Three Chords and the Truth: An Evening With Country Music's Favorite Songwriters
The Country Music Association holds a very special event a few times a year. A small and intimate group of people, including many of the major players in the Country Music industry sit in the audience at Joe’s Pub in New York City for a concert. The songs echoing throughout the iconic music venue are some of the most beloved country songs of all time, and the biggest hits of the moment. “Mama’s Broken Heart,” is followed up with, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” and then finally, “You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” brings the crowd to its feet.
While Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan and Brooks and Dunn are the ones who made these songs famous, it’s the people who wrote them that take the stage at the CMA Songwriters Series. Lacking in fireworks, costume changes and backup dancers, the Songwriters Series is rich in honesty, personality, and a tone of familiarity that makes everyone in the room feel like they’re part of the stories being told.
The host of the evening, Bob DiPiero, was joined by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Phil Vassar. Combined, the songwriters who took the stage at this year’s show have penned songs for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Reba McEntyre, Alan Jackson and the hit TV show Nashville. Their camaraderie and sense of shared pride on stage was remarkable to watch. When we asked DiPiero exactly what separates country music from every other genre, he looked to another great songwriter, Harlan Howard for an explanation. “Country Music is three chords and the truth.”We had a chance to sit down with each of these incredible songwriters to find out what it takes to write a #1 single, how things work behind the scenes in Nashville and what their advice to aspiring writers is.
All photos Jessica Lehrman for Pepsi.com
1. Bob DiPiero
The host of the evening, Bob DiPiero has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for composing songs performed by the likes of Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, George Strait and Martina McBride. He has played a major role in making the Songwriters Series a mainstay at venues like Joe’s Pub and knowingly guides the evening with his laidback attitude and light, joking vibe with the crowd. “You can get away with saying anything about someone as long as you preface it with, ‘Bless her heart,’” he explains to the audience cheekily before launching into a tale about his sister-in-law who inspired his number one single, “You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl.” What’s your musical background? How did it all start? I think my major turning point was seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was like my religious conversion--my spiritual conversion. I wanted to be John Lennon. From then on that was it for me. I just knew what I wanted to do. When you left Ohio and moved to Nashville, you made a living teaching guitar. Is there one student in particular who stands out in your memory? Yes, his name was James and at the time he was in his mid 60’s. He came to learn the bass and said, “I wanna learn to play these songs.” He would show up religiously every week with a new song. He bought a different car so he could put his bass amp in it, and he bought a cowboy hat with a feather--I mean he went for it. He just wanted to learn all these classic old country songs--Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and I would learn them to teach him. It was like biology, I was deconstructed a frog or something. I got really amazed by the lyrics and how great but how simple they were. He’s the guy who changed my ear, really I should find him and buy him a car or something.
2. Bob DiPiero
Who’s making music right now that wows you?
Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, I like their acoustic feel that's so powerful at the same time. Adele, she’s this girl that doesn’t look like Ke$ha or Gaga but she has this voice that commands a room.
Advice for someone who is just starting to write music?Write music and let people hear it. Once you finally think you’ve written a good song, write ten more.
3. Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark’s nature in person is sweet, unassuming and silently intelligent. After moving to Nashville at the age of 21 she immersed herself in the songwriting industry, working tirelessly to catch her first break. That moment came when Reba McEntyre recorded two of her songs. A whirlwind of success followed, and The Band Perry went #1 with her song, “Better Dig Two.” Clark penned Miranda Lambert’s, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and recently finished recording her first studio album and supported Sheryl Crow for select dates on tour.
You happen to be the only lady on stage tonight. How did being a woman affect your career as a songwriter in Nashville?
I think we’re programmed to think there’s only one spot for “the girl” instead of the girls. I would like to be part of what changed that. There are some really amazing new acts and writers and as girls I think we should support each other.Some guys have that mentality, “Oh she’s a girl, she probably can’t play the guitar better than me,’ when the truth is--and this is gonna sound egotistical--but I play the guitar just as well as any guy. So there are some struggles, but then there are some really awesome things about being a girl that help you get ahead. In a sea of guys I stand out; my voice registers differently. And I’m a woman so my songs come from a different place.
