
What roles and responsibilities do you see the music industry having in society?
Music certainly comes with a great responsibility. Think about what impact music has had in your life. You might be sitting watching a movie or TV show and hear a song you haven't heard for months or years, and suddenly you can be laughing or crying and vividly remembering events that happened--all because of a song. Look at commercials. Advertisers pay millions of dollars for the rights to use a piece of music that will evoke a very specific response. And how do we teach kids to remember things? With music. That's how they learn how many days are in a month and the letters of the alphabet. Put a song to it and it stays in the brain.
If you could choose a different career outside of the music industry, what would you do?
I would be a football or basketball coach at the junior high school level. I actually coached forth, fifth, and sixth grade kids for three years. I wouldn’t want the kind of pressure that's put on high school and college coaches; even some middle school coaches get it now, but not to such a great extent.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career like yours?
If you want to be a successful songwriter, you need two elements. One: you need to have something to say. Well, everyone's got an opinion or a point of view. Two: (the tricky part) you have to learn how to say it in a way that somebody else would care to hear it. And care to hear it over and over an infinite number of times.
You figure out that second element by listening to the greats. What is it about what you like about a song that makes you go "That's incredible. How can I achieve the same effect?" A lot of people do it by shear numbers, figuring if they write dozens or hundreds of songs, they'll eventually have a hit. Some people discipline themselves to write nine to five every day. Persistence is certainly part of it. I've got songs sitting on the shelf that I think are better than the ones people have recorded. I hope to find a home for them someday.
As far as the mechanics of writing--learning the craft of composing better--I'd recommend collaborating. As a songwriter, you hope that you'll eventually have an audience for your song. Why not have an audience on the writing process itself? That way, maybe you cut to the chase quicker.