4. Brandy Clark
What makes a hit? Is there something consistent in every hit you’ve written?
Simplicity. Tapping an emotion that everyone has, but writing it very specifically. One of my songs “Mama’s Broken Heart “ tells a very specific story. But who do you know, male or female, that han’t had a broken heart and just wanted to go off the deep end?
Did you always listen to country music?
Yeah, I’ve always been a country girl scene way back when. I used to live next door to my grandparents and they’d play old time country radio. My all-time fave is Patsy Cline.
Advice for someone who is just starting to write music?Try not to write my song, but write your own song. Write about something you’d least want people to know about you, because that’s what everyone else feels too.
5. Shane McAnally
Shane McAnally might be the Woody Allen of Country Music. With an uncanny ability to pair hysterical self-deprecating humor with an air of Southern charm he captivates his audience by appealing to heads and hearts at once. He’s written songs for Lee Ann Womack, Kenny Chesney, and Luke Bryan among a long list of Country’s most beloved artists. He co-wrote and produced Kacey Musgraves’ breakthrough album Same Trailer Different Park in 2012 and was nominated for the Songwriter of the Year Award in 2013 by the Academy of Country Music.
What is it like being away from Nashville in the heart of New York City?
Being in New York nice way to kinda refuel your creative tank ‘cause you hear slogans and catchphrases and see logos everywhere. It’s sort of the capital of that, you know, “new slang.” People in New York are just blatantly honest, there’s no time for fluff. I really appreciate that coming from the south where everything is dipped in syrup. When you’re being terrible to somebody at least here you know.
6. Shane McAnally
You wrote some major hits for the ABC Show Nashville including “Fade Into You,” performed by the show’s character’s Scarlett and Gunnar, as well as Juliette Barnes’ favorite, “Boys and Buses.” Does watching that show tell us everything we need to know about Nashville the city?
It’s a tough question to ask a songwriter because we’re all so excited about that show. It’s sort of like a doctor watching Grey’s Anatomy, though--very dramatized. I love what it does for the community, it’s brought us a lot of attention. I love the actors on that show and believe me, I love a good soap opera. I really love what they did with “Fade Into You.” They recorded it duet style and it’s been the most downloaded song on the show. It’s just got a lot heart and I’m really proud of that song.
Do you think songwriting is a natural ability?I've talked to a couple of people who started writing songs in their twenties and it floors me. I'm like what were you doing all those other years? ‘Cause I was walking around driving people crazy singing songs nobody's heard at the top of my lungs.
7. Phil Vassar
“If somebody hollers, ‘Hey, there's a chick in the men's room!’ We just smile and say, ‘No, that's just Bobbi with a I,’” sings Phil Vassar. Bobbing up and down behind a piano on stage at Joe’s Pub, the legendary Country Music singer/songwriter paints a picture of his cross-dressing friend in his single, “Bobbi With an I.” The crowd laughs claps along to the light-hearted, comedic song when only ten minutes prior the same crowd was captivated with hands on hearts and tears in their eyes as Vassar recounted the story behind his song, “Don’t Miss Your Life.” Vassar’s stage presence is as vibrant as his technical skill as a writer is sharp. His songwriting career has been as illustrious as his career as a solo artist. He’s composed songs for the likes of Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, and Jo Dee Messina, and has watched nineteen of his own singles hit the charts.
In your song, “Don’t Miss Your Life,” you speak a lot about your daughters. Are they musical?
My girls are very creative, you know they want to be artists in some capacity. One likes to draw, the other wants to sing and all that. Their mother is musical too, she’s very whimsical and artistic so they get honestly from both sides.
How has songwriting changed over the course of your career?Within that last five years it’s changed immensely. What you’re doing and how you’re reaching your fans comes down to tweeting and all that. I’m not really into it but it’s kind of mystical, being able to connect so instantly.
8. Phil Vassar
Advice to someone just starting out in the music business? Be honest with yourself. It might sound cliché as hell but just be true to yourself. Ten years from now you’re going to want to remember that you stayed true.